Read an Excerpt
Four Faces of Disco Americana
It was an immediate sensation from beat one—an unheard-of rumble of bass recorded way below the customary hertz level, a ferocious sound making your heart skip and the speakers shake. Over this relentless new drive a cool fluorescent voice appeared, exhorting you to rumba, tango, and Latin hustle the night away, to go even wilder and dance, dance, dance some more. Then a ringleader voice screamed in your ear: Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah!
Originating in the cotton fields of the old South and bellowed through the delirious They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? dance marathons of the twenties to coax the stumbling couples on, this manic “Yes, Sir!” chant became a catchphrase during late 1977 as the unknown track began to set New York dance floors on fire. Finally released through the Atlantic label, “Dance, Dance, Dance” by the studio band Chic not only topped the disco charts but became a major pop hit the world over, selling over a million copies in its first month.
Masterminded by the producer/songwriter team of Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards, and inspired by Roxy Music’s stage act mixing smart-looking men with sophisticated ladies, Chic emerged as the most successful and musically qualified disco band of the era. Like an expensive, silky evening garment, their music seduced with sensuous, luxurious layers, all cunningly designed and carefully arranged. A bit of Chic on your car sound system or during a late-night smooching session back home signaled not only style awareness but also street credibility. It was the perfect mating sound track for the pansexual late seventies as the Chic production would often be as stripped bare as your date ended up after a night out dancing.
Edwards was born in Greenville, North Carolina, and moved to New York at the age of ten. There he attended the High School for Performing Arts (immortalized in the movie Fame) and gained extensive experience as a musician while performing backing vocals. It was while earning pocket money as a postal worker that he met Nile Rodgers—Nile’s girlfriend’s mother worked at the same post office. Rodgers was born on the Triboro Bridge, en route to Queens General Hospital, and had grown up in Greenwich Village and Hollywood. Musically he had moved from hard rock guitar through classical studies to jazz when he first met Edwards, who quickly turned him on to rhythm and blues and the more contemporary sounds of the day.
The duo’s friendship resulted in their supplying backing vocals for the group New York City (who had a 1972 hit with “I’m Doin’ Fine Now”) and also gigging with Carol (“Doctor’s Orders”) Douglas. Dubbing themselves the Big Apple Band, Rodgers and Edwards became a focal point of the backup touring group until New York City split up. It was then that the two men decided to take control of their destiny and go it alone. Auditioning for new Big Apple Band members, they put drummer Tony Thompson from Labelle together with piano players Rob Sabino and Raymond Jones.
Featured female vocalist Norma Jean Wright joined the group in 1976 after working extensively with bands like the Spinners. But Walter Murphy (of “A Fifth of Beethoven” fame) was also calling his backing group the Big Apple Band. So Rodgers and Edwards thought long and hard to find a name that would convey class and sophistication in a one-syllable, easy-to-remember word. Chic it was.
Rodgers and Edwards followed “Dance, Dance, Dance” with the breezy “Everybody Dance,” another smash hit. The first album was called simply Chic<$>; the cover featured a bland duo of blond models instead of the lead vocalist Wright with Alfa Anderson. Ohio-born Wright left the group for a solo career soon after, and the anonymous studio band feel was shed with the releases that followed. The look now conveyed high musicianship as well as visual elegance. Replaced by vocalist Luci Martin, and enjoying only moderate success with her “Saturday” outing, Wright probably wished she had stayed in the group as “Le Freak” turned out to be one of the biggest-selling hits of 1978.
Ironically, the song resulted from one of those typical unfortunate incidents at the door of Studio 54. Grace Jones had invited the duo over to the club to discuss a possible producing deal, but as the doorman had misplaced their names from the guest list, they were unceremoniously turned away. Enraged, Rodgers and Edwards quickly penned the future hit as a bitchy paean to the snobby club, complete with an Aaah . . . Fuck Off! refrain. Revenge was sweet: the song, its swearing sanitized to Freak Out! to cash in on the latest dance craze sweeping New York’s clubland, sold in excess of six million copies in the United States alone.
The next year, Chic hit immortality with a cut from their Risqué album. “Good Times” was to become one of the most celebrated dance anthems ever, endlessly remixed, illegally sampled, and circulated through the next decade of rap music. After the release of “Good Times,” the seemingly simple Rodgers and Edwards formula with its instantly recognizable bass lines was copied by funkers and rockers alike, sometimes to even greater success. Their familiar riffs boomed through Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust” and Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” making Chic an integral part of rap’s sound iconography.
After “Good Times,” the hits dried up. But the producers enjoyed further success, writing, producing, and jump-starting the careers of Diana Ross and Sister Sledge. For Ross, with whom they had a volcanic relationship, they penned the acclaimed “Upside Down” and “I’m Coming Out.” For Sister Sledge, they produced the We Are Family album, which became an all-time classic disco must-have because of the ever-popular title track as well as “He’s the Greatest Dancer” and “Lost in Music.”
Rodgers and Edwards made their presence felt throughout the 1980s. The former played for artists such as David Bowie, Madonna, and Mick Jagger, while the latter worked with Robert Palmer and soul diva Jody Watley. During the height of Chic’s popularity, the late Edwards said, “We’re not trying to deliver any heavy message, just entertainment. When you’re off from work, come and see us and have a good time. No moral issues, no heavy problems—you just come and see us, have a good time, and split—that’s it!”
Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah!
D. C. LaRue
Few songwriters presented a critical view of sexual mores during the disco era. But one who did was D. C. LaRue, whose best-known club hit “Ca-The-Drals” had first appropriated the scene in June 1976. Moving out of the gay disco environment where the track first broke, it became one of the most danceable records of the year. Superficially condemning the loose seventies way of conducting relationships through promiscuous sexual activity, its pumping bass and shimmering sexy vocals naturally only emphasized the picture of sexually dominant lifestyles.
LaRue was born David Charles L’Heureux on April 26, 1949, in New Haven, Connecticut. After studying graphic design at college, he entered the record industry as an album-sleeve designer for such acts as John Lennon, Bruce Springsteen, Jim Croce, John Sebastian, and Janis Ian. LaRue saw design as a way to get into the industry through the back door—his ambition was to become a singer. He won two prestigious Paul Revere Awards for his sleeve work before deciding to take the giant step into the disco limelight, signing a deal with Pyramid Records.
“Ca-The-Drals” was written as a result of a breakup between LaRue and a girlfriend and the personal antagonism he felt at the time toward the promiscuity of disco culture. But he was back the next year with a more appropriately disco-friendly celebration of the party idiom. The Tea Dance was constructed as a kind of sound track to a thirties musical or a stage revue with a tinny gramophone intro and an “Overture (All We Need Is Love),” and the chugging mid-tempo cut contained another vague plea for understanding and universal love. Delivered with LaRue’s slightly nasal but not unappealing light vocal style, the old Brazilian samba “O Ba Ba” was transformed into a voluptuous, exotic artifice with an opening percussive passage leading into well-established tropical imagery of magical sunsets and palatial gardens. “Don’t Keep It in the Shadows” featured a guest vocal spot by Lou (“Lightnin’ Strikes”) Christie.
After supplying the song “Do You Want the Real Thing” for the Thank God It’s Friday sound track, LaRue put more messages in his music. Anxiety attacks were promoted in “I’ll Wake Up Screaming in the Middle of the Night,” from the Confessions album, and the title cut from the Forces of the Night album. The latter found the composer/ singer diversifying his disco sound with a more rock ’n’ roll bent while penning less abrasive lyrics. All of LaRue’s work was produced by Bob Esty as structured musical form, and the “Dancing with Strangers” cut, describing clubbers as sinister nocturnal creatures, was an effective merging of both the synthesized and acoustic aspects of disco while retaining the dance rhythms.
The Trammps did more to fan the flames of the disco inferno than practically anyone. Their storming eleven-minute track “Disco Inferno” entered club consciousness in 1976 but didn’t begin its meteoric climb to classic status until it was included in Saturday Night Fever and subsequently hit the charts twice in 1977. The group’s inclusion on the sound track had to be fate—the Odyssey 2001 club in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, where the film was shot, was their second home. The Trammps played gigs there at least once a month.
The Trammps’ career falls into four major parts. The five-man group was an amalgam of two sixties Philadelphia acts, the Volcanoes and the Exceptions. Leader Earl Young chose their new name because people kept telling them “All you’ll ever be is a bunch of tramps” as they hung around street corners, and because he loved silent-movie star Charlie Chaplin. The extra “m” was added to make them superior tramps! The group actually used to go on stage wearing denim dungarees as part of their folksy image. But as they grew more famous, this “working on the chain gang” look was replaced by the more seventies-friendly fashion of velvet flared suits and matching frilly shirts.
They first made an impact in the clubs and on the charts in 1974 with “Penguin at the Big Apple/Zing Went the Strings of My Heart,” its beautifully melodic intro, written by Young, Ronnie Baker, and Norman Harris, segueing into a stunning adaptation of Judy Garland’s 1943 American hit. This release on the Buddah label was followed by “Sixty-Minute Man” and “Hold Back the Night,” their most popular song until “Disco Inferno.” After a move back to Philadelphia, their spiritual home, they appeared for a while on their own Philadelphia International record label offshoot, Golden Fleece. But the peak of their achievement was for Atlantic Records after the crowd-pleasers “That’s Where the Happy People Go” and “Soul Searchin’ Time.” “Disco Inferno” really did burn up the dance floor, and their disco immortality has been assured ever since.
Although the Trammps released many more records—“Here We Go Again,” “Where Do We Go from Here,” “People of the World”—they never could match the success of “Disco Inferno.” But Young, Baker, and Harris were already diversifying into the production side of the business. They produced material for the Salsoul Orchestra, Loleatta Holloway, First Choice, Love Committee, and the Temptations’ debut album for Atlantic. Under the name BHY & Company, the initials taken from their own surnames, they also produced an instrumental album—a little like MFSB—with Trammps vocal sections featured on some of the tunes.
But 1977 was the main year for the Trammps. For the third year in a row they were voted Top Disco Group by Billboard magazine, and in the early spring of 1977 they played a sold-out gig at New York’s Roseland Ballroom. Over three thousand people turned up to witness a miraculous five-hour dance celebration that became known as one of the legendary happenings of the disco era.
Earth Wind and Fire
Earth Wind and Fire sang the companion song to “Disco Inferno,” their 1979 worldwide hit “Boogie Wonderland” stunningly encapsulating the disco experience and putting it into user-friendly dance terminology. With over seven gold albums to their credit, there were few weeks throughout 1978 and 1979 that Earth Wind and Fire weren’t in the charts with one fabulous foot-tapper or another. “Fantasy,” “September,” “After the Love Has Gone,” “All ’n’ All,” and “Let’s Groove” compounded their impact on the club scene as they became one of the most successful recording acts of all time.
The driving force behind the group was Maurice White, who was born in Memphis, home of Isaac Hayes and Booker T. Jones of the MGs. Before joining his brother Verdine in Chicago at the age of sixteen, Maurice gained musical experience playing with numerous blues bands. Soon after arriving in the Windy City he got a studio gig with the Chess Records label. It was this training, where he played every instrument and on everybody’s records, that gave White a complete all-around experience in the music business.
Then he joined the Ramsey Lewis Trio, along with Cleaveland Eaton, with whom he cut ten albums for Chess. But it was the higher consciousness he felt while touring the Orient with Ramsey Lewis that put White on the track of forming his own group. Because he was very into Egyptology and astrology at the time, he decided to go for a band name from his favorite star charts. First thinking Fire was suitable, he added another two elements and conjured up Earth Wind and Fire.
The initial group lineup was Maurice, Verdine, Wade Flemons, Don Whitehead, Jacob Ben Israel, Clint Washington, Michael Bill, Leslie Drayton, and Alex Thomas. They were first heard on the sound track of Melvin Van Peebles’s independent film Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song, a legendary and controversial black consciousness-raiser “rated X by an all-white jury.” Signing with Warner Bros. Records for their first two pop-influenced albums, the group moved to Columbia in the early seventies with numerous personnel changes. Ronnie Laws, Phillip Bailey, Jessica Cleaves, Ronald Bautista, Larry Dunn, and Ralph Johnson replaced the original members, who all felt the need to move into musical areas other than the aggressively commercial one envisaged by White.
White himself called the early incarnation of Earth Wind and Fire’s music too advanced for the time. Extraordinarily, too, the group was being perceived as white. But the name did create an entity, and an underground cult formed around the music. This influence eventually pulled Earth Wind and Fire into the disco arena. White chose to sign with Columbia because he was impressed with the way head honcho Clive Davis had pushed Sly and the Family Stone into the chart limelight.
In 1974 Maurice formed his own production company, Kalimba, which started producing records for Ramsey Lewis, the Emotions (“Best of My Love”), Deniece Williams (“Free,” “That’s What Friends Are For”), Pockets, and D. J. Rogers. Deniece Williams had brought songs she had written expressly for the Emotions to White, but when he heard her sing on the demo tapes, he immediately took her into the recording studio with the material. Williams had a huge hit in 1978 with another CBS artist, Johnny Mathis, and the song “Too Much Too Little Too Late.”
The Emotions joined Earth Wind and Fire for their megadance smash “Boogie Wonderland,” a lilting anthem with an oh-so-catchy chorus that quickly became a disco staple. The group’s stage shows became legendary, too, as White considered music and theater to be one spectacular entity. Based on the old vaudeville shows his father used to take him to see, except at a mid-seventies cost of $250,000, Earth Wind and Fire put on amazing concerts packed with showbiz razzle-dazzle and pizzazz. And that’s precisely why “Boogie Wonderland” has endured. Because of White’s theatrical influences, the song conjures up a proscenium arch around its disco sound and presents a timeless mystical fantasy to be vicariously enjoyed for all eternity. After all, it always was Maurice White’s wish to perform next to the pyramids in Egypt.
One of the cuts on the All ’n’ All album was entitled “Serpentine Fire.” The song referred to the magic fluid in the spine that, in Indian mythology, transferred energy from the brain to the genital area—and vice versa—and was activated by vigorous yoga exercise. No one ever came up with a more cabbalistic explanation for the disco lifestyle.