First Legends of Disco: 40 Stars Discuss Their Careers in Classic Dance Music

First Legends of Disco: 40 Stars Discuss Their Careers in Classic Dance Music

by James Arena



Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781491848296
Publisher: AuthorHouse
Publication date: 01/08/2014
Pages: 390
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.87(d)

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First Legends of Disco

40 Stars Discuss Their Careers in Classic Dance Music

By James Arena


Copyright © 2014 James Arena
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4918-4829-6


Alfa Anderson formerly of Chic

"The world tours made me realize the popularity of our music," says Alfa Anderson, once a prominent vocalist with the astonishingly successful group Chic. "I remember the summer concerts in sport arenas. We did one in San Diego that was a real eye opener. The stadium was filled to capacity with 60,000 concertgoers. Backstage, we were nervous. It was the largest venue we had played to date. My knees were shaking so badly, I just knew everyone could hear them. They were so rubbery that I didn't think I could stand. They announced the group and we entered with the 'Chic Cheer.' For a few seconds we heard nothing. If you've ever played those venues, you know that there is a sound delay. Then it hit us. The wall of sound from 60,000 fans cheering, singing along, screaming – and then the applause! I'm standing on the stage soaking it all in thinking, 'Oh my God, this is real!' That's when it really hit me that I was part of something that was truly magical, something that made people happy. After the performance, we were being driven back to the dressing rooms but the audience wouldn't stop shouting and chanting, 'Chic, Chic, Chic!' The promoter asked us to come back for an encore!"

It is but one example of the phenomenal encounters with fame that the group enjoyed in the late '70s. An ensemble organized by guitarist Nile Rodgers and bassist Bernard Edwards, Chic achieved astounding commercial success at the height of disco fever. Chic, as their named implied, was the epitome of regal style and elegance. The unparalleled influence and success of songs like "Dance, Dance, Dance," "Le Freak" and "Good Times" was unmatched by any other group of the era. Alfa was there from the start (first as a background singer and then taking the vocal lead) for their multi-year run as one of disco's greatest and most innovative acts.

Anderson goes back to the days when the idea of being a star was still far from her mind. "I was my parents' first child – the alpha child. My father's name was Alfonso," she explains. "So my first name is sort of a combination of those two things. I grew up in Augusta, Georgia, where music was a part of my life and a part of who I was, right from the very start. We always had a piano in our house and I composed my first song when I was three years old.

"I remember I broke my father's collapsible ruler and threw the evidence underneath my parents' bed. When mama and daddy asked if I had seen the ruler, I said no. Eventually my father looked under the bed and found the broken ruler. Even when confronted with the evidence, I stuck to my story. 'No daddy, no mama; I did not break that ruler.' But I couldn't keep the truth from coming out. I went to the living room, climbed up on the piano bench, banged on the keys and sang this lyric: 'I broke it.' Bang, bang! 'Yes, I broke it.' Bang, bang, bang! "And I'm glad I broke it!' I have many childhood memories of my mother playing the piano and singing. We could always tell what kind of mood she was in by the song she sang. No matter the song, she'd gather us around the piano teaching us to sing – the happy songs, the silly ones and the sad songs – all in harmony. My father couldn't sing though. My mother used to say, 'Your father can't carry a tune in a bucket.' He'd whistle. Ours was a very traditional home and music was considered a cultural pastime, not something you'd ever consider pursuing as a career. But from the very first, music was in my blood.

"I joined the junior high school band," she continues, "but by the time I made that decision, the only instruments left were the tuba, the trombone, the oboe or the saxophone. I couldn't carry the tuba, the mouthpiece of the trombone stank to heaven and the oboe required too much work. I settled for the saxophone. I was a horrible player. A honking goose sort of describes my technique. When I went to high school, I decided to continue in the band but it was not cool to carry a sax, so I opted for the flute. From the flute I switched to the piccolo, which was dainty and small enough to fit in my purse and it could be heard over all the other instruments in the marching band. Thank you John Philip Sousa! I joined the choir at Paine College and rediscovered my love for singing. We performed in New York one spring but I never imagined I'd eventually move there and live the life of an artist. When I finished college, my aunt Christine gave me a trip to New York as a graduation present. I enrolled in Teachers College at Columbia University and earned a master's degree in teaching English."

Meanwhile, inspired by the success they had been increasingly enjoying as musicians in a band called New York City ("I'm Doing Fine Now"), Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards formed a new group with drummer Tony Thompson. They hired Norma Jean Wright as a lead vocalist and formed the foundation of Chic in 1977. Says Anderson, "I was hired as a lecturer in the Department of Academic Skills at Hunter College of The City University of New York and sang on weekends with Kenny and Everett Brawner, fellow Augustans who had [led and composed music for] a jazz-funk group called Raw Sugar. This led to stints with other bands and it was at a rehearsal with Lou Courtney (of The Fifth Dimension) that I met some people that would change the direction of my life forever. Fellow background vocalist Ednah Holt [also of The Ritchie Family reformation] introduced me to Fonzi Thornton and Michelle Cobbs. That meeting is so vivid in my mind because that's the day I also met Luther Vandross. I walked into the studio and saw this large guy dressed in overalls sitting in a chair. They introduced me, he lifted his head, said hello and immediately put his head back down. I thought he didn't like me, but in those few seconds I must've made an impression on him. He certainly made a lasting impression on me. When he opened his mouth, I heard this magic vocal sound that pulled me in like the pied piper. A few days later, I got a phone call from him. We quickly became friends. I would go to his house where we'd cook, eat, laugh and sing. Meeting Luther Vandross was my introduction to the New York artist community.

"My new friends were not singing as a cultural pastime; they wanted to make music their careers. Luther was fast becoming the king of commercials and background sessions and would often include me in this group of singers. One day, Luther told me that he had a session for us to do. 'Alfa, I have this friend named Nile Rodgers who has a new group called Chic,' he said. 'He wants me to come and put down some background vocals. It's disco music.' I was not enthusiastic. 'Disco?! Luther, I don't wanna do disco! Are you really gonna do this?' I asked. He said yes and assured me that it would be a lot of fun. So, I reluctantly went to the studio. Luther, David Lasley and I arrived first. Diva Gray and Robin Clark filled out the remaining background vocalists for the Chic debut project that was recorded at Electric Lady Studios in Manhattan. While waiting for the session to begin, I took out papers to grade, Luther ordered food and David sat quietly, looking like the quintessential hippie, complete with hair down to his butt. We made an unlikely looking trio. As a matter of fact, I later learned that Bernard pulled Nile to the side and questioned him, 'Are you sure these are the singers you want?' Nile replied, 'Trust me!' When I first heard the tracks for 'Dance, Dance, Dance' and 'Everybody Dance,' I was hooked. This was something I wanted to be part of. My prayer was answered. Luther and I were asked to provide backing vocals for the first Chic tour. My godson reminds me that, in the early days, Luther and I actually got billing. Luther's mantra was, 'I don't work for people, I work with people.' Billing was a big deal to him and because I came in with Luther, I got grandfathered into a lot of perks that I wouldn't have known how to negotiate on my own."

The self-titled debut LP of Chic on Atlantic Records (the original recordings were marketed by Buddah Records, but were quickly shifted to the bigger and more powerful Warner Communications subsidiary) was a nationwide hit. The clubs were the first to catch on to the infectious premiere single, "Dance, Dance, Dance," which held the top spot on the disco chart for weeks and then climbed the pop charts straight to the Top 10. The song was a smash and in constant rotation on DJ turntables for nearly a year. "Everybody Dance," the follow-up single, scored almost as big and Chic became a phenomenon, though their true identity had yet to be forged. Norma Jean Wright, in her interview for First Ladies of Disco, claimed the misleading album artwork featuring two sexy, light-skinned women was an attempt by those marketing the project to coax radio programmers into believing the act's music was intended for a white audience.

Anderson recalls Chic's unique recording sessions and the personalities of her producers with great detail. "We had to quickly develop musical chemistry because being in the studio with Nile and Nard was sorta like being with two kinder, gentler Ike Turners," she laughs. "But Luther made it easy. He was very instrumental in cocrafting the Chic vocal sound. One of the techniques Nile and Bernard used was difficult for me at first, but I learned to work with it. We never heard the songs before we went in to record. We never rehearsed. I didn't even know the name of the songs until I arrived at the studio. 'Just be ready,' they'd say. We would walk into the studio and Bernard would take us aside –mostly Bernard, though sometimes Nile – and they'd still be writing and changing lyrics. He'd teach the song to us. We would take a little time to learn it and then go to the vocal booth and put it down. To learn the notes was one thing, but to really understand the nuances – find the 'Chic-ness' – was something else. During the early days, Luther guided us in that process; later on, Fonzi Thornton did. [Thornton was officially credited with background vocals on only the third Chic album, Risqué.] We became a really tight, cohesive vocal unit. Truthfully, I sang a wrong lyric in a couple of my solos, but Nile and Nard liked the results. Spontaneity and passion were more important than correctness. I was always nervous because I had never recorded like that before. We'd usually start on the hook and once you got that down, the rest was easier. I never did get entirely comfortable with that method. There was always that initial nervousness until I relaxed in it."

To skirt the dreaded sophomore jinx, Chic needed something extraordinary for the group's next LP. No longer hiding in the shadows, the participants were prominently posed on the cover of 1978's C'est Chic album, which listed Luther Vandross as a special guest vocalist. From left field came the quirky sound of "Le Freak," the first single released to radio, which vaulted to the number 1 spot on the charts and ranked as Atlantic Records' biggest selling single. The song, a kind of funky dance-floor cheer, literally had music fans freaking out and it was an extraordinary, unexpected phenomenon. The album made the Top Five on the pop side and was an international bestseller. There were now three acts that had come to symbolize almost the entire disco music movement and they were often mentioned in the same sentence by the media: Donna Summer, the Village People and Chic.

Admits Alfa, "For me, 'Le Freak' was the most difficult song to sing under the method I described that Nile and Nard favored. ['Le Freak'] was a duet with Diva Gray. At first, it was hard for me to find the pocket, the rhythm and the Chic vocal pattern to fit that song, but when I relaxed, it all fell into place. I had absolutely no idea 'Le Freak' would be so big. When I heard the playback, I loved it. But who could have predicted the phenomenal success of that track?"

Anderson confirms the story that has been long linked to the creation of "Le Freak." "I don't feel you can separate the song from the era in which it was recorded," she says. "Art really does imitate and amplify life. The '70s was a time when the youth of American wanted to be free. We longed to tear down societal barriers. We were sick and tired of the 'isms.' The '70s was also a time of protest. It was the spirit of protest that prompted Nile and Bernard to write 'Le Freak.' After being denied entrance to the popular Studio 54, they did what musicians did – they poured all that emotion in a song. As Nile tells the story, they were jamming and came up with the lyric, 'fuck you!' Realizing that they had a very hip groove, they worked with the lyric and the 'F.U.' became 'freak out.' It was the right message at the right time." "I Want Your Love," a song supposedly intended for Sister Sledge, became the follow-up crowd pleaser from the C'est Chic set, an album that went on to sell well over a million copies.

Chic had entered a new phase of overwhelming popularity, but the extraordinary events and experiences in which Alfa was immersed often whizzed past the singer with little chance for her to take notice. "You know what?" the artist observes. "It was a blur. Things were happening fast and furiously. A few years ago, I was at a George Benson concert and introduced myself. He said, 'I remember you! I will never forget the time we were on the same bill and you all came out and I couldn't even go onstage because they were calling for more from you guys!' I laughed to myself because that was one of the stadium gigs where we just tore the roof off the sucka! I believe 'Le Freak' is still the highest-selling single in Atlantic's history. I was so excited and proud to be part of that.

"However, my bubble of enthusiasm burst when speaking to a college girlfriend," she continues. "I told her I had a number 1 record on the charts. She looked at me and said, 'That's nice, but what are you doing to improve the human condition?' Talk about a reality check! I've since learned that music does improve the human condition. If I didn't know it then, I know it now through all the Facebook comments and messages I get from people! Recently, someone came up to me and thanked me for making music that helped get her through her teen years. While touring, you get a chance to see the transformative power of music. Lives were changed because our audience consisted of whites and blacks, gays and straights, all in the mix together, singing along with us and giving us so much love. Here it is 35 years later and I get the chance to see the timelessness of our music," the singer adds.

Anderson says she had no reason to worry that Chic was being branded as a disco creation at the time. "I didn't object to being classified as a disco act. I got over my earlier prejudice. I had worried that disco was going to displace R&B and I thought that disco music was static, locked into 122 beats-per-minute and that it took away from artistic freedom. The music of Chic wasn't like that at all and was actually beyond disco. It was totally different from what I was expecting. I don't remember Nile and Nard ever voicing any objection to being classified as disco, but my memory may be a bit fuzzy. I think they started out in R&B and rock. What they may have had an issue with was the fact that they couldn't get a record deal without being categorized. There have always been problems with identity and how people see musicians of color and their ability to play something other than R&B and jazz. Chic certainly shattered any notions about what disco was."

Next up was the groundbreaking album Risqué, a monster 1979 release for Chic. Paramount among its many hook-laden compositions was the track "Good Times." From its infectious bass lines to its joyful, summery proclamation of disco's irresistibly euphoric effect, the song was Chic's ultimate moment. The song leapt to the number 1 spot on the pop charts, drew dancers to the floor in droves and, according to Alfa, exemplified the group at their best. "The words and music of 'Good Times' were infectious, danceable and oh so much fun. That was one of the happiest experiences I had in the studio. We loved it from the first, dancing and singing in the control room even before we went to the vocal booth. People still love 'Good Times.' On the day of the recording, everything clicked! Bernard's great bass solo, Nile's rhythmic guitar, Tony's steady beat on the drums. When we added those slick vocals, we had lift off! It was a group of us that sang it. [The album jacket lists Alfa, Bernard, Fonzi, Luci, Michelle Cobbs and Ullanda McCullough as the vocalists on Risque.] Generally, it's harder to sing unison with a group than it is to sing harmony. Unison requires a cohesive approach to the song. If you don't have that, then you can hear different people. But when it's really in sync, it sounds like one person. The nuances are the same, so you breathe the same, the pitch is the same and the rhythm is the same. The icing on the cake was when we'd come back into the control room and listen to the playback. When the vocals are totally in tune you can actually hear the overtones of an octave. That was the beauty of our vocal approach."


Excerpted from First Legends of Disco by James Arena. Copyright © 2014 James Arena. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
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Table of Contents


Acknowledgements, ix,
Foreword, xiii,
Preface, xvii,
Behind the Scenes, xxv,
The First Legends of Disco,
Alfa Anderson formerly of Chic, 1,
William "Bubba" Anderson, James "Ajax" Baynard, LA Blacksmith, Tyrone Cox, Mark Lipetz, Phil "Flip" Thomas of Crown Heights Affair, 15,
Clare Bathé formerly of Machine, 28,
Anthony Brooks of Harold Melvin's Blue Notes, 37,
Ed Cermanski and Robert Upchurch of The Trammps, 44,
Sarah Dash, 55,
John Davis, 64,
Leonard "Butch" Davis and Joe Harris of Double Exposure, 75,
Venus Dodson, 89,
Joy Dorris of Lime, 98,
Bob Esty, 103,
Jimmie Bo Horne, 115,
Geraldine Hunt, 124,
Carol Jiani, 132,
Janice Marie Johnson of A Taste of Honey, 142,
France Joli, 151,
Randy Jones formerly of Village People, 163,
Shirley Jones formerly of The Jones Girls, 173,
Denis LePage/Nini Nobless formerly of Lime, 182,
Robbie Leslie, 196,
W. Michael Lewis, 205,
George McCrae, 219,
Denise Montana, 228,
Eddie O'Loughlin, 236,
Rob Parissi formerly of Wild Cherry, 247,
Bonnie Pointer, 259,
Warren Schatz, 270,
Debbie Sledge, Joni Sledge, and Kim Sledge of Sister Sledge, 284,
Arthur "Pooch" Tavares of Tavares, 301,
Richie Weeks formerly of Weeks & Co., 310,
James "D-Train" Williams, 318,
Afterword, 329,
The Flipside: Recommended Listening, 333,
Index, 339,

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