Disco & the Evolution of the DJ Part I: Rock the Boat

DiscoIt’s been 37 years since 1978.  37 years since Disco climbed to its highest peak, claiming dominance not just over the nighttime world but the entire culture. 37 years since a 19 year old actor and a former soft rock group from Australia did for dance music what Elvis had done for R & B in the 1950’s: put a white face on it and made it acceptable for middle America to embrace. It’s been 37 years since Disco laid waste to the pop charts, Grammies and Oscars, gossip columns, TV commercials, billboards and anything else that could be fitted with platform shoes and enhanced with a thumping 120 beats per minute. And though it’s meteoric climb was only topped by it’s incendiary burnout (both figuratively and literally at the “Disco Demolition Night” in Chicago in 1979) the vapor trails of the Disco movement are still felt to this day, both in today’s newest dance music, and the retro wave that has swept the nation going on ten years now. Disco came from the nightclubs, rose to national prominence, temporarily shelved rock as a “has been” musical form, crashed and burned and returned to the nightclubs from whence it came, all in less time than it took for Jimmy Carter to show America that nice guys don’t always make great Presidents.

And just like the Georgian peanut farmer has been reevaluated of late, America has taken another look at Disco. Thin and vapid? Sure. Annoyingly repetitive? Perhaps. But what’s wrong with a genre of music that has very simple goals: to get you to shake your bootie. To do a little dance and make a little love. To get down tonight. And every night. No, this music didn’t attempt to solve the world’s problems, but then back in the seventies, pop music had been working at solving the world’s problems for over a decade and guess what? The world still had plenty of problems. Then here came this new sound. With a jacked up bass beat or “four on the floor” as the German producer Giorgio Moroder would call it, and lyrics that seemed so simple yet impossible to get out of your head. And melodies that made Motown’s hits seem forgettable. Can you really hear “Rock Your Boat” and not catch yourself humming it two hours later? Can you ever get those opening “Ooooooooh’s” from “That’s the Way (I Like it)” out of your head?

As DJs and entertainers, whether we love the sounds of the late seventies or not, we should all appreciate the period. Disco changed the music scene forever. It gave us all countless hours of dance music to spin. Heck, the whole art of spinning records came from this time. Our entire industry – such as we know it anyway – emerged from the mid-seventies and staked its claim as a legitimate entertainment vocation. Suddenly the DJ was an artist. Sometimes even a star. And if you use music to entertain, whether you call yourself a DJ or an MC or an entertainer or whatever, you can surely trace your roots to Terry Noel, Francis Grasso, Bobby Guttadaro, Steve D’Acquisto and Michael Cappello, to name a few. These men invented the very craft at which we make our livings. They made the record industries stand up and acknowledge that DJs do exist outside of radio stations. They spearheaded innovations like pitch control, remixed records (at the time DJs just wanted anything longer than two and half minutes) and the twelve-inch single. The DJs of the time were just as influential to Disco as they were influenced by the music. The mid to late seventies will always be remembered as the time when the nightclub became the place to see, and to be seen. Celebrities, artists, and musicians made places like the Chicago’s Warehouse and New York City’s Studio 54 temples of the era. And at these temples the DJ was the high priest and the music his gospel. So let’s look back, not just at the year 1978 (after all many Disco aficionados would argue that by then Disco had lost its edge, its creative energy and had simply become a commercialized clone of its former self) but at the sound itself and how DJs helped bring this sound from the clubs to the masses.

Gloria_Gaynor_-_Never_Can_Say_GoodbyeThere are some who point to Gloria Gaynor’s “Never Can Say Goodbye” as the “First Disco Song.” Some hold up “Love is the Message” by MFSB out of Philadelphia and make the same argument. Still others will debate whether it was “Rock Your Baby” or “Fly Robin Fly.” When you think about it though, trying to find “the first Disco song” is like ignoring evolution and trying to find the remains of the “first human.” There were no Adam and Eve, the first man created from dirt and the first woman born of his rib. These are biblical myths that science has disproved.

In the same vein, no music begins in a vacuum. Outside influences and slow, progressive evolutions take place all the time. Any genre of music can be traced back to numerous roots. Disco is certainly no exception. And since Disco is really the music of the clubs, we’ll begin in those early, steamy bars where recorded music provided the soundtrack to a night of dancing, fun and drinking.

People have listened to and danced to recorded music in public places for over a hundred years. Jukeboxes have been fixtures in bars and taverns since the turn of the century and in Speakeasies during Prohibition. The concept of spinning records for people to enjoy goes to back to World War II. What the French called discotheques (translated literally as “record libraries”) became popular during the German occupation when jazz bands were banned in France.

As the concept of playing recorded music to entertain patrons (as opposed to a live band) expanded, the role of the DJ began. Early on, the DJ was simply a member of the service staff. In most establishments the guests ordered their songs right along with their drinks. Thus, the earliest DJs were human jukeboxes, taking requests and putting them on, often in between wiping down tables and restocking the bar. Since one record player was the norm, patrons would hear the same dead air between songs that they did with the mechanized jukebox. Even when two turntables were present in a bar it was simply to segue one song into another. Pitch controls had not yet been perfected and the earliest belt driven players had little tolerance for being thumbed down or twirled up. The music heard in these clubs was the music of the time. The rock and roll songs in the 1950s would get everyone jitterbugging. And then as the 60s arrived, a dance sensation swept the nation and Europe and helped to popularize these new establishments. The Twist! Everyone wanted to do it. And if you couldn’t find a sock hop or a local dance, then you headed down to a bar or restaurant and asked them to put one on.

The social strife of the sixties, as Baby Boomers matured and took on serious issues such as Civil Rights and the Vietnam War took its toll on the music of these establishments. “Rock and Roll” became simply “Rock.” All the fun was sucked out of it. The Beatles are a perfect example. Listen to “Saw Her Standing There” and then put on “Revolution.” Both are uptempo numbers but lyrically and rhythmically they are complete opposites. One song inspires you to shake it on the dance floor, the other to march in the streets. Psychedelic rock made the same change. Listen to “Good Vibrations” and then slap on “Crimson and Clover.” Both songs are from the same psychedelic genre but the Beach Boys song (from 1966) is obviously much more danceable than the Tommy James number (1968.) Rock music was maturing, graduating from sock hops and frat parties to sit ins and demonstrations. And with the change, many of the early dance halls closed down. The few that remained began catering to a far different clientele: blacks and gays. And the music they wanted to dance to was certainly not “Crimson and Clover.”

R & B had been the black sound of music since African Americans migrated to the northern cities (New York mainly) after World War II. R & B grew out of what was called “jump blues,” the uptempo jazz of the late 40’s with a touch of gospel and a mean horn section. It’s music with a beat and an impassioned singer. It’s what Elvis gentrified into rock and roll. And while rock and roll became the music for all those white baby boomers, R & B went on its merry way, through the 50s and into the 60s, led by Ray Charles, Fats Domino, and Sam Cooke, just to name a few. In the 60’s, Motown created a pop oriented version of R&B. They kept the heavy beat but smoothed out the screaming vocals and, updating the doo-wop sound of the 50’s, added background singers. For the first time black music was commercially accepted. Even African American artists outside the Motown label were prosperous (and edgier, since they were not subject to Berry Gordy’s strict production rules.) Wilson Pickett, Junior Walker and Aretha Franklin were just a few of the African American artists of the 60s who produced successful and soulful R & B. As the decade evolved rhythm and blues branched off yet again into funk. Funk took the melody and harmony of R & B, put it in the backseat and let the rhythm drive. And drive it did. James Brown, George Clinton and Sly Stone were the early leaders of the “funk” movement and by the early 70’s groups like Earth Wind and Fire, Kool and the Gang and the Ohio Players were providing a road map for the disco movement by emphasizing a beat so strong and powerful that nothing else mattered. The only ingredient missing to finish off the musical stew that would become “disco” was a little bit of smooooooooth.

The musical historians who point to the 1974 song “Love is the Message” as the first disco song, do so because of the unique sound produced by the Philadelphia International record label. The group MFSB (they said it was an acronym for Mother Father Sister Brother but some claim it stood for something much more vulgar) was the Philadelphia International label’s house band. They were a complex combination of classically trained musicians who added lush string arrangements to traditional R&B rhythms. Their 1974 release of “TSOP” (“The Sound of Philadelphia”) was a minor hit that would later be selected as the Theme Song for the new television show “Soul Train.” But when local DJs flipped the disc over and started playing the “B side”, “Love is the Message” became an early and influential disco song.

Led by The O’Jays, Harold Melvoin and the Blue Notes and Three Degrees, the “Philly Sound” became very popular and its influence outside of Philadelphia cannot be understated. Just like Motown had done a decade before, the Philly sound took just enough of the edge off of R & B to make it commercially viable, yet not enough to make it lose its appeal to clubbers and partiers.

There were other influences for sure. After all disco is not just R & B made sweeter with a few strings. In Miami, R & B was being infused with a Latin sound (Caribbean percussions and blasting horns.)

KC and the Sunshine Band
KC and the Sunshine Band

K.C. and the Sunshine Band (formed in 1973) had an international club hit with their debut “Blow Your Whistle” and then became huge commercially with “That’s The Way ((I Like It)”. Group leader Harry Wayne Casey (K.C.) also wrote a song for his then unknown backup singer George McCrae. The result (“Rock Your Baby”) is another song that is credited for launching the disco “movement.”

K.C. and the Sunshine Band’s influence on disco is two-fold. Showing how danceable this Latin beat could be, The Sunshine Band’s sound was mimicked by many early disco artists and labels. New York based Fania Records actually became known as the “Latin Motown”. As a lead singer, K.C. also demonstrated how infectious and energy packed a high, male falsetto can be. Think the Bee Gee’s and Leo Sayer didn’t notice that?

The clubs that had once played twist songs in all their various incarnations were now pumping out this new sound nightly. Still mostly populated by blacks and gays a vicious and exciting loop had been created. The music provided the soundtrack at these clubs, the dancers responded in feverish celebration and the music makers stood up and took notice, raising the bar higher and higher . Chart the BPMs of disco music and you’ll find that year after year, on average, they grew faster and faster. The low 100s of the early 70s gave way to the 120s at the peak of Disco’s fame (1977-1979) only to be pushed aside by the steady thump of early house music and its consistent beat in the 130s.

Discos like the Ice Palace on Fire Island and The Loft and The Sanctuary in New York City, became meccas of the early disco scene. New York gays, newly liberated in the post “Stonewall Riots” days of the early 70s took to the clubs en mass. Their impact (both positively and negatively) on early Disco is indefinable. With their love of divas and all things fabulous, the gay community helped show a new generation of record maker what it took to get them off on the dance floor (and other places for sure.) Following their lead (and, one would assume, the scent of increased profits) early Disco artists and songwriters narrowed the scope of their music to a fine point: To get people to dance! Not since the early days of Motown with songs like “Dancing in the Streets” had a musical genre been so obvious about its intentions and so blatant about its goals.

Think differently? Try to count how many Disco songs have the word “boogie” in their title. Thump Records, one of those record labels that specialized in repackaging music in as many compilations as it could shove down consumers’ throats, used to sell a CD called “Old School Boogie” (back when people purchased CDs) which featured 14 songs all with the word “boogie” in the title. And since without too much inspection, you could already name a few obvious songs that were missing from this compilation (KC’s “Boogie Shoes” and The Jacksons “Blame it on the Boogie”) it’s clear that Thump Records had only scratched the surface.

The gay association to Disco did have its drawback on this fledgling musical form. Conservative, middle America was far from accepting anything into its mainstream culture that came along with sweaty, scantily clad gay men. Add to that the fact that disco still sounded like Black and Spanish music, you’d have to wonder what the producers of Disco music were thinking about when they staked their claim to this new sound. Breaking through the threshold into the mainstream had to seem impossible in 1975. And though a few songs had already accomplished the feat and hit the pop charts (not just Billboard’s “R&B” chart but the actual “Hot 100”) and the media was beginning to take notice, the commercialization of disco music had to seem near impossible. It would take a cultural upheaval akin to Elvis’ gyrating hips. A figurative shot in the jaw to an America that was reeling with bad news. Everything from Watergate to a gas shortage, from our embarrassing evacuation of the US Embassy in Saigan to a recession, weighed heavily on the minds of Americans.   These were generally not “Good Times” as the group Chic would try to tell us they were. And no matter what K.C. sang, this was not the way anyone in their right mind would like it.

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