A certain narrative has played itself out on TVOne’s UnSung program regarding the decline of many of the soul artists featured. Besides business issues, personal problems, unforseen tragedies and many other things that derail an enertainers career, there is also the issue of changing musical styles. Being that the program features many soul artists who peaked in the 1970s, two musical genres are often held up as the bane of the artists existence: Disco and Rap/Hip Hop. Of the two, the difference is that while Hip Hop is a genre that is not too kind to people from outside of the community attempting to seriously pass themselves off as Hip Hop artists, Disco is a music that will accept any artist from any genre. It was also a music that was close to the roots of Soul, Rock, Blues, Jazz and particularly Funk, all the genre’s that were popular when the music was born. Dizzy Gillespie once said when questioned why would he do a disco album, “It isn’t anythiing I haven’t heard before. And when we look at disco’s brief but powerful run at the top of the charts, we see the Rolling Stones doing disco rock, the Mighty Clouds of Joy doing gospel disco, Roy Ayers doing disco funk, Walter Murphy mixing disco and classical, Herbie Hancock mixing disco with jazz, and many other varients, all trying to cash in and ride the steady beat of disco to both artistic success and cultural currency.
So it was fitting that TVOne decided to tell the story of disco in a two hour special. This episode was special for several reasons. For one thing, it attempted to tell the story of disco from a black music perspective. It also attempted to get toward the roots of disco and also talk about the fall out experienced in the rest of the black/R&B music industry after disco was rejected so thoroughly in the late summer/fall of 1979. This was territory covered in books such as Nelson George’s The Death of Rhythm & Blues but it was still good to see the pieces put together and acknowledged on television.
My own history with disco music is interesting. I started out with a heavy interest in Funk, educated by Rickey Vincents Funk: The Music, People and Rhythm of the One, and I bought the standard storyline that disco was the death of funk, soul, and other black music’s. I was a true believer that disco was a lower form of music and fair game for everybody to lampoon and make fun of. However, I did not realize that there was alot of music I absolutely loved that either was disco, or was made by it’s creators with disco’s popularity in mind. There is little in the way of serious late ’70s funk that was not touched by the realities of disco’s popularity.
I’m talking tunes like Roy Ayers “Running Away”, The Four Tops “Catfish”, Johnny Taylors “Disco Lady”, even a record like Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke” or “Another Star.” This includes acknowledged classics like Kool & The Gang’s “Ladies Night”, and Teddy Pendegrass “I Don’t Love You Anymore.” What about Lou Rawls smooth 1976 classic, “You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine????” Disco.
My study of music lead me to understand that disco is not about extravagent strings and horns, high pitched vocals, long playing songs, or any of the other cliche’s we associate with it. Those were musical elements that were popular during disco’s time period, true, but by themselves they don’t make disco. Disco is based on a very strong, very prominent beat. Four on the floor, meaning, a kick drum on each quarter note. The snare drum is played on the two and four, usually tuned low, so that it “thuds” rather than “cracks” (if you wanna hear crackin’ snares, listen to early ’80s funk, like Prince and Cameo), and the high hat is opened up in a pattern that dances, some people call it “T-sop” after Sound of Philadelphia drummer Earl Young, and some people omnatoepically call “Pea soup”. What musicians learned is that they could put this disco beat under whatever they were playing and craft their music into something suitable for the beat dancers were dancing to. It really was not any worse than adopting the “four on the top” Motown beat or the “give the drummer some” James Brown beat ten years earlier, musicians wanted to play the beats of the time that would get people moving.
Many other good elements of ’60s and ’70s soul and funk went into the disco style: Larry Grahams octave transitions on bass became the foundation of the disco bass style, the falsetto stylings of Curtis Mayfiled, Al Green Smokey Robinson, the Stylistics, et, al, became the new vocal approach, the girl group stylings of the Supremes and the Gospel emoting of Aretha Franklin found a place over the disco beat, the extended orchestrations of Issac Hayes set the template for dance floor ecstacy, the soulful orchestras of Philly Internatinal and Barry White prettied up the top, and disco kept alive that “latin tinge” that Jelly Roll Morton said was important for jazz music to have that dance beat.
TVOne’s show dealt with the fact that the word “disco” is just short for “discoteque”, a French word denoting a place where record were spun for dancing enjoyment as opposed to live bands. It seems amazing to a music fan today, but at one time, live bands ruled night clubs as opposed to D.J’s and recordings. It charted the discoteque’s early popularity with gay men in New York City. It covered David Mancuso’s Loft party, which catered to black gay men in the early ’70s.
At this time there was no “disco” music. D.J’s were playing records that made people dance, be it James Brown, Eddie Kendricks, Gladys Knight, Santana, or Led Zepplin. What impressed me when I learned about this time period in the history of disco, is how similar it was to the birth of hip hop, which happened right around the same time, if Kool Herc started Hip Hop in 1974, disco was not yet recognized as an independent genre of music itself. The D.J’s of what was to be called “disco” were exploreres searching after what Afrika Baambaata referred to as, “The Perfect Beat.”
The episode actually had Earl Young, house drummer for Gamble & Huff’s Philly International record label, demonstrate his original disco beat. Earl Young played drums on songs like “The Love I Lost” by Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes and “Disco Inferno” by The Tramps. It was really good for historical documentation to have him demonstrate his original disco beat.
The show also chronicled how disco provided a new voice for gay men and black women in the music industry. This was probably what made many people uncomfortable with disco in the long run.
This was a very important show because it dealt with what disco was in the black community. When you say disco to a black music fan from the late ’70s, they might think of a song such as “Boogie Oogie” by A Taste of Honey. All in all, it was a good show, the material was not 100% new, but the perspective on it was, the show reclaimed disco as a part of black music.
This is a favored topic of mine, attempting to find redeeming value in disco, so look to read more from me on it in the future…..
In the mean time in between time….
You might not believe it, but the Tempts “Law of the Land” was an important early record in the discoteque’s. It has a four on the floor kick drum, and one D.J mentioned he’d mix the live James Brown “Give it Up, Turn it A Loose” where J.B says “Clap your hands/stomp your feet” into this cut
Eddie Kendricks was probably one of the most important artists in the early disco thing
One of the songs that got the whole thing started
Hardcore disco funk
Elegant disco jazz
The Far Frontiers of disco