The First Days of Disco

Douglas Wolk

By Douglas Wolk

on 10.07.14 in Features
‘Disco had a sound as specific and immediately identifiable as psychedelia or rockabilly. But it had only become a genre retroactively.’

Jerry Butler’s “One Night Affair,” released in 1972, is widely considered to be one of the earliest disco recordings. The top 10 R&B hit by a baritone crooner already 15 years into his career was a cover of an O’Jays song from a few years earlier, souped up with the slick modern groove that would come to dominate American dance floors within a few years. One of that record’s arrangers was Robert Bowles, who subsequently became a disco legend as a session guitarist (under the name Bob “Boogie” Bowles), playing on massive hits like Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” and Peaches & Herb’s “Shake Your Groove Thing.” So it’s surprising that, on being told that Butler’s version of “One Night Affair” is now hailed as groundbreaking, Bowles bursts into disbelieving laughter.

“I think that ['One Night Affair'] should’ve been a better record,” Bowles says. “But that’s great! It worked out pretty well, the bassline is singable…The thing of it is, when we started doing it, it was rhythm and blues, and somebody gave it the title of disco.”

Disco, as we now know it, came into existence years before anybody figured out they could make a “disco record.” The word “discothèque” — meaning a nightclub that played records instead of featuring live performer — was first used in 1954; by the early ’70s, there were clubs all over the U.S. (and elsewhere) where DJs played dance records — which could be defined as virtually anything with a beat.

Over the course of the early ’70s, a few trends started to develop around a handful of hotspots: Philadelphia (where Kenneth Gamble, Leon Huff and Thom Bell worked with a cluster of artists), southern Florida, New York City and others. An increasing number of dance records began to feature steady, 120 BPM rhythms with prominent hi-hat percussion, lush orchestrations that often included string sections, and hypnotically repetitive bass parts. As dancers responded to that formula, producers started to come up with variations on it; success in the discothèques, they found, could sometimes turn into success in record stores.

When dance records started being made specifically for discos — rather than for radio stations, which demanded that songs begin and end within three minutes or so — it was a radical change. Dance tracks became longer, and sprawled out onto 12-inch singles meant for club play. More clubs opened to meet the demand for the new trends in dance music. In October 1974, Billboard Magazine published its first Club Dialogue column, along with the Disco Action chart, which listed the most popular records in New York dance clubs. Almost two years later, on August 28, 1976, the chart started covering national dance hits.

A week after that, Rick Dees released his single “Disco Duck,” a joke about that year’s biggest trend in music, with a duck voice mimicking the smoothness of “disco” vocals and calling out catchphrases (“Shake your tail feather!”) while Dees sings about “Moving my feet to the disco beat.” It became a #1 pop hit — but so did a host of other disco tracks that year, like Diana Ross’s “Love Hangover,” the Bee Gees’ “You Should Be Dancing” and Johnnie Taylor’s “Disco Lady.”

By then, disco had a sound as specific and immediately identifiable as psychedelia or rockabilly. But it had only become a genre (with a particular beat, a particular sort of orchestration and a penchant for repetition) retroactively; “Disco Duck” wouldn’t have had as well-formed a target for its satire even a year earlier. In his memoir Behind the Boogie, Bowles recalls the first time someone called him up and asked if he was “the disco guitar player…Having never been referred to as a disco guitarist, I told him that I considered my style to be jazzy R&B, and I mentioned a few of the records that I’d played on. He said, ‘You’re the guy.’”

There’s an ongoing debate about what the first full-on disco recording was. One school of thought holds that it was the Trammps’ version of “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart,” released in the summer of 1972, an uptempo dance record with a complicated vocal arrangement and a prominent string section, even though the rhythm is mostly a 4/4 snare snap, with only a few brief passages of the alternating kick-drum and snare that came to be associated with disco. Another argues that it was the Intruders’ “(Win, Place or Show) She’s a Winner,” which came out around the same time, a variation on the “smooth soul” sound of that time with an extra-kicky dance groove.

‘Other musicians and producers who worked on proto-disco records agree that they thought of what they were doing as simply modern R&B.’

1972 was also the year that the O’Jays released “Love Train,” a #1 pop hit that sure sounds like disco in retrospect, and Jerry Butler released his cover of their “One Night Affair.” One reason that the earliest disco records sound so similar to each other is that they shared a relatively small pool of musicians, producers and arrangers. Drummer Earl Young played on all four of those 1972 tracks, for instance, and the late Bobby Martin arranged both “She’s a Winner” and “Love Train.”

Other musicians and producers who worked on proto-disco records agree that they thought of what they were doing as simply modern R&B. Norman Bergen is an arranger and producer who had worked with the New York doo-wop group the Tokens and spent a few years as the musical director of Oh! Calcutta! on Broadway before he and his collaborator Reid Whitelaw produced a handful of early disco hits. “Reid and I were, and are, big R&B fans,” Bergen says. “One of our concepts was to take the music of the Motown era and bring it up from the ’60s and into the ’70s. The Ecstasy, Passion & Pain records that were coming out then [notably "Ask Me" and "Good Things Don't Last Forever," both minor chart hits that were much more important in discos] were phenomenal. We wanted to be like that. They were inspiring to us.”

In 1974, Bergen and Whitelaw started working with the New York vocal quartet The Moment of Truth. Their debut single, “Your Love,” was remixed for dance clubs by the legendary Tom Moulton. The very first Club Dialogue column in Billboard, written by Moulton, noted that “Roulette Records has made a test pressing of the Disco-mix of ‘Your Love’…The DJs who have it love it and play it; hopefully it will become commercially available soon.” (Moulton did not, however, mention in that column that he himself had done the remix in question.)

It was Bergen and Whitelaw’s next single with The Moment of Truth, “Helplessly,” that really caught on in the clubs. “To us, it was like a Four Tops record, like ‘Standing in the Shadows of Love,’” Bergen says. “We would key into those kinds of records, but the technology of the ’70s” — especially the availability of relatively cheap recording on more tracks than ever before — “gave us more options. I wouldn’t necessarily say I wrote anything differently for dance clubs, we were just trying to make great pop-R&B records. First ‘Helplessly’ was a single on Roulette, and then we were able to take those recordings away from Roulette and put it out on Salsoul, and the first 12-inch single ever created was one of ours.” The 12-inch vinyl single, with its longer playing time and richer bass response, was an innovation specifically for the clubs: dancers preferred records that kept a groove going for longer than a few minutes.

A few months later, Bergen remembers, record companies got the picture that “everybody’s doing these giant singles for dance-club promotion”— and, by then, a hit in the clubs could easily translate into a hit on the radio. “Our Ralph Carter record, ‘Extra Extra’ [the follow-up to the teenage Good Times star's remake of "When You're Young and In Love"] — we convinced Mercury Records to do a 12-inch single, and the next week it was on the air.”

‘When there’s a great song, the marriage of the music and the lyrics — that’s key. People will dance to that, but they won’t dance to something else with exactly the same tempo and the same beat. — Norman Bergen, arranger and producer’

Bergen argues that the best disco records owe more to their songs than to their sound, though. “When there’s a great song, the marriage of the music and the lyrics — that’s key. People will dance to that, but they won’t dance to something else with exactly the same tempo and the same beat.”

The producer Patrick Adams spent the early ’70s transitioning from being known for working with smooth soul groups like the New York City band Black Ivory to making extraordinary disco records — more or less alone in the recording studio — like Universal Robot Band’s “Dance and Shake Your Tambourine” and Cloud One’s Atmosphere Strut album. Like Bowles and Bergen, Adams says that, in his opinion, what he was doing “was not necessarily creating dance music. They’re songs first to me, and then they’re danceable. The Cloud One stuff, the Universal Robot Band stuff — a lot of that was just me trying to express myself. I don’t consider myself a great singer, and so Cloud One was letting the synthesizer be my voice, as I explored the Minimoog and realized that there was really no limit to what it could do.”

Adams also brought his experience as a pop songwriter to making beat-driven records: “I have a philosophy that you have to catch somebody’s attention within the first 15 seconds of a record, because if you don’t, they’re going to go somewhere else. From the beginning of a record, there should be a constant building to a climax, and 3/4 of the way or 7/8 of the way to the end, you should hit that climax! And, at that point, if you’re relating it to people dancing, people should be in a frenzy.”

The inspiration for one of Adams’ earliest dance hits, a durable novelty credited to Bumble Bee Unlimited called “Love Bug,” came from an unlikely place. “The Bumblebees came about because I was watching Saturday Night Live — the Belushi sketch with the bumblebees,” he remembers. “I said ‘Wow, that would be a great idea!’ I went in the studio with Greg Carmichael, who was a frequent collaborator at the time, and we did ‘Love Bug.’ I submitted it to Saturday Night Live, and it was rejected; if I remember correctly, the musical director said, ‘We do our own music.’ Which often happens, you know: you think you’re doing something wonderful for someone, and either they don’t appreciate what you did or they don’t care what you did. That’s why Greg and I decided to release it ourselves, and we found instant success.”

One of the first disco records to become a huge crossover success had an even stranger origin: a producer who recorded it only under duress and a backing band made up mostly of moonlighting jazz-funk musicians. John Florez had been a staff producer at RCA and Bell Records, working with soft soul acts like the Friends of Distinction, for whom he’d produced the hit “Grazin’ in the Grass.” Florez, who points out that he “was not known in any way as a dance producer,” was just leaving Bell when he got a call from his old mentor, Don Burkhimer, the head of RCA’s West Coast A&R department. “He said, ‘How’s your big contract going at Bell, where you haven’t had any hits?’ I said, ‘Okay, what do you want, Don?’ He said, ‘There’s a group I saw in town, and the crowd went nuts over this song “Rock the Boat” — they’re called the Hues Corporation, but this is more your thing than mine. If you like them, I’ll sign them.’”

Florez went to a rehearsal, then returned to Burkhimer, he recalls. “I told him, ‘I’ll make you a deal. If you let me produce an Allen Toussaint song with them, “Freedom for the Stallion,” which would be a very special record, I will do your choice, “Rock the Boat,” which I can’t stand.’ When we went in for the ‘Freedom for the Stallion’ session, we had Ron Tutt on drums — Elvis’s drummer — and David Hungate on bass: I chose them for the ballad. ‘Rock the Boat’ came out awful, and was scrubbed. I don’t even have a copy.”

‘“Rock the Boat” caught on first in New Jersey clubs, then on the New York station WABC and then it was everywhere, finally becoming a #1 pop single in July, 1974.’

After “Freedom for the Stallion” started to get some airplay, the Hues Corporation’s manager Wally Holmes called Florez and told him that RCA was requesting an album, and that he insisted on re-recording “Rock the Boat” — Holmes’ own composition. “I went to Don and said ‘I don’t want to!’” Florez says. “And he said ‘John, the group now has power at the label because they’re on the charts. Just suck it up and go do this for me.’ So this time the session drummer was Jim Gordon, and the rest were [the long-running West Coast jazz-funk group] Jazz Crusaders: Wilton Felder on bass, Joe Sample on piano and the guitar solo was added afterward by Larry Carlton. Tom Sellers was an unknown arranger in town who’d gone on a Caribbean vacation, and decided to put that kind of Caribbean rhythm to ‘Rock the Boat.’ Brilliant. Because the song sucked in straight four time — but that worked.”

“Rock the Boat” caught on first in New Jersey clubs, then on the New York station WABC — which, Florez notes, “was usually the last radio station that ever went on records” — and then it was everywhere, finally becoming a #1 pop single in July, 1974. “All the credit goes to Wally Holmes for his perseverance, because he knew it, and Tom Sellers, for coming up with that groove,” Florez says. “None to me. I just showed up.”