by Brian Chin
THE DISCO BEATMASTERS:
FROM THE STUDIO TO THE DANCE FLOOR
Once, on a late-night talk show--in the '60s, before talk shows turned into outlets for sexual secrets--some self-appointed highbrow attempted to embarrass Phil Spector by reciting the words to "A Fine Fine Boy." Spector, already over the conversation, responded: "What you're missing is the beat." The musical history of disco is, like rock 'n' roll, a succession of turning-point records that retrained everyone's ears and added new sounds and techniques to the overall vocabulary of production. Dance music's '70s innovations still impact pop music today.
But these music makers are largely undocumented because of the way the word disco tended to end discussions as soon as it was mentioned. Every bit as much as Phil Spector's Wrecking Crew, Motown's Funk Brothers, Philadelphia's MFSB (which, of course, straddled the R&B and disco styles), and all the various Southern-based Atlantic and Stax rhythm sections, the players of disco were top-notch musicians, playing a form of music that distilled what they knew about jazz, the blues, rock 'n' roll, and pop.
Disco's own roots were in two places: the pop/R&B hit factories of Detroit and Philadelphia. Motown's specialties were two: first, the tightening of blues, jazz, pop, and classical elements into irresistible hooks; and, second, the balancing of a record's sound frequencies heavily (and unnaturally) toward the high end. This gave Motown's records an audible edge over their competitors, even on a car radio or an AM transistor portable. Philadelphia developed a more naturalistic approach: the early O'Jays' "Love Train," the disco-era Ritchie Family's "The Best Disco In Town," and McFadden & Whitehead's "Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now" had a "hot" upper frequency but with more lifelike brilliance and detail. In the '70s this maximized tonal quality on the kind of cheap hi-fi systems that kids like myself were using.
The new fusion of Motown and Philly influences occurred with Gloria Gaynor's trendsetting "Never Can Say Goodbye." Gaynor's previous record, "Honeybee," was produced in Philadelphia, played by MFSB, and written by the composers of the Spinners' up-tempo hit "Could It Be I'm Falling In Love." It failed on radio, and Gaynor's production was moved to New York by producers Meco Monardo and Tony Bongiovi. Bongiovi, second cousin to Jon Bon Jovi, had been a Motown engineer, hired in his teens when he called Detroit and convinced the studio staff he'd analyzed their key engineering secrets by ear. "I was the first to leave Detroit and be successful" as an independent producer, he says proudly.
Bongiovi was joined at New York's Media Sound by trombone player and arranger Meco Monardo (among his credits: Tommy James' "Crimson And Clover," his own disco adaptation of the music from Star Wars, and coproduction of Kenny G's debut) and business manager Jay Ellis, forming DCA Productions--or, "Disco Corporation of America." Their pop/R&B sound was orchestral in the Philly way but also fast and hard-edged in the Motown style. They added a distinctly New York showbizzy tone by using Broadway arrangers like Harold Wheeler. Pioneer remixer/producer Tom Moulton describes the elements of the New York disco sound as "very up, very energetic. It's like traffic, fast with sudden jerks, and the lights changing quickly. You could walk down the street to those records in New York. But anywhere else, you'd have to run."
On seminal tracks like "Never Can Say Goodbye" and Carol Douglas' "Doctor's Orders," Monardo says he could tell that the sessions were clicking when the quick-thinking musicians "stopped looking at the (sheet) music and started looking at each other and smiling." At that point, the licks from the guitar posse of Lance Quinn, Jerry Friedman, and Jeff Miranov would be flying fast. Friedman invented a style of playing on a single muffled note, described by Meco as "bubble" guitar, that made his axe a percussion instrument. "Nobody was smarter than Meco in a session," recalls drummer Alan Schwartzberg. "He was scientific in his approach, but with great musicality."
Schwartzberg, who played for everyone from Stan Getz to Judy Collins and James Brown--sometimes all in one day--pays tribute clearly to the trendsetting work of MFSB drummer Earl Young in such up-tempo Philly classics as Harold Melvin And The Blue Notes' "The Love I Lost." But Schwartzberg got most of the notice for developing disco's characteristic sound: a driving, open, high-hat cymbal. He often fielded calls from producers and drummers for step-by-step instructions in disco technique: "It sounds like it's just 'shh, shh,' but you're actually playing (the cymbal) double-time and opening the high-hat on the 'and,'" he explained to them.
Another key man in this rhythm section who particularly validates disco's R&B roots was bassist Bob Babbitt, heard on such Motown classics as "Signed, Sealed, Delivered I'm Yours" and "Ball Of Confusion (That's What The World Is Today)." Post-Motown, he played the longest bass solo in Top 40 history in Dennis Coffey's "Scorpio," and even now Babbitt is often asked to copy himself. He recalls that Charles Callello, a frequent arranger for The 4 Seasons, who later produced and arranged disco, once stopped a take, saying, "It's not nervous enough."
Adding more nervous energy to disco were the percussion players. Conga drummer Larry Washington was rarely absent from the greatest Philly classics (he's heard cataloging his many styles on "The Best Disco In Town"), and he was often a remix sideman, as in Dan Hartman's "Instant Replay." His classic Afro-Latin approach was elaborated on for disco by New Yorker Carlos Martin ("Turn The Beat Around"), who used his fists on the conga to create the gallop of "Never Can Say Goodbye" and "Doctor's Orders." Jimmy Maelen ("More, More, More") brought a tableful of rhythm. Schwartzberg recalls that "He did what the Brazilians do, with homemade instruments and children's toys, and he would suggest: 'Could you just speed the tape up and record this triangle backwards?'" Maelen's radar detected "little places to put things in a record that you didn't know were there."
Philadelphia's response to these innovations included more input from mix consultants like Tom Moulton and Boston DJ John Luongo. Out-of-town producers like Jacques Morali came to Philadelphia to record, scoring hits by The Ritchie Family that further disco-ized the orchestrated Philly formula, and his group, Village People ("Y.M.C.A."), was recorded at the New York outpost of the Philadelphia studio landmark, Sigma Sound. Meanwhile, drummer Earl Young, bassist Ron Baker, and guitarist Norman Harris, the nucleus of the MFSB rhythm section and already disco pioneers as members/producers of The Trammps, produced a string of soulful disco classics by First Choice, Double Exposure, Loleatta Holloway, and Eddie Kendricks, among others.
Earl Young, whose hands are a miracle, was such a prolific source of brilliant grooves, fills, and pick-ups that by the mid-'80s an entire generation of drum programmers were making up whole songs out of fragments of his performances. Sigma Sound founder and chief engineer Joe Tarsia says that in the studio where they played together so often, bassman Ron Baker liked to sit so close to Young that he could watch his foot and really lock his playing in with the kick drum.
THE POST-DETROIT, LOS ANGELES-BASED Motown and all the L.A. Motown graduates formed the other national anchor of disco. The producers behind the studio glass at the sessions for the first four Jackson 5 hits alone were a disco mini-industry: they included Fonce Mizell ("Boogie Oogie Oogie," coproduced with his brother Larry), Freddie Perren, and Hal Davis, whose production of Diana Ross' 1976 #1 "Love Hangover" was epochal for its obsessive focus on the octave-jumping "walking" bass line played by Henry Davis. The same set of players powered Thelma Houston's "Don't Leave Me This Way."
The quintessential West Coast disco drummer was James Gadson, who played a raw yet complex, jazz-influenced R&B style for Dyke And The Blazers and later drummed on much-sampled records by Charles Wright ("Express Yourself") and Bill Withers ("Use Me," "Kissing My Love"). Gadson says he simply gave up the idea of emulating Earl Young because it'd be an impossible feat, but he became probably the busiest West Coast drummer of mid- and late-'70s disco. Dino Fekaris, who cowrote Peaches & Herb's "Shake Your Groove Thing" and produced Gloria Gaynor's immortal "I Will Survive" in partnership with Freddie Perren, praises Gadson for his superb timekeeping, stamina, and "fat foot"--the pulsing "four-on-the-floor" foundation of those and hundreds more records (including the Perren productions "Boogie Fever" and "Love Machine (Pt. 1)," as well as Cheryl Lynn's "Got To Be Real" and "Star Love"). Gadson says that if you listen to the long version of "Don't Leave Me This Way," you can hear the studio door slamming as a union representative tried to stop the session from going overtime.
On both the East and West Coasts, disco session personnel were also the cream of jazz sidemen too. Keyboardist Joe Sample and bassist Wilton Felder of The Crusaders; respected guitarists like David T. Walker, Motown player Melvin "Wah Wah" Ragin, and later Raydio star Ray Parker Jr.; and bassist Scott Edwards are heard in varying combinations in "Love's Theme," "It Only Takes A Minute," "Love Hangover," "Don't Leave Me This Way," and "Young Hearts Run Free." Even Gadson says he sometimes felt daunted by the musicianship in a session. Meanwhile, in New York, the players from Stuff (Gordon Edwards on bass, Eric Gale on guitar, Richard Tee on keyboards, and Steve Gadd and Chris Parker on drums) worked often for Van McCoy ("The Hustle"), Ashford & Simpson ("Found A Cure"), and Gregg Diamond on disco sessions. Others in disco would later find pop music success: superstar producer David Foster (again with James Gadson on drums) cocreated the immortal groove of "Got To Be Real," while Narada Michael Walden started as an artist ("I Shoulda Loved Ya") and then went on to produce, notably for Stacy Lattisaw.
But none of this made music interchangeable. Dino Fekaris recalls: "Other producers would assemble exactly the same musicians that Freddie and I had and not come up with the same sound. Even those producers who come up with hits don't have (one) every time. There's an X-factor, something mysterious that causes a particular session to be the one that spawns a hit."
THERE WAS A REGIONALISM to disco that reflected those aspects of R&B: one of Soul Train's regular FEATUREs at one time spotlighted youngsters from different parts of the country showing the Los Angeles regulars and the national audience how they danced. Outside of the New York, Philly, and L.A. strongholds, far-flung disco disciples added notes that were either funky or progressive. Miami, of course, contributed some of the most substantial and long-lasting records to dance music, although legendary TK Records founder Henry Stone quite rightly maintained: "We don't go into the studio and say, 'Let's cut a disco record.' We go in to make groovin', funky music." KC & The Sunshine Band and Foxy created some of the hardest yet hookiest fusions of pop and R&B. New Jersey's R&B mainstay All Platinum, influenced directly by Miami, contributed the frantic "Shame, Shame, Shame" by Shirley (& Company).
Disco itself was an ongoing commentary, since the DJs and the dancers were picking records apart so minutely. Many of the most interesting responses came from Europeans. "I'm On Fire" by 5000 Volts illustrates the traditional European knack for making U.S. sounds a shade poppier but ultimately faux-soulful. Same goes for Amii Stewart's recasting of Sam & Dave's "Knock On Wood." Silver Convention zeroed in starkly on a few carefully chosen elements of the lush Barry White and Philadelphia arrangements, and it was shocking to hear each and every part of the production in the sparse, crystal-clear arrangements of "Fly, Robin, Fly" and "Get Up And Boogie."
Munich producers Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte eventually delivered disco's ultimate statements in their five-year hit streak with Donna Summer. Giorgio Moroder notes: "We had a lot of discotheques in Germany way before '74, '75, so except for the four-on-the-floor, we had records very close to the disco sound." Keith Forsey, later a top producer himself (Billy Idol, Simple Minds) was one of the most sought-after studio drummers in Munich, and Moroder kept him on after moving Donna Summer's production to Los Angeles. Rhythm machines were at first used as a metronome in the drummer's headphones "so that when we did edits in long songs the rhythm would be constant. It was very hard at first for the drummer to keep tempo that way."
"I Feel Love," such a mind-blower for the rest of us, was "not new for me," says Moroder. "I did several things in that style, but I gave it up for a year or two. I wanted one cut of 'future music' on I Remember Yesterday, which had sounds of the '40s, '50s, '60s, and '70s. The only sound I couldn't create on synthesizer was the bass drum, so we had Keith Forsey play. By coincidence I put a delay (digital echo) on the bass and, wow!--it sounded great when the delay doubled the bass line." In the clubs, the dizzying stereo effect could be a problem: "If you were on the left side, you'd hear the downbeat and on the right you'd hear the up. Even Donna was dancing one evening and said, 'What's wrong with the rhythm?'" In the end, apparently nothing.
That one song did much to pave the way for disco's future, and pop's, attracting dabblers in synthesizer production from every walk of music--even people who otherwise were supposed to be disco haters like Blondie ("Heart Of Glass").
Europeans and Canadians continued to make disco the music of glamour and youthful recklessness. In the Chic-influenced Change and The B. B. & Q. Band projects, heavy session singing talent, and later solo stars like Luther Vandross (lead on "The Glow Of Love" and a prominent backup voice on Chic's "Everybody Dance"), Curtis Hairston, and Jocelyn Brown did some of their finest early work, cast perfectly with Italian rhythm players and hip, young New York lyric writers Tanya Willoughby and Wayne Garfield. The X-factor, as executive producer Jacques Fred Petrus told me in 1981, was "too much melody." By 1984 Change was assigned to Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis after they'd been fired from The Time; in "Change Of Heart" it's easy to hear not only their signature sounds but also the attitude that would do so much to transform Janet Jackson the next year. The lead female vocalist in the assemblage by this time, Deborah Cooper, would later emerge as one of the stars of C&C Music Factory ("A Deeper Love").
Disco lured other eclectic voices out of rock: Dan Hartman, who'd last been in the Top 40 as a member of the glittery Edgar Winter Group, tried momentarily to tag his "Instant Replay" "rosco"--as in rock-disco--but showed his true colors by creating a string of club classics, notably two with Loleatta Holloway: "Relight My Fire" and "Love Sensation," which were among the most remade and sampled records of the '90s. Peter Brown's "Dance With Me," his biggest hit from an album (Fantasy Love Affair), demonstrated his knack for unclichéd pop, funk, and disco fusion--as did his biggest songwriting hit: Madonna's "Material Girl."
Chic, whose formula shrewdly provided a low-tempo foil for disco, inspired the next phase of danceable music, which had a more slow and relaxed tempo. R&B bands that bent too much to the disco fashion like G.Q. ("Disco Nights (Rock-Freak)") or A Taste of Honey now find themselves better known for ballads--remakes of "I Do Love You" and "Sukiyaki," respectively. Still, the technological influence of disco on R&B--the syndrum hook of Anita Ward's "Ring My Bell," or the machine groove of Arpeggio's "Love And Desire (Part I)"--foreshadowed the sample-and-loop technique of today's R&B.
Early '80s R&B-flavored underground hits like Indeep's "Last Night A D.J. Saved My Life" and Young & Company's "I Like What You're Doin' To Me" were tagged "street music" to distinguish it from Hi-NRG and the styles of '80s dance music in Europe (Boystown Gang's "Cruisin' The Streets"), where disco was making a comeback almost as soon as it was dead in the States. "Street music"--which some described as "boom-slap," referring to the return of an upbeat-and-downbeat, one-two feel to dance following the murder of the four-on-the-floor--fed directly into the new jack swing invented by the disco-influenced New York prodigy Teddy Riley.