The soul of the disco machine
A certain machine-like quality was one of the things that people liked about some of the best records of the disco era. Exemplified by Giorgio Moroder’s Munich-manufactured four-on-the-floor, it gave you a beat that was never going to quit. But the release of Action: The Evelyn “Champagne” King Anthology 1977-1986 provides me with an excuse to listen to the record I treasure most from that period, one most notable for its human qualities.
“Shame”, King’s first big hit, was a great dance record to which you could — and can — sit down and listen for hours. It’s one of those records whose inner construction is endlessly fascinating. There’s the subtle contrast between touches of acoustic and Rhodes piano, the way the mobile bass line pushes against the almost laconic feeling of the drums (with a “wet” tom-tom backbeat on the bridge, à la Willie Mitchell), the extra urgency provided by the congas, the keening, raw-toned alto saxophone — and most of all the two rhythm guitars, their insistent background flickering and chattering behind Ms King’s assured vocal.
She was 14 years old when the producer Theodore “T.” Life heard her singing while she was helping her mother clean the restrooms at the Philadelphia International studios. Two years later, signed to RCA, she had her hit. The song was written by John Fitch and Reuben Cross, and it tapped into a combination of sadness and defiance in the teenager’s voice.
I’ve been listening to it regularly for the best part of 40 years without knowing the identity of the musicians responsible for that wonderful rhythm track. Reading the anthology’s excellent sleeve notes, I started to do a bit of research. The producer Theodore “T.” Life used the New Jersey band Instant Funk, who had been discovered by Bunny Sigler and would have their own hit a couple of years later with “I Got My Mind Made Up (You Can Get It Girl)”. As far as I can work it out, at the time they recorded “Shame” they were Dennis Richardson (keyboards), Kim Miller and possibly George Bell (guitars), Raymond Earl (bass guitar), Scotty Miller (drums) and Charles Williams (congas), with Johnny Onderlinde on alto saxophone. Let’s give them some.
King had a few more hits during her decade with RCA, but there would never be anything else quite like “Shame”. The anthology contains the 6:33 12-inch mix, which is how this classic is best appreciated. Here it is. Clear the floor and clear your mind.
* The uncredited photograph of Evelyn “Champagne” King is from the booklet accompanying Action, which is released on Big Break Records.