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It’s a disco night (don’t stop)

So disco’s back. “The golden years, the silver tears / You wore a tie like Richard Gere’s…” Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s “Crying at the Discothèque” is a remake of a 1980 record by Alcazar, which borrowed the Chic-produced rhythm track of “Spacer”. The new disco-revival albums from Ellis-Bextor and Kylie Minogue take me back to the late ’70s, when my friend Howard Thompson, then recently relocated to New York, taped shows from all-disco WKTU (92.3 FM) and mailed the cassettes to me in London. The 12s I bought in those days mostly came from Groove Records on the corner of Greek Street and Bateman Street in Soho. Here are a dozen lasting favourites, not exactly unpredictable, from that time. 

1. Odyssey: “Native New Yorker” Sandy Linzer and Denny Randell, formerly collaborators on “A Lovers’ Concerto” and “Let’s Hang On”, with the help of the great arranger/producer Charlie Calello, created a whole movie in a song: “It’s the thought you had / In a taxicab that got left on the kerb / When he dropped you off at East 83rd…” I love the uptown 25-35 lead vocal of Lillian Lopez — born, as it happens, in Connecticut — and the slight Latin emphasis in this extended mix, particularly the piano playing of Richard Tee.

2. Evelyn Champagne King: “Shame”  I’d be happy to die now if I knew I’d be reincarnated as one of the guitarists behind Ms King, extending this sublime track into eternity.

3. Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes: “Bad Luck” Teddy Pendergrass in his pre-solo pomp, with Ronnie Baker on bass, Earl Young on drums and Vince Montana Jr on vibes, and a rap on Nixon closing perhaps the best breakdown in history. 

4. Norma Jean: “Saturday” An early Chic production, from a time when Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards found a different keyboard or tuned percussion lick for every hit. Here it’s Dave Friedman’s vibes.

5. Gladys Knight: “Baby Don’t Change Your Mind” The impossibly prolific Van McCoy wrote this one for Gladys, and it’s a perfect fit: “Your ex is back in town / What you gonna do when she comes around / And she starts going through her act…” 

6. Sheila (and) B. Devotion: “Spacer” Chic’s Rodgers, Edwards and Tony Thompson again, this time confecting perfect Euro-disco with a French singer. The strings were conducted by Gene Orloff, 30 years after he played violin with the Neil Hefti Orchestra behind Charlie Parker on “Repetition”.

7. Cheryl Lynn: “Got to Be Real” (12-inch version) Toto’s David Paich produced this with his dad, Marty, a fine jazz pianist and arranger who worked with Chet Baker, Mel Tormé and countless others. Ray Parker Jr plays guitar and James Gadson is on drums. Cheryl was barely 21 when she wrote this with David P. and David Foster. Tracking herself on backing vocals, she sounds like a trumpet section in full flare.

8. Oliver Cheatham: “Get Down Saturday Night” A snare flam sets up the top-of-the-beat groove that provides minimalist support for a living-for-the-weekend song (gotta have one of those). No idea who mixed this, but they did a wonderful job.

9. Melba Moore: “This Is It” (Tom Moulton mix) More Van McCoy magic. Melba is the daughter of the bandleader Teddy Hill, with whom Dizzy Gillespie paid his first visit to London in 1937, and who went on to manage Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem in ’40s, providing an after-hours home for Gillespie and his fellow bebop pioneers Thelonious Monk, Kenny Clarke and Charlie Christian.

10. Philippé Wynne: “We Dance So Good Together” The death of the former (Detroit) Spinners lead singer from a heart attack on stage in Oakland, California in 1984 removed one of the most creative soul singers of his generation. This track, from his 1980 solo album, was produced by George Clinton and ex-Motown/Invictus songwriter Ronnie Dunbar, with Bernie Worrell on synths, and written by James Dean (co-composer of “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted”) and John Glover. 

11. Candi Staton: “Victim” “I told you young hearts run free…” In Dave Crawford’s bespoke lyric, Candi sings about being “a victim of the very songs I sing.” This is almost too much of a song to be danced to: “Oh well, I guess I’ll end up in the lost-and-found / It looks like love and me, we’ve lost another round.” But the groove and the vibes touches are irresistible, as is the backing singers’ “doo doo-wap” interlude.

12. Vera: “Take Me to the Bridge” Fabulously tacky Euro-disco from Montreal. Music and production by Louis Toteda, words by Don Saunders. The identity of the lead singer is disputed. Goodness knows which or what “bridge” is the subject of her erotically charged plea (I don’t think it’s the middle eight), but the record’s hook is the double-pop of the bass in the chorus. 

31 Comments Post a comment
  1. Martin Hayman #

    Most excellent!

    December 4, 2020
  2. Great set, playlisted it here, all except the Philippé Wynne track, which doesn’t appear to be on Spotify

    December 4, 2020
    • mjazz g #

      Thanks for doing this

      December 4, 2020
    • Andy Fortune #

      Thanks Martin, you saved me the trouble! I have the “Wynne Jammin’” album so will have to insert that track.

      December 4, 2020
      • Ian Cole #

        Great selection and your tribute to the peerless Shame one of your best, Richard, which is saying something

        December 4, 2020
  3. Every one a winner! The DJ on KTU was the supercool ‘Paco’ (Navarro) and here’s his NY Times obit from just last year –

    December 4, 2020
  4. mjazz g #

    Lovely post to warm up a chill Friday.

    If I may, a quick shout for Players Association – Disco Inferno. Sanborn, Brecker, Faddis…

    December 4, 2020
  5. Andy Fortune #

    Great list Richard though I must confess I’m not familiar with Vera.
    I was never a dancer but I don’t think there’s a medium that has ever sounded better than the disco 12”, even on a home stereo.
    Always thrilled to see mention of the quite wonderful Philippe Wynne.
    I was fortunate enough to see the Spinners several times in the 70’s.
    No one could ride the fade (e.g. Mighty Love) quite the way Philippe did.
    Was there another group blessed with such a succession of gifted lead singers?

    December 4, 2020
  6. Bob Fisher #

    Richard , What a splendid list couldn’t disagree with the inclusion of any of them. Although I do prefer if pushed, the original version of “Native New Yorker” by Frankie Valli

    December 4, 2020
  7. Tim Adkin #

    Richard, all great choices but especially nice to see mention of Norma Jean’s ‘Saturday’. Her solitary album on Bearsville (which opens with ‘Saturday’) is pretty darn good too and is effectively Chic’s second album (it came out a month or so before ‘Risque’) – and with added Luther Vandross too.
    Cheryl Lynn returned the compliment with Toto and sang on David Paich’s ‘Georgy Porgy’ which kicks off like the best Boz Scaggs track you’ve never heard, but in the end never quite makes it.

    December 4, 2020
  8. Diana #

    Is disco back? I have no idea but these tracks never went away on any groove-lover’s turntable/playlist.

    December 4, 2020
    • Gareth Hickery #

      “Native New Yorker!” A personal favourite and when I moved to Adelaide n 1978 no one had ever heard of it. And I’m sure they still haven’t.

      December 5, 2020
  9. davitt #

    “Atmosphere Strutt” Cloud One (Patrick Adams)
    “Elle Et Moi” Max Berlin (original mix)
    “Do What You Feel” Atlanta Disco Band (Earl Young)
    “Sugar Pie Guy” The Joneses
    “There But For The Grace Of God Go I” Machine (August Darnell)
    “War Dance” Kebekelektrik (Tom Moulton Mix)

    December 4, 2020
    • Davitt — I remember a number of Time Out staff members threatening to go on strike when I asked you to contribute a weekly Disco column…

      December 4, 2020
  10. Adam White #

    Brilliant selection, Richard, and commendations for naming/detailing the musicians involved. Norma Jean might just rate the highest for me (it’s Nile n’ ‘nard, after all) but all are best of the beat. I had moved to New York when Howard was sending you the tapes, and ‘KTU was the only station in town!

    December 4, 2020
  11. Mick Steels #

    References to Bird,Diz,Klook,Monk,Charlie,Chet,Friedman kept me interested!

    December 4, 2020
    • Wasn’t it Duke who said, “Put all my food on one plate”?

      December 4, 2020
      • Mick Steels #

        Think it was Oliver Lake but point taken

        December 4, 2020
  12. WKB #

    “Your Love” Lime – more Euro Disco via Montreal
    “Comin’ on Strong” Caroline Crawford – dense and intense, put together by Bohannon
    “This will be a night to Remember” Eddie Holman – Baker, Harris and Young in the midfield, and on the 12″, the greatest first minute of any disco track I know.
    “Paradise” Change – recorded in Bologna and so driven by the masterful bass
    “Don’t you want my love” Debbie Jacobs – best Disco handclaps

    December 4, 2020
  13. Lost.In.Music.

    December 4, 2020
    • That was hard to leave out, not least for the chorded guitar interlude.

      December 4, 2020
  14. Tim Young #

    Richard, you forgot Michael Brecker’s impossible to play tenor solo on “Native New Yorker” !!!

    December 4, 2020
  15. GuitarSlinger #

    The Yank Musicians perspective ;

    Disco . It’s curios how a website who’s primary focus is Jazz could devote so much as a word in praise of the bane of all things quality when it comes to music .

    Suffice it to say my little chickadees …. Disco was responsible for more Jazz club and live performance venues ( in its first two years ) than multiple recessions and COVD-19 combined .

    Truth be known … it would not be a step too far to blame Disco for all the ills currently affecting , infecting and destroying ( including the obsession towards blatant unrepentant GREED ) QUALITY music . Which Disco in all its forms … was not .. and most definitely .. never will be !

    As for EuroDisco ? … The worst of it all ! EuroTrash was how we labeled it

    FYI; Yeah a few of us stuck our noses into disco recording sessions in order to put food on the table ( including the likes of M. Brecker etc ) but we all hated it . Feeling like prostitutes from the moment the session began . So don’t infer even for a second just cause our names are in the credits that we in any way shape or form condoned the garbage we were playing on . To be blunt . It was a matter of pure survival … plain and simple

    Disco .. may it R.I.H. ( suss it out for yerselves )

    December 4, 2020
    • Since you clearly feel that your opinions are valuable, why don’t you abandon the anonymity and let us know who you really are? Wouldn’t take that much courage, I’d have thought.

      December 7, 2020
      • Peter Zec #

        Absolutely. To trash a whole genre of music appears just bitter or snobbish. Considering the calibre of both the musicians who played on disco tracks, and the production values, this seems churlish. Notwithstanding the sheer pleasure of the groove, and for those dancing to it. Jazz was originally dance music. The whole feel of this stuff is one of joy, and it’s not nostalgia, just appreciation.
        Tell Nile Rogers that Chic was just trash music. Pop was always meant to be disposable, but even ignoring the mythology surrounding it, there’s more to discover and enjoy. As for the EuroDisco comment – Transatlantic sniping is the last thing we all need.

        December 7, 2020
  16. Sedat Nemli #

    Not forgetting, meanwhile:
    “Hot Shot” – Karen Young
    “Disco Nights” – G.Q.
    “From East to West” – Voyage

    December 5, 2020
  17. Russ Tuffery #

    Four Tops – “Don’t bring back memories” (1969). The first disco record? Was still getting played in discos in ’77, according to DJ lists I’ve seen.

    December 5, 2020
  18. Peter Zec #

    Fabulous list of tracks. I’ll have to keep coming back to check them out.

    December 5, 2020

    What a great list! Your top five is unimpeachable and if some of the tracks further down are less familiar to me then that just gives me some music I haven’t heard to seek out. I hope that Sylvester’s ‘You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)’ and Sister Sledge’s ‘He’s The Greatest Dancer’ were not too far outside your 12. I’ve also rarely been able to listen to the Donna Summer/Giorgio Moroder take on ‘MacArthur Park’ without selecting repeat play. And let’s also hear it for the Bee Gees’ ‘Staying Alive’!

    December 7, 2020

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