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Related: USA - dance - music criticism
Titles: Perfect Beats (1998)
ProfileBRIAN CHIN has documented dance music and pop since 1978 in such publications as Billboard, Record World, the Village Voice, the New York Post, London's Music Week, Music Business International, and Record Mirror. He has done A&R for Profile and Chemistry/PWL while developing and annotating compilations for Rhino, PolyGram, Sony, EMI, and K-Tel, among others. He frequently acts as a consultant for labels on product research and development.
Disco Queens: The '70s (1997) - Various artists
Liner notes written by Brian Chin for Rhino
No matter what anyone says about '70s disco music, the vocalists of the time must be given their due. Disco was more than just dance music -- it was the medium of self-expression for many vocalists of the time. So let's start right off by giving back to these fine singers just a bit of what they deserve.
Here's what Musique's producer/cowriter Patrick Adams has to say about the vocalists heard on "In the Bush": "Jocelyn Brown and Christine Wiltshire were the two greatest living vocalists to me. Christine had been in Luther Vandross' original group on Cotillion, and she introduced me to Jocelyn. All through my life, Jocelyn has been like a charm for me. Jocelyn had the strength and gospel background, and Christine had the refinement and precision to make for some really slick backgrounds. Together, with whatever third person they brought to the party, it was a gas. Honestly, there was no great strain to making records."
No less a personage than Cissy Houston, who fueled the artistry of so many singers through her groundbreaking vocal arrangements with The Sweet Inspirations, paved the way for the vocalists of the time. In more ways than one, Cissy has been a great teacher as well as a great singer. Luther Vandross has often said fondly that he learned the art and science of background singing by listening to Aretha Franklin's records with the stereo balance control turned all the way over to The Sweet Inspirations' vocals. The week "Never Too Much" was released and his dreams were about to come true, he told me he'd have crawled over broken glass to have sung in the chorus Houston led on Franklin's version of "Hold On, I'm Comin'." And that's not to slight the focal point of Houston's life, her ministry at New Hope Baptist Church, one of New Jersey's largest. "Everything I do has got to be a blessing," Houston told me many years ago, and it seems true enough.
Producer Michael Zager (cowriter with Houston and singer Alvin Fields) met Houston when she arranged vocals for his rock group Ten Wheel Drive. "Think It Over" came out of a fairly routine songwriting session, he recalls, but at the studio, everyone agreed that something powerful was happening. "When she sings," Zager says, "she doesn't do too many takes in the studio. She never sings a song the same way twice, so getting a comp vocal [a full performance 'comped' from two or more vocal takes] can be difficult. [But] it's the way she feels the music. It comes from singing gospel. It's so emotional, and it translates. It's why every singer looks up to Cissy and idolizes her."
You can't really say that any of these vocalists are overshadowed by the productions of their songs. The edgy, feverish quality of Karen Young's "Hot Shot" certainly comes as much from Young's unrelenting, scatting delivery as it does from the raging Latinesque rhythm arranged by producers Andy Kahn and Philadelphia DJ Kurt Borusiewicz. At once complex and wildly pumping with its unique, torrid blend of Afro-Latin rhythms, jazz, and R&B, this great moment from the much missed Young (she died in 1991) belongs right next to Ray Barretto's "El Watusi," Joe Cuba's "'Bang' 'Bang,'" and Herbie Hancock's "Watermelon Man."
Gwen Dickey, who with Edwin Starr's backup band, Total Concept Unlimited, formed Rose Royce for the soundtrack of the classic comedy Car Wash, has survived impersonation and purposeful misnaming. At the time of their hit, the group was plagued by fake Rose Royces performing "Car Wash" in clubs everywhere. But it does all come out in the wash: their catalog has been among the most enduring -- and the most covered -- in pop, with songs redone by Madonna, Mary J. Blige, and Real McCoy. And the classic of all classics, "Wishing On A Star," becomes a hit again every time you turn around -- by the Fresh Four (the one with the "Funky Drummer" breakbeat), by The Cover Girls (the biggest chart hit, at #9 pop), and just this year again, by 88.3 with drum and bass. Yet none of these covers have touched the simple beauty and vulnerability of Dickey's originals. And despite the fact that she was identified on and off on albums under the pseudonym "Rose Norwalt" (partly in tribute to the group and producer Norman Whitfield), she continues to be pursued by young producers.
The same goes for the prodigiously talented Kathy Sledge, who while leading Debra, Joni, and Kim in Sister Sledge was an old voice in a young body. Now in the '90s hers is a timelessly youthful spirit, still singing strong and involved with the very cutting edge of dance music in her work with DJ/producer Roger Sanchez. Though "We Are Family" looms large as an all-time anthem, "He's The Greatest Dancer" was also a #1 R&B and Top 10 pop hit. It was the plan, according to coproducer Nile Rodgers -- and cofounder of disco sensations Chic -- to set up the market with the lighter, poppier "Dancer," then drop the bomb with "Family," a strategy that met with great success.
Chic itself had enough foresight to be a touring band so that the rhythm section -- Nile Rodgers on guitar, Bernard Edwards on bass, and Tony Thompson on drums -- actually got some of the worshipful critical notice that the southern soul rhythm sections who played on Atlantic's R&B records had received a decade earlier. This was a key move in setting the stage for Rodgers' and Edwards' separate and prolific production careers later in the '80s with Madonna, David Bowie, Robert Palmer, and others. "Good Times" was the song that upped their respectability quotient: the record, which inspired both "Rapper's Delight" and "Another One Bites The Dust," belongs in anybody's hall of fame.
Odyssey's "Native New Yorker," like "Good Times" so quintessentially disco in its urbane attitude, was nonetheless totally unconventional in its lack of a 4-4 stomp, and it was singular in its accomplishment as a pop record. The song was produced by Sandy Linzer and Charles Callello and written by Denny Randell and Linzer, all noted for their long association with The 4 Seasons. Louise Lopez, Tony Reynolds, and lead singer Lillian Lopez had been introduced to them by Benny Benjamin, writer of "I Don't Want To Set The World On Fire." Randell, who'd moved to the West Coast and returned to New York to be a songwriter, says the song was "one of the most heartfelt, emotional songs I ever wrote." It expresses both the sentimentality and unsentimentality of big city life in a touching, humane, realistic way: "No one opens the door -- no, sir -- for a native New Yorker." The Odyssey album was a kaleidoscopic urban portrait with clever, warm homages to the doo-wop era, the calypso craze, and traditional pop crooning, all meshed together with eclectic music and poignant, utterly contemporary lyrical themes -- in Randell's words, "a playground in which to bring jazz to pop and dance. That touch of jazz represents a part of New York -- sophisticated, yet you feel the street. Honesty and the street, that's what Lillian put into it."
Philly soul classics like "Love Train" provided a blueprint for disco, and that style evolved from the dancers' tastes -- for example, the way Don Cornelius kept asking Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff to make the tempo faster and faster when they recorded the Soul Train television theme song that eventually became "TSOP (The Sound Of Philadelphia)." Appropriately, The Ritchie Family's "The Best Disco In Town" medley was recorded at Philadelphia Sigma Sound Studios with many of the musicians who'd inspired the songs excerpted in the piece. (How busy was MFSB? Several of the same players in the same studio played on the original track of "Bad Luck" by Harold Melvin And The Blue Notes, the bit of it included in "Best Disco," and the full-length instrumental cover by the Atlanta Disco Band [ha!] on Ariola.)
New York producers tended to make the pace faster still, as in former off-Broadway actress Carol Douglas' "Doctor's Orders," with a track played by a combination of sidemen, some ex-Motowners whose rhythm is heard on disco classics by Gloria Gaynor, Herbie Mann, Sister Sledge, and Ben E. King. In French Canadian teen beauty France Joli's "Come To Me," there's a bit of small-world irony too: Even after disco dated the Philadelphia sound, producers continued to look for the Philly magic, and it's the Sweethearts of Sigma, Barbara Ingram, Carla Benson, and Evette Benton, who are singing backup. "Come To Me," in turn, with a vocal cameo by producer/writer Tony Green, represents the generational turning point between traditional Fire Island disco and the more progressive "dance music" of the '80s.
Even the Eurodisco "Souvenirs" by Voyage has all the Philly attributes: a powerhouse rhythm section, gorgeous harmony vocals, stunning orchestral arrangements, and a naturalistic yet punchy sound mix. The Voyage concept originated in a television commercial for France's biggest tour operator, a one-minute medley of "folklorish" elements from Polynesia, the French West Indies, and other far-flung locales, says producer Roger Tokarz. The top session players in France made up the nucleus of the group: Marc Chantereau on keyboards, Pierre-Alain Dahan on drums, and Slim Pezin on guitar. Lead singer Sylvia Mason was based in London, where the album was recorded at the Trident Studio. Because it was made on commission, with a per-album budget of $120,000 by musicians who had a 50 percent stake in the project, Tokarz says, the band played for hours and days longer than hired sidemen would have: "Consciously or unconsciously, they played better, because they were working for themselves."
In disco there are real wild cards, too, and thank heavens for Gregg Diamond, who is responsible for several of disco's oddest, most flavorful combinations of punkish irreverence, fashion-victim mentality, and bulletproof song craft. Andrea True Connection's deceptively simple "More, More, More (Pt. 1)" should be as much a funky landmark as "Atomic Dog" or "Doo Wa Ditty," with its way-cool, serious jazz trumpet by James Smart, and one fat, nasty bottom. If this song was recorded for a porn film, it's one I haven't seen. But the track definitely was assembled in New York and Kingston, Jamaica. "More, More, More" was one of many songs amplified greatly by disco-mix pioneer Tom Moulton, who pulled the woodblock so far up front and echoed it so radically in the break that he created one of the song's simplest but most arresting hooks.
It's important to realize, amid the stereotypes that plagued disco as soon as the word came into use that "Yes We Can Can" by The Pointer Sisters -- a cover of a song first recorded by Lee Dorsey -- was one of its foundation records, representing a funkier side of dance that in the early-to-mid-'70s encompassed songs like The Isley Brothers' "Fight The Power" and Little Sister's "You're The One." At the other end of the decade, Anita Ward's "Ring My Bell" had to be one of the most unusual soul records to come out of the South, written and produced by Stax star Frederick Knight ("I've Been Lonely For So Long") and released on his own Juana label. Lyrically, it's family values all the way, a cozy image of a wife putting away the dishes echoed in the pristine, transparent sound of the production. It was a different groove, for sure, and only later did Knight hear that people were doing a new dance to it -- the Rock.
Claudja Barry is a pop singer producer/cowriter Juergen Korduletsch says, and the tag of "diva" doesn't always apply because of her song material, although the who's who of The Munich Machine played her tracks. Early rock and girl group influences have made for some of her most interesting songs: "Boogie Woogie Dancin' Shoes'" subtle vibing off the "Little Bit Of Soul"-riff is a killer, but so is the main melody of the song, the overwhelming chorus, and the broad, sensual texture of Barry's voice. "It's a calculated play on a couple of different influences; because it was written on guitar, [which has] different progressions than a keyboard, for clubs, this kind of full-structured rock/pop song was a kind of anomaly," Korduletsch says.
What hasn't already been said about Sylvester? Or about his fabulously talented sidekicks on "Dance (Disco Heat)," Martha Wash and Izora Rhodes? As Sylvester put it himself on his emotionally charged Living Proof concert album: "Your ear has got to be in your foot for you to not know that these women can sing, y'all!" The precedent-shattering synthesizer work here by Patrick Cowley set the stage for the Hi-NRG and house styles that emerged in the '80s, and Sylvester's deep-down generosity and emotionalism is part of the very definition of divaism.
Just one more related subject before we go: disco producers, like the vocalists, have been marginalized for making the wrong music at the wrong time, but if respect is due to Thom Bell, Gamble & Huff, Holland/Dozier/Holland or Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, it's also due to Patrick Adams, one of the finest orchestral arrangers on earth, and to Michael Zager -- also one of the planet's finest orchestral arrangers.
Patrick Adams reflects on his groove: "It's impossible to say what a rich environment I grew up in musically: Motown was cranking it out every week, Stax was [too], Chicago, Sly Stone...I had every CTI album, and The Beatles, [the group] Chicago, Bacharach/David." "In The Bush" was a hard dance song, but it came from a meticulously crafted album that showed off Adams' serious gift for classical string arranging (which includes the Barry Whiteish "Summer Love," and in the more European but still extremely street "Keep On Jumpin'," covered two times and a worldwide hit twice over in the same six-month stretch of 1996). "In the best records," Adams says, "every time you hear it, you hear something you didn't hear before. I like layering...I'll put in things [that will] keep you listening forever."
Unlike almost any other dance producer, Michael Zager never punched tracks in and out on the studio console or edited records to make long club versions: In the tradition of Thom Bell or Nickolas Ashford & Valerie Simpson, he scored every note and drumbeat in a song. "I wasn't aware at the time of that technology. When I found out, I felt it was cheap, creatively, to do it that way, rather than to sit down and think it out." Anyway, it's was impossible to overpower the voice or the emotional presence of Cissy Houston, as she pushes a producer's envelope of creativity and feeling. Her impact in "Think It Over" is heightened in all the right ways by Zager's own intuition, timing, and strategy -- from his rhythmic and suspenseful ornamentation to the unusually structured, delayed emotional and narrative payoff at what feels like an "extra" third verse. Put this one next to The O'Jays' "Back Stabbers" and Diana Ross' "No One Gets The Prize," and you'll see what I mean.
In the '90s dance music stylizations are now finally broaching the levels of academic abstraction that interest rock 'n' roll critics. Sigh. But don't you ever be fooled by all the baffling bull shit. The truth is exquisitely simple: Disco came out of R&B. It was the part of R&B that not only made you feel, but also made you jump. Everything proceeds from that -- everything.
And one last thing: The same reason that children want to be lullabied is the reason that disco records like this will always sound good and make us feel good. We want to be sung to, to hear our stories, happy and sad. What these women and men hold in their hands -- and their hearts -- will never fade, because it's the essence of human communication and connection.
With love and gratitude,
In fond remembrance: Bernard Edwards, David Cole
Special thanks: Jeffrey T. Clark, Antone DeSantis, Leo Sacks, Barry Walters, Sean Ross, Carol Cooper, Martyn Norris, Alison Travis, Gemini Jones, Gino Crescenza, Fred Berlin, Mac Thornhill, Vince Aletti, Alan Bell, Vince DeGiorgio, Tom Moulton, and Joe Tarsia.
Brian Chin @ Rhino records
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