Ch. 09: Disco – Dancing Beat & Mirror Ball


The term “disco” was a contraction of the French word “discothèques” the name given to post WWII clubs where individuals were hired to spin records for the dancers. Less expensive than a live band, the discothèque record spinners, or “jockeys” (shortened to disc-jockey and then to simply, dee-jay or DJ) were able to find a variety of music on the records to fit the needs of dancers.

The concept of “disco” made it to American cities in the early ‘60s where the term “deejay” began to be applied to the on air radio record-spinners as well as those in the clubs. The popularity of live performing bands in concerts and the easy availability of their music on radio, home record players on television spelled the end of the American disco club scene of the 1960s. The rise of the highly rhythmic funk sound, combined with new technology like the synthesizer created the wave of a studio-produced dance music called “disco.”

The mid-’70s saw the appearance of KC and the Sunshine Junkanoo Band, a nine-piece multi-racial dance band, who developed an off-shoot of the funk sound that was an extension of Sly and the Family Stone’s sound. The style was known as the “Miami Sound,” but it was simply commercialized funk with elements of “junkanoo” – a Caribbean pop sound with percussion, whistles and shouts. The band’s name was shortened to KC and the Sunshine Band and in successive years had #1 R&B and pop chart dance hits with “Get Down Tonight” (1974), “That’s The Way (I Like It)” (1975), and “Shake, Shake, Shake (Shake Your Booty)” (1976).

KC and the Sunshine Band “Shake, Shake, Shake” 1976

By 1975, the disco club scene was in full force. Exclusive dance clubs like Studio 54 was one of the estimated 300 clubs in New York City as well as an estimated 10,000 more across North America.

The dance crazes of the early ‘60s, which were fed by songs such as “The Twist,” “The Mashed Potato,” “The Jerk,” and “The Pony,” gave way by the late ‘60s to free-form dance, reflective of the improvisational nature of some of the music. The named dance, with its structured moves and steps returned in the disco period with a dance called the “hustle.” For the first time since the early 1950s a partner-together form of dance was considered contemporary and “in.”

The “hustle,” as most disco dances, evolved from an early ’70s style of swing/salsa combination originating in Miami. The highly rhythmic moves involved intricate body and arm moves between the partners and complex footwork. The difficulty of the dance style fostered dance clinics, contests and shows of virtuosic skill like those shown in the 1977 film “Saturday Night Fever,” which marked the comeback of actor John Travolta.

Van McCoy had a #1 hit on the primarily instrumental song called “The Hustle” which altered the typical funk/Miami sound by layering a string track on top of the rhythmic groove. The song marked the move away from the horn driven sound of funk towards a more techno-produced dance product. The more palatable strings riffs of disco were replacing the edgy brass riffs of funk. At the same time, the steady “two-to-the-beat” cymbal pulse of funk was sped up to a faster “four-to-the-beat” disco rhythm.

Van McCoy, “The Hustle” 1975

Like the girl-group sound of the early sixties, the disco sound of the mid-seventies was a producer-designed music. Leiber and Stoller, Phil Spector, and other producers were the driving and designing forces behind the commercial hits, not the artists themselves. Likewise, the disco sound was a studio creation in which the artists became merely one part of the final product. The tightly recorded background tracks were the real stars of disco even though it was the artists who gained the popularity, and eventual blame.

The soundtrack of the movie “Saturday Night Fever,” which sold over 30 million copies and was the biggest selling soundtrack of all time, helped to solidify the popularity of several artists appearing on it. KC and the Sunshine Band, Kool and the Gang and a trio of English born brothers named the Bee Gees. Though they got their start in Australia, Barry and twins Maurice and Robin Gibb hit the charts in the late ‘60s with a series of ballads: “To Love Somebody,” “Words,” and “I Started a Joke” were all Top Twenty hits at the end of the decade. After their 1970 #1 “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” the group disbanded. Five years later they reunited in Miami to record cuts for the “Saturday Night” soundtrack. Their songs “Stayin’ Alive,” “Night Fever,” and “How Deep Is Your Love” from the album all hit #1 on the pop charts and established them as the quintessential disco group.

The Bee Gees, “Stayin’ Alive” 1977

The full emergence of disco from funk came with the arrival of Donna Summer, the “Queen of Disco,” in 1976. Summer’s first effort was the four-minute (later expanded to a more explicit 17-minute) song entitled “Love to Love You Baby” on which she alternated between breathy vocals and orgasmic moaning. While the song made it to #2 on the pop charts and #3 on the r&b charts, and caused significant interest from the adolescent male demographic, it wasn’t the best of the singers’ efforts. In the late 70s and early ‘80s Summer had further success with “Last Dance,” “Hot Stuff,” “Bad Girls,” and “She Works Hard for the Money.”

Donna Summer, from the movie Thank God It’s Friday, the song “Last Dance” 1978

The good-times dance music of disco had no more amusing image than that of the Village People. The creation of the group, six beefcake males (three white, two black and one Latino) dressed in slightly revealing costumes, was the brainchild of producer Jacques Morali. While attending a gay costumed disco-ball in New York’s Greenwich Village, he was intrigued by all the gay fantasy types in costume. He reasoned that since the disco dance craze was building a devoted, and enthusiastic following in the gay community; perhaps a group that would appeal to that demographic might be successful. In 1977 Morali and his partner formed the group and named them after Greenwich Village. Dressed as the archetypal American alpha-males (soldier, Indian chief, policeman, construction worker, leather man/biker, and a cowboy), the group provided an outrageous visual for the studio disco songs produced by Morali. Although the groups songs “Macho Man” and “In the Navy” made it to the Top 25 on the charts, it was their “Y.M.C.A.” (#2 in 1979) which provided their lasting claim to disco fame. Long after the disco craze has ended, summer camp groups, high school auditoriums, preschool classes and senior citizen homes have become the venue for the arms & legs spellings of the songs chorus. Unlike any other song of the style, it has disconnected itself from its double entendre meaning, the sexual preferences of its original performers and the stigma attached to the tacky musical style called disco. It has become as much a part of American pop culture as the “chicken dance,” Itsy-bitsy Spider, or country’s Electric Slide.

The Village People, “Y.M.C.A.” 1978

If 1977’s “Stayin’ Alive” from the Saturday Night Fever marked the height of disco’s popularity, then, ironically, “I Will Survive” marks the beginning of the end of the style. Recorded by Gloria Gaynor, “Survive” was one of the most well-known, and often parodied, songs of the disco era. By the early ‘80s everyone from the Henry Mancini Orchestra to Ethel Merman to Mickey Mouse had recorded disco music and the highly commercial rhythmic dance music, together with the movies, clothes, personalities and icons had evolved into parodies of themselves. The funk of Brown and Clinton had been spun so high by the record producers and mass media that it had nothing left to do but crash and burn.

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Study Units

An Overview

Ch. 1: Understanding Pitch

Ch. 2: Understanding Musical Pulse

Ch. 3: Understanding Volume

Ch. 4: Understanding Tone

Ch. 5: Understanding Melody

Ch. 6: Understanding Harmony

Ch. 7: Understanding Rhythm

Ch. 8: Understanding Bass

Ch. 9: Understanding Countermelody

Ch. 10: Understanding Structure

Ch. 11: Understanding Instrumentation

Ch. 12: Understanding Tempo

An Overview

Ch. 1: 19th Century: Pre-Foster

Ch. 2: Folk Music by the People

Ch. 3: Popular Music in its Infancy

Ch. 4: Stephen Foster – “Father of American Popular Music”

Ch. 5: The Importance of Stephen Foster

Ch. 6: Scott Joplin – “King of Ragtime”

Ch. 7: The Player Piano – Automated Music

Ch. 8: John Philip Sousa – “The March King”

Ch. 9: John Philip Sousa – Recording Artist and Activist

An Overview

Ch. 1: John Lomax – Recording American Roots Music

Ch. 2: Woody Guthrie – “Father of Modern American Folk Music”

Ch. 3: Leadbelly & Pete Seeger: End of the First Wave

Ch. 4: The Kingston Trio – Beginning of the Second Wave

Ch. 5: Joan Baez – “First Lady of Folk Music”

Ch. 6: Peter, Paul & Mary – Balancing the Message

Ch. 7: Robert Zimmerman – The Beginning of an American Icon

Ch. 8: Dylan in New York City

Ch. 9: Dylan after Newport

Ch. 10: The Importance of Dylan

Ch. 11: Folk Music in the 21st Century

An Overview

Ch. 1: The Roots of Country

Ch. 2: Bristol Beginnings

Ch. 3: The Grand Ole Opry

Ch. 4: Cowboys and the Movies

Ch. 5: Western Swing

Ch. 6: Bluegrass: Hillbilly on Caffeine

Ch. 7: Honky-tonk: Merging Two into One

Ch. 8: The Nashville Sound: Country-Pop

Ch. 9: Rockabilly – Country meets R&B

Ch. 10: Country Feminists Find Their Voice

Ch. 11: The Bakersfield Sound

Ch. 12: Austin “Outlaw” Country

Ch. 13: Neo-Traditionalists at the end of the 20th Century

Ch. 14: Mainstreaming Country in the ‘90s

Ch. 15: Redesigning Country in the 21st Century

An Overview

Ch. 1: What is Jazz?

Ch. 2: Before It Was Jazz

Ch. 3: Jazz is Born!

Ch. 4: Early Jazz Musicians

Ch. 5: Louis Armstrong

Ch. 6: Chicago and Harlem – Hub of 1920s Jazz

Ch. 7: Big Band – Jazz Swing!

Ch. 8: Big Band Musicians and Singers

Ch. 9: Jump Blues and Bop

Ch. 10: Cool Jazz

Ch. 11: Hard Bop

Ch. 12: Free Jazz – Breaking the Rules

Ch. 13: Fusion – The Jazz-Rock-Funk Experience

Ch. 14: Third Stream and World Jazz

Ch. 15: New Age & Smooth Jazz

Ch. 16: Summary – Jazz Lives!

An Overview

Ch. 1: Blues – The Granddaddy of American Popular Music

Ch. 2: Where Did the Blues Come From?

Ch. 3: What Are the Blues?

Ch. 4: How to Build the Blues

Ch. 5: Classic Blues – The Early Years

Ch. 6: Delta Blues – Authentic Beginnings

Ch. 7: Blues in the City – Migration and Power

Ch. 8: Blues in Britain – Redefining the Masters

Ch. 9: Contemporary Blues – Maturity and Respect

Ch. 10: The Relevancy of the Blues Today

Ch. 1: Timelines, Cultures & Technology

Ch. 2: Pre-Rock Influences

Ch. 3: Rock is Born!

Ch. 4: Rock is Named

Ch. 5: Doo-Wop

Ch. 6: Independent Record Labels

Ch. 7: Technology Shapes Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ch. 8: The Plan to Mainstream Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ch. 9: Payola – Rock ‘n’ Roll’s First Scandal

Ch. 1: Crafting Sound in the Studio/Producers and Hit Songs

Ch. 2: West Coast Sound: Beach, Surf, and Teens

Ch. 3: The British Invasion: Two Prongs – Pop & Blues

Ch. 4: Motown and the Development of a Black Pop-Rock Sound

Ch. 5: Soul Music: Gospel and R&B in the Deep South

Ch. 6: The Sounds of Bubble Gum Pop-Rock

Ch. 7: The Arrival of Folk-Rock

Ch. 8: Psychedelic Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ch. 9: Early Guitar Gods of Rock

Ch. 10: Rock Festivals: The Rise and Fall of Music, Peace, and Love

Ch. 11: Anti-Woodstock and Shock Rock Movements

Ch. 1: Technological Breakthroughs

Ch. 2: Electronic Dance Music

Ch. 3: Hip-Hop & Rap – An Introduction

Ch. 4: The Beginnings of Rap

Ch. 5: Old School Rap – Up From the Streets

Ch. 6: Rap’s Golden Age

Ch. 7: East Coast – Political Rap

Ch. 8: West Coast – Gangsta Rap

Ch. 9: The Fragmentation of Rap – Pop, Party & More

Ch. 10: Further Fragmentation – Different Directions

Ch. 11: The Importance of Rap

Ch. 1: Musical Stage Productions in America before the 1800s

Ch. 2: Minstrel Shows and Melodramas

Ch. 3: Stage Presentations in the Late 19th Century

Ch. 4: Early 20th Century: Revues and Operettas

Ch. 5: The Arrival of the Modern American Musical

Ch. 6: Great Partnerships in Book-Musicals

Ch. 7: Musical Theatre Composers in the mid-Century

Ch. 8: Fresh Voices on the Stage in the 1960s

Ch. 9: Two Dominant Forces at the End of the Century

Ch. 10: New Voices at the End of the Century

Ch. 11: New Voices, New Sounds in the New Century

Ch. 12: Musical Theatre Glossary

Ch. 13: Is it “Theatre” or “Theater”?

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