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.