A Brief History Of...The Rise of Disco


Fev 6 2008, 23h32

The description and playlist below are from the weekly radio show (A Brief History Of…) that my friend and I host on WSUM 91.7fm Madison (the University of Wisconsin's radio station). We selected songs we felt were either historically important or just representative of each specific topic. Please comment if you feel we missed something or just to give your opinion. Remember, however, that we do this show in an hour (about 50 minutes of music). Track length is a major factor in our decisions (shorter is usually better). Thanks!

A Brief History of…The Rise of Disco examines the musical and social conditions that gave rise to disco, the now controversial genre of dance music from the mid and late 70s. The first segment of the show explains disco’s origins in smooth Southern Soul and especially in the soul sound of Philadelphia International Records. It also explains the social context in early 1970s America that fostered the development of such an apparently trivial genre. The second half of the show describes the influence of women and the gay community in the disco club scene. As accepting as the genre was of women and gays, however, it created a cultural divide between classes, most obvious at Studio 54 in New York City. Nonetheless, disco has been the most influential form of dance music for the last 30 years.

My co-host has strong negative feelings toward disco and didn't even want to do a disco show in any form. In my opinion, disco fits right into the history of African-American music and culture and my co-host's aversion to the genre is further evidence that we needed to address it. We agreed to cover the rise of disco and then to quickly move on. We also agreed not to play any of the truly overplayed disco hits (Saturday Night Fever stuff, "I Will Survive," "Le Freak," "The Hustle," etc.) Even so, I think the playlist as we have it does a good job showing how the disco sound evolved.

Here's the playlist:

Origins of the Disco Sound:
Disco originated from a combination of Philly Soul and Smooth Soul from the South, but also drew on standard R&B as well as funk, jazz and rock. More derivatively, the sound can be traced to so-called Northern Soul records and to Motown artists like The Supremes.
Theme from Shaft by Isaac Hayes (1971)
Soul Makossa by Manu Dibango (1972). Although Manu Dibango himself had nothing to do with the rise of Disco club culture, "Soul Makossa" was one of the first hits with something of a true disco sound (cymbal-led percussion, backing horn section, written specifically for dancing), in the clubs of New York. Manu Dibango was actually from Cameroon - a rare occurence of African music being popular (#35 Pop) among the African-American community and even whites.
Love's Theme by The Love Unlimited Orchestra (1973). Although rarely acknowledged as such, Barry White's string-drenched dance grooves (still with the high percussion leading and backing horn section) were a major influence on the disco sound. Both of this and the previous song (Soul Makossa) have been called the first disco hit, but the similar-sounding song that was first associated exclusively with discothèques and dance clubs was:
T.S.O.P. (The Sound Of Philadelphia) by MFSB (1974). MFSB was the house band for Gamble & Huff's Philadelphia International Records (already on the rise with artists like The Delfonics and The O'Jays). "T.S.O.P." is generally considered to be the first true disco hit. That is, it fits better in the genre "disco" than as a part of any other separate genre. It was also the theme song to long-running TV show Soul Train.

Early Popularity / Still "Light" in Style:
Rock The Boat by Hues Corporation (1974). Hues Corporation also recorded for Philly International. "Rock the Boat" was a #1 hit in 1974.
Rock Your Baby by George McCrae (1974). "Rock Your Baby" was written by members of KC & The Sunshine Band, but none of them could hit the high notes required. McCrae's vocals took the song to #1 on both the Pop and R&B charts and earned him a Grammy nomination for Best Male R&B Vocalist.
Never Can Say Goodbye by Gloria Gaynor (1974). With Gaynor's cover of The Jackson 5's "Never Can Say Goodbye," Disco had fully arrived.

Disco Dominates - 1975:
Love to Love You Baby by Donna Summer (1975). Donna Summer was always at the forefront of innovation in Disco (yes, there was innovation). She burst onto the scene with this simmering 17-minute Disco anthem that made sexuallity a central topic of Disco music and club culture. For the show, we obviously only played the 3:25 single version (and with Summer's near orgasms throughout the song, it pushed the limits of FCC cleanliness for our show...).

This is a good opportunity to discuss the social issues raised by the Disco movement and music. People often forget that Disco has always been polarizing – different aspects exemplified race, gender, sexuality, and class conflicts from the broader culture. I would argue that more than the music itself, it was the divisiveness of these social issues, stemming mostly from the club culture, that originally aroused such hatred. It was easy for people to redirect their negative feelings toward the music associated with the clubs.

Sexuality - Openly gay people were especially involved in the club scene in the '70s. The most popular and famous openly gay artist was Sylvester.

Race - Disco was first and foremost a form of African-American music, so racial tension (manifest at the very least in debates over authenticity) was sure to occur when artists like The Four Seasons ("December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night)"), The Rolling Stones ("Miss You"), Barry Manilow ("Copacabanna (At the Copa)"), or Rod Stewart ("Do Ya Think I'm Sexy?") tried their hand at Disco. The apparent white takeover alienated many African-Americans from the scene.

Social Class - The band members of Chic were once excluded from entering Studio 54. They could hear their record being played inside the club, but Disco was such an impersonal form of music (in fact, the first popular American music not to require a live band at all) that no one recognized them as the creators. This anecdote shows two things about disco: it was impersonal and severely divided by class. If you weren’t perceived to be "somebody," then you were excluded. Studio 54 was only the most extreme example of this, but it occured elsewhere as well.

Gender - On a more positive note, Disco was the only genre in which women were at the very least equal or, I would argue, actually led the genre in terms of both popularity and innovation. Just look at this playlist, especially the period of "true" Disco...

Nights on Broadway by The Bee Gees (1975). Although 1977's Saturday Night Fever soundtrack marked the absolute peak of Disco as a popular form of music, The Bee Gees had already successfully reinvented themselves as a dance group by 1975 (versus their straight R&B from the late 60s). This song also shows musicians beginning to expand the sound of Disco. "Nights on Broadway" has a loud thumping bass-line and even includes a slow ballad-like section.
Shame, Shame, Shame by Shirley & Company (1975). Shirley Goodman had hits as a part of the duo Shirley and Lee in the mid- and late-50s. One notable hit was "Let the Good Times Roll" from 1956. She reinvented herself almost 20 years later with the huge disco hit "Shame, Shame, Shame."
Young Hearts Run Free by Candi Staton (1976). This song is here to point out that one-hit wonders were quite common on the Disco charts.
Love Hangover by Diana Ross (1976). Diana Ross was yet another comeback artist (Bee Gees, Shirley Goodman). My co-host thought it would be good to point out that Disco left America with a hangover.

OK, here's my attempt at a defense of Disco:
Disco was then and is now perceived as more form than substance. After the prevalent social commentary in Black music during the Civil Rights and Black Power eras (not to mention the Vietnam War), it is easy to see why. Socially, by the mid-70s deindustrialization had already taken a large economic toll on the African-American community. The defensiveness of the Black Power movement had taken a similar emotional toll. It is no surprise, then, that the next musical phase would be a relatively politically neutral dance craze. The club was somewhere to get away from one’s troubles.

Furthermore, like many genres, disco went through distinct stages of development:
1. Underground development of style in the clubs (1971-4)
2. Popularity (1974-6)
3. Over-commercialization and dilution of substance (1977-9) – this is the stuff people are usually refering to when they say, "Disco sucks!"

We intentionally ended this playlist before "step 3," but quite a few of our later shows will return to Disco as a major influence.


  • Tr1xx

    A great read. If I had the time, (and the inclination), I could write for hours on this subject. I was just the right age to experience the Disco era from its inception. Anyway, here's a few of my comments and thoughts for your deliberation. Arguably disco was a fusion of soul, Motown, Northern Soul and funk. I have a significant interest in Northern Soul, and from my collection, I could highlight dozens of pre-1970 tracks that could easily be identified with the Disco Sound. As an example, check out Brenda Holloway's Starting The Hurt All Over Again from 1967. The Trammps were a significant force from the very start of the Disco movement. Zing went the strings of my heart was released in 1972. Unless it was remixed and re-released later, this could be one of the very earliest disco records. For me, The Jackson 5's Skywriter (1973) was another track important in the emergence of Disco. Sister Sledge Love Don't You Go Through No Changes On Me - another superb and significant track. Originally released in 1974, it was arguably a couple of years ahead of its time. Van McCoy and The Soul City Symphony The Hustle. Another mega disco hit from the early years. Donna Summer: apart from her singles, she produced great album tracks too. One of the important things to remember about Disco, was that it was essentially feelgood music. It was never intended to be over-analysed and picked apart to find anything of earth-shattering significance. Check out my personal favourite Disco and Northern Soul track listings at http://www.last.fm/user/Tr1xx/journal/2006/04/11/113461/ and http://www.last.fm/user/Tr1xx/journal/2005/11/14/33024/ and my disco tag at http://www.last.fm/user/Tr1xx/tags/disco To conclude; my (current) all-time favourite disco track is probably Evelyn Champagne King's Shame - a superb, classy, heavily jazz influenced 12-inch corker from 1978. Love it.

    Fev 8 2008, 2h47
  • Babs_05

    Your co-host is quite obstructive, isn't he? Good for you covering the genre regardless. [quote]People often forget that Disco has always been polarizing – different aspects exemplified race, gender, sexuality, and class conflicts from the broader culture. I would argue that more than the music itself, it was the divisiveness of these social issues, stemming mostly from the club culture, that originally aroused such hatred. It was easy for people to redirect their negative feelings toward the music associated with the clubs.[/quote] Spot on correct. In addition to that, from the UK's perspective, we were going through a social and economic crisis the like of which hadn't been seen since the 1930s. Shorter working week, strikes, food shortages, blackouts, unemployment, etc etc. As the decade progressed and things deteriorated, so the music scene got more and more cheerful and happy. People needed a distraction and not everyone wanted to kick and swear at the establishment like the punks did. Something similar might be happening right now. There seems to be a subtle shift towards happy cheery music, indie is a parody of its former self and disco is rearing it's shiny little head. This year, it might be back... Article: Four in 10 London children live below the poverty line. There's a world shortage of wheat, pushing prices up of basic foods, the gap between the rich and poor hasn't been this wide since Victorian times, the cost of living is rising, house prices are starting to fall (though not in the capital), homes are starting to be repossessed again, the economy looks like its heading for another recession, and so on. Gender - women tend to dominate pop, whereas men men dominate rock. Pop is closely related to Disco. You're right about the disco stages. By the last, third stage, it was everywhere, saturating everything. There wasn't much escape, apart from self-indulgent prog rock, and of course punk and electronica. Films like Saturday Night Fever made it alright for (straight) blokes to enjoy disco.

    Fev 29 2008, 3h03
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