A Mini History of Disco

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After the success of Rock’n’Roll, many African American artists started to explore their musical heritage and look beyond blues and R&B for inspiration. The terms ‘funk’ and ‘rock’n’roll were euphemisms for sex, with the former referring to the smells of intimacy and the latter the act.

James Brown was probably the first popular funk performer and literally forged the new genre of African American music by changing emphasis from the 2nd and 4th beats (backbeat) to a downbeat rhythm with an accent on the 1 and 3 counts (of 4 beats to the bar).


In Funky music, guitars and the horn section were used to drive the rhythm and beat with bass lines the centerpiece of the song. Much less emphasis was placed on harmony and the rhythms of funk became more complex with fewer chord changes. The same formation had been seen in bebop jazz. Initially, funky music was live music and not dance music which suited jazz musicians like Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock. These musicians started to merge funky rhythms into their cool jazz.

At the same time, soul music evolved through the 50s with its origins were deep in R&B and gospel music. Simultaneous development in the cities of the north and south of North America gave soul music a wide appeal and the definitive sound can be heard in Aretha Franklin's "I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)" (1967)

When the two genres were brought together, disco was born. The movement started in the late sixties with dance records like Dance to the Music by Sly and the Family Stone. Like many other early disco performers, Sly Stone had come from a funk-oriented background. Disco music puts an equal accent on all four beats and could be heard in discothèques (the French word for nightclub). Mixed race venues and dance clubs for gay people had sprung up in all major cities in the West.

With less emphasis on live performances, the new centre of attention was Disc Jockeys (DJs) who played recorded music to the audience. Often they would talk to the crowd in a radio show kind of way. The appeal for disco spread and by the early 70s discos was everywhere. What brought us all to the dance floor was a dance craze called, The Hustle which was originally a Hispanic line dance, popular in New York City and Florida. It had a Salsa-like foot rhythm fused with swing ant the rock step (taken on the left foot) happens at the beginning of the count – "and-one, two, three" rather than at the end of the count as in swing – "left, right, rock-step".

The popularity of disco meant dance records soon began to receive radio play and respectable sales. New disco sounding records with strong pop hooks were soon produced to encourage crossover success. One of the first "Disco Hits" was "Never can say goodbye" by Gloria Gaynor (1974). The gay scene also got its own icons with the Village People. Their single "In the Navy" not only was a massive hit but is thought to have boosted US naval recruits. Disco songs had a steady four on the floor beat, often with soaring and reverberated vocals usually accompanied by prominent, syncopated electric bass lines and strings, horns, electric pianos, and electric guitars used to create a lush background sound. Unlike rock’n’roll lead, guitars were rarely used and orchestral instruments such as the flute were sometimes featured for solo melodies. In truth, the creative disco sound was a combination of musicianship and behind the scenes mysteries of the control panel with their studio-based sound engineers.

Gloria Gaynor

Whilst early disco sound was largely an urban American phenomenon there were others chipping away in Europe including Giorgio Moroder (Italian) and Jean-Marc Cerrone. Giorgio Moroder was one of the principal architects of the disco sound and worked with Disco Queen, Donna Summer.

At first disco hits had a pounding beat with relatively slow tempos (approx. 90-110 bpm [Beats Per Minute]) then as the music became more popular the tempo was stepped up to 110-140 bpm. Emphasis was on dancing and the disco song started to get longer than the standard three minute, pop tune. Tom Moulton invented the disco-mix which involved making two copies of the same song, remixing them into a longer version then transferring this new recording to another track. 7” vinyl was too small to accommodate extended disco mixes and so the 12” single was introduced. In 1976, 12-inch discs were packaged in a collectible picture sleeve. The new format brought a huge Disco explosion which reached its peak after the release of Saturday Night Fever movie. The Bee Gees became disco icons and John Travolta (Tony Manero) set the style with his fitted Qiana polyester shirt, well-cut suit, and platform shoes. Ladies under the glare disco ball wore flowing Halston dresses and tripped the light fantastic in high heels or platforms.

The Disco era is sometimes cynically referred to as the "Age of the one-hit wonders," as many performers came and went. Already established artists like Rod Stewart (Do ya think I’m sexy?), Kiss (I was made for lovin you) and Cher (Take me home) also dipped their toe in the new trendy disco sound. Memorable one-hit wonders included Alicia Bridges "I love the nightlife" (1978); French singer, Patrick Hernandez’s ‘Born to be alive,’(1979); and Anita Ward's "Ring my bell," (1979) among many, many others. By the end of the 1970s, disco was dominating the charts and influencing other soul genres. A Swedish group who had previously won the Eurovision Song Contest (which is usually a big disadvantage) made the recording world sit up and take note as literally, Abba made disco music their own. Definitely not one-hit wonders, the chart-toppers poured forth as they dominated the world for most of the seventies. Whilst in America, groups like The O'Jays, The Commodores, and The Spinners continued to turn out the disco hits.

Come the eighties a twin development had emerged in recording, between shorter versions suitable for airplay and extended DJ versions for the disco. The cost of producing disco music had escalated and unlike simpler pop music, disco music required a lot of studio musicians, the latest in recording technology, and an army of technicians to produce. Anti-disco rallies were organised by US Rock Stations and one major event turned into a riot. Punk rock and then new wave replaced disco music in the charts as the disco club scene became passè. Dance music of future decades would owe a debt to the disco phenomenon but by the eighties disco was dead. The influence of electro-music on soul music forged new metamorphoses into a softer more lush style called contemporary R&B. A new order of artists emerged including Luther Vandross, Prince, and Michael Jackson. Female R&B singers such as Whitney Houston and Janet Jackson became very popular during the second half of the 1980s.


Worth a listen
James Brown
Papa's Got a Brand New Bag (1965)

Aretha Franklin
I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You) (1967)
Sly and the Family Stone
Dance to the Music (1968)

Gloria Gaynor
Never can say goodbye (1974)

The Hues Corporation
Rock The Boat (1974)

Barry White's Love Unlimited Orchestra
Love's Theme (1974)

The Jackson 5
Dancing Machine (1974)

Barry White
You're the First, the Last, My Everything (1974)

Lady Marmalade (1974)

The Blackbyrds
Walking in Rhythm (1975)

Gloria Gaynor
Never can say goodbye (1975)

Van McCoy
The Hustle Van McCoy (1970)

Bee Gees
Jive Talkin' (1975)
You Should Be Dancing (1976)
Stayin' alive (1977)

The Four Seasons
December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night) (1975)

Silver Convention’s
Fly Robin Fly (1975)

Donna Summer
Love to Love You, Baby (1975)
Could It Be Magic (1976)
I feel love (1977)

Helen Reddy
I Can't Hear You No More (1976)

Dancing Queen (1976)

Silly Love Songs (1976)
Goodnight Tonight (1979)

Marvin Gaye
Got to Give It Up (1977)

Boney M
Daddy Cool (1976)
Ma Baker (1977)
Rivers if Babylon (1977)

Rod Stewart
Do ya think I’m sexy (1978)

The Commodors
Three Times a Lady (1978)
Le Freak (1978)

Cheryl Lynn
Got to Be Real (1978)

Barry Manilow
Copacabana (At The Copa) (1978)

Chaka Khan
I'm Every Woman (1978)

Patrick Hernandez
Born to be alive (1979)

Barbra Streisand & Donna Summer duet
No More Tears (Enough Is Enough) (1979)

Electric Light Orchestra
Last Train to London (1979)
Shine a Little Love (1979)

Michael Jackson
Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough (1979)
Rock With You (1979)
Off the Wall" (1979)
Thriller (1983)

Kool & the Gang
Celebration (1980)
Rick James
Super Freak (1981)

Carol Jiani
Hit N' Run Lover (1981)

The Weather Girls
It's Raining Men (1982)

The Pointer Sisters
I'm So Excited (1982)

1999 (1983)

Lucky Star (1983)

Irene Cara
Flashdance (What A Feeling) (1983)

Angela Bofill
Too Tough (1983)

Thelma Houston
You Used To Hold Me So Tight (1984)

Village People
In the Navy The Village People (1979)
Sex Over The Phone" (1985)

The article used by Kind Permission and with thanks from ZANI


Read 468 times Last modified on Tuesday, 07 July 2020 19:24
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