The Golden Decade of Disco Divas
11 Oct 2014: The Grand Opera House Wilmington, DE
DJs know best. Halfway through the Global Entertainment Media Arts Foundation’s Golden Decade of Disco Divas concert, renowned radio personality Doug Henderson Jr. (WDAS-FM) said something that perfectly conveyed the spirit of the show: “The best part of my collection is still on wax.” Indeed, the 1970s inaugurated a period when musical experiments were conducted at 33 1/3 revolutions per minute. From Tom Moulton’s pioneering of the 12” single to the side-long suites of Donna Summer’s concept albums, disco broke new ground with several innovations that continue to influence pop, hip-hop, and EDM. A wealth of artists and producers powered disco’s multi-billion dollar industry, each occupying their own niche in the genre’s wide-ranging landscape. For one historic night, the Global Entertainment Media Arts Foundation (G.E.M.A.) united nearly a dozen acts who each lent a distinctive voice to the era and proved that disco is still a relevant force in contemporary music.
Though disco was an international phenomenon, the line-up at G.E.M.A.‘s concert reflected some of the specific geographical sensibilities that shaped the beats. Philadelphia and New York City were well represented with a dash of Chicago and southern soul added to the mix. Producer/songwriter and Philly soul maestro Bobby Eli presided as the event’s Musical Director. Aside from his own productions, Eli also made his mark as a member of Philly-based outfits MFSB and the Salsoul Orchestra, arguably the two most influential orchestras disco ever produced. Leading an eight-piece band and three background vocalists, Eli ensured a seamless flow between occasionally disparate grooves that only underscore the variety of styles in disco music.
Wardell Piper, who chaired G.E.M.A.‘s Golden Mic Honors the previous afternoon, opened the concert with co-chair Denise Montana, the daughter of Salsoul Orchestra founder Vince Montana Jr. The two immediately seized attention with an energetic rendition of Pink’s “Get the Party Started”. However, the audience came to hear the classics and that’s exactly what each act delivered for the duration of the show.
Appropriately, the concert proceeded with a nod to earlier disco sides. When New York-based Salsoul Records launched in 1975, it furnished a constant supply of first-rate club material, combining salsa rhythms with sweeping orchestrations arranged and conducted by Vince Montana Jr. at Sigma Sound Studios in Philadelphia. Recorded with the Salsoul Orchestra, ‘lectric Lady (1976) by Carol Williams was among the label’s first full-length releases, spawning club favorites like the singer’s cover of the pop standard “More” as well as “Love Is You”, which was later sampled by DJ Spiller on “Groovejet (If This Ain’t Love)” (2000). In concert, Williams rendered the beguiling soul of both songs, her voice relaying an exuberance first glimpsed on the original recordings.
Two years before Williams became the first female artist signed to Salsoul, disco broke through the pop charts in a major way. 1974 marked a year when songs like “Rock the Boat” by the Hues Corporation and George McCrae’s “Rock Your Baby” topped the Hot 100 amidst disco forerunners by Barry White (“Can’t Get Enough of Your Love, Babe”) and MFSB featuring the Three Degrees (“TSOP”). By year’s end, “Doctor’s Orders” by Carol Douglas had risen from underground clubs and climbed the charts where it peaked at No. 11 pop. Signed to RCA-distributed Midland International, another New York label that was an early champion of disco, Douglas was one of dance music’s first solo stars with the release of The Carol Douglas Album (1975). To the audience’s delight, she imbued both “Doctor’s Orders” and the title track to Midnight Love Affair (1976) with soulful verve while the band faithfully replicated the galloping rhythms of her signature hits.
Denise Montana returned to the stage for a pair of songs that honored the recordings she made with her father in the mid-‘70s. Originally released on the Atlantic album Vincent Montana, Jr. presents Goody Goody (1978), “#1 Dee Jay” showcased the singer’s alternately sweet and strident vocals. Onstage at the Grand Opera House, Montana tagged the song with an a cappella sequence that exhibited the robust power of her voice. Montana and the band then performed “Merry Christmas All”, a song she’d recorded years earlier on the Salsoul Orchestra’s best-selling album Christmas Jollies (1976). The singer quipped about celebrating Christmas in October, though the pre-Halloween season hardly compromised the integrity or strength of her performance.
Even if there’d been snow on the ground, Wardell Piper would have melted it just by strutting out for her solo number. The singer’s musical lineage encompasses one of the greatest vocal groups to emerge from Philadelphia, First Choice. After leaving the trio in the early-‘70s, Piper collaborated with producers John H. Fitch and Reuben Cross on Wardell Piper (1979), her debut for Midsong International (the slightly rechristened name of Midland International). The album generated two Top 40 R&B hits, “Captain Boogie” and “Super Sweet”, which Piper deftly arranged in medley form for the show. Eli and the band raised the funk quotient for Piper, whose incendiary vocals reverberated through the hall as she shook, dipped, and swayed to the groove.
Upon her introduction, Alfa Anderson engendered one of the evening’s most ardent responses from the audience. As an original lead vocalist in CHIC (currently nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s Class of 2015), Anderson appeared on seminal albums like C’est CHIC (1978) and Risqué (1979). Her voice helped power the New York-based group’s chart-topping pop hits “Le Freak” (Atlantic’s best-selling single of all time) and “Good Times”, emphasizing that vocals were just as integral to CHIC’s sound as the rhythm section or the CHIC Strings. Anderson’s rich and resonant voice anchored a rousing medley of “Le Freak” and “Good Times” as she invited the audience to “come party with me!” Her playful vamp during the bass solo on “Good Times” lent an air of spontaneity to the proceedings. Sashaying off the stage, Anderson closed the first half of the show and whet the crowd’s appetite for more.
Following a 10-minute intermission, Evelyn “Champagne” King kindled the concert with an explosive performance. She’s among a select group of dance-oriented artists who successfully transitioned from the ‘70s into the ‘80s, scoring big hits after migrating from the Philly-infused production style of T. Life to the synth-driven funk furnished by New York producers Kashif and Paul Laurence. The singer opened with “Love Come Down”, her No. 1 R&B and dance hit off Get Loose (1982) that still packs a punch decades after shaping the soundtrack for summer of ‘82. Without missing a beat, the band segued into an extended version of “Shame”, King’s first major hit from her RCA debut, Smooth Talk (1977). King was a whirlwind of dance moves and vocal pyrotechnics, even playing a conga solo during the song’s breakdown. The consummate performer, she filled her 10-minute segment with the kind of combustible energy that made her a standout on BET’s 2013 Soul Train Music Awards telecast.
Few acts project royalty like the Three Degrees. Their 50-year career in the industry merits a certain deference. The trio had already been performing for close to a decade before arriving at Kenny Gamble & Leon Huff’s Philadelphia International Records (PIR). Their eponymous debut from 1973 yielded the platinum-selling ballad “When Will I See You Again” while their vocals on MFSB’s “TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia)” and “Love Is the Message” foretold disco’s ascendency. Greeted by thunderous applause at the Grand Opera House, the trio opened with “TSOP” before singing “Giving Up, Giving In”, the lead hit off New Directions (1978) produced by Giorgio Moroder. Valerie Holiday, who’s sung with every incarnation of the Three Degrees since 1967, fronted a majestic version of “When Will I See You Again” as veteran member Helen Scott-Leggins and recent addition Freddi Poole cooed the song’s patented harmonies. Cynthia Garrison, who sang with the trio from 1989-2010 but left due to health reasons, cheered her former singing partners from the audience.
The hit-filled evening continued as Doug Henderson Jr. called Anita Ward onstage. “If you’re feelin’ real good, I want you to scream,” yelled the singer as the band played the opening bars to “Ring My Bell”. 35 years earlier, the song earned Ward a No. 1 hit on the pop, R&B, and disco charts. Released on Frederick Knight’s Juana imprint, “Ring My Bell” also gave Hialeah-based TK Records one of its biggest hits of all time when the company distributed Ward’s Songs of Love (1979). Ward displayed the utmost professionalism upon detecting sound issues during the first verse. She masterfully traded microphones mid-phrase before nailing the song’s stratospheric notes. During the instrumental break, Ward even prompted the audience to mimic the Syndrum sound effects from the recording. While most acts sang a medley of two numbers, Ward maximized each minute of “Ring My Bell” and left one of the strongest impressions of the night.
Similarly, Linda Clifford poured every bit of herself into “If My Friends Could See Me Now”, her thrilling rendition of the showstopper from Sweet Charity. The song originally served as the title to Clifford’s second album for Curtis Mayfield’s Curtom Records, rocketing to No. 1 on the disco charts alongside her equally gripping “Runaway Love”. In fact, the Chicago-based singer possesses one of the most exciting discographies among all the solo artists who soared to popularity through the clubs and garnered pop and R&B success during the mid- to late-‘70s. Any of her other chart-topping disco hits like “Shoot Your Best Shot” or “Red Light” (from the movie Fame, 1980) could have rounded out her appearance at the G.E.M.A. concert. However, Clifford’s dynamic performance of “If My Friends Could See Me Now” evidenced why she’s still a popular attraction. Her voice towered towards the song’s climax as she cavorted and shimmied around the stage, putting the exclamation point on a seven-minute workout.
New York City is often cited as the birthplace of disco and with good reason. The city’s clubs were instrumental in breaking dance-oriented records long before the industry discovered a whole new world of commercial possibilities afforded by club play. New York also spawned some of disco’s most influential artists and producers. Stony Browder Jr. and August Darnell merged disco with big band and countless other styles in Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band. Cory Daye was the group’s glamorous lead vocalist whose voice immortalized “Cherchez La Femme”, which sat atop the disco chart in 1976 while Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band (1976) went gold and earned the group a Grammy nomination for “Best New Artist”. Cory & Me (1979) marked Daye’s solo debut and featured production by Sandy Linzer, who helmed Dr. Buzzard’s first album for RCA. One of 1979’s more colorful club entries, “Pow Wow” gave the singer a Top 10 disco hit and captured the creativity that distinguished so many productions of the era. The song’s hook — “Oh wow!” — could have described Daye’s animated performance of “Pow Wow” and “Cherchez La Femme” at the G.E.M.A. show. The passage of time hasn’t dimmed the uniqueness of either tune or the singer’s vocal prowess. Daye’s frisky rapport with the audience accentuated her approach to keeping both songs fresh no matter the occasion.
While Daye originally hailed from the Bronx, and Alfa Anderson resided in Harlem during the early days of CHIC, and the Ladies of SKYY (Denise L. Wilkinson, Dolores Milligan, Benita Williams) were raised in Brooklyn. That’s where they met Solomon Roberts Jr., the creative force behind SKYY. The eight-piece band signed with Salsoul Records in 1979 and signaled the label’s shifting focus from orchestral, Latin-infused disco to hybrids of dance and funk. SKYY’s seven albums for the label made them a steady presence in the clubs, especially with tracks like “Here’s to You” off Skyyport (1980) and the No. 1 R&B hit “Call Me” from Skyy Line (1981). Though SKYY dissolved after successful stints with Capitol and Atlantic Records, Wilkinson, Milligan, and Williams have since kept the legacy of the group alive. Their medley of “Here’s to You” and “Call Me” brought the G.E.M.A. audience to their feet. Wilkinson sounded as feisty and soulful as ever, with Milligan and Williams adding just the right dose of spunk to complement Wilkinson’s lead vocals.
Beyond the evening’s celebrated divas of disco, the G.E.M.A. Foundation also spotlighted two acts that bridged the past, present, and future of soul music. Dennis “Youngblood” Taylor, who supported each of the acts on background vocals and is currently in the studio with Bobby Eli, stepped forward to sing an original song called “Been There Done That”. His natural phrasing and vocals might have won him a number of new fans in the audience. Decades earlier, G.E.M.A. Music Ambassador Stephen C. Kelly founded the Volcanos, a vocal group that took Philadelphia by storm via local label Arctic Records before disbanding in 1968. (Arctic’s roster also featured Barbara Mason, who scored a Top 5 hit with “Yes I’m Ready”, and the Temptones, which featured a young Daryl Hall). Three years after documenting the group’s history in his book Behind the Curtains (2011), Kelly reunited the Volcanos at the Grand. The group performed as if no time had passed since 1968.
For the show’s grand finale, all the artists gathered onstage to sing McFadden & Whitehead’s “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now”. The song was the perfect conclusion to an evening that honored women who all impacted a genre of music that revolutionized popular culture. As they continue to move forward in their respective careers, each performer maintains an impressive longevity in the business. Perhaps what becomes a legend most is simply style, sophistication, and a good beat.
Header Image: Alfa Anderson and Linda Clifford
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