Part Three: Pushing the Envelope, 1977-1978
PolyGram, a group of "macho men", and Star Wars bolstered Casablanca at retail, on radio, and in the clubs. While expanding the roster and its partnerships, the label also landed its first number one single.
It all changed in 1977. Casablanca Record and Filmworks, as it was now called, expanded into film while KISS, Parliament, and Donna Summer, the label's headline acts, had amassed enough gold singles and albums to paper four walls. Casablanca also sealed a lucrative partnership with PolyGram, a German conglomerate whose portfolio comprised a number of U.S.-based labels, including Mercury, MGM, Verve, and RSO, in addition to its own label, Polydor. With a 50% interest in Casablanca, PolyGram streamlined Casablanca's distribution system. It also made Casablanca flush with cash, affording the label the means to build its roster to major label heights.
The sleeve inside many of Casablanca's album jackets also listed the labels Casablanca distributed through its own brand. The Douglas imprint carried jazz titles by the Charlie Rouse Band, The Last Poets, and a five-volume series entitled The New York Loft Jazz Sessions (1977). Russ Regan, who was known by many at Casablanca from his established reputation in the business, helmed Parachute Records, which concentrated more on pop/rock and R&B. It debuted in 1977 with albums by Lalomie Washburn (who wrote Rufus & Chaka Khan's "At Midnight") and singer-songwriter David Castle.
"Parachute Records was supposed to be a launching pad for all kinds of different artists", Castle explains, "not only mainstream pop but pop-rock and R&B. Russ is truly one of the nicest people in the industry. He's just a real, real nice guy and took a great interest in my career, very selflessly and with great consciousness promoted my career". While Parachute never spawned a smash hit on par with its parent company, it contributed a number of artists that were truly great musicians, writers, and performers to Casablanca's rich musical legacy. In addition to Castle and Washburn, Parachute also signed acts that, to this day, have yet to receive their full due: 7th Wonder and Randy Brown. When Parachute folded in 1979, both acts, who were R&B-based, migrated over to Chocolate City.
Neil Bogart also negotiated a distribution deal with Jimmy Ienner's New York-based Millennium label. The company was home to a motley crew of artists including pop-soul east coast export Brooklyn Dreams, Lori Lieberman (who wrote "Killing Me Softly"), soul chanteuse Ruby Winters, Bruce Foster, and a hard rock band, Godz. Most crucially, though, Casablanca also landed its first number one single through Millennium: a disco rendition of John Williams' Star Wars score performed by Meco ("Star Wars/Cantina Band"). In 1977, every style of music was fair game at the Casbah.
Six Archetypes Walk Into a Record Label…
One of the most crucial signings of 1977, indeed in Casablanca's entire history, came courtesy of a French producer, Jacques Morali. With his partner Henri Belolo, Morali was a tenacious presence along the eastern corridor of the dance music community. Through the help of Philadelphia-based Sigma Sound arranger Richie Rome, Morali had created and produced the Ritchie Family, who charted in 1975 with "Brazil" on 20th Century Records. With no defined image at first, the group became a trio and released a series of thematic albums, including Arabian Nights (1976) and African Queens (1977). (Morali brought the Ritchie Family to Casablanca in 1979. He also produced Josephine Superstar for the label, an album recorded by Phylicia Allen -- a.k.a. Phylicia Rashad -- that told the story of Josephine Baker using a male chorus and a disco beat.) However, Morali's greatest creation, and one of Casablanca's most commercially successful acts, came from an unlikely source… insofar as platinum-selling groups are concerned.
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Tom Moulton: Jacques wanted to create a group for gay people. He had put an ad in The Village Voice about finding these singers to be in this group. When somebody showed me the ad in the paper I said, "You got to be kidding. What the hell is he doing?" He had this sort of kooky idea, the caricatures of people that are in (NYC’s Greenwich) Village: the motorcycle guy, the cowboy, the drag of the Village with the construction shoes and the helmet. Jacques wanted to be loved by the gay community. That's exactly what he wanted.
David Hodo (Village People "Construction Worker"): I became a member of the Village People by answering an ad in the showbusiness trade papers. I had to get one week's employment to file for an unemployment claim and sit back on it through the Christmas season. I really didn't intend to keep the job for longer than a week, but we were having so much fun creating the group that I sort of took it a week at a time. (I'm still taking it a week at a time!) When I auditioned for Jacques, he cast me as the Construction Worker. The look of the group came out of the gay clubs, where "role playing" seemed to be part of the club experience. You could go home, take off your suit, put your jeans on with a t-shirt and construction boots with a hard hat and you could be something completely different from what you had to be all day. I never understood the costume part of going out but plenty of people did.
Alex Briley (Village People "GI"): My costume came about at the suggestion of the Construction Worker. Our wardrobe person at the time visited the army/navy outlets and Brooklyn Navy Yard and created the armed forces attire.
Michele Hart-Winer (Director of Special Projects): We were so happy to get the Village People. The first album, Village People (1977), was one that was played everywhere. It was a perfect album. I loved the album but then they moved into the pop world after that.
Ruben Rodriguez (National Promotion and Marketing Director): Village People were a big challenge because they were so different. There was a TV station that was based out of New York called Soul Alive and my good friend Gerry Bledsoe was the MC. They had great ratings in New York. I'll never forget trying to get the producer to agree to have Village People perform on TV. That was actually their first TV gig. I said to him, "Man give it a shot. You're going to be really surprised how well this audience is going to receive them". That became their highest rated show. That TV show, during that time, had been on for a couple of years in New York City. That was the very first TV show Village People did in the States.
Moulton: When it took off, I think Jacques and Henri Belolo were shocked. They never dreamed in a million years that everybody would go for it.
Rodriguez: I'll never forget going to Cherry Hill, New Jersey. There was a club called Valentino's, or something like that. It was pouring rain and there were lines and lines of kids dressed up with their umbrellas trying to get in to see Village People. You've got to give credit to the club scene. From a radio standpoint, one guy I'm going to give credit to, who actually broke Village People on the radio, was Hal Jackson of WBLS in New York.
Bobbi Cowan (Director of Publicity): The guys from Village People were in our office whenever they were in town and we loved them. They were so sweet. They were great. We knew they were going to be a very big act. Their records were fabulous and they could actually perform.
Arnie Smith (National Director of Disco Promotion): They were so easygoing. They would do whatever they had to do, wherever you needed them to be, there were no prima donnas, nothing. They were so excited and happy about what they were doing.
Rob Gold (Director of Marketing): The Village People were really a phenomenon. THAT was a fun bunch of guys. They certainly were more humble in the earlier part of their career and there was some infighting and drama. They were wonderfully warm individuals. It's always a pleasure when you're working for somebody who appreciates the hard work that you do and they loved seeing their images all over the place.
Moulton: Years ago, I did an interview on Biography on Village People. This is long after Jacques had died. I was so offended when Biography asked me questions like, "Well Jacques was gay…" and I go, "What does that have to do with the price of bananas? Nothing". They said, "Well they were a gay act" and I said, "No they were a pop phenomenon". You have to call it what it is. They had that virile look. You could see all the young girls. They thought, "Oh wow! Would I like to be trapped with them for a week!"
Smith: If I had to analyze the group's success, I would say that there were several elements. One was, it was the music of the time, which had to be the most powerful force in the whole equation. Two, the uniqueness of who they were in the costumes. It was like a party. Halloween everyday! Third, it was just the talent and the ability to put on a great show. Isn't that what everybody wants at the end? They did it brilliantly.
Dennis Wheeler (Promotions Manager, Special Projects): Village People were a creation of the time. They were trendsetters in that field. I would want to say "novelty" but at the same time, they truly have classics that define that era.
Hart-Winer: I think of Jacques sometimes. If he could see the bar mitzvah crowd, would he die? (laughs) Could you imagine? It's absolutely hysterical.
Hodo: We were something that no one had ever seen before, along with the kitschy, danceable music and the unusual look - what's not to love?
Village People - "Y.M.C.A." (1978)