GQ: Standing Ovation - The Story of GQ and The Rhythm Makers (1974-1982)
GQ arrived in the days of disco and left its mark on American music, one funky bassline at a time.
There’s a chance you’ve never heard of GQ (Good Quality), even if you live on American soil. The group first thrived in the golden era of disco, landing a deal with Arista in 1979, just in time to join the likes of Raydio (featuring Ray Parker Jr.) and Dionne Warwick. The smash album Disco Nights bore the incredibly successful single, “Disco Nights (Rock-Freak)”, which rose to the top of the soul charts and shot to the upper echelons of the pop and disco sheets. It was no overnight success, though.
The group had been gigging around New York City since the late '60s, having initially come together as Sabu and the Survivors, named after bassist Keith “Sabu” Crier. There were a few name changes between and 1976, with the outfit eventually settling on The Rhythm Makers and cutting one record for the small Vigor imprint with the core lineup of Crier, keyboardist Herb Lane, drummer Kenny Banks and rhythm guitarist Rahiem Leblanc in place. Banks left around that time, replaced by Paul Service in 1978 when GQ began its ascent to the funk throne. The unit’s biggest success would come in those early years, with Disco Nights and its 1980 follow-up, Two, leading the charge.
Those releases, in all their late '70s glory, are well-represented on the two-disc Standing Ovation: The Story of GQ and The Rhythm Makers (1974-1982), which features cuts culled from the Arista recordings as well from Rhythm Makers sessions, reminding listeners that this was a band built on soul and not merely style. As good as “Disco Nights (Rock-Freak) is (and it holds up very nicely), it’s the fourth cut on the first disc, the 1976 Soul On Your Side tune “Zone”, that kicks the party into high gear. With doses of Latin and African rhythms driving the tune, an unstoppable bass line, and soul-slathered keyboard figures, the tune needed little else to make its case. It is not surprisingly good, it is entirely good, a full-on funk assault that holds the listener deep in its grips from one end to the other. The same can’t be said for 1982’s “Try Smurfin”; It’s not so much that the song isn’t good, it’s that it’s a cute attempt to gain traction with those who loved the Saturday morning animated series The Smurfs. It comes off as silly more than anything else.
Still, the first disc is loaded with plenty of the good stuff, including three more act cuts from the Rhythm Makers: “Monterey”, “Touch”, and “Soul on Your Side”. There’s also “You’ve Got the Floor”, an obvious dance number, and “I Love (The Skin You’re In)”. Sure, there’s some duff stuff too, like “Is It Cool” and “Make My Dreams a Reality”, which are virtually indistinguishable from each other; elsewhere, “Spirit” feels like a Village People retread, and “It’s Your Love” is a little too soft even for soft rock. Plus, it lacks the smart sophistication of the best cuts, even though the guys sing as sweetly as ever. The material appears with little care for chronology, instead of hanging together nicely as a new entity: the album the band never got to make, with some of its greatest moments intact.
The second set focuses on the second and third GQ albums, the aforementioned Two and 1981’s Face to Face. Paul Service was gone by then and the days of disco and acts related to it were numbered. The record’s singles, “Shake” and “Sad Girl”, failed to gain the same kind of attention earlier releases did, and maybe for good reason. The second single was an attempt to reach back in time, to a more innocent era, but the timing was off. New Edition would reignite interest in refined harmonies and soul that nodded to the Philly tradition within a year but, for the moment, GQ’s take may have been too much of a step back.
“Dark Side of the Sun”, from the same record, suggests that the writing just wasn’t as fresh and driven as it was the start, so it’s actually a relief that there’s one more song from The Rhythm Makers toward the platter’s back end. It comes just before three largely unnecessary bonus cuts, remixes of “Make My Dream a Reality”, “Boogie Oogie”, and “Disco Nights (Rock Freak)”. The group essentially reached the end of the line 1982, though its music has been sampled by a variety of hip-hop artists and its legacy remains strong among funk and disco fanatics. Crier died in 2013, while Leblanc (known as Mr. Q) continued to perform with some semblance of the group for years after its commercial star faded.
Highly detailed (and readable) liner notes accompany a release that suggests that the GQ discography is worth spending more time with, if not go so far as to reignite interest in the outfit’s first great wave. The real find, though, is the Rhythm Makers, and one can only hope that there is a treasury of rarities lurking out there somewhere that might give us more insight into that great lost band.