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1974 | Rock Your Baby by George McCrae

From the Collection: Songs of the Summer

How a little label in Hialeah, Florida became a disco powerhouse.

By Mark Anthony Neal

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His wife was supposed to sing it. George McCrae’s own music career had languished in Palm Beach clubs, in what might be thought of as an upscale chitlin’ circuit. At the time, he was about to go back to school to study law enforcement. But Gwen McCrae was late to the recording session at TK Records in Hialeah, Florida. Tired of waiting, engineer Richard Finch and record store employee Harry Wayne (KC) Casey asked George to stand in. The result was “Rock Your Baby,” which topped the Billboard Hot 100 and R&B Charts in late July of 1974.

For two weeks that summer, McCrae would rule the airwaves, backed by the futuristic rhythms of an affordable drum machine and propelled by two songwriters who would help define the sound of dance music throughout the 1970s and beyond.

To be sure, “Rock Your Baby” was not the first disco hit to top the pop charts. That distinction probably goes to the Hues Corporation and their song “Rock the Boat.” But there was something about McCrae’s “Rock Your Baby” that smacked of the new — namely, the Roland TR 77, an early-generation drum machine and harbinger of the future. Good dance music means the beat stays in the pocket; now anybody could catch the beat, paving the way for disco to democratize the dance floor.

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But that hadn’t happened yet. In the early 1970s, drum machines were just finding their way into pop music. Sly Stone famously used the Maestro Rhythm King MRK-2 (the so-called “funk box”) on tracks like “Family Affair” (1971), and the instrument is featured throughout Shuggie Otis’s cult classic Inspiration Information (1974). Still, they were mostly intended for non-professionals; the first commercially available Roland drum machine was most likely to be used as an accompaniment for home organ players. In other words, it was just the kind of instrument that a fledgling record label in Hialeah, Florida might be able to barely afford, in lieu of hiring studio drummers.

Founded in 1972 by record store owner Henry Stone and singer Steve Alaimo, TK Records, like Memphis’s Stax Records, was a small regional label that needed its own record shop to distribute its records. Stone was an example of the post-World War II hustle that helped produce the record industry we came to know in the late 20th century. But it was in-house engineer Richard Finch and record store employee Harry Wayne Casey who would make the little Florida label a major player in the disco movement.

“Rock Your Baby” marked the beginning of that era. To find their sound, Casey and Finch had checked out what was moving the ground at local black clubs. (Casey would later suggest that he had taken special note of Hues Corporation’s “Rock the Boat.”) Next, McCrae laid down those serendipitous vocals. Then, they had to find their audience. At the time, radio was king, and, as Henry Stone admitted in an interview the year before his death, few songs got played without putting money on the table. You also needed to get the song to the right people. Disc jockeys like New York radio’s Frankie Crocker had the power to make or break a record — and he very well might have been the one to put TK’s new track on the national map.

“Rock Your Baby” was Finch and Casey’s first major hit, and they used that momentum to create the so-called TK Sound. Their group, KC and the Sunshine Band (Casey was lead singer), would go on to produce five number one Billboard Hot 100 songs between 1975 and 1979, including iconic tracks like "That's the Way (I Like It)" and "(Shake, Shake, Shake) Shake Your Booty." And Gwen McCrae would eventually have her moment when her 1975 track “Rockin’ Chair” topped the R&B charts and made the Billboard 100 top-ten.

But the TK influence didn’t stop there. Remember the Roland TR 77? TK used the little drum machine to such effect that its echoes reverberate throughout modern hip-hop. One of the label’s earliest hits was “Why Can’t We Be Together” by Timmy Thomas, which featured the Roland TR 77 (in a literal example of the machine accompanying an organ player). More than forty years later, the song was sampled on Drake’s “Hotline Bling.” Then there was McCrae’s “I Get Lifted” (from the same album that produced “Rock Your Baby”), which would be sampled by rapper Keith Murray on his eponymous head-nodder from 1994.

But all that was still far in the future. By the time 1977’s Saturday Night Fever topped the box office and its soundtrack topped the charts, “disco sucks” signs had already begun to circulate across the nation, and George McCrae had largely been forgotten. Legitimately what one might call a one-hit wonder, McCrae would never record another song that was remotely close to being a pop hit, and only had sporadic success on the R&B charts. But he never stopped making music. In all, McCrae recorded five albums for TK Records, including the duet album Together with his wife Gwen in 1975, shortly before their divorce. And he continues to record until this day; his most recent album Love, was released last year.

Listen to the completete top ten from the summer of 1974 on Spotify.  
 

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Mark Anthony Neal is Professor of African American Studies and English at Duke University and host of the video podcast Left of Black.  Neal is the author of several books including Soul Babies: Black Popular Culture and the Post-Soul Aesthetic and Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities. Follow him on Twitter at @NewBlackMan

 

ROLL DOWN THE WINDOWS, TURN UP THE VOLUME AND PREPARE TO SING ALONG AS AMERICAN EXPERIENCE CELEBRATES THE MUSIC OF THE SEASON WITH SONGS OF THE SUMMER.
IN 1958, BILLBOARD LAUNCHED ITS HOT 100, CHRONICLING THE SONGS THAT WERE FLYING OFF RECORD STORE SHELVES, PLAYING NON-STOP ON JUKE BOXES, AND BLARING THROUGH RADIO SPEAKERS. ALMOST SIXTY YEARS ON, HOW WE LISTEN TO MUSIC AND HOW WE TRACK A SONG’S SUCCESS MAY HAVE CHANGED, BUT MUSIC REMAINS A POWERFUL FORCE IN OUR CULTURE. EVERY FRIDAY FROM JUNE 2 THROUGH AUGUST 25, WE’LL REVEAL ONE ICONIC SONG THAT HIT THE CHARTS, ACCOMPANIED BY COMMENTARY FROM SOME OF OUR FAVORITE MUSIC WRITERS. EXPLORE OUR HISTORICAL MIXTAPE, AND CHECK BACK EACH FRIDAY FOR OUR NEXT TRACK.

Published June 30, 2017.

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