Disco never got enough credit.
This weekend, the national library’s disco celebration will culminate with a performance from Gloria Gaynor, whose 1978 anthem “I Will Survive” was inducted last year into the library’s National Recording Registry, a collection of sound recordings deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically important.”
When Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” and the “Saturday Night Fever” soundtrack were chosen by the library years ago, they were labeled as “pop” recordings. This year, Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family,” another disco-era track, made the cut, but as “R&B.” It was Gaynor’s song that jump-started the library’s formal appreciation for disco, Carla Hayden told the NewsHour.
“We thought what better way to … celebrate a certain period of time that is a uniter right now,” she said.
Hayden added that there have been many different genres — jazz, rap, disco, among others — that “at the time other people said, ‘Oh my goodness, this will never last.’ And here we are,” she said.
Music historian Bill Brewster, who co-wrote “Last Night a DJ Saved My Life: The History of the Disc Jockey,” said that everything we know about disco is “almost certainly wrong.”
“Disco’s legacy is frequently reduced to polyester pants, glittery eye-make up, cocaine at Studio 54 and a poor taste joke at the expense of the Village People. Yet it was so much more than that,” he told the NewsHour in an email.
“It was a force for liberation. And it was also the most fun you could have with your clothes on,” he added.
In that spirit, the arts desk asked Brewster to sift through his record collection to spotlight five disco tracks. He explains, in his own words, how each one is a revolutionary time capsule of a genre that deserves more recognition:
1. “I Feel Love” by Donna Summer
Donna Summer was discovered by producer Giorgio Moroder while working in a touring stage production of “Hair.” The pair’s breakthrough was the breathy and sensual 1974 hit “Love To Love You Baby” on a label that came to be synonymous with disco’s excesses, Casablanca. “I Feel Love” was conceived as a song for the future on Summer’s 1977 LP, “I Remember Yesterday,” in which different eras were evoked with varying elements of success.
The only organic element to the whole song, aside from Summer’s auto-erotic delivery, is Keith Forsey’s kick-drum. The rest of the song is entirely comprised of synthesizers and drum machines. As a song of the future, it is remarkably prescient.
2. “Hooked On You” by Cerrone
French drummer and producer Cerrone, one of the leaders of the Eurodisco sound, came over to New York and — utilizing the best of NYC and France’s session musicians (including a young Jocelyn Brown) — made one of the best albums of the late disco period. “Hooked On You,” with its graphically brilliant refrain — “Don’t need no grass or cocaine, I’m hooked on you” — demonstrated what could be done with a great song and a kick-ass rhythm section.
3. “Ten Percent” by Double Exposure
If disco’s home is New York, then its studio was most certainly in Philadelphia, specifically Joe Tarsia’s Sigma Sound. Double Exposure was a studio creation, led by Baker, Harris and Young, three of Philly’s best songwriters, musicians and producers. The trio wrote, produced and played on this.
Originally it was produced as a three-minute song for the 7-inch version, but New York DJ Walter Gibbons, in his first foray into the studio, turned it into almost 10 minutes of undulating drama. It became the first-ever 12-inch single to be commercially released, on New York’s legendary Salsoul label.
4. “Over & Over” by Sylvester
Though Sylvester is better known for “(You Make Me Feel) Mighty Real,” this is his magnus opus. It never made it beyond the lower echelons of the R&B charts, but it was a huge club smash and represents all that is good about disco.
“Over and Over” was co-produced by Sylvester himself, alongside longtime collaborator and former Motown man Harvey Fuqua; it was written by one of disco’s most talented teams, Ashford & Simpson. As good as the song is, “Over & Over” is almost as famous for its breakdowns (one of disco’s defining facets), before the strings return to vault it off into the stratosphere once more.
5. “Rock Your Baby” by George McCrae
“Rock Your Baby” introduced a completely new sound when it was released in 1974, as one of the first hits to feature a drum machine. It was written and produced by a white songwriting duo, Richard Finch and Harry Casey, who went on to write and produce scores of hits for various artists as well as for their own band, KC & The Sunshine Band.
Brewster’s words have been edited lightly for length and clarity.