French music producer Jacques Morali, creator of the Village People, succumbed to AIDS in Paris on November 15, 1991 at the age of 44. Besides the Village People, Morali also wrote classic disco hits for the all-female group the Ritchie Family, including Best Disco in Town, Life Is Music and African Queens. Morali died one week after Magic Johnson announced he was HIV+ and a week-and-a-half before Queens' Freddie Mercury died of AIDS.
Part of the burgeoning gay scene of the late '70s, The Village People were embraced by gay men with the release of their song San Francisco/Hollywood. Despite lyrics filled with gay double entendres they crossed over to the general market, which got a kick out of the group's "camp pop". First came Macho Man followed by the ubiquitous YMCA, which spent three weeks at #2 on Billboard's Hot 100 in the winter of 1979. Their third album Go West was released in the spring and the single In the Navy went to #3. Rolling Stone Magazine even put them on its cover. However, overexposure soon ensued and the group "jumped the shark" in 1980 with their embarrassingly bad movie Can't Stop the Music.
The late '70s happened to be my formative coming-out years. I bought the Village People's eponymous first album (right) during the spring of my junior year at Penn State. I'd get a frisson of excitement listening to the lyrics of songs such as Key West and Fire Island - places I'd yet to experience. The dorm complex I lived at in University Park was where many members of the football team lived and some on my floor occasionally asked to borrow this LP for parties.
Unfortunately, Village People videos from You Tube aren't available for sharing but here's one of the Ritchie Family performing African Queens. From it you can see/hear the origins of the Village People sound/costuming.
When the first notes of a cheesy disco tune begin to play you may initially roll your eyes, but such songs can be a lot of fun on the dance floor. They're likely to have a good beat, an infectious hook and catchy sound effects. And with lyrics that are often non-sensical you can't help but chuckle. Inane, yes, but irresistible to dance to. (Of course, having a few drinks helps.) What follows is my honor roll of lovably cheesy disco tunes.
Ring My Bell (1979) - In my estimation, this is the silliest disco tune of all time and yet it was the nation's #1 song for two weeks. It was sung by Anita Ward, who some friends still confuse with R&B chanteuse Anita Baker or Anita Hill (of Clarence Thomas fame).
Get Off (1978) - 30+ years later and you probably still can't get the synthesized "Ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh, oohs" out of your head.
Macho Man (1978) - Actually, any song by the Village People qualifies for this list, but this one was their first top-40 hit.
Honey Bee (1974) - Sung by Gloria Gaynor before she became the pre-eminent disco diva with her classics Never Can Say Goodbye and I Will Survive. It was released in the early years of the disco era along with trifles such as Lady Bump by Penny McLean and Smarty Pants by First Choice. Although these three songs weren't commercial hits they were popular in gay discos.
Shake Your Groove Thing (1979) - What exactly is a "groove thing"? Based on the lyrics, "We put in motion every single part" and "We're bumpin' booties, havin' us a ball y'all", it appears it's any movable body part.
Instant Replay (1978) - Its opening countdown is one of the most distinctive of any song's. (Interestingly, the album it's on has a song called Countdown.) A very high spirited song, but what exactly is it about? Produced by Dan Hartman, he released the huge club hit Vertigo/Relight My Fire the following year.
Boogie Oogie Oogie (1978) - Any song with the word "Boogie" in its title qualifies for this list: Boogie Nights; Boogie Wonderland; Boogie Woogie Dancing Shoes; Boogie Fever; and Boogie Shoes. However, Boogie Oogie Oogie was the biggest of them all, spending three weeks atop Billboard's Hot 100.
Makin' It (1979) - Perhaps the "whitest" of any disco hit, it was sung by David Naughton, the star of the short-lived TV show of the same name. However, Naughton's real claim to fame was being the Dr. Pepper guy in TV commercials from the 1970s ("I'm a Pepper, you're a Pepper...").
The Main Event (1979) - By far the cheesiest of any Streisand single, and even more embarrassing than Rod Stewart's entree into disco earlier in the year, Do Ya Think I'm Sexy (which spent four weeks at #1). The Main Event, which made it to #5, was the title track from the equally awful movie Babs starred in with Ryan O'Neal.
Devil's Gun (1977) - The bass voice singing "Fee-Fie, Foe-Fum, you're looking down the barrel of the devil's gun" was especially catchy - in a Sesame Street sort of way.
Pow Wow (1979) - Its lyrics make reference to passing a piece pipe and a teepee being cold and empty; sound effects included Indian war whoops. It was sung by Cory Daye, best known as the lead singer of Dr. Buzzard's Savannah Band, whose big hit was Cherchez la Femme in 1976.
Get Up & Boogie (1976) - By the German group Silver Convention, a follow up to their breakout hit, Fly Robin Fly, the year before. The song is best known for its distinctive shout-out opening "That's Right!"
Funkytown (1980) - It has one of the most distinctive melodies of any song, with a great sax and strings interlude during the chorus. It spent four weeks at #1 and was one of the ten most popular songs of 1980.
Copacabana (1978) - Delta Dawn with a beat, Copacabana became one of Barry Manilow's eleven top-10 hits. It brings back fond memories of my college days at Penn State where on Friday evenings I'd go with friends to Mr. C's Disco to dance and drink tequila sunrises during happy hour.
Anita Ward, Barry Manilow, cheesy songs, Cherchez le Femme, classic disco, Copacabana, Cory Daye, Dan Hartman, David Naughton, Devil's Gun, Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band, Dr. Pepper, Funkytown, Gloria Gaynor, Instant Replay, Lady Bump, Macho Man, Mr. C's Disco, Ring My Bell, Shake Your Groove Thing, Silver Convention, The Main Event
During the summer of 1973 Cameroon-born saxophonist Manu Dibango'sSoul Makossa became the first "disco" record to enter the top 40 of Billboard's Hot 100 singles chart (peaking at #33). A song with African rhythms and tribal incantations ("ma-ma-ma-sa, ma-ma-ma-kosa"), its mainstream success was a bit of surprise. Since then a long list of artists have sampled parts of the song, the most popular being Michael Jackson's Wanna be Starting Somethin' (1982) and Rihanna'sDon't Stop the Music (2007).
A year passed before disco songs began appearing regularly on top-40 radio playlists. For the most part they had a more accessible "pop" feel than Makossa - Gloria Gaynor's Never Can Say Goodbye; Rock the Boat by Hues Corporation; KC & the Sunshine Band's That's the Way I Like It; and Vicki Sue Robinson's Turn the Beat Around. Billboard published its first "Disco Action" chart in autumn 1974.
These mainstream dance hits were popular in gay clubs as well, but there was a list of "parallel" hits that never made it beyond gay circles, making them even more cherished - songs like Cocomotion, Spank, Puff of Smoke, I Need a Man, Hot Shot, and Hold on to My Love.
Click here for a more in-depth account of Soul Makossa and its place in the disco-dancing pantheon.
In the summer of 1983 the dance song So Many Men, So Little Time by Miquel Brown was a huge club hit. However, its timing was peculiar as it was released in the early years of the AIDS crisis. Hearing it always gave me a chill and I was surprised there wasn't a backlash over its questionable message - or the cruel irony of the phrase "so little time".
To be sure, there were other songs that touched on a similar theme, such as Olivia Newton John's Physical and the Weather Girls' It's Raining Men, but they had more of a bubblegum feel to them and were popular somewhat before the full-blown AIDS panic took hold. As for So Many Men, perhaps it seemed removed from the gay experience because it was sung by a woman - but it unsettled me nonetheless.
30 years before Lady Gaga, Grace Jones was making herself known with her striking presence, outrageous fashion sense, distinct singing voice and inventive performance videos. Born and raised in Jamaica (birth name: Grace Mendoza), she moved with her family to the snow belt city of Syracuse, New York state when she was in her teens. Before becoming a singer she was a model who became part of Andy Warhol's glam circle. To me, she resembles an Amazonian version of Eartha Kitt. At the height of her fame, Grace gave birth to a son, Paulo, who is now 38 (as of April 2018).
Every year between 1977 and 1982 Grace released an album (and ten overall), but none became big commercial hits. Her highest charting LP, 1981's Nightclubbing, made it only to #32 on Billboard's album chart. However, songs such as I Need a Man (her first); Do or Die; and Pull up to the Bumper were big club hits. Besides those, other favorites of mine include La Vie en Rose;Nipple to the Bottle;Unlimited Capacity for Love; and Slave to the Rhythm. Her music style was hard to categorize - a bit disco, a bit new wave, a bit R&B.
In the 1980s, her Warhol years behind her, she tested her mainstream appeal by appearing in action movies such as Conan the Destroyer and was cast as the villain in the James Bond movie A View to a Kill. She also appeared in TV and print ads for Honda scooters.
Update: In time for her 70th birthday, a well-received documentary about Grace was released in April 2018 titled Bloodlight and Bami. And although it had very limited distribution it did well in the few markets where it screened.
Disco queen Donna Summer died on May 17, 2012, joining other beloved performers such as Sylvester and Loleatta Holloway on the great dance floor in the sky. She was 63. Simply put, Donna Summer = Disco. My coming out in the late 1970s coincided with her ascent to superstardom. Her double-LP Once Upon a Time (pictured, right) was the first disco album I owned, bought during the summer of 1977. I remember watching her TV special in November 1979 that coincided with the release of the double-LPLive and More, which featured MacArthur Park. (Every time I've gone to the Monster on Tuesday's Classic Disco night they always play the entire 17-minute MacArthur Park Suite.)
Interestingly, Summer won a Grammy in the Rock category in 1980 for Hot Stuff and received two other nominations in the category in 1982 and 1983. And on the same LP that had the Rock song Protection on it she also had a Gospel song titled I Believe in Jesus, which I actually liked. Besides these types of songs and her disco smashes she also had quite a few beautiful songs with slower tempos.
Even after her popularity began to wane in the mid-80s (partially due to a backlash caused after she made anti-gay statements) I enjoyed these later albums and their treasure trove of tuneful songs that were overlooked by many. In the summer of 1999 I saw her in concert at Jones Beach on a Friday night before heading out to my Fire Island share for the weekend. It was when she had a comeback hit with I Will Go With You (Con te Partiro).
With 100 of Donna's songs on my iPod, it was quite a challenge for me to narrow them down, but here are my most favorite, most which weren't big hits:
Love to Love You Baby (16:44 12-inch version)
Try Me (18-minute version) - from the LP "A Love Trilogy"
The Saint was the nation's (perhaps the world's) premiere gay dance club during the 1980's and its closing party began on April 30 1988 - and continued until Monday morning, May 2. Although I love dance music I was never part of the Saint crowd; however, I'd go once or twice a year. My first time there was in June 1981 a few weeks before it closed for the summer; the last time was two weeks before the final weekend. And it was more than just a dance floor - there were a lot of other places to explore and "experience".
An ex-lover of mine, Rick, went to closing weekend in two shifts. During his second shift he got into a bit of medical trouble because he bought some bad GHB and collapsed on the dance floor. He woke up in the special triage unit set up at the club for these type of "situations".
Here are five songs I most fondly associate with the Saint:
Hills of Katmandu - This beautifully tribal song is the one I associate most with the Saint. The club's renowned planetarium projector that rose out of the middle of the dance floor projected images of stars that swirled on the circular scrim-like ceiling above the dance floor. To me, this effect, along with the glow from the burnt orange lighting, evinced a feeling of being out on the savannahs of East Africa. Such a gorgeous song.
Your Love - This was played during my first visit to the club. It was the group Lime's first hit. While we danced to it, my boyfriend at the time passed out after taking a hit of poppers.
Dracula's Tango - A great dance song with a Halloween theme.
Eve of the War - This song is on par with the Hills of Katmandu in terms of its mystical/tribal vibe. What a beautiful orchestral opening. The only verse was, "Chances of anything coming from Mars are a million to one he said - but still, they come!". A number of years after the Saint closed I came across the 12-inch single among a pile of records someone was selling on Christopher St. What a find!
Tonight is What it Feels to be Young- From the soundtrack of the 1984 rock movie Streets of Fire.
The not-a-care-in-the-world vibe of the club was brought home to me during a visit in October 1983. It was a week after a truck bomb ripped apart a U.S. Marine barrack in Lebanon killing more than 250 servicemen. As I pranced on the dance floor at 3AM I thought of all the serious things going on in the world and how here on this fabulous dance floor I was insulated from all of it.
I bought the Village People's eponymous first albumwithout having heard any of its songs. I did so because their medley San Francisco/Hollywood had been high on Billboard's dance chart for months so I figured it was worth taking a chance on. I was in my junior year at Penn State and I bought the LP at the record store in State College in the spring of 1978. (The first disco album I bought was Donna Summer's double-LP Once Upon a Time the previous summer.)
The late 70's were my formative coming-out years and the songs on this album, e.g. Fire Island,Key West and San Francisco, provided me with somewhat of an education about gay life. I'd get a frisson of excitement listening to these songs' lyrics about places I'd yet to experience.
The dorm complex I lived in at University Park, West Halls (pictured), was where many members of the school's Nittany Lions football team lived; some players on my floor occasionally asked to borrow this LP for their parties. Despite the fact that the Village People were embraced by gay men and their song lyrics were filled with gay double entendres, they managed to cross over to the oblivious general market, who seemed to get a kick out of the group's "camp pop".
The first Village People song to chart was Macho Man, from their seconnd album,followed by the ubiquitous YMCA, which spent three weeks at #2 on Billboard's Hot 100 in the winter of 1979. Their third album Go West was released in the spring of 1979 and the single In the Navy went to #3. Rolling Stone Magazine even put them on its cover. However, overexposure soon ensued and the group "jumped the shark" in 1980 with their embarassingly bad movie Can't Stop the Music.
Other Village People-inspired posts found on ZeitGAYst:
Three years after their first hit single, Waterloo, ABBA had their one and only #1 hit in the U.S. - Dancing Queen. Although it stayed on top for just one week - Thelma Houston's Don't Leave Me This Way was breathing down its neck - it became a beloved classic. Despite their wild popularity worldwide, here in the U.S. ABBA managed to have just four top-10 hits. (They had ten other singles that peaked between #12-#32.) It was a similar fate met by other singers from foreign shores such as Kylie Minogue, Robbie Williams and Boney M.
A few years after Dancing Queen, ABBA had a string of dance-oriented tunes that became big hits in gay clubs: Voulez Vous; The Visitors; Lay All Your Love on Me; On and On and On and Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight). A lasting memory of my first visit to Fire Island Pines, in July 1982, was dancing to The Visitors at the Pavilion.
Even today, strolling along Fire Island Boulevard, you're certain to hear Dancing Queen coming from at least a few of the houses in the Pines (or in Cherry Grove). At my house it was a tradition to play it whenever we celebrated a housemate's birthday after the cake was presented. But while the song's lyrics are certainly appropriate for "the gays", I never thought the beat was fast enough to make it particularly danceable (at least for my taste).
I planned to show a video of ABBA performing but, unfortunately, they're such wooden performers that instead I chose one of Kylie Minogue performing Dancing Queen at the closing ceremonies of the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney.
Every Tuesday is "classic disco" night at the Monster, the famed West Village bar/piano bar/dance club - and it's heaven. Wonderfully danceable tunes are spun from disco's halcyon days (1977-1982), bringing back memories of carefree days when I was first coming out. Although detractors think disco music is no more than "thump thump thump" with bells and whistles thrown in, many songs have delightful lyrics. To pay tribute, here (in no particular order) are 15 of my favorite snippets of lyrics:
"How can you stop a trembling hand, reaching for another hand, even though it is - forbidden love?" (Forbidden Love - Madleen Kane, 1979) I first heard this song during a visit to the Gaiety Theater (long before Madonna discovered it) in Times Square shortly before I moved to NYC.
"We'll find a place for celebrations and dance and souvenirs and romance we'll keep on moving." (Souvenirs - Voyage, 1978-79)
"Let's fly away this golden day and magic songs are going to wake us." (Let's Fly Away - Voyage, 1978-79) Wow, two beloved classics on one album!
"Some people ask of me, what are you gonna do, why don't you go get a job?"All that I can say, I won't give up my music - not me, not now, no way, no how! (Lost in Music - Sister Sledge, 1984) The title of this post is also from a classic by these sisters (but you probably already knew that).
"Late night flight, LAX, limousine and you're all set on Sunset." (Sunset People - Donna Summer, 1979)
"It's a nightmare, it's a daymare, it's an every-which-way-mare." (Faster and Faster to Nowhere - Donna Summer, 1977) I could easily write a post devoted just to Summer's songs.
"Your body, my body, everybody move your body." (Let's All Chant - Michael Zager Band, 1978) This was the first 12-inch single I purchased. It was also featured in a scene in the movie The Eyes of Laura Mars, starring Faye Dunaway.
"Baby, my heart is full of love and desire for you. Now come on down and do what'cha gotta do. You started this fire down in my soul. And now it's burning out of control." (Don't Leave Me This Way - Thelma Houston, 1977) This song is distinguished by its beautifully plaintive opening.
"Now there's no need for me to eat an apple every day, oh he's all I ever need to take any pain away." (Dr. Love - First Choice, 1977) Whenever I hear this song I think of a former roommate whose disdain for disco music began after hearing the lyrics of this song.
"And when she's sweet sixteen she packs her things and leaves with a man she met on the street. Carmen starts to bawl, bangs her head to the wall - too much love is worse than none at all." (There But for the Grace of God - Machine, 1979) A "message" song that you can dance to! Radio stations often played a more "listener friendly" version which replaced the phrase "no blacks, no Jews and no gays" with "where only upper class people stay".
"You're too much for me, there's a fire in me, DAMN YOU sinner man!" (Sinner Man - Sarah Dash, 1978) Dash is a former member of the group Labelle.
"Blow horns, you sure sound pretty, your violins keep moving to the nitty gritty. When you hear the sound of the guitar scratchin', then you know that rhythm carries all the action." (Turn the Beat Around - Vicki Sue Robinson, 1976) An early crossover hit, recently its melody was used in a commercial for "I Can't Believe It's Not Butter", starring Will & Grace's Megan Mullally. To view it double click here.
"Better think - what it's like to be all alone. Better think - what it's like in an empty home. Better think - cause I'm willing to forgive and forget. Better think - about the love that you ain't gonna get - oooh!" (Think it Over - Cissy Houston, 1978) Cissy Houston is Whitney's mother and, in fact, 15-year-old Whitney provided background vocals. The following video clip has high camp value - a dance instruction video for white middle America overlaid with Cissy's song.
"How many times have your feelings been ignored and you say to yourself, "this is it!" Here it comes again, you've got love again, just when you thought you had yourself together." (In the Name of Love - Sharon Redd, 1982) Redd was one of Bette Midler's back-up singers in the 1970s known as the Harlettes. She died of AIDS in 1992.
"Sweet sensation, I can’t find the words to explain. You're such a hot temptation, you just walk right in and take me away." (Love Sensation - Loleatta Holloway, 1980) With Holloways's growlingly passionate voice, can you imagine anyone else singing this fierce classic?
Cissy Houston, classic disco, Donna Summer, gay dance clubs in New York, I Can't Believe It's Not Butter, Loleatta Holloway, Madleen Kane, Megan Mullally, Michael Zager Band, Sarah Dash, Sharon Redd, Sister Sledge, The Eyes of Laura Mars, The Monster bar in Greenwich Village Vicki Sue Robinson, Thelma Houston