Disco, for those who don’t know it, is back. Has been for some time now. At Vinyl Lovers Lounge, the Friday night party I spin with L.A. DJ Daisy O’Dell, we play disco almost exclusively. And like anything you thought you knew, turns out there’s about a million different genres, sounds and classifications: Disco Funk, Italo Disco, Space Disco, Mutant Disco, etc…
For a genre that was hated and despised as a cultural joke and the object of countless predictable aspersions in film and media for over twenty years, it’s amazing how little we actually knew. The sad truth is that within the category of disco—whether electronic, European, psychedelic or soul-based—much of the dance music that dominated the decade of the 70s was as complex, unique, sophisticated and downright balls-out funky as any musical era in history.
Check out the Wikipedia “disco” entry for a rewardingly comprehensive overview. The basic formula involved an extension and fusion of psychedelic and black American soul music, incorporating positive messages and drug culture, into a sound that was orchestral and harmonic, with soaring vocals, insistent percussive “four on the floor” beat, a quavering 1/8 or 1/16 note hi-hat rhythm structure and a driving electric bass line, implemented with trumpet or other horns.
The permutations of this basic structure were endless and fascinating and spread out into all genres: jazz (Eddie Harris, Ramsey Lewis, Lalo Schifrin), pop (Ambrosia, Pete Townshend, the Rolling Stones) and funk (T-Connection, Brick). And yet, most people today still personify Disco as a crude white dude in a bad polyester suit, gold chains and platform boots tripping over a coke spoon.
The disco era resulted in one of the fiercest and widespread backlashes in modern music history (much of the vehemence tacitly fueled by racism and homophobia), giving rise to the Punk movement that featured plenty of garbled Fuck-You swagger from people who couldn’t even play their instruments. The great tragedy of the Disco Demolition was the displacement of a generation of prominent black musicians from the popular music landscape. It would be twenty years or so before mainstream American culture would embrace black musical artists again on such a wide scale. Hip-hop ironically evolved from the same records of the disco era, lost and forgotten by most listeners in the Great Dance Music Purge of the 80’s and 90’s.
I myself maintain a precious love for the Disco Divas—a genre I reserve for those beautiful soul singers that began life in the mode of Aretha or Tami Terrelle or Martha Reeves— Motown or Muscle Shoals. But finding themselves in the middle of the 70s, they adapted their sound and arrangements to fit the disco mold, though their voices rose like golden hawks melting into the sun.
I’m talking about goddesses like Millie Jackson, Candi Staton, Barbara Mason, Judy Cheeks, Betty Davis, Donna Summer, and, of course, Betty Wright. Betty came from Miami, where much of the disco scene originated. She recorded a series of great albums on Harry Stone's Alston Records label, distributed by disco powerhouse TK Productions.
Betty Travelin’ in the Wright Circle was the last of these efforts. Released in 1979, at the tail end of the disco era, it is about evenly divided between upbeat dance cuts and slinky or lilting soul ballads. The two styles strike a perfect balance in the awesome, “You’re Just What I Need,” perhaps one of the most underrated turn-down-the-light babymakers of all time.
“My Love Is” is a throwback to the Southern soul style pioneered by Millie Jackson, among others, of “rapping” through the song, sending out her love to her husband, Jerome, and an off-kilter reference to Paul McCartney—by turns a whisper and a chitlin-dripping shout.
But the best song is easily “Thank You for the Many Things You’ve Done,” a simple statement of love that means exactly what it says in the title. Nothing more, nothing less. I rank it among the finest love songs ever recorded. It’s impossible for me to hear it without tearing up a little, thinking of all the people in my life who have helped me get over my own bullshit, self-made or otherwise.
At this time of year, with Thanksgiving just around the corner, we can all afford to be a little humble, a little grateful. I’m supremely grateful the goddess Betty Wright put this forgotten little gem to wax.
BETTY WRIGHT BETTY TRAVELIN' IN THE WRIGHT CIRCLE, 1979, Alston