The History of Disco.
Disco music and Fire Island have a lot in common. Much of it was tested here as many company executives spent time here. The long playing disco single was created here. Also the DJs from some of the hottest clubs worked here also. Like everything it has it’s history…
Some say the dance-club scene started in the 1960s in New York City, with discotheques—Regine’s, Le Club, Shepheard’s, Cheetah, Ondine, and Arthur, which was opened by Sybil Burton after Richard Burton left her for Elizabeth Taylor. Arthur—named after George Harrison’s quip in A Hard Day’s Night (“What would you call that hairstyle?” “Arthur”)—featured D.J. Terry Noel, who may have been the first person to play two records simultaneously to create a mix. Arthur drew the same celebrity crowd that had been slumming at the Peppermint Lounge, a hustler bar off Times Square, where Judy Garland and Jackie Kennedy did the Twist with dance instructor “Killer” Joe Piro.
Some say the 1960s Parisian club scene—Chez Castel, Chez Régine—started it all. These were sophisticated spots where, by the end of the decade, one heard such erotic songs as Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin’s steamy duet “Je T’Aime … Moi Non Plus” and Isaac Hayes’s dreamy, 12-minute version of “Walk On By.” But most agree that none of this really mattered until the early 1970s, when gay underground dance clubs in New York—the Loft, Tenth Floor, 12 West, Infinity, Flamingo, and, later, the Paradise Garage, Le Jardin, and the Saint—spawned a disco culture that brought with it open drug use, on-site sex, and ecstatic, nonstop, all-night dancing.
No one who was there then and is still here now remembers it the same way. The clubs, the music—the experience is recalled in an almost psychedelic haze. Flashing strobe lights, amyl nitrite, qualudes, swirling sweating bodies, and a pulsating, four-to-the-floor (boom-boom-boom-boom) high-energy rhythm—all energized by the music that became known as disco.
When we made “Love to Love You Baby,” we knew it was somewhat innovative, but nobody knew people would jump on that bandwagon and all of a sudden the whole world would be going disco. —Donna Summer
New York, 1969, and a club named The Continental Baths opens and the Sanctuary opens on West 43rd Street with now legendary DJ Francis Grasso. Jerry Butler’s Only The Strong Survive record is released. It pioneers the Philly Sound that would become one of the most important elements of Disco music history.
Such clubs entertain and engage the growing confidence of marginalized groups at this time. African American, lesbian and gay, psychedelic, Latino mix with hipster heterosexuals in the New York City and Philadelphia clubs during the late 1960s and early 1970s. In a decade of growing social fragmentation and lifestyle choices, the reaction against the dominant white rock music and culture in America champions the dance music scene of the jazz heyday. Disco also appeals to women, newly liberated by the pill and feminism now a topic of the modern workplace. Women seek to go out unchaperoned, get dressed up, spend their hard-earned wages and dance the night away to funk, latin, and soul music.
Many disco sounds and sights also take inspiration from hippy culture elements such as psychedelic, free love, colorful clothing and drug-taking. It is the era of the counter-culture, the dawning of the age of Aquarius and emancipation and freedom.
Meanwhile, back in Paris, clubs are playing erotic tracks like Serge Gainsbourg’s Je T’Aime, Moi Non Plus and long, smooth tracks such as Isaac Hayes’s Walk On By.
Disco made it’s way to Fire Island as the Tiffany Disco evolves into the Ice Palace in Cherry Grove, and the jukebox in the Pines is replaced with live DJs.
Nile Rodgers, songwriter, guitarist, producer, co-founder—with bassist Bernard Edwards—of Chic (“Le Freak,” “Good Times”): Bernard and I were typical R&B and funk musicians, and we knew that if we could get people on the dance floor we could get a record deal. It was exactly that calculated.
Individual styles are choreographed to match the different disco sounds and vocals. The Hustle becomes a common name for a number of stylized moves. This partner-dance uses elaborate hand movements and funky twists and turns, influenced by swing dancing of the 1930s and 40s. Other dances also influence the style of disco dancing such as the Latino moves of Mambo and Salsa. Dancing in a line is popularized first in Florida and then New York City, during the early 1970s.
Initially ignored by radio, disco received its first significant exposure in deejay-based underground clubs that catered to black, gay, and Latino dancers. Deejays were a major creative force for disco, helping to establish hit songs and encouraging a focus on singles: a new subindustry of 12-inch, 45-rpm extended-play singles evolved to meet the specific needs of club deejays. The first disco qua disco hit was Gloria Gaynor’s “Never Can Say Goodbye” (1974), one of the first records mixed specifically for club play. While most of disco’s musical sources and performers were African American, the genre’s popularity transcended ethnic lines, including both interracial groups (e.g., KC and the Sunshine Band) and genre-blending ensembles (e.g., the Salsoul Orchestra).
As disco evolved into its own genre in the United States, its range of influences included upbeat tracks from Motown, the choppy syncopation of funk, the sweet melodies and polite rhythmic pulse of Philadelphia soft soul, and even the most compelling polyrhythms of nascent Latin American salsa. Its lyrics generally promoted party culture. As the dance-floor mania developed into a more upscale trend, the cruder sensuality of funk was eclipsed by the more polished Philadelphia sound and the controlled energy of what came to be known as Eurodisco.
Model Tom Moulton arrives on Fire Island, and somehow revolutionizes disco with the creation of the long playing disco mix. It’s tested at the Sandpiper in the Pines and is a hit. The Tea Dance created in 1966 becomes the epicenter of Fire Island as the Disco revolution explodes throughout the 1970’s.
Gloria Gaynor, singer (“Honey Bee,” “I Will Survive”): I was out in the clubs in New York City in 1971, ‘72, feeling the pulse, knowing what was going on. I saw them setting up D.J. booths in closets—taking the top half of the door off, putting in a plank of wood, and that’s what [the D.J.] put his turntable on.
Giorgio Moroder, songwriter, producer (“Love to Love You Baby,” “I Feel Love”): I thought if I ever had an idea for a sexy song like “Je T’Aime,” I would like to do it. So I told Donna, if you come up with some lyrics.… One day she came to my studio and said, “I think I have an idea for lyrics,” and she hummed something like “Mmmmmmm … love to love you baby.” I did a demo, presented it to some people at midem [an international song convention], and the reaction was incredible.
Donna Summer, singer, songwriter (“Bad Girls,” “She Works Hard for the Money”): I originally recorded “Love to Love You Baby” on a dare from Giorgio that I couldn’t be sexy. It was a joke that worked. All that orgasmic stuff … I thought they were kidding—I desperately tried to get them to get someone else to sing the song. Then I made them turn the lights off, get some candles, have some atmosphere. I was going closer and closer to the floor and finally I was lying on the floor. It took a good hour to get me comfortable; I just started singing what came to mind. I was thinking of how Marilyn Monroe would do it.
Giorgio Moroder: At first, it didn’t have too much moaning. But on the album [version], she had like 70 [moans].… I think [we did it in] one take.
Donna Summer: Giorgio didn’t want me to sing like an R&B singer. I came from church and was used to belting it out. Giorgio wanted me to be international. Then Neil [Bogart] picked it up from there.
European disco—rooted in Europop, with which it is largely synonymous—evolved along somewhat different lines. In Europe producers such as (Jean-Marc) Cerrone (Love in C Minor) and Alec Costandinos (Love and Kisses) made quasi-symphonic disco concept albums, while Giorgio Moroder, working primarily at Musicland Studios in Munich, West Germany, conceived of whole album sides as a single unit and arrived at a formula that became the standard approach to European dance music in the 1980s and ’90s. These continental differences did not prevent intercultural collaborations such as that between Moroder and American singer Donna Summer, nor did they close off input from other sources: Cameroonian artist Manu Dibango’s “Soul Makossa,” first a dance-floor hit in Paris, helped usher in the disco era in 1973.
Disco moved beyond the clubs and onto the airwaves in the mid-1970s. From 1976 the U.S. Top 40 lists burst with disco acts such as Hot Chocolate, Wild Cherry, Chic, Heatwave, Yvonne Elliman, and Summer. Key to the commercial success were a number of savvy independent labels such as TK in Miami, Florida, and Casablanca in Los Angeles. In 1977 the Bee Gees-dominated Saturday Night Fever soundtrack on the RSO label made disco fully mainstream and inspired forays by rock musicians such as Cher (“Take Me Home”), the Rolling Stones (“Miss You”), and Rod Stewart (“D’Ya Think I’m Sexy?”). Its popularity was matched by an equally ferocious criticism as the genre’s commercialization overwhelmed its subversively homoerotic and interracial roots.
Studio 54 opens and the world of Disco and Fire Island collide. The clientele is the same as the gay contingent in the Pines grows. Those music executives and DJs begin to use Fire Island as a testing site for new releases such as Donna Summer’s “Bad Girls.”
After a brief run as the top pop music genre in 1978-1979, disco began to lose its patented dance groove. In addition, its success stimulated a cultural backlash from the more reactionary elements of the white establisment. “Disco sucks” dominated bumper stickers and graffiti of the day. There were disco record bonfires and anti-disco protests that occasionally degenerated into riots (e.g., a Yankee Stadium baseball game). The rock press widely criticized the genre.
By 1980, the best dance music was again coming from its original source, black pop. Disco was absorbed back into the underground, to be resurrected in the 1980s as dance-oriented rock (DOR), alternative dance, house, go-go, electronic dance music, and, ultimately, techno. Donna Summer was the only notable disco artist to maintain past chart successes.
Today disco thrives as another generation discovers a genre that makes you smile. That smile continues on Fire Island where the Tea Dance continues, and young gays dance happily to music that was way before their time…