Henry Stone, the founder of the hit-machine that was T.K. Records (and its associated labels and sub-labels), died last week at the impressively ripe old age of 93. It was T.K. that issued dancefloor gold like T-Connection’s At Midnight; Jimmy ‘Bo’ Horne’s Spank; Peter Brown’s Do You Wanna Get Funky With Me? and the ultimate money-makers, Anita Ward’s Ring My Bell and George McCrae’s Rock Your Baby (which happened to be the first soul single I ever bought, in its injection-mould labelled UK 45 incarnation).
Music legend has it that McCrae pulled a knife on Stone in an argument about unpaid royalties after the record became an international hit and Stone is supposed to have settled the debt with a roll of bills and the keys to his Cadillac (depending on whom you believe, McCrae left the studio either knowing or not knowing that his new car was in fact a rental). However, the whole story may well be invention, since Stone was no Morris Levy, the crooked music supremo who built an empire out of swindling black artists and is often credited as the inspiration for Hesh Rabkin in The Sopranos. As Jacob Katel wrote in the Miami New Times last week, Stone “made many artists very rich, always paid what he owed, and is held in high esteem by 90 per cent of everybody who ever worked with him.”
Stone was no Henry-come-lately to black music when TK rode the disco wave so successfully throughout the 1970s. As a young man, he had played trumpet in the US Army’s first racially-integrated band while stationed in New Jersey towards the end of the Second World War. After a post-demob stint on the West Coast, he moved to Miami in 1947, where he built a record distribution empire (and a smaller recording operation) parlaying his intimate knowledge of what were then called ‘race records’ into a very successful business. There is no doubt he had an excellent ear for talent: it was Stone who first recorded the then unknown Ray Charles back in 1951, and he went on to record James Brown’s first hit, Please, Please, Please in 1956, and, much later Funky Nassau by The Beginning of the End and Clean Up Woman by Betty Wright, both big crossover r’n’b hits in 1971.
But it was Why Can’t We Live Together by session musician (and Miami lounge club owner) Timmy Thomas in 1972 that Stone himself credited as the first TK record. It’s probably the ultimate exhibit in the argument for less-is-more: Thomas’s passionate plea for racial harmony is wailed over his minimally bluesy sustained organ chords and stabs and a primitive drum machine. After that came a string of much bigger, busier and grander productions, not least from TK’s house group, KC & The Sunshine Band (whose co-founders wrote Rock Your Baby before giving it to McCrae), with their big-hitting singles including That’s The Way (I Like It) and (Shake, Shake, Shake) Shake Your Booty (one day, there’s a disco mixtape to be made using nothing but songs with partially-bracketed titles).
I came across King Tutt’s Comin’ Out, a relatively obscure T.K. Disco 12”, in a massive stash my friend Liz found abandoned by the previous owner when she moved into her old Brixton flat. Such a title in the iconic TK record sleeve made it irresistible, even though at that time I don’t think I knew the bigger underground hit by the band, You’ve Got Me Hung Up (it’s on the first volume of Joey Negro’s The Soul Of Disco series). I haven’t been able to find out how this long-established Southern-based touring r’n’b band found their way into Henry Stone’s orbit, but it was his labels that issued their only three singles. Comin’ Out was the last of them, appearing shortly before TK itself went bankrupt during the early ’80s US recession (the anti-disco backlash probably didn’t help either).
Typical of the post-disco moment, the track channels the kind of bass-heavy laidback funk that was slinking across clubland at the time. (If you want more, try Mahogany’s Ride On The Rhythm or Logg’s You’ve Got That Something or Barbara Mason’s Another Man.) There is no sign of the soaring strings of the ’70s: now it’s the horns that are providing the crucial musical texture, and after that two-bar breakdown just a little over halfway through, they kick off the party-in-a-record-studio sequence: “If you wanna come out tonight, it’s all right/If you wanna come out today, it’s okay.” It’s lines like that that meant I used to think Comin’ Out was a funky anthem of self-actualisation. But the more I listen to the rest of the words, the less I’m sure these days. “Fellas! When you see something outta sight and she asks you to spend the night, what you do? Knock it out!” On closer examination, that doesn’t really feel like the gayest lyric ever. Oh well. Who cares, ultimately? In the end, Comin’ Out is all about that low-slung dirty popping 116bpm bassline. Knock it out, knock it out, knock it out!
Henry Stone himself remained a musical player almost to the end, and when TK went bankrupt in 1981 he cannily retained control over his back catalogue in a way that Mel Cheren over at West End failed to do when the New York label stumbled into deep financial problems a couple of years later. For sure, in the later years, Stone’s ear for a hit might not have been as fine as it once was, and when he decided to bankroll the hip-hop novelty act 2 Live Jews (featuring his stone Joe as Easy Irving and comedian Eric Lambert as Moisha MC), he may have been acting as a father first and music exec second. (Still, can the world honestly be said to be a worse place for containing, thanks to Henry, 2 Live Jews’ 1990 debut, As Kosher As They Wanna Be? Look at that back cover note: “The rhythms and rhymes by Moisha and Irving are their own. The Jewish people and Kosher Records take no responsibility for their lack of rhythm on this album.”)
When the Dance Music Hall of Fame was launched in New York ten years ago to celebrate the achievements of the artists, producers and DJs in an often-overlooked musical genre, Henry Stone was the first to win the Board of Directors’ Lifetime Achievement Award for Non-Performers (Mel Cheren was similarly honoured a year later). It was richly deserved recognition. For more pointers about the TK records you don’t yet know you love, head over to Joey Negro’s Facebook page, where the disco don has been posting links to some great stuff, all of which was new to me. Henry Stone, you will always ring my bell.
Leroy Bell and Casey James may well be the best ’70s songwriting partnership you never knew you knew. As Bell & James, the pair of multi-instrumentalists put together two albums’ worth of their own material in the late ’70s, the first of which included their biggest hit, Livin’ It Up (Friday Night), which went gold in 1979.
But probably more significant than their own work at the time is the portfolio of hits they wrote for Mighty Three Music, the Philly publishing company run by Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff and Thom Bell (who happened to be Leroy’s uncle, but more famously was the Sigma Sound producer behind some of the most enduring songs to emerge from the City of Brotherly Love).
Bell and James composed This Time Baby for The O’Jays in 1978, which became a massive dancefloor success for Jackie Moore when she covered it a year later. They wrote Mama Can’t Buy You Love for Elton John in 1977, the original big hit from The Thom Bell Sessions EP when it was finally issued two years later. (They also co-wrote Are You Ready For Love with Thom Bell for the same release, a track which was overlooked for decades until British DJ Ashley Beedle re-worked it into a crossover hit ten years ago.) And they contributed the title tune to the cult 1979 basketball film The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh (no, I hadn’t heard of it, either): and while long-time New York Times critic Janet Maslin may have dismissed the movie as ‘cheerfully inoffensive entertainment designed for the crowd that liked Car Wash’ (ouch!), even she had to admit that the disco soundtrack was excellent – even if she did add ‘but you could listen to that at home’ (double ouch!).
So it is not surprising to find the pair with writer credits on the self-titled album Thom Bell produced for Dee Dee Bridgewater in 1980. Neither of the singer’s previous two LPs for Elektra, Just Family in 1978 and Bad For Me in ’79, had taken off in the way her talent deserved (although the title track from the latter was a club hit once again championed by Larry Levan). So the money men were hoping that Thom Bell’s magic touch would finally generate the payback that had eluded his jazz/funk-oriented predecessors Stanley Clarke (Just Family) and George Duke (Bad For Me).
The Bell and James song Gunshots In The Night is an uptempo first-person ballad of a doomed relationship between two childhood sweethearts, who fall into a life of crime only to be separated forever when the young man takes on one last job and dies in the inevitable hail of bullets. This narrative of romantic and criminal failure perfectly suits the melancholy mood that runs through the whole album, which opens with Dee Dee abandoned on the dancefloor in the exquisite Lonely Disco Dancer (‘Dancin’, everybody’s dancin’/Here I am just all by myself now/It’s so hard for me to go on’) and closes with the delicate Jody (Whoever You Are), all keening woodwind figures and fluttering string charts.
That dying fall characterises much of Thom Bell’s work from his early Delfonics hit Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time) onwards. But there was also more than enough personal and professional pain in Dee Dee’s own life at the time for her to channel into a blue note-inflected recording.
She had, for example, won a Tony for creating the role of Glinda the Good Witch in the original Broadway production of The Wiz in 1975. It should have been a wonderful moment, but when the show’s teen star Stephanie Mills wasn’t even nominated, some of the cast decided that that was Dee Dee’s fault, and in a 1996 interview with the Chicago Tribune jazz critic Howard Reich she says sections of the black press at the time alleged she had slept her way into the judges’ affections – an especially bitter accusation since her role had in fact been cut in previews and her then boyfriend Gilbert Moses replaced as director when she refused to succumb to the advances of one of the show’s producers. (Like a number of the cast of The Wiz, Stephanie Mills would of course go on to a stellar disco career, the biggest of her hits being 1980’s Never Knew Love Like This Before, written for her by former Miles Davis sidemen James Mtume and Reggie Lucas).
Moses was no help, either. The ousted director couldn’t cope with her success on the show he had been booted off, and he took out his frustrations on her at first through humiliation and control and later by lashing out with his fists (‘They never said it’d be like this’). With her stage work tainted by unjust sexual accusations and her home life threatened by physical violence, the 25-year-old took herself to the brink of despair by attempting to overdose with sleeping pills.
In the aftermath of the attempt on her own life, she fled to the West Coast in 1976 (‘I try to put the nightmare from my mind’), hoping to parlay her theatrical success into a mainstream music and film career. But she made the all too human error of agreeing to marry Moses when he followed her to LA – although she assured him he would be dead if he ever hit her again, and took to sleeping with a huge butcher’s knife under her pillow (‘There ain’t no room for dreaming left in me’).
But the price of Moses keeping his hands to himself was his systematic undermining of her every break (‘fools reap what they sow’). One more story from the Howard Reich interview (you can read the whole piece here): when Dee Dee was originally cast in the TV mini-series Roots just before she was scheduled to have her tonsils out, Moses convinced the production team her voice would be ruined if she took the job after the operation – and then contrived to get himself a directing gig on the show she’d been bumped from. (‘I’ve heard that story too, too many times’). They did end up working together on one film he directed, though – yup, that’s right, The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh (Janet Maslin mentions her in the list of ‘good individual performances … that don’t last long enough to get going’).
With her Elektra contract unrenewed, her film career no further forward than her musical one, and her marriage to Moses working its way through the divorce courts, Dee Dee decided to join the international tour of the musical revue Sophisticated Ladies in 1983, and it was in France that she finally began to find acceptance, understanding and validation as the jazz singer she always was. Since 1989, eight of her albums have been nominated for Grammys and three of them have won. And no-one has been spreading any stories to smear a single one of those successes.
So this is my own re-edit of Gunshots In The Night, a track I discovered not when I was digitising my own vinyl but someone else’s – mon frère disco Philippe, who brought it back to London with him after a trip back home to Toulouse a couple of years ago. As you can hear, I’ve not gone down the Theo Parrish route of minimalist looping hypnosis, but left the song structure more or less intact instead, extending the intro and building a more complete breakdown to give Bob Babbitt’s lovely stepwise bass figure and the Motown-ish call and response between Dee Dee and her backing singers the space they deserve to drive the song back towards its climax. All together now … ‘Can’t you hear me? Won’t you answer me?’
According to legend, it took Paradise Garage DJ Larry Levan several weeks to break Taana Gardner’s surprisingly slo-mo single Heartbeat in 1981. Certainly there are many witnesses who remember things that way. Yet not everybody does. Which is not really that surprising, since ‘memory’ is probably less of a personal database of objective events and more of a function that alters our realities every time we store and retrieve anything from our experience. And that might be why Paddy McAloon was on to something when he wrote in 1988 (entirely coincidentally shortly after the Garage closed), ‘Nothing sounds as good as, “I remember that”/Like a bolt out of the blue, did you feel it too?’ Because shared memories might actually feel as thrilling as they do simply because they are as rare as a rumble of thunder from an azure sky.
‘When he put [Heartbeat] on,’ Danny Krivit tells Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton in Last Night A DJ Saved My Life, ‘a full club of people left the room to get food.’ To a lesser DJ, that might mean disaster. But clearing the dancefloor was no mis-step for a taste-maker like Levan, who had more than a little non-conforming steel in his disco soul. So he kept playing the track, sometimes several times a night, until the dancers changed their minds. ‘By the end of the month, there was no-one left off the floor when they played that record,’ Danny says.
Mel Cheren, who financed the Garage and founded West End Records, remembers things pretty much the same way in his memoir Keep On Dancin’ (New York: 24 Hours For Life, 2000). He says he was mesmerised when producer Kenny (Kenton) Nix first played him the instrumental demo in the West End office. ‘It was like no other disco song I had ever heard – slower, dreamier, more alluring than anything on the market.’ They decided to use Taana Gardner to add a vocal (she had already given the label two uptempo hits in 1979, Work That Body and When You Touch Me) and hand the final mixing work to Larry himself.
But when the Garage DJ started playing the finished vocal version a few weeks later, Mel says the same thing as Danny, that the dancers didn’t feel it at all. ‘At first, they would leave the floor,’ he recalls. But Larry knew he could change their minds, however long it might take. ‘Kenny and I agree that if it weren’t for Larry’s persistence in playing Heartbeat until his audience finally got it, nothing would have happened with it,’ Mel says. (Whenever you have 80-odd minutes to spare, you can find out more about the late Mel Cheren, West End Records and the Paradise Garage on the absorbing documentary below.)
The story rings true because it contains a number of elements that chime with everything we know about Larry Levan, even those of us who have only read about him, played his mixes and listened to Live At The Paradise Garage, the only official record of his work at the club whose name he would bequeath to an entire sub-genre of dance music. He was as stubborn as he was inspired, and almost supernaturally connected to his dancers. But there’s another aspect of his personality that often features in the testimonies of those who were closest to him, his gut instinct for dancefloor drama. And it’s that drive that underpins a contrasting story about his connection to Heartbeat, as recalled by producer Kenny Nix in the sleeve notes to the snappily-titled compilation, Larry Levan’s Classic West End Records Remixes Made Famous At The Legendary Paradise Garage.
In this version, Kenny drops off an acetate of the instrumental in the booth one night, and watches Larry check it out in his headphones while Sylvester’s You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real) thumps through the Garage system. But although the two songs share the kind of common lyrical space that Larry seems always to have been attuned to (Sylvester: ‘I feel your body close to mine’; Taana: ‘My heart beats for the one I love.’), Sylvester’s scurries along at 134 bpm, while Taana’s slinks around at 98. Others might have clocked the massive tempo disparity as a problem, but Larry spotted an opportunity for making mayhem. ‘Go downstairs,’ he tells Kenny. ‘ You’re not going to want to see what I do with this record.’
To accommodate the sudden change of pace, Larry could have faded Sylvester away under the eponymous heartbeat that ushers in the Taana Gardner track. Or he might have used the pitch adjustment on his turntable to slow down Mighty Real stepwise in order to clue up the dancers to grind down through their gears. Either way, the segue might have been smoother. But Levan wasn’t the technician that his contemporary Walter Gibbons was and didn’t hold beat-matched perfection as the ne plus ultra of the DJ’s craft. And even if he had, seamless transition isn’t necessarily the only way to go, especially when you have the kind of sixth sense for the theatrics of the dancefloor that so many anecdotes indicate was second nature to him.
‘Right at the peak,’ Kenny continues, ‘just before the chorus [of Mighty Real], he hit the stop button. Nothing happened for 30 seconds – it was dead quiet.’ Anyone who has been on a dancefloor when a DJ does something similar knows just how disorienting this is. The sudden withdrawal of the sound that has been flowing through your body wrenches you out of your disco dreams (‘What happened to the music?’ to re-quote The Trammps). You don’t want to wake up but you also recognise you have no choice. We’re on the move. Myself, I remember Joe Claussell surprising the main room at The End during a Need2Soul party in 2008 by interrupting what had been an hour of so of mostly soulful vocal house with 30 or even 60 seconds of silence, into which he first triggered a rain effect and then cued in some African drumming and chanting that allowed him (and us) to head off in another much deeper, more abstract direction, which would later include a preview of his own deranged 2009 creation, Disorganized Corruption, whose screeching processed horns, Fela-style guitar riffing and wildly sustaining organ solo should stand as a rebuke to anyone who remains imprisoned by the myth of him as no more than a noodling flute merchant.
Back in 1981, Larry decides the silence has gone on long enough. ‘People started screaming Larry’s name – they knew something was up.’ Kenny recalls. ‘He dropped into the intro beats and worked them for about a minute. We had background vocals, but Taana was not on the record yet. When the track finally kicked in there was a line-up to the booth of people trying to find out what the record was.’
I love this story. I read it and I wish I could have been there screaming Larry’s name, handclapping along with the other 2,000 queens on the Garage floor, trying to remember how to dance to something so darn slow or queuing up outside the booth to ID the track. But is it wholly incompatible with Danny Krivit and Mel Cheren’s version? Do we have to shrug our shoulders and echo Taana’s ‘You know, this don’t make no kind of sense?’ Perhaps, perhaps not. It’s still entirely possible that, having thrilled everyone with his introduction of the demo, the DJ still needed to give them some time to come to terms with Taana’s wonky vocal once the record was finished.
That said, trying to blend the two stories into a single, seamless narrative stream seems almost as challenging as bridging the gap in pace from Mighty Real to Heartbeat. Yet what feels important to me is that both accounts share components that demonstrate Larry’s ability to lead, not follow, the crowd, and showcase the real relationship he maintained with his dancers. And if he could find a way to make two such contrasting pieces of music work side by side, we should follow suit and embrace the drama in the clash. Personally, I wouldn’t want to want to live in a world without both takes on his anarchic, wilful, contrary, occasionally crash-mixing brilliance.
Last word to Larry’s friend and fellow DJ David DePino (quoted in the Brewster and Broughton sleeve notes to Live At The Paradise Garage, available on the DJ History website here). ‘He was able to get 2,000 people to feel the same emotion and peak at the same time [‘Like a bolt out of the blue’]. He could make them feel like one [‘Did you feel it too?’]. They loved him for his insanity and his genius. [‘I remember that.’] I miss him, I miss him very much. It was just like going over the rainbow every Saturday night.’ In the era of the first onslaught of HIV/AIDS, the racist and homophobic backlash kicked off by Disco Demolition Night in Chicago’s Comiskey Park, worldwide recession and home-grown Reagonomics, the dancers of the Garage were very lucky that they had Larry Levan for the best part of a decade to allow them to become – at least for a few sweat-drenched hours any weekend they wanted – such happy little bluebirds.
Supernature, Cerrone’s third album, has opened with the unlikely disco fable of the genetically-altered creatures who take their revenge on their former masters. Over 10 pounderingly Moroder-ish minutes, the mutants have risen up from the depths, trampled through the night and dispatched humanity to the doom of extinction.
That’s when the title track blends into the post-apocalyptic percussion breakdown of Sweet Drums, as Cerrone is left to batter away at his multi-coloured Ludwig Vistalite drumkit all by himself, with nothing to accompany him but the sound of the winds whipping across the deserted planet.
The final five minutes of the continuously-mixed side one drop the pace from a dancefloor-friendly 123 to a surprising 81bpm for In The Smoke. The driving disco kick drum is displaced by a heartbeat figure, as if one of the now triumphant hybrid creatures, finally done with extracting eco-vengeance, is quietly contemplating what is left of the planet it has taken back. ‘Darkness all around and nobody makes a sound.’
In The Smoke uses the same musical material as Supernature, but it’s re-cast into some sort of melancholy memory of a dance: the dotted rhythms of the upper keyboard arpeggios are accompanied by plangently sustaining guitar licks and electronic wails, while the key component of the original verse melody is transposed into anguished, keening synth figures. Halfway through, the smoke seems to clear for 16 bars of brighter beauty, with the hybrid consciousness perhaps reflecting on ideas in the final verse of the title track: ‘Maybe nature has a plan to control the ways of man/He must start from scratch again, many battles he must win/Till he earns his place on earth, like the other creatures do.’ And then the darkness drops again.
All the quoted lyrics, by the way, are by future new wave vocalist Lene Lovich (whose genuine concern for non-human creatures led her to conclude her 1980s US tours with benefit concerts for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). But that’s not Lene at the mic, and you won’t find out who it is by looking on the album sleeve because that wasn’t the Cerrone way: according to former collaborator Alain Wisniak, who co-wrote Supernature and helped engineer the LP, the maestro thanked him for his contributions by offering him future work on condition that he accepted it would be uncredited (he didn’t). So far as I can work out, the lead vocal is by former session singer Kay Garner, who worked with Elton John, Dusty Springfield and Mark Almond, as well as Cerrone collaborators Don Ray and Alec R Costandinos, in a 40-year career brought to an end by cancer in 2007. (Her online bio claims it, and Wisniak’s credits for an LP he recorded at the same time as Supernature with the same set of musicians he used on Cerrone productions list Kay as the vocalist).
Listening to this brilliantly cinematic postlude now, I can’t believe I originally overlooked it when I bought a second-hand copy of the US edition of the album while on holiday in San Francisco in 1997 (from an excellent shop in the Castro called Streetlight Records, which I’m very glad to see is still in business online as well as in three real-world locations).
Although, to be truthful, I do know why I disregarded it until I started digitising everything: it simply seemed too slow to play in a disco set. Well, perhaps, and perhaps not: after all, legend has it that Larry Levan cleared the floor of the Paradise Garage the first few times he played Taana Gardner’s 98bpm Heartbeat until his crowd finally got what was going on with that slinky slow-burner.
Flip over the original vinyl and something peculiar happens: the music has kissed its environmental troubles goodbye, the bongos begin chirruping and we’re off into an entirely upbeat three-part sequence kicked off by Give Me Love and finished by Love Is The Answer. And you thought this was some sort of concept album …
The transition might seem jarring until you take another look at that cover image. Hunched in front of a gurney in an operating theatre, with what seems to be the flayed remains of a dead child behind him, Cerrone himself deadpans into the camera as a trio of animal-human hybrids gather at his feet. Fair enough.
But while the creatures are dressed in white lab coats as if they have emerged from the depths to take over the surgery, the disco pioneer himself eschews hospital garb for the kind of outfit that might have been favoured by any self-regarding player in the European discotheques of the era: bouffant hair, flared jeans and black shirt unbuttoned to the navel, naturellement. (Environmental doom might be on the way, but that’s no reason to let go of your sense of style.)
And as with the cover image, so with the official video for the single version of the title track, where sequences involving animal-human hybrids looking like refugees from Don Taylor’s The Island Of Dr Moreau (released the same year) are intercut with racier imagery borrowing from the gatefold image of the European editions of the LP, in which naked humanimals attempt to haul the producer (now dressed in white) into the foliage of what looks like a more fevered, less glamorous version of the cover image from Roxy Music’s Country Life (1974). Of course, all this was all too racy for the North American market, where Atlantic subsidiary Cotillion issued the LP in a single sleeve with no trace of nudity, having similarly bowdlerised the iconography of his first two albums, Love In C Minor and Cerrone’s Paradise. If you check out the different versions of the latter on Discogs – the original cover is here and the US version is here – you might even applaud the corporate puritans for taking a stand against such exploitative aesthetics.
So is Supernature half a concept album with a set of conventional disco appendices tacked on? Or does the juxtaposition of the apocalypse and the dancefloor allow us to make our own sense of the gap between them? I’d say that what we do with the contradiction between the worlds of side one and side two, how we segue between environmental awareness and hedonistic abandon and back again, is up to us. At any rate, I think we could do worse than contemplate the last line of the title track: ‘Will there be a happy end? Now that all depends on you.’
Philly soul group The Trammps released The Night The Lights Went Out (source for the first Black Science Orchestra hit, Where Were You?) just a few months after the calamitous 13 July 1977 blackout in New York when lightning struck two Con-Ed power stations and plunged the five boroughs into darkness for a full 24 hours. What happened next wasn’t pretty. While sections of the NYPD were deployed to protect the high-end stores in Manhattan’s shopping districts, riot, arson and looting tore through some of the city’s poorest communities: crowds attacked and raided 1,600-plus neighbourhood shops while more than 1,000 fires lit up the darkened streets in an eruption of impoverished rage. The police arrested so many people in the aftermath (3,700-plus) that the jail system couldn’t cope and hundreds had to be held in the basements of police stations and other improvised cells.
As with the English riots of August 2011, none of this chaos descended out of nowhere. The areas that suffered the most that night – parts of Harlem, Brooklyn and the South Bronx – were the ones worst affected by the public service cutbacks the City Council had voted through in an attempt to solve its almost overwhelming financial problems earlier that year. And these were the parts of the city most easily recognisable in The Philadelphia All Stars’ Let’s Clean Up The Ghetto, which appeared in September 1977, meditating on what to communities can do when the city is broke, the garbage is stacked two and three stories high and ‘you can no longer depend on the man downtown/To take care of business like he’s supposed to.’
But while the Kenny Gamble-Leon Huff supergroup took to the consciousness-raising trail in response to the bigger-picture crisis (‘The only way we can clean up the physical Ghetto is to first clean up the mental Ghetto,’ Gamble wrote on the sleevenotes to the PIR LP), The Trammps seemed to take an entirely different, apparently apolitical, approach when they recorded their blackout track around the same time, even though they were using many of the same musicians and were working inside the same, already world-famous, Sigma Sound Studios.
For starters, composers Allan Felder, Norman Harris and Ron Tyson lifted their title and refrain from the cheerfully comic film Where Were You When The Lights Went Out?, set in the 1965 New York blackout, a daytime event that occupies much more innocent mental space in the collective New York consciousness than its 1977 counterpart. The narrative is mostly concerned with what sounds like a rather sweet nocturnal escapade: ‘I took my lady by the hand/And led her to loveland.’ And the music itself sounds supremely celebratory, unlike the atmosphere of dark threat that drives the Gamble & Huff track.
Yet The Trammps’ lyrics (brilliantly projected by lead singer Jimmy Ellis, who left us for the celestial dancefloor last year) are not entirely without social content. They make reference to the atmosphere of insecurity (‘For safety’s sake, I went to the door to lock it’); nod to the city leadership’s voices of disapproval (‘Politicians said it was a pity’); and even wonder if the numbers of ‘innocent girls … robbed of their hearts’ while ‘ Central Park was jammed after dark’ might not lead to a mini baby-boom down the line (‘Population’s going to grow in nine months or so/Where will all the little-bitty babies go?’).
That said, the song doesn’t really have social and economic issues on its mind. In response to the repeated question about everyone’s whereabout on ‘this dark and humid night’ (New York without air conditioning in July would have been pretty unbearable), Jimmy sings, ‘Don’t you know that I was making love?’ and his fellow Trammps reply, ‘She was making love’ (‘she’ presumably meaning his girlfriend, although the mostly black gay patrons of the SoHo club space that was in the process of becoming Larry Levan’s Paradise Garage – where the track became an instant hit – might have taken the pronoun differently, girlfriend).
But does all this mean that the song is nothing more than what contemporary chronicler Vince Aletti called ‘a highly romanticized vision of last summer’s New York City blackout’ in his Disco File/Record World review of the album it came from, The Trammps III (reprinted in The Disco Files 1973-1978)? Personally, I think there’s more going on. The key is the repeated question, Where were you? It’s asked so many times that it becomes something more than a simple enquiry. Where were you? What were you up to? And how do you feel about that now? The very activities the lyric is silent about – riot, arson, looting – are the ones it is quietly rebuking.
Listen to the conversational breakdown. I was going to make what I thought was an entirely personal evaluation of it being the best example of its kind since the The Intruders’ Philly disco hymn to motherhood – until I read to the end of Vince Aletti’s ’77 review and saw he made the very same point at the time (‘the best spoken interlude out of Philadelphia since I’ll Always Love My Mama’). The thing is, it is. And possibly even better. Because while The Intruders take a break simply to reminisce about their childhood (‘When I got home, the first thing I would hear is, ‘Where you been, boy?”’), The Trammps use their breakdown – the segment where typically most of the instruments drop out to leave nothing but the drums – not only to enact their own blackout but to formulate a dancefloor response: when the strings cut out and the guitar skronks in a mini electrical storm, the track is only kept going by the relaxed but relentless pulse from Earl Young’s drum set while different voices try to work out what to do. ‘What happened to the music, what happened to the music, man?’ someone asks; ‘The electric went out, man,’ someone else explains. ‘Check the plug,’ another voice else helpfully suggests. ‘Oh, that was my foot!’ another complains. But between them, they come up with a compelling alternative: ‘Keep grooving to the drums: come on groove, baby, groove. The electric be on in a minute, y’all.’ And that’s what happens: the drums keep everyone together until the bass can cue back in the joyful rising and falling string figure and the party cranks back into life.
And this is not entirely fanciful, because not everybody was burning and looting that night. While all five boroughs lost electricity, there were parts of the city that kept their cool: according to the Blackout History Project, Greenwich Village, for instance, broke out into a kind of spontaneous community festival, an expanded version of the dancefloor drama improvised through the breakdown on The Night The Lights Went Out. Rage, then, is one way to go. But rage that isn’t harnessed to political objectives or even Gamble & Huff-style consciousness-raising can end up damaging vital material and spiritual components of a local community: ‘I watched as our neighborhood was destroyed by the people that lived in it. They wrecked and looted our supermarkets, our shopping centers, our clothing stores and department stores,’ an eye-witness who was a teenager at the time told the Blackout History Project. ‘That was the first and only time that I was actually ashamed to be African-American.’ And although festival might be an easier route to take in a community like Greenwich Village, many of whose members were probably less economically hard-pressed than some of their counterparts in other areas of the city, it’s a response that is rooted in the social liberation that’s available in the darkened communion of the dancefloor (I’m tight for time and space, so I’ll just refer any non-believers to the entry for ‘dancing’ in the index of Tim Lawrence’s Love Saves The Day – ‘… and communality … as counter-cultural practice … as empowerment’ ). And if that doesn’t work for you, there’s always the bedroom. As Jimmy chats through the fadeout in defence of his particular blackout strategy, ‘there’s nothing else to do: you can’t take no shower, you can’t watch TV …’