"Unsung," the popular TV One docu-series, recently won its third consecutive NAACP Image Award, and the show continues its tradition of telling some of the most compelling stories in the annals of popular music with the "Unsung" Disco Special, " airing at 9 p.m. on Feb. 20.
The two-hour special, thoroughly researched, written and produced by Henry Schipper, chronicles the meteoric rise and sudden demise of the genre and culture known as disco, illustrating how it went from slick dance records executed by superb musicians like the Trammps' Earl Young and Chic's Nile Rodgers to the commercialized nonsense of "Disco Duck" by Rick Dees, and the eventual backlash.
"This is the first time we've done something of this nature, said TV One's Jubba Seyyid, Sr. Director, Programming & Production. "We've done marathons and what the scheduling department has done in the past is they've put episodes of similar ilk together. I think we've done a Motown situation where there were several episodes back to back that were Motown, but this is the first time that we've created a two-hour episode that is dedicated to a genre."
Highlighting the dazzling career of the late Donna Summer, the disco phenomenon is explored by the stars of the genre, including Gloria Gaynor, Anita Ward, Nile Rodgers (Chic), Thelma Houston, Harry Casey (KC and the Sunshine Band), Janice Marie Johnson (A Taste of Honey) and Candi Staton, as well as legendary Philadelphia drummer Earl Young, founding member of The Trammps.
Before garnering international acclaim and a Grammy Award with the mega-hit "Disco Inferno" from the record-shattering "Saturday Night Fever" soundtrack, Young, a North Philly native, began his career as a drummer in the stellar house band of Philadelphia's historic Uptown Theater, and ultimately became one the most sought-after studio musicians in the industry. As a member of the renowned rhythm section of Ronald Baker (bass), Norman Harris (guitar) & Young, his unique beats can be heard on recordings by everyone from the O'Jays to Englebert Humperdinck to the Village People.
Young, a self-taught percussionist, widely regarded as the heartbeat of The Sound of Philadelphia, is credited with creating the unmistakable "disco beat" that immediately defined the genre. The crisp, yet hypnotic rhythm that drew people to the dance floor in droves took root in "The Love I Lost" and "Bad Luck," two monster dance tracks by Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes for Philadelphia International Records. It was Young's impeccable timing and innovative instincts which determined that "The Love I Lost" should be an up-tempo track, and not a ballad as producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff originally intended. The song sold more than a million copies, reached number one on the R&B chart, and inspired a groove that made people want to move.
The "Unsung" disco special also examines how "Saturday Night Fever" made a disco dynasty of the Trammps, which actually began as an R&B group and became wildly popular on the club circuit.
"When disco came out, we had just left Philadelphia International Records and signed with Atlantic, and we had out 'Where Do We Go From Here?' " Young said during a recent interview. "Ronnie Baker decided, 'Let's cut a song called, 'That's Where the Happy People Go,' — to the disco,' and we cut 'That's Where the Happy People Go' and 'The Night the Lights Went Out [in New York City],' and that started us out as disco. We were selling records, so Atlantic said, 'Well, let's keep 'em disco!'
"That was a bad mistake for us, because everything they cut after that was disco! When we put out 'Disco Inferno,' it didn't do well, at first! Our attorney, David Steinberg, made a deal when they were putting 'Saturday Night Fever' together to use the song, because they needed another song, and luckily they remembered 'Disco Inferno.' They put it in the movie, and wherever that movie went, it made us go around the world too! It made us popular too — that one song!"
The career of disco diva Thelma Houston was heavily influenced, if not solidified by The Sound of Philadelphia, with her signature song, "Don't Leave Me This Way," written by Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff and Cary Gilbert, reaching number one on both the R&B and pop charts, and earning a Grammy Award.
Originally recorded by Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, the song came to Houston through Motown icon Suzanne de Passe while Houston was signed to the MoWest label. "She had heard Harold Melvin's latest album, and on it was this song called, 'Don't Leave Me This Way,' but it was done more like a regular R&B mid-tempo song," Houston recalled.
"She told me to go get the album, listen to it and see if I liked it, and I did. So [producer] Hal Davis came up with an idea to cut it — instead of the mid-tempo, to cut it like disco, so that it was engineered to be done in a precise manner, and it worked!"
By her own admission," "Don't Leave Me This Way" came to define Houston's career and she observed, "My first real manager — his name was Marc Gordon, and Marc Gordon was also the manager of the Fifth Dimension. He said to me that a hit record was good for ten years. Well, my song had a shelf life of 40 years! That's the only big hit I've ever had! I had one song by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis that got pretty good. It was called, 'You Used to Hold Me So Tight,' and people think that I've had more hits. But really, 'Don't Leave Me This Way' was the first major, and so far, the only one.
"It's been very good for me, and people ask me all the time, 'Do you get tired of singing that?' and I say, 'No! I sure don't!' And it won me a Grammy! I was working in Phoenix, doing a gig Saturday night, and of course I always sing it because everybody expects me to sing it. And I just started looking when I started singing [humming the opening measures]. It wasn't even a dance floor in there, and people started getting up and coming toward me, and they started dancing when there wasn't even a dance floor!"
The "Unsung Disco Special" completely captures the fun and fantasy of the disco era, along with the drugs and debauchery, and ultimately dissects the factors that so effectively demolished disco.
"Not only do I think disco is unsung, I think the Trammps are unsung," said Young, who, at a startlingly youthful age 72, still actively performs with the group. "A lot of people had the wrong idea about disco. They think that disco is bad music, but it's not. In every group of music, there are some bad songs and there are some good songs. There's bad songs in R&B, there's bad songs in every sort of music. So when disco jumped off, everybody thought they could take that four-on-the-floor beat of mine and that sock cymbal, and put out 'Disco Duck,' disco this and disco that, and everybody threw one of those mirror balls in their little bar and called it a disco!"
On Feb. 16 at 7:30 p.m., Earl Young will be featured on the 6ABC lifestyle magazine "Visions." He will discuss the past, present and future of the historic Uptown Theater or North Broad Street, where he was once a member of the phenomenal house band. The theater is now under renovation.
Seyyid said of the "Unsung Disco Special," an entertaining and engrossing documentary, "With this particular show, we had a lot of artists to cover, we have a lot of music, we have a lot of history to cover, because disco was not just about the music. It was about the culture. It was about the dancing. It was about the culture of the clubs, and we cover all of that."