Following 2013’s First Ladies of Disco, James Arena delves further into the fascinating and intricate universe of classic dance music in First Legends of Disco. While its predecessor focused solely on female singers who achieved fame within the genre, Legends expands the scope to include male artists, as well as producers. The result is over 300 pages of interviews which provide a fascinating look into an intricate art form that has all too often fell victim to unjust criticism.
The conversations in First Legends of Disco range from technical to nostalgic and cautionary to inspired. High-profile acts such as The Trammps (“Disco Inferno), George McCrae (“Rock Your Baby”), and Randy Jones of Village People each have unique perspectives on their loyal, club-going fans and the business aspects of making music from decades of highs and lows in a tempestuous industry. Just as importantly, creators of many of the highly orchestrated productions which made millions move offer eye-opening insights into the versatile influences and steadfast work ethics behind the recordings. Warren Schatz, producer and arranger of Vicki Sue Robinson’s “Turn the Beat Around”; John Davis, a key contributor to Diana Ross’ “The Boss”; and Bob Esty, responsible for the sound of seminal nuggets by Donna Summer and Cher, are several such figures.
First Legends holds appeal for both casual fans of disco who are curious about the origins of 1970s and ’80s dance floor smashes and more ardent listeners looking to connect the dots between the various phases of the music’s mainstream success and underground influence. Especially evocative of the style’s far-reaching effects are discussions with vocal quartet Double Exposure, who translated a classic R&B mindset into discotheque pandemonium with “Ten Percent” and “My Love Is Free,” and Wild Cherry, an initially rock-fueled band whose “Play That Funky Music” smashed barriers between radio and clubs — while also stirring up some unexpected racial tensions. Equally enlightening, Janice Marie Johnson of A Taste of Honey reveals how “Boogie Oogie Oogie” almost didn’t see the light of day, while Alfa Anderson of Chic details the “spontaneity and passion” that went into making hits like “Everybody Dance” and “Le Freak” with the help of none less than the late Luther Vandross.
In addition to alluring professional stories and fine points involving the creative process, the book delves into personal struggles and triumphs experienced by many of the Legends. Bonnie Pointer, who achieved solo stardom after leaving The Pointer Sisters, is refreshingly honest about her struggles with substance abuse, while France Joli (“Come to Me”) speaks candidly about the pressure she has felt to maintain a certain physical image and James “D-Train” Williams sheds light on the often drastic economic circumstances experienced by even the most commercially successful of singers. These captivating talking points add a marked depth to the history of songs and albums that form the focal points of each chapter.
There’s not a chapter among the 31 contained within First Legends of Disco that doesn’t provide informative and colorful observation of the subject at hand. In fact, only the conversation with three members of Sister Sledge (not including Kathy, the only voice in the family actually heard on the classics “We Are Family” and “He’s the Greatest Dancer”) comes off as surprisingly vacuous. Instead of honestly addressing the feuding which has resulted in several performing variations of the group in recent times, those interviewed mostly stick to grandiose statements about their family values and influence on later girl groups (seemingly discounting earlier, prominent family outfits such as the Emotions or the Pointer Sisters). Because of the legacy of Sister Sledge’s recordings, this approach is disappointing. It’s the only exception to the rule of forthrightness and authenticity found throughout the rest of the book.
Arena has once again delivered an impressively researched, vastly encompassing volume of information on one of the 20th century’s most influential and innovative styles of music. The diversity of subjects interviewed and care that has been taken to allow each of them the opportunity to shed deep light on their work makes for a deftly satisfying read.