Diana Ross

Why Disco Doesn’t Suck

I grew up in the Inwood neighborhood of upper Manhattan. Back then the neighborhood had a clear physical division: east of Broadway was primarily populated by Dominicans and other people of color, while the west of Broadway was primarily populated by whites. The neighborhood residents seemed to coexist and share public spaces such as Inwood Park without any strife I was cognizant of. I attended a catholic grade school where I had friends of varied ethnic backgrounds. I was fortunate in that my first encounter with bigotry was not until I was 12 years old (though as I got older, I certainly experienced it).

In the summer of 1979, I entered Inwood Park and saw this boldly spray-painted on a wall: “Disco Suxs!” For some reason, it rattled me. What was so bad about disco? I was a fan. It had ENERGY and you could dance to it. It made me happy. Back then, and to this day, I never understood people who severely went out of their way to slam something that was not of their taste. If you don’t like something, ignore it and move on—why deface a wall? Why troll online?

I asked my parents about it and that became our first talk about bigotry. Because they knew I loved music so much, they used the history of Motown Records as a way to explain it to me. They noted how Motown played an important role in the racial integration of popular music. After that talk, I never looked at or heard those records in the same way again.

Years later, on a VH1 Behind the Music episode on disco, virtuoso musician and producer, Niles Rodgers conveyed that the hate stemmed from the fact that it was the music of minorities that included people of color and the LGBTQ community. Music critic Robert Christgau noted that homophobia, and most likely racism, were the driving forces behind the anti-disco movement[1] that resulted in a preposterous disco demolition night at Comiskey Park in Chicago. The way the 1960s counterculture ended at Altamont, disco ended at this event (by the way, those in attendance trashed the stadium[2]). The haters were also likely intimated by the liberating physicality of disco dancing and hastily labeled the music as vacuous.

Concurrently forceful and sensual, disco was the resurgence of Dionysian pagan culture in the 20th century. Disco is not vacuous and is indeed complex.

First and foremost, disco took significant effort to produce than say the four-piece bands found in other genres. Disco often contained an ample band, with chordal instruments, drums, percussions, horns, a string orchestra, and various classical solo instruments like the flute. The recording of complex arrangements with a large number of instruments required a team that included a conductor and mixing engineers. Disco also had extraordinary vocalists that included powerhouses such as Donna Summer and Barbra Streisand as well as Gloria Gaynor, Diana Ross, Chic, France Joli, Michael Jackson, Cheryl Lynn, Sylvester, A Taste of Honey, and Barry White.

After the ridiculousness of disco demolition night, disco found a second life in early rap, notably “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugarhill Gang which sampled Chic’s brilliant song, “Good Times.” Disco still lives on under the sapped rubric of Dance Music. Dance music is not as beautifully produced as Disco but has had many remarkable moments over the last forty years.

If you hated Disco in the 1970s, let me encourage you to put aside your prejudices and put on a pair of headphones and embrace the genius. Let the music take you away.

www.edwinroman.com


[1] http://www.robertchristgau.com/xg/pnj/pj78.php

[2] http://www.fuzzymemories.tv/index.php?c=4548

Motown: The Musical (Review)

The first time I ever played a record on my own was in 1972, when my parents bought me a compact record player that, when closed, could not be distinguished from a suitcase.  Since I didn’t yet have any records of my own, I went to their collection and played a 45 of “Love Child” by The Supremes. On that day I became a life-long fan of The Supremes, Diana Ross and the now legendary Motown sound.Love Child 45 Record

Over the last couple of years several Broadway productions have been mounted that pay tribute to favorite singers of mine, most notably, A Night With Janis Joplin and Forever Dusty. I have been hesitant about seeing these shows because I never saw these singers live. Of course I have seen videos, but they simply do not compare to seeing and hearing someone sing live. I feel a little left out. I remember being awed by a video of Janis Joplin’s electric performance at the Monterey Pop Festival. Interestingly, someone filmed Mamma Cass Elliot’s (who was an awesome singer in her own right) reaction to Joplin’s performance and she is visibly blown away, her lips silently saying, “Wow!” I initially had mixed feelings when my sister, a fellow Motown devotee, gave me tickets to see Motown: The Musical. I wish I could have seen Marvin Gaye, Mary Wells and, of course, The Supremes live. Regardless of what I missed, I went in with an open heart and mind and was not disappointed.

Motown: The Musical explores a uniquely American institution, and its role in history.  Motown’s cultural contributions are enormous and this show bears that out.  Perhaps Motown’s greatest contribution is the way music brought people together; blacks and whites loved the music. The show does not shy away from issues like racism, segregation, poverty and war; in fact, the manner in which they are addressed felt quite germane. This was perhaps best depicted through Marvin Gaye’s timeless classic, “What’s Going On” —which was beautifully sung and performed by Jarran Muse, who magnificently captured Gaye’s sensuality, sensitivity and vocal power.

The actress playing Diana Ross, Felicia Boswell, had some big high-heel stilettos to fill. While she does not look like Diana Ross (many of the actors bore little physical resemblance to the people they were playing), she remarkably managed to capture the essence of Ross’ singing voice and, to an extent, her vibrant charisma. One of the most memorable moments is when the show re-enacts Ross’ first solo concert without The Supremes: singing “Reach Out and Touch” Boswell ventures into the audience bringing people on stage to sing with her. I have had debates with people who criticize Ross’ singing voice as weak—yes, it is not as strong as some of her contemporaries, but it is still rich, layered and vastly expressive. I have always been moved by her sincere singing in songs like “Mahogany” and “Touch me in the Morning.” Then there is Ross’ undeniable presence and star power—Boswell partially captures this, but “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing.”

One of my favorite moments was when the audience meets The Jackson 5 for the first time.  Raymond Luke, who played Michael Jackson, was nothing short of remarkable. The audience reaction was equally stunning: it was almost as if a young Michael Jackson was really up on the stage! Perhaps the most unexpected moment was when the audience meets Rick James, played with absolute bravado by Eric LaJuan Summers. All I can say is that you have to see it for yourself.

I was quite disturbed by Tracy McDowell’s attempt to recreate Teena Marie’s singing—-get a better singer or cut this song out!  Another curious moment is when Florence Ballard (Allison Semmes) begins behaving unpredictably and Berry Gordy, ( Brandon Victor Dixon) says, “The pressure of fame is vicious. Not everyone can go the distance.” I could have sworn I heard a few bars of “And I am Telling You”, from Dreamgirls, played on the piano.

The show makes good use of the stage, successfully integrating set pieces with video. The costumes were colorful without losing period authenticity.  The orchestra captured the Motown sound, making excellent use of tambourines, melodic electric bass-guitar lines, and orchestral strings.

Overall, I enjoyed Motown: The Musical and recommend seeing it. The music, singing and acting were excellent.  However, at times it feels like there is too much crammed into this show. Gordy, who wrote the show’s book, seemed determined to mention every act from Motown’s long roster. Gladys Knight and the Pips were only with the label briefly, considered second string and found their greatest success after leaving Motown.  Yet, they surprisingly make a brief appearance in this show. More than 50 songs are performed, many abridged, with the best presented in concert.

Gordy’s story is Motown’s story and both are truly notable and should be depicted onstage. However this show doesn’t quite do the story justice. Ultimately, this show is about great songs that have stood the test of time and will likely not be thought of in the context of this show.  The songs, and those who sang them, firmly stand on their own.

Playing at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater, 205 West 46th Street, Manhattan, (877) 250-2929, http://www.motownthemusical.com/. Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes.