The women I’m discussing this evening all came from jazz, soul, R&B, and gospel to try their luck in disco. As singers, they were well above average. Gloria Gaynor, Thelma Houston, and Patti LaBelle had the biggest voices; Candi Staton and Loleatta Holloway were the most subtle. You could’ve hired any of them to sing “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” and loved the results.

Forgive me for omitting Anita Ward (“Ring My Bell”) if she was one of your favorites. If she was, why are you reading this blog?

Commercially, the move into disco was a smart decision. Even The Grateful Dead tried it. Artistically, it didn’t always work. The Grateful Dead shouldn’t have tried it. The material the women in this post had to work with was uneven, and most of the lesser numbers and even some of the bigger ones are forever bogged down in the ’70s.

What follows is my idea of the best of the best. I may not like some of them, but I respect all of them.

Freda Payne
Band of Gold
1970
The sophisticated Payne recorded jazz and R&B ballads in the 1960s. These are collected on Early Essentials (2011) if you want to explore them. I don’t. Her voice and arrangements are not for me. I’ll say more about that when I get to Dionne Warwick in my next post.

Payne’s commercial breakthrough, “Band of Gold,” was a monster smash that was beaten into the collective unconscious of an unwilling humanity by one billion plays on AM radio. I didn’t have to listen to it for this review because I recall it at the cellular level. Despite my mixed feelings for “Band of Gold” (I can never decide if I hate it or despise it), I give Payne credit for invading what was for her alien territory (pop, disco, and soul) and with this album beating everyone at their own game. Plus she looked smashing in her bikini on the cover of Reaching Out (1973) and in her gardening outfit on the cover of Payne & Pleasure (1974).

Gloria Gaynor
Never Can Say Goodbye
1975
Love Tracks
1979
Never Can Say Goodbye is famous for having three songs on one side with no breaks between them. It may have been the first LP designed for djs. The songs are “Honey Bear,” “Never Can Say Goodbye,” and “Reach Out (I’ll Be There).” The transitions are clumsy. DJs in clubs had already invented fading out and fading in, but the record companies were still catching up. The three songs are about 19 minutes, which is long enough for me to wander out of the off-leash area and dig up somebody’s garden.

“Honey Bear” exists solely to build excitement for “Never Can Say Goodbye.” “Never” is terrific, except for the horns, which are disconnected from the rest of the song, as if Gaynor’s producer had hired Chicago but locked them up in another room. Chicago should always be locked up in another room. “Reach Out (I’ll Be There)” is not bad, but the drums are totally annoying. Listening to this version is like trying to eat lunch and read your book at the park while a FedEx cargo plane flies overhead every 45 seconds.

“Never Can Say Goodbye” was a hit for The Jackson 5 in 1971. The song was infectious, but Michael Jackson was 13 and sounded like it. Isaac Hayes turned “Never” into an emotional slow dance. I could do without the male chorus he brought along. Gaynor’s bright, brassy voice and the dance-tempo beat and the 4-minute radio edit are what I want to hear.

Cover of a Cover of a Cover Alert #1: The Communards did a spectacular job with “Never Can Say Goodbye” on Red (1987). The singer is Jimmy Somerville, whose interstellar soprano you can hear in the movie Pride (about the gay groups that helped the striking miners in the U.K.) when they get to the scene in the disco.

Gaynor’s Love Tracks unleashed the female battle anthem “I Will Survive.” The original vinyl is enshrined in the Smithsonian and protected by an eternal flame and an honor guard. The album also gave us a minor disco classic called “Anybody Wanna Party?” There are 300 words in this song and 60 are “Anybody wanna party.” I’m in the wrong line of work.

Thelma Houston
Any Way You Like It
1976
Houston went to #1 with her version of Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes’ “Don’t Leave Me This Way.” The original (with Teddy Pendergrass ripping his heart out and throwing it down and stomping on it until he died) was a phenomenon in 1975, but Houston, who could belt one out like Tina Turner, established her own place in musical history with her reimagining of the song.

Cover of a Cover of a Cover Alert #2: The Communards tackled this one on their debut, Communards (1986), and once again triumphed.

The album cover of Thelma Houston’s debut, Sunshower (1969), is one of the most pleasing yellows I’ve ever been pleased by.

Candi Staton
Young Hearts Run Free
1976
“Young Hearts Run Free,” a song that writer David Crawford based on Staton’s life at the time, went all the way to 20 on Billboard’s Hot 100. I don’t care for the music, as I feel I’ve heard it a hot 100 times before, but the lyrics are more mature than anything you’d expect on a disco record:

What’s the sense in sharing, this one and only life

Ending up, just another lost and lonely wife

You count up the years, and they will be filled with tears

Love only breaks up, to start over again

You’ll get the babies, but you won’t have your man

While he is busy loving, every woman that he can

The poor woman was stuck with Shaft!

Staton came out of the gospel scene, adapted to a tumultuous musical landscape, and scored numerous hits in the 1980s and ’90s. One of them, “You Got the Love” (no relation to the “You Got the Love” I’m about to describe), is a 1986 example of electronic dance music that has some serious wistfulness going on.

Maxine Nightingale
You Got the Love
1976
Lead Me On
1979
Nightingale, who is English, is the only non-U.S. citizen in my survey, but as I announced upfront I’m a provincial slob from the USA. USA! USA!

This lady has a good voice, but she struggles to be heard against all the musicians on her debut. There’s a great guitar break in “You Got the Love”; the guitarist faces the same hurdle and doesn’t clear it. I like the song, but the original, by Rufus with Chaka Khan, is the better choice.

“Right Back Where We Started From” hit the #2 spot on the Billboard Hot 100. You can also find it on the soundtrack of the Paul Newman hockey movie Slap Shot. It resembles Jean Knight’s “Mr. Big Stuff” in that it sounds like music composed for kids. The beat is one-two, one-two with plenty of handclaps. The piano line is simple, but when it falls away near the end you miss it.

On the cover of her debut, You Got the Love, Nightingale is photographed in jeans and a T-shirt waiting on a bench with her guitar. Looks like an early Bill Withers cover. On the cover of Lead Me On, she’s leaning against a wall in tight pants and a tube top while a tiger inspects her derrière. Not like a Bill Withers cover. The leaden “Lead Me On” was an inexplicable hit. I assume people bought it because they needed help falling asleep.

Evelyn “Champagne” King
Smooth Talk
1977
King was only 17 (but already hitting the champagne?) when she recorded Smooth Talk. “Shame” peaked at #9; it was popular in clubs because it was fast and long (6 minutes). It’s the only disco song I know with a starring part for a sax. King doesn’t spend a lot of time singing, making this a distant ancestor of EDM. This hit and the rest of the album have been reduced in stature with the passage of time.

Patti LaBelle
Patti Labelle
1977
Tasty
1978
It’s Alright with Me
1979
In the early ’60s, Patti LaBelle founded the band Labelle with Sarah Dash and Nona Hendryx. Actually, she founded more than one band and went through several name changes, but let’s call them all Labelle. Patti, Sarah, and Nona worked hard, toured incessantly, and by 1971 were opening for The Who.

(Their version of “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” on their 1972 album Moon Shadow, is competent. They can rock. Their version of “If I Can’t Have You” on the same disc has an edge of hysteria I usually only hear from Queen. In fact, much of their work in the early ’70s sounds like Aretha Franklin taking hits off a helium tank.)

Labelle became famous in 1974 when they released “Lady Marmalade.” That’s the “voulez-vous couchez avec moi (ce soir)?” song. I don’t know why it’s always referred to as a disco classic, as even in 1974 it was too slow to dance to. Plus it’s super annoying. France should’ve recalled their ambassador.

Patti LaBelle went off on her own in the ’70s. She has been singing, touring, recording, and delighting her army of fans ever since. This is not a cause I’ve ever enlisted in, but in the spirit of fairness I’ll name one passable song from each of these records:

Patti LaBelle: “Funky Music”
Tasty: “Save the Last Dance for Me” (original by The Drifters)
It’s Alright with Me: “It’s Alright with Me”

Nona Hendryx went off an experimental trip that I’ve only read about. I’ll track her down one of these days.

Loleatta Holloway
Love Sensation (1980)
Here’s how I listen to music for this blog:

  1. I play the album on a CD. I want the original sequence, the cover art, and the liner notes.
  2. I play the album on Rhapsody.
  3. I play somebody else’s CD. Do I still have your CD? Well too bad, you still have mine!
  4. I play whatever I can find on YouTube.
  5. By this time I’m sick of the whole thing, but if I have any energy left I’ll try Spotify or Pandora.
  6. I go to the library.

You be surprised how some albums resist this formula.

For this reason I’m including Love Sensation, even though it’s from another decade, as it’s the only one of Loleatta Holloway’s albums I’ve heard from A to Z. “Love Sensation” was a club sensation, but I guess clubs have changed in 35 years because when I listened to it just now I didn’t feel like throwing my hands in the air like I just don’t care. The album is not distinctive, despite her voice.

It should be noted that “Loleatta Holloway” is the perfect searchable name.

One thing I’ve learned from these disco divas is how long a record company was willing to wait, in the ’60s and ’70s, for an artist to become commercially viable. They were all given years to develop. Does the music business still work this way?

That’s it for disco. Tomorrow we fire our retro rockets and begin our descent from Diva Week!

 

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