Back in the mid-1970s, a new form of dance music started to evolve, a mix of traditional Soul/R&B music with some 70s pop sense and beats thrown in. The powers that be called it “disco” after the clubs the music became popular in. And it was good. Or mostly good. I admit it, I grew up in the age of disco, and loved quite a bit of it.
Disco really got rolling as a major force in music in a big way in 1974, with Billboard Hot 100 number one hits “Rock The Boat” by Hues Corporation and “Rock Your Baby” by George MacRae. By 1975, it had exploded out of the NY dance clubs and spread all across the country, it’s proliferation helped along by radio, and television shows like “Soul Train” and “American Bandstand”
One thing disco music manufacturers discovered early on was that you could take old music and put a disco beat to it, and probably (but not always) have a huge hit on your hands. Some of the early. best, and most memorable examples of this happened in late 1975 and early 1976, and from that point on, there was no looking back. Disco acts began to mine previous’ generations’ music trying to find the gold. Sometimes, it was the artists who were looking to cash in, but mostly it was the people behind the scenes, the producers and arrangers, who would quickly do a disco arrangement of a classic, throw together an orchestra of some kind, and record it. A lot of times, they became disco staples, but didn’t “break out” on radio, but that didn’t really matter. Some of them did, and that’s what I’m looking at here.
Some of the songs below were actually pretty big hits. Some of them did super well in the clubs. Some were both. And some were neither, usually because they were either terrible, ill-conceived, or occasionally due to bad timing. The 20 songs below, all released between 1975-1981, tried to capture the magic of an old hit with a new style, and some of them managed to grab lightning in a jar, if only for a few brief months. Some are by acts that had one hit and then disappeared. Others are attempts by stars to cash in on the disco craze, some with a modicum of success and others who fell flat on their face. And a few are by acts who would become successful with longer term careers.
Were they all good? Well, as they used to say on American Bandstand, they ALL had a good beat, and you could dance to them….but in some cases, WHY would you want to? Because quite honestly, NO, they were NOT all good. And I’ll explain why as we go along…heh heh…
“Brazil” – The Ritchie Family
Not actually a family, this Philly-based session group was put together by Jacques Morelli, who 18 months later would put together, write songs for, and produce one of the top disco acts of all time, Village People. Named for producer Richie Rome and featuring vocalists Cassandra Ann Wooten, Gwendolyn Oliver, and Cheryl Mason Jacks, this was one of the first big-band remakes out of the box, and it did very well, hitting #11 pop, #13 R&B, and #1 Dance. The 1930’s Brazilian classic was originally best known for bandleader Xavier Cugat‘s version in the 1940s; he recorded his hit version after it was first exposed to American audiences in the Disney animated film “Saludos Amigos“.
“Baby Face” – Wing And A Prayer Fife And Drum Corps
This studio band (which had NO fife players, by the way) would later make up the core of producer/artist Meco Monardo‘s “Galactic Funk” orchestra for most of his recordings. Fronted by producer/arranger/bandleader Harold Wheeler (best known today as the original bandleader on ABC’s “Dancing With The Stars“) and featuring vocalists Vivian Cherry, Linda November, Arlene Martell, and Helen Miles, their remake of this 1926 standard was HUGE, hitting #14 Pop, #6 AC, #32 R&B, and of course, #1 on the Dance chart.
“What A Diff’rence A Day Makes” – Esther Phillips
This Dinah Washington classic got the disco treatment by Phillips, who was a long time veteran performer by this stage of her career, with numerous R&B and Jazz hits to her credit. The song became her biggest hit in years and her only top 40 pop hit, where it peaked at #20, also hitting #33 on the AC chart, #10 R&B, and #2 Dance. My mother was utterly APPALLED by Phillips’ version, having seen her perform it on “Saturday Night Live“, and proceeded to make fun of Phillips’ incredible vibrato; she felt she absolutely desecrated the Dinah Washington version of the song, which she adored…
“Volare” – Al Martino
Back to Mom for a minute – Martino was one of her favorite male vocalists, she loved his voice and had several of his albums and singles when I was a kid. But she couldn’t stand his cover of this song, a disco-beat version of the classic 3rd place Italian Eurovision entry from 1958 which was a hit for a multitude of different artists in subsequent years including original ESC artist Domenico Modugno; Mom was particularly fond of Dean Martin‘s version, and she detested the disco arrangement. Strangely, Martino had never recorded the song before, but found his first Top 40 success in years , hitting #33 Pop and #9 AC, but failed to crack the dance chart with it, which was no surprise given his reputation as a crooner…
“Venus” – Frankie Avalon
Frankie Avalon became one – and possibly the first – of the artists to go back into a studio and cut a new disco version of one of his own classic hits; he had a #1 smash in 1959 with the original, and the 1976 release of the disco remake put him back into the public eye. Although it peaked at #46 on the pop chart, the new version spent two weeks on top of the AC chart; like Martino, however, he failed to make the Dance chart. But no doubt it probably attracted the attention of producer Allan Carr, who cast Avalon as his “Teen Angel” in 1978’s monster film version of “Grease“…
“There’s No Business Like Show Business” – Ethel Merman
Remember when I said that not all of these were good? Well, this is one of THOSE. Broadway queen Merman was always an acquired taste, and trust me, absolutely NO ONE acquired it through her gawdawful 1976 effort “The Ethel Merman Disco Album“. And rightfully so – it was Merman just being Merman, her bombastic-as-always vocals front and center on some of her classic tunes done to a disco beat….yeeech….
“Summer Place ’76” – Percy Faith and his Orchestra
The maestro of the biggest instrumental hit of the rock era up to the point of the release of this single, Faith took it upon himself to record a disco version of his own #1 instrumental smash from 1960, “Theme from ‘A Summer Place'”. And he didn’t do a half-bad job. In fact, it’s quite enjoyable, even today. The original will always be an instrumental pop classic. But this dance version isn’t far behind; although it missed the pop and dance charts, it hit a respectable #13 on the AC chart, even though he didn’t live to see the new version’s chart success, having passed away in February 1976, just weeks after the song’s release.
“Que Sera Sera” – The Raes
For a brief time in the late 1970’s, Robbie and Cherrill Rae were Canada’s answer to Captain & Tennille, a young married couple making hit singles. They even had their own hit variety series for two seasons on CBC. And the reason for that success was this disco remake of the 1956 Doris Day classic from Alfred Hitchcock‘s film “The Man Who Knew Too Much“. But their success was largely limited to Canada; this remake missed the US charts entirely, although they would have one HUGE dance club hit and minor success on the pop chart in the US (not to mention a HUGE TKR chart hit) with follow-up “A Little Lovin’ (Keeps The Doctor Away)” in the spring of 1979.
“Tangerine” – Salsoul Orchestra
Another big band classic, this one by the Jimmy Dorsey Band, the song became THE big hit for Salsoul Orchestra, hitting #18 Pop, #36 R&B and #4 Dance in the spring and summer of 1976. The group was formed out of the remnants of MFSB, the studio band who had hit #1 in 1974 with “TSOP (The Sound Of Philadelphia)”, which featured R&B act The Three Degrees on vocals and had been used for several years as the theme from the syndicated music series “Soul Train”; the members who didn’t follow leader Vincent Montana Jr and the rest of the group to Salsoul Records would eventually form The Ritchie Family (see above).
“Disco Mouse” – The (New) Mousketeers
In January 1977, the Walt Disney studios launched “The All New Mickey Mouse Club” after two years of repeats of the original 1950s series had proven to be a ratings hit. The new show was now in color, ethnically mixed, and jazzed up for the 1970s, including a specially-recorded disco version of the theme song recorded by the cast, released as a single in the early part of summer 1977. Featuring lead vocals by Scott Craig and back up by several of the young ladies, including a young Lisa Whelchel, the song stiffed on the chart upon arrival, possibly because the show, which had premiered six months earlier, was already on life support, having been torn apart by critics and ignored by indifferent fans who liked the repeats of the classic MMC; it would be gone completely before the fall of 1979 (although repeats aired briefly in the 1980s when The Disney Channel was a pay network). Of the 12 members of the new Mousketeers, only one or two would go on to lasting fame, most notably Whelchel, who jumped from this show straight to stardom as Blair Warner on the long-running sitcom “The Facts Of Life“, which fellow MMC77 alum Julie Piekarski was also a part of during the first season. Lisa faded from the public eye for many years by her own choice after FOL ended, but has recently returned to her work on screen, this time as the host of the collectables show “Collector’s Call” on nostalgia network MeTV, and also shocked her longtime fans when she came into the picture and notably finished as the runner-up on the 2012 edition of CBS’ long-running hit series “Survivor“.
“Could It Be Magic” – Donna Summer
This is one of a few instances during the disco era where a recent song was nearly instantly remade as a disco staple. Barry Manilow‘s original was a huge hit on AC and Pop radio in the summer and fall of 1975, and Donna’s version was out less than a year later, and becoming a monster hit all over again. Because the original had been so huge less than a year earlier, the song fizzled out at #52 on the pop chart and #47 on the AC chart, but hit #21 R&B and a huge #3 on the dance chart. And her version of the song was itself remade in the 1990s by British boy band Take That, and became a hit again all over Europe. Donna herself would continue remaking new dance versions of old classics like her #1 version of Richard Harris‘ 1968 hit “MacArthur Park” as she became a true superstar over the next few years…
“House Of The Rising Sun” – Dolly Parton
Parton wasn’t the only country performer to cross over to the dance chart, but she had more appearances than most others, a total of four dance chart hits over the years. Her cover of the Animals‘ 1966 hit was the flip side of her across-the-boards smash “9 to 5” and peaked on the dance chart at #77; it equaled that position on the pop chart, and hit #30 on the AC chart as well. Parton’s biggest dance chart hit wouldn’t come for three more years – the funky “Potential New Boyfriend” hit #13 on the dance chart in 1983 (and #1 on TKR).
“I Can’t Stand The Rain” – Eruption
The Eurodance group took their hot and steamy version of Ann Peebles’ 1973 smooth jam R&B smash to #18 on the pop chart, #30 on the R&B chart, and #6 on the dance charts. It was all over radio in the summer of 1978, and also made the top ten in over a dozen European countries and down under, hitting #1 in both Belgium and Australia. They had another hit with another remake, Neil Sedaka’s song “One Way Ticket” throughout Europe the following year.
“Night And Day” – Frank Sinatra
Some people should NEVER, EVER do disco. And the Chairman Of The Board is one of those people. Frank had stuck the teeniest, tiniest, barest part of a pinky toe in disco in the summer of 1975 with his #10 AC hit “Anytime (I’ll Be There)“, which is one of my favorite songs by him and with its lightly disco AC arrangement, was actually as close as I thought he’d actually get to the format, but I was wrong; for some reason, in 1977 he was persuaded to go into the studio and record this, a version of a song he was known for in his stage act, and one he’d had a hit with in 1942, hitting #16 on what passed for the Pop and AC chart at the time. This version…well, it crashed and burned…and it deserved to, too….it’s TERRIBLE…definitely NOT up to the usual standards for Ol’ Blue Eyes…and at just over 2 minutes long, was it really worth the time and effort? No….
“Knock On Wood” – Amii Stewart
Originally a #1 R&B hit and a #28 pop hit for Eddie Floyd in 1966, Amii Stewart left his original version in the dust, becoming one of a string of disco smashes to hit #1 on the pop chart in the spring of 1979, as well as hitting #6 R&B and #5 on the Dance chart, now easily the best known version of this pop standard. Stewart remains a Top 40 one-hit-wonder, though not a true Hot 100 one, having hit the lower reaches of the chart a couple more times. But chances are good that if you think of this song, you’re thinking of Amii’s version, as it’s still regularly played on oldies channels around the world.
“Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” – Santa Esmeralda
First recorded in 1964 by the legendary Nina Simone as a jazz number, and later a monster pop chart hit for The Animals, Santa Esmeralda equaled the latter act’s #15 position on the pop chart with their 1977 disco remake, which was all over the radio for six months, hitting #4 on the dance chart. The album version of the song runs the entire length of side one, clocking in at over 16 minutes, which wasn’t uncommon for disco acts at the time. Like many disco acts, the song was the only top 40 hit of their career, although they returned to the dance chart with another Animals remake, “The House Of The Rising Sun“, in 1978.
“The Way You Look Tonight” – The Lettermen
Another original hit updated by the artist best known for the song. The Lettermen, a trio of three-piece-suit wearing, fresh faced and squeaky clean singers (and probably jocks too, if their name is any indication) had their biggest heyday in the 1960s, scoring chart hit after chart hit with their smooth three-part harmonies. The original trio – Jim Pike, Bob Engleman, and Tony Butala – hit #13 pop with their 1961 version. Pike’s younger brother Gary Pike replaced Engleman in late 1967, just prior to their best-remembered hit, a medley of two songs – one a former Four Seasons hit and the other a solo hit for the same band’s lead singer Frankie Valli; “Goin’ Out Of My Head”/”Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You” hit #7 Pop and #2 AC. But their 1976 remake of that first hit went nowhere fast…and considering the group hadn’t had a hit since 1969 and was best known at the time for singing the theme for the TV series “Love American Style“, it’s not a huge surprise it flopped, either…
“Love Story (Where Do I Begin?)” – Andy Williams
OK, I already said above that I was a huge fan of disco. I loved most of it. But there are not only some singers who shouldn’t try disco (see Ethel Merman), there were (and still are) songs that should never be rearranged into dance music. This is one of those songs, by one of my all time favorite vocalists. As I mentioned earlier, my Mom loved crooners, and quite a few of them. But one of them that she was never that fond of that I always loved – my grandmother’s influence, I think – was Andy Williams. I never knew why Mom didn’t take to him the way she took to Al Martino, Dean Martin, Perry Como, and their ilk, but my grandmother adored him until the day she died. His incredible high tenor always sent chills through my body. But he had his last really big pop hit in 1971, when he hit #1 on the AC chart and #9 pop with the theme from “Love Story“, called “Where Do I Begin?“, and he had a minor hit on both charts with “Speak Softly Love” from “The Godfather” a couple years later. And he kept hitting the AC chart fairly regularly even after that. But for some reason in 1979, he went into the studio and recorded a disco version of “Love Story“…and while his performance is stellar on the song – it usually is – and I DO like it….the song itself…just isn’t made for a disco beat. It was a grand effort, more worth trying than Frank Sinatra‘s attempt above. But ultimately, it failed to reignite his career, missing the charts entirely…Andy, I’m sorry, you deserved better…but this one was YOUR OWN fault…
“Dancin’ In The Moonlight” – The Keane Brothers
The band King Harvest had their one and only hit with this song in 1973, a pop classic that still gets airplay today, as does the 2001 remake by the UK band toploader (and yes, it’s correctly spelled; they use all lower case letters). In between, there was another great version of the song – a disco version. And it was done by Tom and John Keane, aka The Keane Brothers. Their self-titled debut in 1976 had produced the minor hits “Sherry” and “Help Help” and landed them a four week summer replacement variety series in 1977 when they were just 13 and 12 respectively. By 1977, they were 15 and 14, and recording their second album, “Taking Off” for ABC Records. The album was full of great tunes, including a disco version of this song. While it failed to chart, probably because ABC Records was bought out by MCA Records just a month after the album’s release, and did nothing to promote the album after dropping the brothers from the label, it made a huge impact with their large teenybopper fandom. And it hit #1 on the TKR charts for a week in the spring of 1979. Today, the brothers are in their 50s and two of the most respected musicians in the business; Tom has produced and written some of the biggest hits of the past four decades, while John has made his career behind the scenes in television scoring, and both have been successful as session musicians as well. Both have released solo albums in the 2000s worth finding if you can manage it. And this version of the song is very cool, especially with Tom’s always distinctly awesome lead vocals…
“Tubular Bells” – Champs Boys Orchestra
I have to be honest, I didn’t know this existed until just a week ago, when I saw it mentioned on another blog. And WOW. I already loved this music. Mike Oldfield‘s album was an instant classic and one of the first albums I had on CD, replacing my long worn out LP. Best known as the theme for the horror classic “The Exorcist“, the single, which was NOT authorized by the artist as released in the US, hit #7 on the pop chart. And although it didn’t chart in the US, the Champs Boys‘ disco remake, done in 1976, was still a club favorite in both the US and Europe. and it’s easy to see why – it’s a pretty funky version of the song. Although I have a feeling Oldfield probably doesn’t care much for it…
Sooooo….that’s only a sampling of the songs that were remade for the disco years. Wanna see more? Write and let me know!