Disco starts here

Disco ballGoogle “first disco hit” and see what shows up in answers.com as the best (and only, for that matter) answer: “Rock the Boat” by the Hues Corporation (#1, 1974). Really? Is that even disco? Is that really where it all started? Where did this “fact” come from, anyway?

I know where I first heard it: hunched over the radio on a Sunday morning listening to AT 40. I’ve told you before about how Casey Kasem sometimes makes things up just to sound authoritative. This is another good example of that.

Nothing against “Rock the Boat”: it’s a great song, it was a big hit, and apparently it was played a lot in discos. But even if you buy that it’s “disco” (which I’ll grant based on the video alone, though it’s not quite as “disco” as some other stuff popular at the time), it was far from the first disco hit.

Discotheques had been around for some time when “Rock the Boat” came along, and they had played a lot of music that we would not call “disco” — songs like “Frankenstein” and “Venus” and “Spill the Wine,” so I am told. (I was too young to go to discos back then, so who really knows what was going on in those places.)

But even the music that came to be called “disco” — that disco music we all know and love or hate or have complex, conflicted feelings about — was pretty much fully formed by the summer of 1974. Hell, even David Bowie had a disco hit with “1984” from Diamond Dogs that spring. Sure, we can argue about how to define disco music — and there does seem to be no concrete definition; but it’s one of those things you know when you hear it, and I was hearing it more than a year before Casey was.

Disco has funk, soul, and Latin roots, and it’s not always possible to tell, even in hindsight, where and when some of that music crossed the line into disco. There were certainly hints of it as far back as “Theme from ‘Shaft‘” by Isaac Hayes (#1, 1971), though I don’t think I would call that a disco song. “Protodisco,” maybe. Same with the Temptations’ “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” (#1, 1972).

Most of the earliest disco hits to chart sprang from the Philly sound that was taking over from Motown around 1972-1973. One could argue that the first few songs listed here are still “protodisco,” but these all sound to my ear like disco as we know it:

Barry WhiteBarry White, a.k.a. The Man, was kind of a one-man (granted, one big man) disco factory: His first solo hit, “I’m Gonna Love You Just a Little More Baby,” charted in May 1973; the “girl group” White produced, Love Unlimited, had a hit with “Under the Influence of Love” just before that; and his Love Unlimited Orchestra took “Love’s Theme” soaring to #1 in February 1974, making it the first of a few disco instrumentals to top the charts (and the only one to be picked up by a major network and used as the theme music for their golf coverage).

Soul Makossa” by Manu Dibango is often cited as the first disco hit by intelligent people who have actually been to a disco and studied the question a little more closely than Casey Kasem ever did. The record, by a Cameroonian saxophonist, was apparently discovered by David Mancuso in a West Indian record shop in Brooklyn in 1972, and its popularity quickly spread throughout the disco scene. It finally hit the top 40 in July 1973.

TrammpsMy prize for the very first disco hit, however, goes to the Trammps. Better known for their “Disco Inferno,” which gained mass popularity by virtue of being included in the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, their real claim to fame in my book is this: a cover version of “Zing Went the Strings of My Heart,” released long before anything sounding even half as “disco” (or half as gay, for that matter, David Bowie, Mott the Hoople, and Johnny Mathis notwithstanding).

It debuted on the Hot 100 at #92 on July 8, 1972, spent 11 weeks on the chart, but never cracked the top 40. Maybe that’s why Casey didn’t know about it.

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7 thoughts on “Disco starts here

  1. i think you may be right. and the whole record – “the legendary zing album” – is one of my all-time favorites.

    • I did see that page in the course of my research, and based on some of the crazy things he says (e.g., surprised the Bee Gees and “Disco Inferno” aren’t on the list), I too find the “1200 DJs surveyed” claim dubious at best. The list is full of songs that may have been played at discos, but they’re not “disco.” This is where I got the bit about “Frankenstein,” etc.

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