Out of eleven new singles listed in Billboard's Hot 100 this week, four would reach the Top 40, and two became Top 10 hits. Many of the songs reflect the rise in popularity that disco was enjoying at that time; one song has the word disco in its title and another has dance. Some of the bigger names appearing this week are Diana Ross, Donna Summer, John Denver and Earth, Wind & Fire. Also among the new singles are a 1970s teenage heartthrob, a Countrypolitan song and a song that might be about a very private matter.
As usual, I'll also mention that issues of Billboard going back to 1944 are available to read (for free) online at Google Books. The March 4, 1978 edition can be found here; the full Hot 100 list can be found on page 72.
Peter Brown - "Dance With Me"
(Debuted #95, Peaked #8, 28 weeks on chart)
Despite being part of the Miami-based TK label that was also home to KC & the Sunshine Band, Peter Brown was a Chicago native who moved to Florida to start his music career. After his song "Do You Wanna Get Funky With Me" sold more than a million copies in summer 1977, Brown would enjoy an even bigger smash with "Dance With Me." A catchy dance tune with a simple bass riff and aided by Betty Wright singing background vocals, it's a mystery why the song doesn't get more exposure today as a disco classic. The ironic thing about Brown is that while his best-known songs were sited for the dancefloor, he never considered himself a "disco" artist in the same vein as Donna Summer or Cerrone. In an interview with Disco-Disco.com, Brown simply says he realized that in order to have a hit at the time, he needed to have a dance groove.
Although the pop hits faded once TK went bankrupt, Brown continued to make dance hits into the 1980s but retired from performing around 1984. Becoming a family man gave him the desire to stay closer to home, but continued problems with tinnitus made him realize that it was time to leave the stage. He continued to write for a while after that, however, penning Madonna's big 1985 hit "Material Girl." Today he runs a design business, which lets him channel the same creativity he once used to make his music.
Stargard - "Disco Rufus"
(Debuted #96, Peaked #88, 5 weeks on chart)
Stargard was a three-woman band in the same vein as LaBelle and The Pointer Sisters, acts that were more suited to full-out, uptempo songs than a more subtle R&B sound favored by The Three Degrees or Love Unlimited. After their theme song from the Richard Pryor film Which Way is Up? was a Top 40 hit and a #1 R&B song, a self-titled LP was released and "Disco Rufus" was rushed out as the followup single. The record company's attempt to cash in on the success of the first hit turned out to be a miscalculation, and no further hits from the group would appear on the Hot 100.
In keeping with many of the era's disco hits, "Disco Rufus" was more about the music than the meaning behind the lyrics. A solid wall of funk-based rhythm, featuring a piano and electric keyboard that sounds like it was influenced by both Stevie Wonder and Billy Preston, make the song interesting but not really unique. Not bad for getting some dancefloor action going, but I can't imagine the song was meant as anything besides album filler.
Earth, Wind and Fire - "Fantasy"
(Debuted #77, Peaked #32, 15 weeks on chart)
Inspired by the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind, "Fantasy" was a song featuring EW&F's trademark utopian lyrics set to a solid funk-based rhythm. Taken from their LP All 'n' All, the biggest-selling soul album of 1978, the song was a modest success, reaching the pop Top 40, peaking at #12 on the R&B chart and reaching the Top 20 in the U.K.
In a way, Earth, Wind & Fire's music was a logical extension of Sly & the Family Stone's. Both groups were influenced by 1960s psychedelic music and used its message of unity and peace to imagine people of all types living in harmony. Both groups were created by a visionary (Sly Stone and Maurice White) who produced the sessions, built with solid musicians as well as family members and performed songs about brotherhood and togetherness. Finally, both groups had solid funk chops. EW&F was more jazz-oriented while Sly was bathed in the hippie movement while DJing in San Francisco. However, as drug abuse and outside pressures dissolved The Family Stone from within, Earth, Wind & Fire managed to persevere despite the passage of time and changes in musical tastes and are still a performing act today.
The Atlanta Rhythm Section - "Imaginary Lover"
(Debuted #70, Peaked #7, 17 weeks on chart)
The Atlanta Rhythm Section was featured in this blog for "So into You," their other Top 10 hit. And while that song is often mistaken to be a song about an affair despite the lyrics specifically mentioning that the lady passing by didn't even make eye contact, "Imaginary Lover" is a little more abstract. There are a few ways to interpret the song...and I'm going to say it seems like the lyrics are about masturbation. Lines like "it's my private pleasure with my fantasy," "they're always there when you need, satisfaction guaranteed" and especially "imaginary lovers never let you down...when all the others turn you away, they're around" certainly make it seem like that's what it's about. Perhaps my interpretation says more about myself than it does about the song's writers and performers, but with that lyric sheet it's (ahem) hard to make any other assumption.
The terrific site Songfacts has a different reading...it says the song is about how fantasy is easier than reality because real people have flaws. However, if you scroll down to others' comments, a couple of them seem to agree with my take. But that's okay...there are other hit songs about the subject. In the 1980s, for instance, Tommy Tutone's "867-5309 (Jenny)" made a sly reference to the practice, while The Vapors' "Turning Japanese" and Cyndi Lauper's "She Bop" were more overt about it. Then there's Divinyls' "I Touch Myself" from 1991, which leaves no doubt at all about what's going on. "Imaginary Lover" wasn't the first by any means, either, considering The Who's "Pictures of Lily" debuted more than a full decade earlier. Considering how important music is to so many teenage kids, it's really no surprise that another topic that they enjoy -- even if they don't admit it -- would find its way into some of the songs.
John Denver - "It Amazes Me"
(Debuted #81, Peaked #59, 7 weeks on chart)
There is clearly a difference between John Denver's late-70s work and the bigger hits he scored before then. After enjoying his fourth #1 single as an artist with the double-sided "I'm Sorry/Calypso" late in 1975, he never again made the Top 10 and most of his singles in the last half of the 1970s were hit-and-miss when it came to chart success. While the swing of pop music tastes from crossover/MOR in the mid-70s to disco can account for some of that drop-off, listening to the songs themselves will give more of an accounting: Denver's songs lack something that made his big hits great, even to those who wouldn't admit they liked his music.
"It Amazes Me" is an example. While there's no doubt who's singing, his voice doesn't have the same feel as it did when he was singing about country roads, Rocky Mountains or sunshine. By this time, Denver was focusing on other pursuits -- acting in Oh God! and championing environmental and humanitarian issues -- and his 1977 LP I Want to Live (which included "It Amazes Me") would be his last album of new material until 1980. Denver was still a singer...but his interests seemed to be pulling him elsewhere as he recorded.
The Michael Zager Band - "Let's All Chant"
(Debuted #90, Peaked #36, 14 weeks on chart)
When I was a teenager back in the 1980s, I was given some records by a friend's older sister after she found out I liked "older" music. Some of the albums were K-Tel compilations and one of those had this song on it. At the time, I thought it was ridiculous but over the years my opinion of the song has changed quite a bit. In fact, it's one of my favorite disco songs today.
Michael Zager grew up in New Jersey and developed an early interest in writing and arranging music. He began the 1970s as a member of Ten Wheel Drive, a jazz/rock combo that had a minor Hot 100 hit in 1970 with "Morning Much Better." After that band split up in 1974, Zager focused on music production. One of his earliest works was with the Love Childs Afro-Cuban Blues Band, which took "Life and Death in G&A" onto the charts in 1975. Shortly after that, Michael Zager's Moon Band placed a song in the Hot 100 called "Do it With Feeling," which introduced Peabo Bryson as a singer. By the time "Let's All Chant" came out, the studio group's name was shortened to The Michael Zager Band.
Lyrically, there's not a lot of substance to "Let's All Chant," just repetitions of the lines "Let's all chant" and "your body, my body, everybody work your body" and an "Ooh, ooh" that is both shrill and goofy. However, the music is infectious. There's even an instrumental break that is entirely unorthodox, even for disco arrangements: an oboe, a harpsichord and a French horn -- usually found in baroque chamber music -- are followed by a clarinet and then a keyboard breakdown before the final fadeout. As a kid, I was annoyed by the siren sounding "ooh, ooh" but found the music itself intriguing later on.
"Let's All Chant" would be Zager's biggest hit, reaching the pop Top 40, #1 on Billboard's Disco chart and also topping the U.K. charts. After a few more releases under his name, Zager focused on other musical avenues after the fall of disco's popularity. He has written commercial jingles, scored TV and film and produced artists like Cissy Houston, Luther Vandross and Jennifer Holliday. He also produced what may have been the first record for Houston's daughter Whitney when she sang on "You Don't Know a Good Thing" for his 1979 LP Life's a Party.
High Inergy - "Love is All You Need"
(Debuted #96, Peaked #89, 5 weeks on chart)
High Inergy was a California-based female vocal quartet signed to Motown. That had enjoyed "out-of-left-field" success in 1977 with "You Can't Turn Me Off (In the Middle of Turning Me On)," a sultry ballad that fit with the Quiet Storm format. The song that led off their Turnin' On LP was chosen as the followup single, but it wasn't able to capitalize on the first single's performance. Dropping from the chart after five weeks, the group never had another pop hit. Reduced to a trio in 1978, they had a few minor R&B hits afterward and split up in 1983.
"Love is All You Need" was a positive, uptempo tune that wasn't bad but was much different from their first hit.However, it didn't stand out above other R&B hits from the era and even under Motown's tutelage they weren't able to gain much name recognition. In the end, love wasn't exactly all this group needed.
Leif Garrett - "Put Your Head On My Shoulder"
(Debuted #82, Peaked #58, 7 weeks on chart)
Jeez, it's hard to say anything good about Leif Garrett. He was a child actor who became a singer...but is probably better remembered for being a poster boy than for either his songs or roles. His first four chart singles were all remakes of earlier pop hits, and Paul Anka's "Put Your Head on My Shoulder" was the second.
The song is well-remembered by those who were young girls in 1978, when his face was plastered on the cover of Tiger Beat, but it really isn't much more than something his record company tossed out to his admiring fans. He sings in a syrupy sweet voice over non-offensive elevator music. Since Garrett was all of 16 when the song was a hit (and 15 when it was recorded), he's really not at fault for the song. His parents and managers, on the other hand...in any case, it's worth taking a few minutes to find out what happened to Garrett after puberty helped tarnish his bright star.
Donna Summer - "Rumour Has It"
(Debuted #83, Peaked #53, 9 weeks on chart)
When this song failed to make the Top 40, it may have seemed like Donna Summer's career was amounting to little more than gimmickry. While she had two Top 10 hits on the pop chart, one ("Love to Love You Baby") was considered a novelty because she was moaning and the other ("I Feel Love") was better known for producer Giorgio Moroder's hypnotic use of the synthesizer. At that point, of her nine chart singles, she'd reached the Top 40 with only three. However, she was one of the biggest stars on the disco chart: "Rumour Has it" would hit #1 on that survey along with the entire LP that spawned it. Despite her failure to make more of an impact on the pop charts, Summer's luck was about to change. Her next single, "Last Dance," would begin a string of Top 10 hits that would last into the next decade and make her one of the brightest stars of the 1970s.
"Rumour Has it" was taken from Summer's concept album Once Upon a Time, which was something of a discofied Cinderella story told over four sides, with each side of the double LP labeled Act 1-4. The song leads off Act 4, which is essentially the storybook ending of the "rags-to-riches" tale. While it isn't as essential as the bigger hits she had later on, "Rumour Has it" is a very tasty dance tune. Where many disco hits -- especially when it came to those in the Eurodico subgenre -- were often disposable and featured generic voices and little in the way of visualization, Donna Summer's work wasn't generic, she wasn't "faceless" and the music often showed much more sophistication than disco artists were given credit for. In a sense, "Rumour Has it" is something like the cool breeze that arrives before the torrent that was Summer's Live and More and Bad Girls LPs.
Barbara Mandrell - "Woman To Woman"
(Debuted #98, Peaked #94, 5 weeks on chart)
In her bid to be a country/pop crossover success like Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton, Barbara Mandrell did some covers of past R&B hits. One of the first was a take on Shirley Brown's 1974 #1 R&B hit "Woman to Woman," which helps show exactly how much the two distinctly different music formats have in common. Both formats have an underlying gospel influence, and occasionally both deal with adult themes like infidelity and living in poverty. In the case of "Woman to Woman," the subject is cheatin', always a popular topic for country songs.
Beginning with a spoken-word recitation, the song is essentially one side of a conversation between a woman and her husband's mistress. Backed by slick-sounding "Countrypolitan" music that bore little resemblance to what many would expect from a country hit. Rather than twin fiddles and a steel guitar, the arrangement is string-laden and a guitar with a slight wah-wah reverb is added into the mix. After getting some success with this song (it hit #4 on the country chart), Mandrell went back to the R&B well the next year and got an even bigger crossover hit with Luther Ingram's 1972 hit "(If Loving You is Wrong) I Don't Want to be Right."
Diana Ross - "Your Love Is So Good For Me"
(Debuted #86, Peaked #49, 7 weeks on chart)
Despite her popularity during the 1970s, Diana Ross was beginning to lose some of her luster. As Motown records fell from their 1960s perch as "The Sound of Black America" as the decade wore on -- supplanted by Philly Soul and losing some of its identity after leaving the Motor City for L.A. -- Miss Ross's chart fortunes took a similar decline. "Your Love is So Good for Me" would be her first chart single to miss the Top 40 since before her 1976 smash hit "Love Hangover" and several more singles would miss that mark for the next year.
Clearly, Motown was trying to figure out how to market their star for the new disco era. While "Love Hangover" was a solid effort, few of her followup efforts could sustain the momentum. "Your Love is So Good For Me" is an uptempo number with a somewhat funky danceable rhythm, but it's not much more than that.