As we Gen X-ers age out of the system for the new generation of gay kids who point the finger at us for screwing up their current experiences and the subsequent alphanumeric generations that will follow, we can at least say that we gave them DJs, raves and circuit parties, something they take for granted every time they pay for another hot pink paper wristband, or swallow another neon colored Jello shot beneath a laser light show.
Yes, they can give that to us. Or at least give credit to the musicians who played in clubs in the 70’s taking note of this new art form where men and women cradled headphones round their necks and used LPs as musical instruments.
Harry Wayne Casey may sound like the moniker of a serial killer, but the only crime he may be guilty of committing is slaying AM radio for FM. AM was a haven for Baby Boomers obsessed with acts like Elvis, The Supremes and Dion.
For those of you reading this and have no idea who, or what, I’m talking about, let me introduce you to the Harry Wayne Casey better known as KC, the lead singer of 70’s disco brand KC and the Sunshine Band.
To understand the feel of the 70’s, and KC's beginnings, one must try to imagine the landscape of the time, cars were big as boats made of American steel with seatbelts that only secured your lap if you chose to use them and people were free to ride in the back of rusty old pick-up trucks while speeding down the freeway.
The nuclear families were the status quo, women were just beginning to gain their voices and the nation was licking its wounds having just come from the questionable conflict in the jungles of Vietnam.
Popular music at the beginning of the decade was a hodgepodge of trends, from poppy up-tempo hits from Tony Orlando and Dawn, love songs by Roberta Flack and British cross-over rock by flamboyant Elton John, the Billboard was experiencing an identity crisis.
Musically, the 70’s was an experimental time in which artists from all over the world tried to infiltrate the American market throwing everything at them to see what would stick. For the most part everything did.
But one man would almost single-handedly take part in a homegrown revolution upending the zeitgeist’s eclectic musical tastes to create a sound that would define and subsequently create a war between generations. That man and his band was KC and the Sunshine Band, and the style was called disco.
“I Thought the music was becoming really dark,” KC said to me from his home in Florida. “And I really just wanted to bring happiness to the music again to a whole album when you put it on. I just wanted to create that kind of energy.”
The ingredients which made up disco were prepped in Miami with a pinch of quaver from acts in the U.K. and lets add a Fifth of Beethoven to the pot.
Brass, percussion and electric rhythm guitars played a part in this new sound, and suddenly the country was under siege, taken over by BPM’s, cocaine, flared pants suits and lit-up dance floors. It wouldn’t have a lasting life-span, but in its existence, it managed to usher in happier times.
This was the genesis of the circuit parties and raves we know today, both gay and straight. Studio 54 was created during this time.
KC may have been the first artist to recognize the power of disco, and what it meant. He devoted his 20’s to harnessing its power and offering it up to the people.
“It was like we were just coming out of the sixties and everyone wanted peace and to love one another, and accept everybody. And you know I thought it was the right time – the timing was right for me. I was probably going through the same sort of things in life; being able to be yourself for a change.”
Being gay was still illegal in some parts of the U.S. The Stonewall riots were still fresh in New York as KC was writing songs on paper, never realizing they would become iconic and ultimately define a world music movement, not to mention gay anthems used as vehicles of self-expression on the dance floor.
“I always had this dream," he said. " I always knew it. I mean I even had a year that it was going to happen and it happened within that year. I had all of these things in my mind already. I mean I had no idea how it was going to happen or when because everybody told me it never would, and it wasn’t going to. I was white and I sounded black and all these kinda things. My mother used to say, why don’t you get a job and make something of yourself? I had already decided that I loved music, and I was doing co-writing at the label and I did some sessions, so I was just doing anything. I managed artists --I just got myself involved in the music industry period.”
His 1975 hit “Shake Your Booty” was born from an observation he made about shy people with their backs to the wall.
“Shake Your Booty really happened because, I’d go to shows and I’d see people holding back and looking around, whether they could have a good time. It was really a song about don’t fight the feeling, give yourself a chance, you know...shake your booty in other words. And one of the lyrics says ‘you’re the best in the world, I can tell,’ it’s just saying no matter what you think of yourself, you’re the best, it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. I know it, you should too.”
However, by the time “Shake Your Booty” hit number one, KC had already made a presence on the scene, his other songs “That’s the Way (I Like It),” and “Get Down Tonight” were still in heavy rotation from his previous album.
His song writing talent may have been overshadowed only by his pin-up status. He was a sex-symbol to pre-pubescent teens, both male and female across the globe: the Justin Bieber of his time.
Teenagers discovering the wonders of their bodies for the first time bought magazines with the word “beat” in their titles, perhaps ambiguous enough to define many aspects of what they were being used for.
KC joined the ranks of David Cassidy. Peter Frampton and other “beat” worthy young adults of the 70s in magazine posters, centerfolds and colored pictorials that were cut out of the pages and slapped to bedroom walls just above the portable transistor radio and boxy Lo-Fi turntable.
All of this celebrity was not a distraction to KC who continued to learn everything about the business, from producing to marketing and manufacturing, “there wasn’t anything that I didn’t get my nose into and study and look at or be a part of.”
His hometown of Miami was only beginning to become a party Mecca. KC says that up until Madonna made her presence there, the feel was still very laid-back with acts such as Frank Sinatra and The Supremes booking sit-down hotel showrooms.
And yet, once Miami became the heartland of hit records, he continued his labor from the industry's back end.
“It is very hard work,” he said. “The way I always looked at it or approached it was I devoted all my time to the work. And if there was a break in that time then I went out and I did things. I would be hanging out at the studio on a night when everyone was going to go out to do things, I would do the same thing.”
Pop culture was now embracing disco, enough so that a sexy young actor currently starring in the hit sitcom “Welcome Back Kotter,” burst onto the big screen in a movie called “Saturday Night Fever.”
John Travolta was his name and he was a triple threat to the industry he could act, sing and dance. Clad in his signature white flared three-piece suit, Travolta strutted his way to the top of the box office in 1977.
The movie also came with an unstoppable companion album featuring one of KC’s songs, “Boogie Shoes,” forever bolstering his status alongside the Bee Gees as disco royalty.
“They actually wanted ‘Shake your Booty,’” KC explains, “and at the time we were getting ready to release it as the next single and the album wasn’t ready to come out yet and I suggested that they use Boogie Shoes and that’s how it ended up on the album was at my suggestion. I did put Boogie Shoes on the B-side of Shake Your Booty.”
The Saturday Night Fever soundtrack camped out on top of Billboard for an unprecedented six months. It wouldn’t fade from charts until three years later churning out hit after hit securing its place in music history.
“No one knew it was going to be a major motion picture. I mean you never know. Like when my song was in Forrest Gump, you have no idea that it’s going to be this huge movie. My songs have been in over two-hundred movies some have been huge monster hits and some have done barely anything at the box office.”
KC was now touring to sell-out venues both in the U.S. and abroad. It was during this time he noticed something; something that would change the club experience forever.
“Most of the places we played in were kind of disco clubs, or clubs, and these guys were spinning records. And it’s like...and I knew that it was happening a little bit in America, and everywhere we went...they were spinning records, except for our live performance, and I knew right then that this was just going to bust right open.
“I saw that clubs were going to get hip to it because they could hire one DJ instead of hiring five people. They could pay one guy at half the price and have all these people come and have a good time at their place of business.”
As most trends tend to fade after a while, so too did disco. Perhaps expedited by a counterculture who felt disco was “gay” and should be killed: perhaps this too explains their mindset of the LGBT community at the time.
Mainstream radio was sacrificing the organic music made from the real instruments of disco and putting more emphasis on the ersatz composition of new wave electronica. The 80’s raised BPMs once again and traded pantsuits for neon colored halter tops and lace finger gloves.
“Keyboards were developing and with each new keyboard came new sounds and more people were adding those and using that more in their music and there were all these things that were adding to guitar sounds and stuff,” said KC.
Pop music was born and KC noticed the trend, giving the decade one of its most memorable hits “Give it Up" in 1984. After that, and over a decade of hard work, KC was exhausted and left the industry which was becoming overly produced.
“’Give it Up’ was kinda the end for me because I wanted out. You know I was done. I was tired. I was kinda tired of being told what to do; when to do it, how to do it, when to smile, when not to smile when to be happy, when not to be happy, and I just wanted out. And I totally left the scene completely.”
The entertainment industry is a rough and tumble character, fickle and unapologetic. It can feed upon the creativity of others until the artist is hitherto devoid of energy. KC needed a break.
“You know you have to understand that ten-year period or whatever was a very lonely period for me. I never felt so alone and isolated in my entire life as I did at the top of the game, and I can understand that how every artist going through that feels. And I have always had so much compassion for Michael Jackson. I mean his started way earlier than mine. I’ve been there and so it’s like, although all these great things are happening to you, it can be lonely and very isolating.”
He says, "I did get to a point creatively where I thought, well I’ve done every cord, I put every word in a song that I could put in a song, and it’s just becoming redundant now. I was tapped, I was drained I was tired of the whole political BS of it all and I just wanted out.”
However, as I was on the phone with KC it was apparent that the sabbatical was only temporary. He is someone who always notices the music as it plays, where it’s been and where it’s going. He cannot excuse that part of himself from the outside world; it thrives within him.
It’s a quality that every great musician embodies and serves to remind people that through the epochs of pop radio and reheating past trends, other people such as KC are sifting through the reboots and focusing on brave new worlds.
In fact, almost bringing his career full circle, he released another hit: 2016’s, “We Belong Together,” a modern update to the sound he started decades ago.
“Three years ago I got re-energized. I got the same creative processes that are going on in my head now that I had when I was twenty-three -- forty-some-odd years ago or whatever. And it’s pretty frightening to me at times. But it’s exciting, I’m not trying to break down any – I’m just putting out music and getting back out there again. I’m not in any big rush to do it. I’m enjoying making the music and just putting it out there, especially in the clubs and stuff. Whatever happens is going to happen. My touring is my main thing and I love doing that. I’ve got all of these creative juices flowing and I can’t keep it in, so I’ve been making all this music, and I have enough for three CDs: I’m still recording.”
Of course, there have been some rough spots along KC’s journey. He was hit by a car head-on in 1982 which left him paralyzed and having to re-learn many things including walking, playing the piano and dancing.
Which given his current schedule is nothing short of miraculous.
“I tour all year long. Mostly weekends. I do about fifty to sixty shows a year. I’ve been doing that pretty much since 95,” he chuckles. “I got my act together in 95.”
Aside from the touring, he writes for other musicians and is getting ready to release another single called “Move Your Body.”
I was inspired by KC and his tenacity. This man who created musical filler for spaces in which people could be themselves, take instruction from his lyrics and simply shake, shake,shake.
I suggested that he take his talents and write songs for the new generation, passing on that gift to others who may be lower in the generation alphabet.
“I’m working on that too,” he laughs. “I collaborated with Big and Rich, which is kinda of country, but I’m starting to hook up some writing stuff and start writing with some people.”
Whatever you feel about disco, whatever you feel about the people who made it, there is a connection between that musical contribution and the one we experience today.
DJs rule the nightclub, blending their playlist of emotional suggestions into the subconscious, speeding up the beats per minute or slowing them down into styles that range from House to Chill to Fusion. Honestly, I couldn’t name all the subgenres or even know details about what they mean, but their roots go back to the 70s.
I do know that pioneers such as KC birthed disco, watched it die then performed CPR with fresh air to bring it back to life. Perhaps not the same entity it was, it has grown into a much bigger being than perhaps even KC could have imagined.
"I wasn’t living what everyone else was living. It was pretty much what was in my mind, whatever I witnessed whatever I felt at the time. The feelings that were going in my head what I thought should be and what I thought life was at the time. It was mostly about being in love and wanting to be in love, and wanting to be all these things -- that was what was really behind all the music.”
From innovator to pin-up boy to Grammy winner, KC and the Sunshine Band contributed to the soundtrack of the LGBT movement, and straight counterculture, allowing every group in a community to come together in a common meeting place: the dance floor.
For more information on KC and the Sunshine Band including tour dates click HERE.
Timothy Rawles is Community Editor of SDGLN. He can be reached at email@example.com, @reporter66 on Twitter, or by calling toll-free to 888-442-9639, ext. 713.
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