One of the most underrated soul/dance groups of the 70s, the Trammps remain notable in many circles for a single song, 1977's seminal disco anthem, "Disco Inferno." However, as pioneers in the development of Disco from the foundation of early 70s Soul music, the Trammps' legacy and influence extend well beyond the seven minutes of that one recording.
Originally formed as the Volcanos (a group that included producer/guitarist extraordinaire Ron "Have Mercy" Kersey), the most popular Trammps lineup consisted of dynamic lead singer Jimmy Ellis as well as vocalists Robert Upchurch, Harold Wade and Stanley Wade and legendary Philly drummer Earl Young. They scored their first hit in 1972 on Buddah Records with an uptempo, pre-disco dance remake of Judy Garland's "Zing Went the Strings of My Heart." It was a great cut and displayed Ellis's dynamic, gravelly lead vocals as well as the solid group harmonies. It was featured on the subsequently released Legendary Zing Album, which also included the minor midtempo hit "Hold Back the Night."
Soon the Trammps fully hooked into the then-hot Philly music scene, and with songwriter/producers Baker, Harris and (group member) Young, began recording a string of dance oriented albums. While the heavily orchestrated, beat heavy arrangements of the Disco Era now sound passÃ©, back in 1974 it was pretty incredible stuff, and the Trammps were at the front of the wave with songs like "Hooked for Life" and "Where Do We Go From Here." They were taking the smooth, impeccably lush sounds coming from Philly-mates Gamble & Huff and Thom Bell, and melding them into a much hotter, dance-imperative groove that would soon sweep the nation in the hands of others.
The Trammps' 1976 and '77 albums, Where the Happy People Go and Disco Inferno were joyous dance masterpieces, and were the group's high points. While the lyrics were often lightweight (or in the case of songs like "Body Contact Contract," - a song using trite legalese terms as metaphors for love - downright absurd) the grooves were irresistible, and the group laid down some of the hottest cuts that of the era, including the two title cuts as well as "(I Feel Like I've Been Living on) The Dark Side of the Moon," and "Soul Searchin' Time."
By the time of their 1978 release, Trammps III, the quality of their material had begun to slide and an attempt to expand their repertoire through the addition of several ballads, such as the minor hit "Season For Girls," failed. They would release a couple more albums, The Whole World's Dancing and Mixin' It Up, but neither approached the quality of the group's mid 70s work.
The Trammps disbanded in the early 80s, but their best recordings were compiled on an excellent collection, This is Where the Happy People Go. An updated version of the group (unfortunately without the essential member, Ellis) came together a decade later to capitalize on Disco's revival, performing in multi-group shows. Jimmy Williams (formerly of Double Exposure) took over the lead vocals, accompanied by Upchurch and both Wades. Happily, Ellis rejoined the group in 2003, and began touring with the Wades and new singer David Dixon until retiring for good in 2010. The group currently consists of Stanley Wade, Robert Upchurch, Doc Wade and Dave Dixon. Co-founder Earl Young leads an alternative version of the group that also continues to tour regularly.
The Wade version of the group has recorded a couple albums in the past decade, one of R&B covers and the other a 2006 Christmas album that found them in decent voice even though covering tired holiday songs. In August 2011, the group issued a new single, "Chapter One."
Sadly, on March 8, 2012, Jimmy Ellis died at a nursing home in South Carolina at age 74.
In retrospect, the Trammps played an important role in the development of dance-oriented soul in the 70s, though they reaped only limited benefits from their pioneering efforts. And while overall their catalog is spotty, the group's high points were very high, and many artists of that era (and the multiple waves of dance music since then) owe them a great debt.
By Chris Rizik