Book Review - "First Ladies of Disco" by James Arena

Book Review
First Ladies of Disco by James Arena.jpg
Click on CD cover
to listen or purchase

The term "disco" has often been associated with a few rhythmically redundant, vacuously arranged uptempo songs which happened to be fronted by capable and inciting singers. But over the span of four decades, the genre otherwise known as dance music has unleashed a wealth of unforgettable hooks, sweeping orchestration, spirited lyrics, and dynamic vocalists of vast, colorful influences. Melding all of those components together is no easy feat, and that's why recordings such as Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive," Donna Summer's "Last Dance," and The Weather Girls' "It's Raining Men" have secured their slots in history as outright anthems—songs for the people, as only the artists who made them famous could carry with unquestionable truthfulness.

The term "disco" has often been associated with a few rhythmically redundant, vacuously arranged uptempo songs which happened to be fronted by capable and inciting singers. But over the span of four decades, the genre otherwise known as dance music has unleashed a wealth of unforgettable hooks, sweeping orchestration, spirited lyrics, and dynamic vocalists of vast, colorful influences. Melding all of those components together is no easy feat, and that's why recordings such as Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive," Donna Summer's "Last Dance," and The Weather Girls' "It's Raining Men" have secured their slots in history as outright anthems—songs for the people, as only the artists who made them famous could carry with unquestionable truthfulness.

Throughout the history of disco and its subsequent transformations (hi-NRG, techno, electro, or simply, dance music), female singers with definitive styles—and powerful presence—have played an integral role. As Harry Wayne Casey, aka "KC" of The Sunshine Band, puts it in the afterword of James Arena's new book, First Ladies of Disco, "I don't think a man could have sung 'I Will Survive' with the conviction of Gloria Gaynor...that a man could have really pulled off 'I Love the Nightlife' the way Alicia Bridges nailed it...[or that] a man could belt 'More, More, More' with quite the same kind of passion that Andrea True gave it...The first ladies of disco had what it takes to make you feel and believe those songs."

The stirring conviction of 32 such vocalists provides the premise for First Ladies of Disco, a thorough collection of new interviews with influential artists who helped to shape and define the sounds which millions have danced, sung along, and lived life to for the past 40 years. From genre-crossing mainstays such as Gaynor, Evelyn "Champagne" King, and Martha Wash (of The Weather Girls) to often less-heralded (but equally important) figures like Jeanie Tracy, Barbara Roy (of Ecstasy, Passion & Pain), and Carol Douglas, Arena gives readers candid insights into the professional backgrounds, industry experiences, and personal reflections of an array of multi-talented women—many who rarely are afforded the opportunity to share their stories.

The life adventures and business happenings revealed by the ladies range from magical to tragic; but the appreciation of the music that gave them devout followings—and the writers and producers behind it—is shared by all. Many were established professionals with solid reputations as purveyors of soul or jazz before becoming linked to the disco movement. Ecstacy, Passion & Pain had made the R&B top-40 in the early '70s with "One Beautiful Day" before setting discotheques ablaze with "Ask Me" and "Touch & Go." Linda Clifford had sung with vocal ensembles across the U.S. and recorded a number of soulful sides helmed by Curtis Mayfield before bringing new dance floor life to the pop evergreen "Bridge Over Troubled Water." And Yvonne Elliman had starred in both stage and film versions of Jesus Christ Superstar years prior to recording one of the most defining dance tunes of the '70s, the Freddie Perren-produced "If I Can't Have You" from Saturday Night Fever. But all reached their broadest audience—and found wide-scale acceptance—with the explosion of disco. It's a universal phenomenon which has kept them playing to eager crowds to this day.

Behind the scenes, there are a number of surprising and admirable scenarios which the ladies impart within their interviews. Both Anita Ward ("Ring My Bell") and Suzi Lane ("Harmony") detail daunting health battles they fought after reaching their commercial peaks. Evelyn Thomas ("High Energy") and Jessica Williams ("Queen of Fools") enlighten readers to some of the shady financial aspects of record company and production deals, while Norma Jean Wright of Chic and Martha Wash keep it on the real with discussions of industry image hang-ups which sometimes hampered the advancement of their success. Meanwhile, often less-acknowledged trailblazers Carol Williams (the first female artist signed to Salsoul Records) and former Supreme Scherrie Payne (sister of Freda) shed light on fascinating professional connections which helped to launch their careers.

In addition to over 200 pages of interviews, First Ladies of Disco also contains an introductory chapter with observations from renowned producers, remixers, and industry executives on the impact of the music discussed. Tom Moulton, Michael Zager, and Tom Hayden are among those who answer questions about the public's perception of disco, the treatment of the genre's artists over the years, and the fans who have kept the ladies going strong. Another chapter is dedicated to conversation of a handful of legends who have passed on, ranging from perhaps the most influential artist of the disco era, Donna Summer, to the less famous (but highly prolific) Viola Wills and Karen Young.

First Ladies of Disco is a riveting and detailed journey into the lives and careers of some of the most important women at the forefront of the height of an era. A carefully balanced mixture of personal, professional, and philosophical talking points ensure that the book is relevant to both steadfast fans who experienced disco's beginnings and newer students of the sound who are curious about the evolution of the genre. There are a few minor discographical hiccups and chronological gaps here and there, but they are far from being a deterrent to the engaging quality of each interview. Arena has succeeded in shining a clear light on some of the most talented and underrated vocalists of a unique and far-reaching era in modern music. Highly Recommended.

By Justin Kantor

Connect with Justin on Facebook

 

 
Choice Cut - Kenya - "Favorite Things"
Choice Cut - Sy Smith - "Camelot"
Featured Album - Conya Doss - CLEAR
See The Nominees! - SoulTracks Readers' Choice Awards

Leave a comment!