April 24, 1976
Platinum is one the world’s rarest metals, with less than two hundred tonnes produced annually. Until 1976 no recording artist could ever boast that he or she had a platinum disc decorating the wall of their main lounge or outhouse. The RIAA, the organisation responsible for awarding such gongs in the States, introduced the gold record for sales of 500,000 copies in March 1958 and handed the first to casual crooner Perry Como for his recording of Catch A Falling Star. But in 1976, with the industry expanding, a platinum award for sales of one million copies was instigated. The first recipient was Dallas-based soul singer Johnnie Taylor, who grabbed the award for his recording of Disco Lady.
Taylor had been around forever, singing in gospel groups before replacing Sam Cooke in the Soul Stirrers. It had been Cooke, on whom Taylor modelled his vocal approach, who’d given the soul man from Arkansas his first stab at secular success with Rome (Wasn’t Built In A Day) on Cooke’s own SAR label. After Cooke’s death in 1964, he’d switched to Stax, where from 1967 to 1974 he delivered a steady array of hits until the label foundered in 1975.
My voice is too low, the record doesn’t suit me and I think we need to go with something else.
Taylor had frequently complained about the material he was handed in the past, first derisively branding Who’s Makin’ Love, “a boogity, boogity song” until it provided him his first major success in 1968. Signed to Columbia in 1976, he continued to denigrate songs that were offered to him. When Disco Lady was mooted as a possible single, Taylor told producer Don Davies, “my voice is too low, the record doesn’t suit me and I think we need to go with something else.”
Certainly the song, composed by Milwaukee singer-songwriter-producer Harvey Scales, wasn’t new. Don Davies decided on a revamp in the company of writer Albert Vance, with an added, ace rhythm track. Brought in to play the date were three members of Parliament-Funkadelic, namely bassist Bootsy Collins, keyboardist Bernie Worrell and guitarist Glenn Goins, while also aboard was Dawn vocalist Telma Hopkins and studio group Brandy, leaving David Van DePitte to provide the horn arrangement. “I got you a smash,” Davies informed Taylor. “You tell me that all the time,” countered the singer.
The twosome had been friends for years, Davies recording rhythm tracks at one studio, then adding strings and brass at another before sending them down to Dallas where Taylor would add his vocals. But then Davies heard from Taylor, who complained, “it’s a terrible mix. I can’t imagine why you want to release it.”
It was later discovered that Taylor had been playing his copy on a turntable cued to an incorrect speed.
The single, which appeared on Taylor’s debut Columbia album Eargasm – he would deny any vulgar connotations in the title, as he would Disco Lady’s entreaty to “shake it up, shake it down, move it in, move round” - first hit the black music charts on 31 January 1976. It eventually arrived in the US Top Ten on 20 March, clambering to pole position two weeks later. The first Hot 100 record that contained the word ‘disco’ in its title, the single remained at No.1 for four weeks. When the record took off it was reported that Columbia executive Bruce Lundvall sent crates of Dom Perignon to Taylor, who drank some and took a bath in what was left.
“A lot of people thought it was disco,” mused Taylor. “But it was not a disco tune. We were just *talking about disco.” However, Taylor’s talk sold records, and Disco Lady eventually sold two million and helped Eargasm go gold. But the fame achieved by the latter caused problems following the death of Taylor from a heart attack in May, 2000. His estate was to have been shared by the six children born into Taylor’s two marriages or whom he openly acknowledged as his offspring: it was at this point that three further persons claimed patrimony. The Charlotte Observer reported that one claimant, 39 year-old Schiffvon Taylor Brown, had never met her father. ”We kept it hush-hush,” she said. “My mother was young at the time. I had a birth certificate with his name on it. The first time I saw him was on the Disco Lady (Eargasm) album cover. My mom bought the album cover out on the porch and said, ‘This is what your dad looks like.’” Ultimately, the estate was shared between Taylor’s widow and all nine kids.