Disco is a genre of music that was popular in the 1970s, though it has since enjoyed brief resurgences including the present day. The term is derived from discothèque (French for “library of phonograph records”, but subsequently used as proper name for nightclubs in Paris). Its initial audiences were club-goers from the African American, GLBTQ, Italian American, Latino, and psychedelic communities in New York City and Philadelphia during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Disco also was a reaction against both the domination of rock music and the stigmatization of dance music by the counterculture during this period. Women embraced disco as well, and the music eventually expanded to several other popular groups of the time.
In what is considered a forerunner to disco-style clubs, New York City DJ David Mancuso opened The Loft, a members-only private dance club set in his own home, in February 1970. AllMusic claims some have argued that Isaac Hayes and Barry White were playing what would be called disco music as early as 1971. According to the music guide, there is disagreement as to what the first disco song was. Claims have been made for Manu Dibango’s “Soul Makossa” (1972), Jerry Butler’s “One Night Affair” (1972), the O’Jays’ “Love Train” (1972, #1 hit), the Hues Corporation’s “Rock the Boat” (1973), and George McCrae’s “Rock Your Baby” (1974). The first article about disco was written in September 1973 by Vince Aletti for Rolling Stone magazine. In 1974 New York City’s WPIX-FM premiered the first disco radio show.
Musical influences include funk, Latin, psychedelic and soul music. The disco sound has soaring, often reverberated vocals over a steady “four-on-the-floor” beat, an eighth note (quaver) or 16th note (semi-quaver) hi-hat pattern with an open hi-hat on the off-beat, and a prominent, syncopated electric bass line sometimes consisting of octaves. The Fender Jazz Bass is often associated with disco bass lines, because the instrument itself has a very prominent “voice” in the musical mix. In most disco tracks, strings, horns, electric pianos, and electric guitars create a lush background sound. Orchestral instruments such as the flute are often used for solo melodies, and lead guitar is less frequently used in disco than in rock. Many disco songs employ the use of electronic instruments such as synthesizers.
Well-known late 1970s disco performers included ABBA, Donna Summer, The Bee Gees, KC and the Sunshine Band, The Trammps, Van McCoy, Gloria Gaynor, The Village People, Chic, and The Jacksons—the latter of whom first dipped their toes into disco as The Jackson 5. Summer would become the first well-known and most popular disco artist—eventually having the title “The Queen of Disco” bestowed upon her by various critics—and would also play a part in pioneering the electronic sound that later became a prominent element of disco. While performers and singers garnered the lion’s share of public attention, producers working behind the scenes played an equal, if not more important role in disco, since they often wrote the songs and created the innovative sounds and production techniques that were part of the “disco sound.”
Many non-disco artists recorded disco songs at the height of disco’s popularity, and films such as Saturday Night Fever and Thank God It’s Friday contributed to disco’s rise in mainstream popularity. Disco was the last mass popular music movement that was driven by the baby boom generation. Disco music was a worldwide phenomenon, but its popularity declined in the United States in the late 1970s. On July 12, 1979, an anti-disco protest in Chicago called “Disco Demolition Night” had shown that an angry backlash against disco and its culture had emerged in the United States. In the subsequent months and years, many musical acts associated with disco struggled to get airplay on the radio. A few artists still managed to score disco hits in the early 1980s, but the term “disco” became unfashionable in the new decade and was eventually replaced by “dance music”, “dance pop”, and other identifiers. Although the production techniques have changed, many successful acts since the 1970s have retained the basic disco beat and mentality, and dance clubs have remained popular.
A disco revival was seen in 2013, as disco-styled songs by artists like Daft Punk (with Nile Rodgers), Justin Timberlake, Breakbot, Bruno Mars and Robin Thicke filled the pop charts in the UK and the US.
Origins of disco as a term and type of nightclub
By the early 1940s, the terms DJ and Disc Jockey were in use to describe radio presenters. Because of restrictions, jazz dance halls in Occupied France played records instead of using live music. Eventually more than one of these venues had the proper name discothèque. By 1959, the term was used in Paris to describe any of these type of nightclubs. That year a young reporter Klaus Quirini spontaneously started to select and introduce records at the Scotch-Club in Aachen, West Germany. By the following year the term was being used in the United States to describe that type of club, and a type of dancing in those clubs. By 1964, discotheque and the shorthand disco were used to describe a type of sleeveless dress used when going out to nightclubs. In September 1964, Playboy Magazine used the word disco as a shorthand for a discothèque-styled nightclub.
Proto-disco and early history of disco music
In New York City musicians and audiences from the female, homosexual, black, and Latino communities adopted several traits from the hippies and psychedelia. They included overwhelming sound, free-form dancing, weird lighting, colorful costumes, and hallucinogens. Psychedelic soul groups like the Chambers Brothers and especially Sly and The Family Stone influenced proto-disco acts such as Isaac Hayes, Willie Hutch and the Philadelphia Sound. In addition, the perceived positivity, lack of irony, and earnestness of the hippies informed proto-disco music like M.F.S.B.’s album Love Is the Message. To the mainstream public M.F.S.B. stood for “Mother Father Sister Brother”; to the tough areas where they came from it was understood to stand for “Mother Fuckin’ Son of a Bitch”.
Philadelphia and New York soul were evolutions of the Motown sound, and were typified by the lavish percussion and lush strings that became a prominent part of mid-1970s disco songs. Early songs with disco elements include “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” (The Supremes, 1966), “Only the Strong Survive” (Jerry Butler, 1968), “Message to Love” (Jimi Hendrix’s Band of Gypsys, 1970), “Soul Makossa” (Manu Dibango, 1972), Superstition by Stevie Wonder (1972) Eddie Kendricks’ Keep on Truckin’ (1973) and “The Love I Lost” by Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes (1973). “Love Train” by The O’Jays (1972), with M.F.S.B. playing backup band hit Billboard Number 1 in March 1973, and has been called “disco”.
The early disco was dominated with producers and labels such as SalSoul Records (Ken, Stanley, and Joseph Cayre), West End Records (Mel Cheren), Casablanca (Neil Bogart), and Prelude (Marvin Schlachter) to name a few. The genre was also shaped by Tom Moulton, who wanted to extend the enjoyment — thus creating the extended mix or “remix”. DJs and remixers would often remix (re-edit) existing songs using reel-to-reel tape machines. Their remixed versions would add in percussion breaks, new sections, and new sounds. Other influential DJs and remixers who helped to establish what became known as the “disco sound” included David Mancuso, Nicky Siano, Shep Pettibone, Larry Levan, Walter Gibbons, and Chicago-based “Godfather of House” Frankie Knuckles.
Disco hit the television airwaves with Soul Train in 1971 hosted by Don Cornelius, then Marty Angelo’s Disco Step-by-Step Television Show in 1975, Steve Marcus’ Disco Magic/Disco 77, Eddie Rivera’s Soap Factory, and Merv Griffin’s Dance Fever, hosted by Deney Terrio, who is credited with teaching actor John Travolta to dance for his upcoming role in the hit movie Saturday Night Fever, as well as DANCE based out of Columbia, South Carolina.