Toot toot, beep beep: the rise and fall and rise (again) of disco

Toot toot, beep beep: the rise and fall and rise (again) of disco

Disco took root in South Florida, mostly appealing to its Latin, Jewish, black, transplant northeasterner and gay populations. Much like Miami itself, the music is kitschy and the scene has always been transient and fluid. To casual observers it had no more cultural significance than the mambo or the twist, yet disco and its grandchild, today’s electronic dance music (EDM), have redefined fashion, pop culture and sex in America. South Florida was pivotal in disco’s development. Miami never received the memo that disco was dead, so it became a proud bastion of the genre and, I dare say, the movement.

Pop culture took a sharp turn in the 1970s. Many drew parallels to the roaring ‘20s, when frivolity set the ambiance and dramatic garments punctuated the scene. Both eras were also heavily influenced by nascent musical genres. Jazz was the swing of the ‘20s and disco made America boogie after a long spell of philosophical introspection and sociopolitical tectonics.

The political residue of the Vietnam War, the horrors of the Kennedy and King assassinations and the civic disillusionment of Watergate left Americans in a state of distrust, disbelief and in dire need to disconnect and escape. What better place to disconnect than in a discotheque — or disco for short, which in the early days referred more to the brick-and-mortar club than to the music being played or the vibe that permeated.

Discotheques were born in France during Nazi occupation. Not surprisingly, the Nazis or the French collaborators of the Vichy regime (French puppet government directed by the men wearing the iron crosses) shut down the world renowned Parisian cabarets — too much fun and freedom for authoritarian loons to handle. Discotheques began to spring up all over occupied Paris. The word “discotheque” means “record library” in French, but to those who sought refuge and a spiritual escape in them, it was much more.  The music of choice for the persecuted nonconformists in those days was American Jazz, which the Nazis perceived as negro music consumed by desolate souls who lacked intellect or any redeeming quality worthy of their master race. Fortunately for humanity, the rhythmless men in black lost the War; their Reich crumbled and their genetic theories faded into history’s trash heap.  

Régine Zylberberg is widely regarded as the inventor of the modern discothèque. (image: Georges Biard)

Régine Zylberberg is widely regarded as the inventor of the modern discothèque. (image: Georges Biard)

The mother of discos is Régine Zylberberg, a Belgian native of Polish Jewish ancestry. She managed Whisky-a-Go-Go in Paris in 1953 and later in 1957 owned and successfully operated Chez Regine’s in Paris’ Latin Quarter. By the 1970s, Regine’s made it to Manhattan, which at the time was the epicenter of dance.

The hippies of the ‘60s burned out and lost some significant rock icons, like Jimi, Janis and Jim. The Big Apple was chock-full of alternates — namely disenfranchised Latinos and African-Americans.  The United States had become more overtly ethnic; baby boomers were more comfortable with their hyphenated American status. As minorities grew louder and prouder, an entire generation of Americans was challenging rigid gender definitions, restrictions and downright sexism and homophobia. Straight women, lesbians and gay men were gaining space in the American tapestry, wanting (like all the other marginalized groups) to be treated equally and respected as human beings. Disco became their soundtrack and discotheques were their sanctuaries.

In a piece describing the impact of disco on pop culture, The Los Angeles Times cited gay men as “disco’s most loyal fan base.” The article goes on to highlight that “when the Firehouse, the first New York gay disco, opened in 1971, two years after the Stonewall riots, it revolutionized the way gays mingled.”

As the clubs spread in the U.S. (mostly in cosmopolitan cities) a musical genre was built around the disc jockey culture. Though Motown and the sounds coming from Philadelphia — which produced the duo Gamble and Huff — had already morphed into what sounded like more flowery, lush funk (i.e. Teddy Pendergrass, The Ojays, Eddie Kendricks, The Jackson 5) disco did not officially become the music’s official name until 1974. That is when Barry White hit the charts with “Love’s Theme” and “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love, Babe,” the Hues Corporation put out “Rock the Boat” and R&B studio session singer George McRae, recorded the number one smash, “Rock Your Baby” out of a little warehouse studio in Hialeah named TK Records.

“Rock Your Baby” was written by Harry Wayne Casey and Rick Finch, who later went on to front K.C. and the Sunshine Band, a Miami-based band which stemmed from a former junkanoo/funk band named Band Ocean Liners and went on to record a string of top-five hits between 1975 and 1977, including “Get Down Tonight”, “That’s the Way (I Like It)”, “Shake Your Booty”, “I’m Your Boogie Man”, and “Keep it Coming Love”.

“I wasn’t recording disco music. We were making good dance music, happy music that combined all the rhythms I grew up around in South Florida,” said Harry Casey, returning to an idea he’s expressed to me several times in various interviews. “The name ‘disco’ came later. It was a name used to market the music.”

The legendary cofounder (along with Steve Alaimo) of TK Records, Henry Stone had long been in what he called the “race music” game. “I settled in South Florida in 1948 and I ran around recording and distributing predominantly black artists,” Henry recalled. He was certainly no stranger to the blues and R&B. In the early 1950s, he recorded performers such as Ray Charles (“St. Pete Blues”) and James Brown (“Please, Please, Please”).  

“In those days I used to crisscross the state with blues records in my trunk, trying to distribute them to stores and radio stations. You didn’t want to get caught in the wrong part of the state with that stuff in your car, it was considered subversive material by some back then,” Henry explained in an interview I filmed in 2009. He passed away at age 93 in 2014.

ABBA (shown here during a 1979 performance in Edmonton) had their song "Dancing Queen" inducted into he Grammy Hall of Fame in 2015. (image: Anders Henser)

ABBA (shown here during a 1979 performance in Edmonton) had their song "Dancing Queen" inducted into he Grammy Hall of Fame in 2015. (image: Anders Henser)

Aside from George McCrae and K.C. and the Sunshine Band, Stone’s TK Records and its subdivisions included artists like Betty Wright (“Do Right Woman”), Foxy (“Get Off”), Jimmy “Bo” Horne (“Spank”), Bobby Caldwell (“What You Won’t Do For Love”),  Peter Brown (“Do You Wanna Get Funky With Me”) and Anita Ward (“Ring My Bell”). Many great South Florida musicians like Joe Galdo (drummer for Foxy, Robert Palmer and ABBA) and Ray Martinez (who formed Amant, known for “If There’s Love”) polished their chops at TK Records under the tutelage of Stone and co-founder Steve Alaimo.

The groove that became most recognizable as disco was called “four on the floor.” This rhythm pattern is a uniform beat in 4/4 time, in which the bass drum is hit on every beat, hence the thumping pulsation of the music.

In 1975, songstress Donna Summer recorded a song titled “Love to Love you Baby” (produced by Giorgio Moroder). The song contains a series of Donna’s simulated orgasms, which propelled the song to number two on the soul charts and pioneered the use of the 12-inch extended dance track. The lustfully contagious song became a disco anthem and ushered in the reign of Donna Summer and the golden age of disco.

South Florida had its share of legendary discos in the ‘70s (the Limelight, Scaramouche, Pete and Lenny’s, Honey for the Bears, the Copa and Casanova’s, to name a few). These clubs, impressive in size and wildly popular, were mostly mimicking the trend-setting New York disco scene. Ironically, Peter Gatien’s original Limelight, which was located in Hallandale (and destroyed by a fire in the late ‘70s) opened its most noted franchise on West 20th Avenue in Manhattan in an old Episcopalian Church in 1983, foreshadowing how South Florida would one day set the tone for the rest of the club world.

The great South Florida clubs were also home to some of disco music’s greatest DJs, and if ever there was one who relished the disco era, it was Ciro Llerena, who took it all in, having gotten an early (read, “underage”) start. He played some clubs in New York in the late ‘70s early ‘80s with his mentor Carlos Nodal, but was quick to take notice of Miami’s surge as the dance capital of the world.

“At a very young age I got a taste of the New York scene. It was impressive, but we had something cooking here in Miami that I knew was special,” Ciro told me.

Internationally and across the U.S., disco reached its zenith in 1977 with the release of Saturday Night Fever, produced by Robert Stigwood and starring John Travolta. The film, albeit cinematically imperfect, accurately depicted the love for the music. In a review published by The New Yorker, film critic Pauline Kael wrote, "the way Saturday Night Fever has been directed and shot, we feel the languorous pull of the discotheque, and the gaudiness is transformed. At its best, Saturday Night Fever gets at something deeply romantic: the need to move, to dance, and the need to be who you'd like to be. Nirvana is the dance; when the music stops, you return to being ordinary."

The soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever helped make "disco" a household term.  (image: Michael Brown)

The soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever helped make "disco" a household term.  (image: Michael Brown)

Saturday Night Fever made “disco” a household word and rebooted the career of Australian signing trio the Bee Gees. Broadway producer and director Richard Jay-Alexander, who appeared as a dancer in the film, shared with me that during production very little if any Bee Gees music was used on set.

“At first we were dancing to click tracks and music that we did dance to wasn’t the Bee Gees. As we filmed for six weeks in the summer of 1976 at 2001 Odyssey (the disco in Brooklyn with the famed colorfully lit dance floor), we had no idea it would become a worldwide phenomenon,” Richard explained.

Saturday Night Fever went on to gross over 94 million dollars at the box office and left an indelible imprint on American pop culture. The soundtrack spent 24 weeks atop the Billboard charts and won a Grammy Award for best album of the year — the only disco album to ever do so.

Disco’s DJ culture also spawned innovative ways to play music at the clubs. New York producer Tom Moulton (Grace Jones, The Andrea True Connection) challenged the time restrictions of the traditional three-minute radio hit format. He recorded songs on tape overlapping onto themselves, thus simultaneously extending the duration of the tracks and unleashing limitless fun for dancers.

In 1975, Van McCoy’s “The Hustle” took the country by storm, bringing with it a dance craze not seen since the infancy of rock and roll. Not surprisingly, disco “couple dancing” became a thing — perhaps the thing — in the Bronx, Miami, Chicago and Los Angeles. Cubans, Puerto Ricans and Dominicans have rhythm to spare in their Afro-Caribbean DNA, so when disco dancing reached Latin hubs, it became an instant sensation. The Hustle was perfected in the Boogie Down Bronx, the quince halls, street parties and discos in Little Havana, eventually becoming the Latin Hustle.  

In my modest, working class neighborhood in Hialeah (Miami’s most blue-collar suburb) disco dancing created a cultural ruckus. It was also happening at a time when I was quickly losing interest in little league and becoming more concerned about the way I looked around girls. I was dipping into my dad’s aftershave lotion supply when I barely had two whiskers under my chin.


 
 

My sister, her friends and a bunch of neighborhood kids would gather in the afternoons to practice the latest steps. We’d clear out the living room furniture and select a handful of classic albums to put into the huge console record player that doubled as a credenza.

Disco was the first Latino-tinged incursion into American pop culture since the mambo craze and Desi Arnaz (I Love Lucy) in the 1950s. Miami had largely grown into a twentieth-century Ellis Island. Multiple waves of Cuban migration, coupled with a steady influx from the rest of the Caribbean basin, Latin America, Canada and Europe, meant a multicultural hodgepodge poised to redefine what it meant to be an American.

Spanish media outlets had been present in Miami since the mid ‘60s, when the first wave of Cuban exiles scratched together enough money to rent airtime on radio. Spanish language radio blossomed in the ‘70s as the Cuban political polemic played out over the airwaves. In the spring of 1979, Super Q hit the airwaves and would change the cultural identity of the once sleepy southern beach town forever.

Susquehanna Radio Corporation, a midsize radio conglomerate based in York, Penn., owned what was then the jewel of Miami AM Spanish Language radio, WQBA “La Cubanisima.” The station was very profitable for them over the years, but they also owned an FM station to the far right on the dial (107.5) back in the pre digital era. The FM station took a radical shift when general manager, Herb Levine and program director, Julio Enrique Mendez decided to program the station for the first generation of Cuban-Americans — the children of the original Cuban exiles who were either born in Miami or had come here at a young age and were raised American.

The idea was to go off the programming grid and make the station the station fully bilingual. The DJs spoke Spanglish and the music alternated; one track was modern salsa, the next was disco.

The station and its catchy jingle were an instant success (Super Q, I love you, la mejor música, la tocas tú). It was written by Carlos Oliva, one of the creators of the Miami salsa sound, and performed by the lead singers of an up and coming local band, Miami Sound Machine, Mercy Murciano and her young, shy cousin Gloria Estefan. The on-air personalities from Super Q helped Cuban-Americans negotiate their mixed culture and better adjust to living on the hyphen.  

The radio station’s playlist elevated disco to a position as the city’s soundtrack. Miami’s most easily identified disco jock voice is Leo Vela, a Cuban kid who grew up in Hialeah and picked up Southern idioms from the gringos who remained. Leo and his “descarga” are dulcet tones to any South Florida disco fan.

“Miami found its own disco niche. By 1980 New York was paying attention to what was happening in South Florida. We were the bomb y’all,” Vela pointed out.

Simultaneously, disco was rapidly falling out of favor across the U.S. In the summer of 1979, Steve Dahl, a shock jock on a Chicago classic rock station, promoted a disco demolition event during a twi-night doubleheader between the hometown Chicago White Sox and the Detroit Tigers. The highlight of the event featured a bonfire fueled by the crowd’s own disco albums. Somehow more than records were burned that night. It was the freedoms afforded by disco and the people who benefitted from that that were burned in effigy. What’s most interesting about the event is that when you YouTube it and look at the kinds of people partaking in the fascistic frenzy, they weren’t hooded Klansmen, but predominantly long haired stoners who simply didn’t like the skin color, sexual orientation, religion or ethnicity of those who made and enjoyed disco.

 
 

“I think the whole thing was stupid. There’s music I don’t like but I don’t go around having record burning parties. It was an ugly scene and basically these folks were just jealous those who were listening to disco were having too much fun,” Harry Wayne Casey recalled.

Americans had written disco’s epithet and so the music was forced to go underground.  

Filmmaker, writer and chronicler of the times Bill Teck pointed out that “going underground was frankly the best thing that happened to disco. It weeded out the silly top 40 pop stuff that was cartoonish. If going underground meant there would be no more Rick Dees’ ‘Disco Duck’ or Barry’s ‘Copacabana’ then good for us. The music’s better days were ahead of it — except it would be done under other names.”

As the 1980s rolled in, American club life and society as a whole was changing dramatically. In 1981, the first cases of AIDS were clinically observed. It was initially thought the illness was restricted to homosexual men. In fact, early on the name it was given was GRID which stood for Gay-related immune deficiency.

They say conflict and isolation often lead to heightened creativity and innovation.

The effect on the clubs was radical according to Damian Pardo, co-founder of SAVE, an LGBT rights organization founded in Miami.

“The paranoia was more palpable than the music itself in the clubs in the early ‘80s. It’s hard to think back on that era without feeling a tug at your heart as you remember all the friends that died,” Damian said. “It’s hard for me to look at pictures of that time because inevitably there is someone in the picture that is no longer with us.”

“The halcyon days of glam, happy disco were somewhat gone,” added Damian, noting that the music reflected the times. “The music became a little darker, new wave dance tracks made it into the clubs. The glassware went away we were now all drinking beer out of the bottle. The scene remained an escape perhaps more then than ever, but it was darker.”

Gay clubs remained one of disco’s last bastions during the early ‘80s. Reagan was in the White House, conservatism had gained strength and so had rock n roll; ratings for classic, album-oriented rock stations were on the upswing nationwide. Disco was an afterthought for most, it was the butt of jokes on Saturday Night Live skits and it wasn’t on regular rotation on MTV, which was how music was being marketed. Downtown Julie Brown’s show Club MTV did not go on the air until 1987. Even then, the music videos they aired were mostly Brit pop and New Wave.

Time's "Paradise Lost?" cover

Time's "Paradise Lost?" cover

In the fall of 1981, as Miami grappled with “Cocaine Cowboy” shootouts at shopping malls and the adjustment period of thousands of Cuban refugees who had arrived via the Mariel Boatlift, Time punctuated the era with a cover story that essentially buried South Florida. The cover read “Paradise Lost.” Politically, economically and culturally, Miami had been written off as being apart from mainstream USA. Most Americans now thought of the city as a foreign country.

They say conflict and isolation often lead to heightened creativity and innovation.

Miami desperately needed a break and vision. On a hot summer day in the early ‘80s, Louis Canales, an advertising coordinating producer, was in Miami on a shoot with Miami photographer, Bruce Weber.

Canales saw what no one else had: the weather beaten, tired and lackluster Miami Beach had lost its glitter, but if you squinted hard enough the grand dame’s charm was still there.

“I was waist deep in the water with Bruce Weber shooting a Calvin Klein model and I looked at Ocean Drive as the sun was setting,” Louis said. “It was dilapidated, but to me, behind all the wear and tear, it looked like the French Riviera.”

By the mid 1980s, Canales was South Beach’s pied piper. He spread his story of the hidden French Riviera and people (predominantly in the Northeast) listened. This coincided with large numbers of HIV diagnoses, which at that time was a death sentence.

Journalist Steve Rothaus explained that in those days many guys moved to the Beach figuring they had a short time left, “so may as well have a good send off. … There were hundreds of men with disposable incomes who were living for the moment. There was a party every night.”

And if there was a party on South Beach in the mid-to-late ‘80s, Louis Canales was somehow involved. The son of Cuban exiles who fled Castro in the ‘60s and settled in New York, Louis quickly sculpted the South Beach party scene. Decadent but classy, bold and outlandish but never gauche, Canales’ tastes and style left an imprint on Miami Beach and helped build the legend that is South Beach. The soundtrack to Canales’ Club Nu, Semper’s, Warsaw, Avenue A, and Level was disco. Miami never got the memo that disco had died.

“You know, it’s funny, but in the ‘80s we stopped using the term ‘disco’; described the music with a million names — hi energy, Italo disco, progressive — but in the end it was still disco,” Ciro Llerena told me.

The next time the country heard from Miami was in the fall of 1984, when Miami Vice hit the air.  Co-stars Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas were clad in Euro chic wear from head to toe and sported espadrille shoes the likes of which no one in the U.S. was familiar with. The show’s fashion-conscious cops were stepping into clubs that the American audience hadn’t seen since the height of disco in the ‘70s.

Miami re-invigorated people’s appetite for dancing again.
— Debbie Ohanian, club owner

If you were a dance music performer, producer or executive, Miami was the place to be.  Madonna’s first appearance in Miami happened in 1983 at the legendary Hialeah disco Casanovas, where she performed her single release “Everybody” and many of the Jellybean Benitez synth pop dance songs that were in her platinum first album. Her eponymous first album would blow up internationally and make dance music a viable option again for music fans.

“Miami re-invigorated people’s appetite for dancing again,” club owner and self-proclaimed disco nut Debbie Ohanian told me. “I came to Miami for the beautiful beaches, the great music and the Cuban boys — not necessarily in that order. At some point in the ‘80s, Miami and South Beach were the sexiest places on earth, and with a hot scene there is always great music spinning.”

I remember stepping into Club 1235 in the middle of the 1980s. It felt like I had died and entered disco heaven. The one-time Yiddish theater went on to house some of the most deliciously disco-decadent clubs in South Florida history; 1235 was the gem of them all. Louis Canales kidded with me and labeled it a “Guido disco” because of its many testosterone-filled Cuban American young men from Hialeah (my hometown), Westchester, and Little Havana. I remember stepping in and always finding my friend Henry at the lobby bar having a huge blue drink (never figured out what that drink was). The smell of Drakkar Noir filled the room, along with beautiful women with big hair and even bigger heels.

What were they playing? Well, something happened along the way and all roads led back to disco. In 1984, former Limelight DJ Lewis Martineé put together a girl band named Exposé. The first two singles ,“Point of No Return” and “Exposed to Love,” had familiar disco sweeps, but were more upbeat and percussive. Martineé tapped into a new sound that would revive the dance scene and make clubs relevant again. Discos, especially the ones on South Beach, were not nostalgic relics during the ‘80s and ‘90s. Couple dancing had given way to freestyle dancing (which was more in line with how disco began). The outfits were extravagant in new ways, with platform shoes replaced by Italian loafers and Halston, Gucci, and Fiorucci giving way to Willie Smith, Betsy Johnson and Calvin Klein.

The music mix was more global. British performers like New Order, the Pet Shop Boys, John Rocca and Freeez and Jimmy Sommerville were part of the regular rotation, as were a new crop of Miami bands like Secret Society, Erotic Exotic, Sequal, and Company B (who sang one of my favorite disco songs of all time, “Signed in Your Book of Love,” produced and mixed by Ciro Llerena and Ish Ledesma (Foxy) in 1988).

There was also something unique happening in Miami socio-politically. It was the era of Cuban political, cultural and economic empowerment. Xavier Suárez became the first Cuban Mayor of Miami in 1985, the same year the catchy, rumba-tinged “Conga” by Miami Sound Machine hit the U.S. charts and blew up the dance floors. Actor Andy García was beginning to land a few important roles in Hollywood features. It was becoming cool to be Cuban.

As the new wave of dance music began garnering attention internationally, New York came back into the picture. Acts like Lisa Lisa, TKA, and Stevie B were the pioneers of the freestyle sound, which blended more of the hip hop sounds coming out of New York. New York also produced Alisha and Nayobe, both very young at the time, but both very groovy and more in tune with disco laden sounds that were flourishing again in Miami.

“Between 1985 and 1994, radio was playing dance music again,” music promoter Charlie Rodríguez told me. “That made all the difference in the world. Disco is still the mainstay in Miami. It’s embedded in our DNA.”

The ‘80s and ‘90s in Miami were undeniably instrumental in saving dance music. Eventually, the music morphed into what kids today call electronic dance music, or EDM. And if you listen closely you’ll hear the echoes of Grace Jones, Barry White and Donna Summer in the tracks.

The iconic, shiny ball has bounced around quite a bit, but in Miami it always finds a home.


Listen to the music referenced in this story.

This Spotify playlist includes the songs, performers and producers mentioned in Joe Cardona's piece.


Joe Cardona is an Emmy-winning filmmaker. He's directed, produced and written 19 feature-length documentaries, most of which have aired nationally on PBS. Joe has traveled the U.S., Latin America and Europe screening his films in some of the most prestigious film festivals in the world. Some of the highlights of his work include Café con Leche, Celia the Queen, Nou Bouke, Miami Boheme, and The Day it Snowed in Miami. Joe has also written and directed two feature films: Bro and Water Mud & Factories. He is also an op-ed columnist for the Miami Herald.

Joe is a proud Miamian, the son of Cuban exile parents, and the father of an eight-year-old daughter aptly named Celia.