Earl Young invented disco drumming on the Philly Soul classic The Love I Lost by Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes. His prominent, repetitive use of the hi-hat to drive the tune was something that DJs liked - they could hear the time-keeping hat in the headphones as they cued up the next record, making it easier to mix one tune into the next.
Earl went on to be house drummer for legendary disco label Salsoul, and was leader of disco outfit The Trammps, who scored a massive hit with Disco Inferno, one of the all-time disco classics. Earl was known for his ability to keep perfect time without a click and was said to have that mythical drummer quality of ‘infallible rhythm’, or perfect time.
“Really it wasn't disco,” says Bee Gees drummer Dennis Bryon. “There are some horrible disco songs out there. Although the Bee Gees were four-on-the-floor sometimes, the songs were great. It wasn’t blatant disco for disco’s sake.”
That may be so, but The Bee Gees became synonymous with disco after Saturday Night Fever, and it was Bryon’s smart, four-on-the-floor grooves and disco hat patterns that helped define a genre. Asked how he and the Gibb brothers came up with the seminal disco hit Jive Talkin’, Bryon tells Rhythm:
“The door bursts open, in comes Barry, Robin and Maurice completely buzzed about this new song they wrote in the car on the way to the studio called Jive Talkin’. In Miami there are a load of metal bridges over the waterways and the noise of the tyres going across the bridge produced a rhythm and they wrote a song to it.
"We started trying to be as black and as funky as we could be but it just wasn’t working. Arif [Mardin, producer] had recorded everything that we rehearsed on a two-track. He said, ‘You had it, you came together for four bars and then it just went into chaos again.’ He found the four bars where I was playing the groove for Jive Talkin’ and said, ‘Listen to what you played.’ We went back out and we copied what we’d played and that was Jive Talkin’.”
In the days when disco ruled, one band, Chic, commanded the floor thanks to the insanely groovy and together playing of its musicians: the incredible Nile Rodgers on guitar, together with a rhythm section comprising bass player Bernard Edwards and drummer Tony Thompson.
Locked in with the gorgeously deep, funky and incredibly tight bass playing of Edwards, Thompson provided wonderfully funky and tight beats that you had no choice but to get down to.
Recruited by Rodgers and Edwards from Philly female vocal group LaBelle, Thompson’s sweet grooves helped the band to massive success and disco legend status with tracks like Good Times, I Want Your Love and Le Freak. Additionally, when Sister Sledge called in Chic to produce their We Are Family album, Thompson was there to lay down the grooves for the album, notably on title track, He’s The Greatest Dancer, and Lost In Music.
After the death of disco, Chic’s beats were sampled by hip-hoppers. Thompson and Edwards’ ‘Good Times’ groove was the basis for Grandmaster Flash’s Adventures On The Wheels Of Steel and Sugarhill Gang’s Rapper’s Delight, and was emulated by Blondie on Rapture, too.
“The disco movement was just as outrageous as the punk rock movement,” says Clem, the man who fused punk with disco grooves for Blondie.
“One of the inspirations for Heart Of Glass was Saturday Night Fever. They were all real musicians playing great grooves. Abba was one of my favourite bands; one of the greatest concerts I’ve seen was Abba at New York’s Radio City, great musicians playing great grooves and great music. We all loved that kind of dance music, the influence of Chic on Rapture."
Clem took the insistent pulse of disco, making great use of his hi-hat to convey a dance feel that perfectly suited the band’s new wave aesthetic on tracks like Call Me, Rapture, Atomic and Heart Of Glass.
“[With Heart Of Glass] we weren’t trying to make this commercial dance record, we were just experimenting with a different groove and with machines and with synthesisers,” says Clem. “The general public really took to it and that became one of the things that we’re known for, like my dance drumming.”
Ernest 'Bilbo' Berger
Most famous for the disco classic Boogie Nights, Heatwave had hit-after-disco-hit in the 1970s and early ’80s.
British songwriter Rod Temperton was among the original line-up for the disco hit makers, and would famously go on to work with Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones on Off The Wall.
But the grooves came courtesy of Czech drummer Ernest 'Bilbo’ Berger, whose insistent hi-hat and funky disco syncopation got everyone in the ’70s moving under the glitter balls.
Read the full interview with Dennis Bryon in this month’s Rhythm to find out how Dennis went from the Welsh Valleys to disco superstardom behind the kit for the Bee Gees.