Now we come to the payoff. In a commendable if inadvertent show of self-awareness, “Good Vibrations,” the 1991 hip-house hit from Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch, wastes no time in letting the listener know that the majority of the song — a series of listless couplets by titular rapper Marky Mark, who would go on to have a superstar acting career under his given name, Mark Wahlberg — must be endured in exchange for a few ecstatic moments provided by disco queen Loleatta Holloway. In what sounds like the NASA mission control tower announcing a rocket launch, a sampled male voice counts in the first instance of the single’s explosive chorus, which is established ahead of the verses. And like a rocket, Holloway’s voice rumbles and blasts skyward, scaling several octaves to declare from somewhere in the stratosphere It’s such a good vibration!/It’s such a sweet sensation!
More than three decades after “Good Vibrations” hit radio, that chorus remains the heart — perhaps the entire point — of the song, as inimitable as it is nonetheless irresistible to sing along to. And though its singer’s “featured” status may seem a diminutive slight given her contributions, it duly recognizes that, both figuratively and literally, “Good Vibrations” belongs to Ms. Holloway.
Born and raised in Chicago, Holloway grew up singing in church, even performing with the famous gospel group the Caravans in the late 1960s. “I sounded like an old woman when I was just a little girl,” she once said. “I had a loud voice, I’ll say that!” Soon, riding the rising wave of disco, Holloway would score a number of hits in the coming decades, including “Cry to Me,” “Only You,” “Crash Goes Love” and “Hit and Run,” occasionally cracking the Billboard R&B charts but more often appearing on the trade publication’s dance charts. Extended mixes of “Hit and Run” in particular passed the 10-minute mark, prompting Holloway to fill in the space with improvised vocalizations and repeated chord progressions that helped establish her signature sound. “I wondered how on earth I was going to sing that fast and that long,” she said of recording “Hit and Run.” “That’s when the vamp started. I took off. And the vamp was always the part that made the song.”
The song that would go on to define Holloway’s career in more ways than one was 1980’s dance chart-topping “Love Sensation.” Its writer and producer, Dan Hartman (who authored James Brown’s comeback hit “Living in America” after reaching the Top Ten with his own “I Can Dream About You” in 1984), made her record the song 29 times over the course of two days, forcing her to add Vicks VapoRub to her coffee to get through the session.
Holloway’s throaty growl roared loudly enough for Italian dance group Black Box to hear it from the other end of the decade, and it echoed even louder in the cold, taut industrial atmosphere in which the group rearranged sampled elements of the song. Black Box’s 1989 hit “Ride on Time” (a play on the “Love Sensation” lyric “All I want to say is thank you, baby/‘cause you were right on time”) is a stunning reincarnation which arguably showcases and frames the singer’s power and range better than its source material. “Ride on Time” creates whole new rhythms, hooks and near-rhymes by welding together, doubling up, and echoing lines and lyrics whose effects otherwise dissipate across the song’s six-and-a-half-minute sprawl: its icy, driving string section takes the “Love Sensation” groove and makes it hard-driving, stern, sober.
“Ride on Time” spent six weeks atop the U.K. dance charts, becoming the best-selling British single of the year and helping usher in a new era in dance music.
The only problem? Holloway was never given her due.
This new wave of electronic dance and house music created an intoxicating sound contrasting distilled, concentrated snippets of warm, organic soul singing against a stark and remote techno backdrop. In theory, all parties won: the singers’ talents were quite literally amplified across a broad audience, and those talents brought major commercial success to the acts who sampled them. Except while groups like Black Box were scoring hits with the big, booming voices of women like Holloway, she and her contemporaries were being rendered invisible in a bizarre industry trend of thievery and deception.
“Ride on Time” sampled “Love Sensation” without permission from Holloway or Hartman, and neither received credit nor compensation. Even more baffling, French model Katrin Quinol was hired to lip-synch Holloway’s parts in the music video accompanying “Ride on Time” and during live performances, part of an effort to convince the public that Quinol was the song’s true vocalist.
The remaining songs on Black Box’s Dreamland album were sung by Martha Wash, another vocal powerhouse who came up through the church and the club scene before singing backup for disco icon Sylvester (of “You Make Me Feel [Mighty Real]” fame) and later as one half of the Weather Girls, whose most enduring hit is 1983’s “It’s Raining Men.” Wash claimed that her recordings for Black Box, including what would become the hit “Everybody, Everybody,” were meant to be used as demo tracks for future recordings; instead, Wash caught the video for “Everybody, Everybody” on television, in which her voice, too, was being pantomimed by the more “video-ready” Quinol.
Wash had similar issues with Black Box’s contemporaries C+C Music Factory, who used her voice on their 1991 crossover hit “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)” — one of the most recognizable vocal utterances in popular music — without properly crediting her, either. The group brought on singer Zelma Davis to perform Wash’s parts on tour, and Davis also appeared in the video for “Gonna Make You Sweat,” lip-synching Wash’s performance. What’s more, German dance group Snap’s original issue of their song “The Power,” a close second to “Everybody Dance Now” for early-Nineties ubiquitousness, sampled singer Jocelyn Brown’s song “Love’s Gonna Get You” without crediting her.
“I thought I was gonna lose my mind,” Holloway said. “I’d spent so long trying to be an entertainer, and I’m not even getting credit for it? It was like, ‘How dare they?’ Someone’s just taken something from you, right in front of your face.”
In response, Holloway and Wash made their voices as loud in the courtroom as they were in the recording booth. Although Holloway eventually settled out of court for an undisclosed sum, Wash successfully sued Black Box’s U.S. distributor RCA for a settlement that included a multi-year contract. Wash also sued C+C Music Factory and Sony Music Entertainment for “fraud, deceptive packaging and commercial appropriation,” helping to kick off legislation which makes it mandatory in the U.S. to supply vocal credit on recordings and music videos.
Around the same time “Gonna Make You Sweat” topped the Billboard Hot 100, Marky Mark’s older brother Donnie Wahlberg was at the height of his fame with his group New Kids on the Block, formed by Boston-based music producer Maurice Starr in the mid-1980s. Starr, who had written and produced hits for R&B/pop group New Edition, was looking to repeat that success with all-white counterparts: Donnie and Mark were the first two members recruited to the project, with Donnie (the boy band’s requisite bad boy) acting as rapper and Mark as breakdancer. Donnie loved being in the studio, playing drums and working on drum programming, but Mark lasted only a few months because he preferred to, as Donnie put it in a 2017 interview on The Dan Patrick Show, “steal cars and get in trouble with his friends.”
Both Wahlberg brothers pursued their respective avenues to extremes. The New Kids went on to become a worldwide phenomenon beginning with their 1988 sophomore record Hangin’ Tough, which produced a string of hits such as “Please Don’t Go Girl” and the title track. They kept their streak going with 1990’s Step by Step, and Donnie contributed an increasing number of production and songwriting elements with each subsequent record. Meanwhile, Mark was accruing a string of felonies in the brothers’ native Dorchester, Mass., prompting their mother to beg Donnie to find a way to keep his little brother out of trouble.
“[She] kept saying ‘You’ve got to do something to keep [Mark] out of the streets,’ and I wanted to do something to prove myself, [to show] that I wasn’t some manufactured puppet in the New Kids. So, I said ‘Mark, why don’t you record these songs, I’ll help you get out of the street and have a career, and I can also do something to prove myself as a musician and not just be considered some phony boy-band guy. So, that’s how the whole Marky Mark thing came about.”
Music for the People, Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch’s 1991 Interscope debut, followed a year after No More Games/The Remix Album, a New Kids on the Block project spearheaded by Donnie Wahlberg to evolve the group beyond peppy pop and swooning ballads to a grittier, sample-laden, hip-hop-infused sound. (The album coincidentally featured several remixes from producers David Cole and Robert Clivilles of C+C Music Factory). In his capacity as producer, composer, drum and horn arranger and unofficial member of the Funky Bunch — which also featured DJ-T (born Terry Yancey) as well as rappers/dancers Ashey Ace (Anthony “Ace” Thomas), Hector the Booty Inspector (Hector Barros) and Scottie Gee (Scott Ross) — Donnie infused Music for the People with the same sound: to create ”Good Vibrations,” the album’s lead single, he and co-writer Amir Shakir followed Black Box’s lead, and mined “Love Sensation” for its most golden vocal moments. They formed a makeshift chorus by doubling up on Holloway’s line “It’s such a good vibration,” replacing the last two words on the second instance with the standalone line “sweet sensation” and maximizing the rhyme between two tenuously connected lyrics to create an irresistible couplet.
Holloway’s voice acts as the souped-up engine to Marky Mark’s muscle car, propelling all of his vainglorious, testosterone-soaked pageantry and bravado along its jaunty track — or, as Tom Breihan notes in his review of “Good Vibrations” for Stereogum, Wahlberg serves as Holloway’s “hype man.” (Of the star’s rapping skills, Breihan adds “Wahlberg is winded, and struggles to stay on top of the beat… [he] huffs and puffs clumsily all over the record, barking out edgeless versions of LL Cool J’s flexes.”) Wahlberg sounds like an aerobics instructor pushing his class of spandex-clad Cardiofunk steppers into their peak fat burning zone — “Come on! Come on! I wanna see motivation/I wanna see sweat coming out your pores!” — and his own dedication to fitness is evident in the physique he’s all too eager to show off in the “Good Vibrations” video. Marky Mark’s abs would later star in a popular ad campaign for Calvin Klein, where he and supermodel Kate Moss posed in their underwear, but there is no model stand-in this time for Loleatta Holloway. She appears as herself in the video as well as in subsequent live performances, singing along with the Funky Bunch in era-specific bedazzled denim.
The rest of “Good Vibrations” gamely rises to the level Holloway sets, most notably its bluesy piano breakdown, which is a more than respectable (and certainly danceable) way to bring the song home. The funkiest of the bunch are the intermittent backing chorus of oohs that help keep the pace and a bassline supplicated by bow-bow vocalizations, which lend a scrappy, can-do, good-natured atmosphere to the song no matter how hard it might try to be edgy. Though there is a vague recurring anti-drug message which occasionally buoys up throughout “Good Vibrations” (“I’m anti-d.r.u.g.g.i.e my body is healthy/to bring you a show with no intoxication”), all involved in the Funky Bunch are most focused on “promoting positive vibes” and taking listeners “along for the ride.”
And along for the ride they went. “Good Vibrations” reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100, and its follow-up single “Wildside,” which features a sample of Lou Reed’s 1972 hit “Walk on the Wild Side,” reached the Top 10. Though Marky Mark released a 1992 sophomore LP, You Gotta Believe, it failed to reproduce the first album’s success and the Funky Bunch ceased making music, although in 1993 Wahlberg collaborated with Dominican reggae artist Prince Ital Joe on Life in the Streets, which produced “United,” a Top Ten entry on the Eurochart Hot 100. The streetwise image Wahlberg cultivated would go on to inform early film roles such as 1995’s The Basketball Diaries (where he played a teenage heroin-addict alongside Leonardo DiCaprio) and 1996’s Fear (in which he stalked a young Reese Witherspoon); his growing critical acclaim merged with worldwide commercial success the following year with his star turn in Boogie Nights, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, and in 2007, he was nominated for an Academy Award for his supporting turn in Martin Scorsese’s crime thriller The Departed.
Holloway’s “Love Sensation” performance would be further reimagined on countless post-”Good Vibrations” recordings, earning her the moniker of “the most-sampled female voice in popular music” via The Independent. Most notably, rapper Flo Rida’s 2018 hit “Sweet Sensation” draws from both the Marky Mark and Black Box singles. Where “Good Vibrations” diverged admirably — or at least prudently — from Black Box et al. was in putting Holloway’s name above the title, and ensuring she was afforded all the spoils that came with the record’s success. In that sense, at least, “Good Vibrations” captured the same spirit that Holloway felt defined the original disco era.
“To me, that was the best time,” said Holloway, who passed away in 2011. “People were more free, and they just had one thing in mind, and that was to have a good time.”