Disco defined American life and culture during the latter half of the 1970s, emerging from the underground dance clubs of New York City to become a mainstream phenomenon that fundamentally reshaped popular music, dance, fashion and style.
Disco (an abbreviation of the French “discothèque”) took shape in the early 1970s, when Black, Latino and gay audiences converged upon house and loft parties, bathhouses and other venues to hear pioneering DJs like David Mancuso and Francis Grasso spin ecstatic all-night sets dominated by soul, funk and Latin American recordings. Disco soon developed into its own distinct genre, typified by four-on-the-floor beats, syncopated basslines, sweeping strings and eruptions of brass.
The late 1977 release of the Hollywood feature Saturday Night Fever popularized disco around the world: the official soundtrack was at one time the best-selling album in music history, and in short order, most major U.S. cities were home to thriving club scenes, each a showcase for the latest in disco fashions (including bell bottoms, platform shoes and flowing sequined dresses). Disco nevertheless declined sharply as the 1980s dawned, although its influence echoes across electronic dance music, house music, hip-hop, new wave and more.
This KORD Playlist commemorates disco’s evolution from urban sensation to suburban juggernaut. All songs below are presented in chronological order to underscore the progression of the music and the times. This playlist will continue to grow as we add new songs and stories, so check back often.
Three years after his acrimonious exit from the Temptations, Eddie Kendricks broke through as a solo artist with 1973’s infectiously funky “Keep On Truckin’,” arguably the first disco record ever to reach number one on the Billboard pop chart. Kendricks’ decade-plus tenure with the Temptations made him, in the words of Motown Records historian Brian Chin, “a star among equals in one of the greatest vocal assemblages in American music history,” and his silken tenor features on pop classics like “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” “Get Ready” and “Just My Imagination (Running Away from Me).” But Kendricks struggled to launch his solo career until the seven-minute 1972 epic “Girl You Need a Change of Mind” caught on in underground clubs: “The floor-shaking rhythmic builds and wild, repeated emotional flights of ‘Girl You Need a Change of Mind’ are frequently cited as the single groundbreaking model for the breaks and changes of disco music,” Chin writes. “Its transporting, church-inspired frenzy and release remain the essential characteristics of dance music.”
“Keep On Truckin’,” the eight-minute centerpiece of Kendricks’ self-titled third album, actively courted the dancefloor audience that gravitated to “Girl You Need a Change of Mind.” His falsetto is simply one featured element within the record’s soaring, string-sweetened groove, no more or less prominent than co-writer/co-producer Leonard Caston Jr.’s blistering clavinet or Gary Coleman’s glistening vibes — Kendricks even goes missing in action during the record’s extended instrumental finale, albeit after exacting revenge on his former bandmates via the lyric “In old Temptations rain, I’m duckin’/For your love, through sleet or snow, I’m truckin’.” Whether or not “Keep On Truckin’” qualifies as the first crossover disco smash is a matter open to debate (other contenders for the crown include George McRae’s “Rock Your Baby” and the Hues Corporation’s “Rock the Boat”), but there’s no questioning its overall impact — the single sold more than a million copies, and remains Kendricks’ signature solo effort.
There’s never been a pop star remotely like Barry White, a.k.a. the Prince of Pillow Talk, the King of Satin Seduction and the Walrus of Love — a man-mountain with a voice to match, as deep and plush as a cavern carpeted in velvet. There’s never been another disco hit quite like “You’re the First, the Last, My Everything,” either. The record possesses an almost tactile sensuality: it’s rich, creamy and decadent, the aural equivalent of chocolate fondue. White first earned notice as a producer for Love Unlimited (future wife Glodean James, her sister Linda and their cousin Diane Taylor); their gauzy harmonies evoked the Supremes, so White borrowed liberally from the Motown playbook to create the trio’s majestic debut From a Girl’s Point of View, We Give You… Love Unlimited, highlighted by 1972’s million-selling “Walking in the Rain with the One I Love.” From there White architected the Love Unlimited Orchestra, the 40-piece ensemble behind the satin-trimmed instrumental “Love’s Theme,” whose luxuriant strings and wah-wah guitar attracted significant attention within the network of clubs incubating the fast-coalescing disco sound. “Months of club play and album sales forced 20th Century Records to release ‘Love’s Theme’ from the album Under the Influence of Love Unlimited,” Brian Chin writes in his essay accompanying Rhino Records’ 1999 retrospective The Disco Box. “And by February, Barry White had his first number-one hit as a composer.”
White planned to follow “Love’s Theme” by working with a solo male artist, and cut a handful of scratch demos featuring his own voice. But when 20th Century chief Russ Regan heard his panty-dropper purr on tape, he insisted White re-record the tracks and release them under his own name, leading to the release of his debut solo LP I’ve Got So Much to Give. White continued to refine his art of seduction with “Never, Never Gonna Give You Up” before topping both the pop and R&B charts in 1974 with the intoxicating “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love, Babe.” “You’re the First, the Last, My Everything,” the second single released from White’s third solo album, 1974’s Can’t Get Enough, is pure softcore erotica — a symbol of undying love as opulent and imperial as the Taj Mahal. The song was written by White’s longtime friend Peter Sterling Radcliffe back in 1956 but remained un-recorded; White retained most of the original musical structure while rewriting the lyrics, and Radcliffe wept tears of gratitude when he heard the finished track. “You’re the First, the Last, My Everything” went on to reach number two on the Hot 100 as well as Billboard’s disco/dance charts; it hit number one on Billboard’s Hot Soul chart, and in December 1974 spent two weeks atop the U.K. pop charts.
Thelma Houston may be forever remembered for just one song, but that song — “Don’t Leave Me This Way” — will be remembered forever. It has all the hallmarks of a disco-era floor-filler: lush orchestration over a classic drum beat, a killer bass line, and a diva’s voice on an explosive chorus. “Don’t Leave Me This Way” was originally recorded by Philadelphia soul institution Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, but Motown executive Suzanne de Passe felt something was off: “It struck me that a big handsome man begging someone to stay was not as resonant as a woman begging her man to stay,” she recalled. “I called [Motown producer] Hal Davis and I said, ‘You’ve got to go get this record.’ And within two days, we were in the studio cutting the record.” Houston’s rendition is an emotional rollercoaster ride, punctuated by an arrangement as technically brilliant as it is funky: Henry E. Davis’ pumping bass nearly steals the show, propelling the song forward so effectively that you can’t imagine Houston’s immortal exclamations of “Ahh, baby!” without his sixteenth notes immediately following.
“Don’t Leave Me This Way” topped the U.S. charts in 1977, landed in the Top Ten in more than a dozen other countries, and earned the first Grammy ever awarded to a solo female Motown Records artist. Though Houston never again attained the same heights, few artists can claim a hit as anthemic — “Don’t Leave Me This Way” has become a cultural touchstone, with a meaning and resonance that extend far beyond its moment in the limelight. The song’s transformative power in particular mirrors the resilience of the gay community in the face of AIDS: turning yearning into strength and strength into celebration, changing a minor key to major, “Don’t Leave Me This Way” encapsulated the struggle to be seen at a time when most would rather look away. “To have my song associated with that movement, especially in terms of making people more knowledgeable about the AIDS crisis, I’m proud,” Houston once said. “And so my gratitude to that community is there, and will always be there.”
“I Will Survive” is so ingrained in American culture that just the utterance of its title summons its elements from memory — its strutting beat, orchestral hits and the resilient shout of Gloria Gaynor are all immediately recognizable. True to its name, “I Will Survive” has led many lives: at first, it was a mechanism for Greek songwriter Dino Fekaris to cope with his firing from Motown, and it evolved in the direction of disco when Freddie Perren (who produced the Miracles’ first number one hit, “Love Machine”) constructed a series of chord changes around Fekaris’ lyrics. But without a singer in mind, “I Will Survive” languished unrecorded for two years — until Perren’s production work for Tavares’ “More Than a Woman” and Yvonne Ellman’s “If I Can’t Have You” appeared on the blockbuster Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. That’s when Polydor, impressed with Perren and Fekaris’ work, reached out to 25-year-old Gaynor, the singer struggling to match the success of her 1975 cover of the Jackson 5’s “Never Can Say Goodbye.”
Perren constructed “I Will Survive” so that Gaynor would take the lead melody alone, and she met his challenge with aplomb. You can hear her own fears and frustrations bubble to the surface as she arrives at the first chorus — every utterance of “go” fires out of her chest like a gunshot, all pressure released. Drummer James “Big Foot” Gadson lays down that classic alternating hi-hat, and percussionist Paulinho Da Costa fills in the sixteenth notes with his resonant congas. Melvin “Wah Wah Watson” Ragin supports Scott Edwards’ mercurial bass with percussive, palm-muted strums on his guitar, while guitarist Bob “Boogie” Bowles chicken-scratches high up on the fretboard, adding bluesy licks when appropriate. The rest of the drama comes mostly from conductor Dave Blumberg’s theatrical orchestral arrangements, a crucial element of disco that augments the pathos of Gaynor’s narrative. “I Will Survive” entered the charts in December 1978, hitting number one in March. It has since been repurposed and recontextualized across the decades to function as a certified dancefloor mainstay, a classic female empowerment anthem, a crux of the gay rights movement in the era of AIDS and much more: arguably no other song means quite so much to so many.
By 1979, Donna Summer was trying to break free of the perception that she was purely a studio creation. Her work with legendary Italian producer Giorgio Moroder on genre-defining hits such as “Love to Love You Baby” and “I Feel Love” triggered a seismic shift in the Top 40 from rock to dance music, earning her the title “Queen of Disco.” Heavy is the head that wears the spangled crown, however, and Summer was ready to diversify. “Bad Girls” was one of the first songs she wrote for the follow-up to her 1977 double album Once Upon a Time: as soon as it was finished, she rushed to play it for Neil Bogart, head of her label Casablanca Records. Bogart, the Disco King to Summer’s Queen, loved the song. In fact, he said it was perfect — for Cher. Summer stormed out of Bogart’s office, demo in hand; she had written the song for herself, and wasn’t about to give it away.
Moroder recognized the potential of “Bad Girls” and joined Summer in the studio, where they worked on the song for several days. Moroder disco-fied it with a four-on-the-floor beat, Latin percussion and a punchy horn part. A tri-tone samba whistle features prominently: isolate the percussion stem at the 20-second mark to hear it, along with the ostinato played on claves throughout. As much as Summer liked Moroder’s production, however, she felt something was missing. Finally, it dawned on her. “How do you get the attention of a hooker,” she thought, “especially if you’re in a car on Sunset?” The duo returned to the studio, Moroder rolled tape, and Summer added the onomatopoeic singalong refrain “toot-toot, heyyy, beep-beep” to the final mix. The Bad Girls album would go on to become her most commercially successful LP, eventually selling more than four million copies worldwide, and the “Bad Girls” single held down the number one spot on the Billboard Hot 100 for five weeks.
“Upside Down” is both a new beginning and a last gasp. Its 1980 release signaled the arrival of a redesigned, thoroughly modernized Diana Ross — a sleeker, sexier Miss Ross than we’d ever heard before, but despite the record’s massive success, one we’d never hear again. “Upside Down” paired the former Supreme with hitmaking production duo Nile Rodgers and bassist Bernard Edwards, best known for their work in New York City band Chic (celebrated for disco classics like “Everybody Dance,” “Le Freak” and “Good Times”) as well as productions including Sister Sledge’s chart-topping We Are Family. The sessions for what would become diana, Ross’ 11th solo LP, were fraught with tension, and Motown executives were so alarmed by the finished product that they demanded Rodgers and Edwards hand over all the session tapes. Ross then teamed with Motown staff producer Russ Terrana to remix diana herself, dialing down its disco flourishes, excising key compositional elements and making her voice more prominent in the mix.
“Upside Down,” diana’s opening track, is still pure Chic — dig Rodgers’ insistent rhythm guitar and that undeniable Edwards bassline — but it fits Ross like a Halston gown: she’s never sounded so tough, so strong, so present. Rodgers and Edwards opted to close-mike Ross’ staccato vocals, further emphasizing the blunt honesty of her performance. “We included excessively polysyllabic words like ‘instinctively’ and ‘respectfully’ in the lyrics, because we wanted to utilize Diana’s sophistication to achieve a higher level of musicality,” Rodgers states in his memoir Le Freak. “Despite the departure from our tested style, we knew ‘Upside Down’ was a monster hit.” Rodgers’ instincts were correct: the single zoomed to number one on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart and remained there for four weeks, additionally topping the Billboard Disco and Soul charts on its way to becoming the biggest hit of Ross’ solo career. There was no official follow-up to diana, however: disco’s days in the mainstream were decidedly numbered, bringing an era to its end.