TV show creator Norman Lear at home, February 27, 1984 in Los Angeles, California.
Bob Riha Jr/Getty Images
May 22, 2019 – 8:00 pm
A look at the two black family portraits the producer created for the world to see.
On Tuesday night, May 22nd, ABC is celebrating TV creator and producer Norman Lear with Live in Front of a Studio Audience: Norman Lear’s All in the Family and The Jeffersons, a live remake of his two most iconic shows. Lear and his partner Bud Yorkin were the primary drivers in moving television sitcoms from the idealistic representations of husbands and wives sleeping in separate twin beds in the 1960s to a realistic depiction of America in the 1970s.
One of the successful runs in sitcom history began with a show about a bigoted, curmudgeonly white man named Archie Bunker. With All in the Family, Lear built a TV world that reflected the real world – especially the ugly and uncomfortable parts – for the first time. With a laugh track, Lear’s shows were the first to address abortion, menopause, politics and anti-war sentiments. The first to prominently feature an interracial married couple, the first to feature a transsexual character, and the first to make topics of race and class – “liberal” issues – the driving storylines on TV. Most importantly, Lear was the first creator/producer to center the black family and black stories on television, giving white viewers some of their first insights into the challenges – but more importantly the normalcy – of black families.
In advance of tonight’s special, we look at the two very different black family portraits Lear created for the world, why they were important, and where they fell short.
Good Times (1974 – 1979)
Good Times evolved from Lear’s realization that black people needed to be visible beyond the service and sidekick roles they usually occupied on television. The producer developed a backstory for Florida Evans, the maid for Bea Arthur’s Maude, so viewers would realize she had an existence outside of her service to white folks. “You’re seeing a different side of (Florida),” Esther Rolle said to Ebony about her character’s development. “What I do in my madam’s house is a façade; what I do at home is me.”
When John Amos was introduced as Florida’s husband (then named Henry), he and Rolle were so compelling together that CBS asked Lear to give them a spin-off.
Mike Evans, the first Lionel Jefferson (aka Light Skin Lionel, aka the Lionel that can actually act, aka the fine Lionel) had expressed an interest in writing to Lear (giving cast members shots to grow outside of their roles is a recurring theme with the producer), so Lear gave Evans and writer Eric Monte (Cooley High) a crack at the series.
Monte and Evans placed the Evans family in Chicago’s infamous Cabrini-Green housing projects and along with Lear established three rules for the show: the Evans would never go on welfare; they would face the “reality of their world,” which in 1970s Chicago included gang violence, crime, financial challenges, and a pimp named Sweet Daddy; and despite anything the family faced, the Evans children would get an education.
The parameters the creators put in place were key as everyone knew they were breaking new ground: the Evans were the first black two-parent family on television.
The overprotective stay-at-home matriarch, three-job-working, strict disciplinarian patriarch, creative if flighty eldest trying to figure out his path, studious and straight-arrow daughter, and super-bright, politically aware and socially conscious youngest son weren’t unlike the make-up of any other American family, which was intentional.
But their problems were unique to any other family on TV, like trying to keep their son out of a gang in Southside Chicago.
“They were representing their entire race, who had never, ever been represented before,” Lear explained in his autobiography. “And I realized shortly into rehearsal, just from questions and conversations and body language and everything else, just how much weight was on them.”
The show, which Ebony called “…the best effort to date at showing a real slice of ghetto black life,” was a hit – and not just with black viewers. The audience was 60% white, and the pressure for positive representation was real. Lear’s unflinching commitment to real storylines produced episodes, not just about the challenges of living somewhere between working class and the working poor, like a neighbor eating dog food; but also ableism, age discrimination in the workforce, and child abuse (hi, young Janet Jackson). And conversations that are still hot topics forty years later, including racial bias in standardized testing and preventative health for black men (turns out, James was always mad because he had hypertension).
The challenges of balancing realism and comedy without playing into tropes and stereotypes kept the sitcom from reaching its full potential. That weight the adult cast felt caused tension with the creative team by the end of the first season. Rolle started pushing back on some story ideas and dialogue, including an episode where 16-year old Thelma is pressured to sleep with her older boyfriend. Rolle wouldn’t even review the script, telling Lear, “The last thing we want to deal with on this show is teenage sex… It is morally wrong, let’s not even discuss it.” Lear ultimately won that battle. Over time, the biggest conflict came from increased centering on J.J.’s “dy-no-mite”-punctuated antics and borderline buffoonery.
Amos and Rolle weren’t having it. “They chose to go for the obvious and the comedic…It started to dissipate into something I wasn’t terribly proud of.” Amos later said. He felt like the show was doing the other characters a disservice, saying, “’You guys don’t really matter. We’re more interested in seeing J.J. with a chicken hat on.’
”Rolle was more direct in her critique, “(J.J.)’s 18 and he doesn’t work, He can’t read and write. He doesn’t think,” she complained in an interview. “…they have made him more stupid and enlarged the role.”
Jimmy Walker – who wasn’t close with anyone in the cast – responded in the same interview, “I play the way I see it for the humor of it. I don’t think anybody 20 years from now is going to remember what I said.” (I guess syndication wasn’t a consideration in the ‘70s. But also, Walker’s a clown, so…)
Amos and Rolle made a pact at the beginning of the series: they would fight to preserve the integrity of the characters and the family. When they felt they weren’t representing responsibly anymore, they spoke up. Amos threatened to leave the show at one point, forcing producers to delay taping. Eventually, he was labeled a “disruptive element” on the set, and they decided to kill James off. The choice to remove the key figure that made the show so important led to its eventual demise, but Amos later told Lear he was right to fire him for the way he behaved. Ironically, James’ death – just as he’s finally pulling his family out of the hood – produced one of the two most powerful scenes of the series, and maybe the only time we saw Rolle’s power as a stage actress.
(The second is Penny’s mama coming towards her with an iron, which I can’t even watch anymore.)
Watching now, viewers have identified Florida as a hater; she seemed to thwart every possible opportunity for the family to get even the tiniest glow up. But Florida was a manifestation of Rolle fighting with the show runners against anything she thought was gonna make us look crazy. Was some of it based in respectability? Absolutely. But considering Good Times was the only show of its kind, at least until What’s Happening!! debuted in 1976, I understand. Except for Black Jesus, that was fly. Florida was buggin’. Ebony, the most important black media outlet at the time, understood why she and Amos were fighting against foolery, too. The last black-centered sitcom before Diahann Carol’s Julia, Sanford and Son and Good Times had been Amos ‘n’ Andy, and nobody was trying to go back to that. “What seems to be called for now is a greater relevance among characters and a closer rein on a tendency to slide towards old-timey black minstrelsy. What is being revealed is a healthy awareness on the part of black performers that they are responsible for cleansing the stained image of blacks so long perpetrated on stage and screen.”
Shortly after John Amos left the show, Esther Rolle left as well, and ratings fell. Writers tried revamping J.J. as a mature head of the family, they introduced new characters and even brought Rolle back for a period, but the show was canceled in 1979.
Good Times feels now like Blaxploitation (and it was a bit) and poverty porn. But then, it was still a new version of our story told publicly. It was still a top-rated show about a black family. It was still a display of active and conscientious black parenting, including a black daddy with a job in a house, even in the ghetto.
The Jeffersons (1975 – 1985)
The Jeffersons was the longest running black family sitcom on television – longer than The Cosby Show. The show started just as the black middle class was building in the wake of the post-civil rights movement and was the first show to depict a black family that wasn’t working class. The show introduced one of the most iconic black TV characters in history. George Jefferson was the representation black folks had been waiting for; he was the hope and the dream. A black man from post-great migration Harlem who reached out with both hands to grab every part of the American Dream that he could as soon as it was available to him and would give white people his a** to kiss if they weren’t with it. It’s easy to dismiss George as mostly mouth and swagger, but that mouth and swagger were on our collective behalf.
Lear created the Jefferson family as an agitator for Archie Bunker. Lionel was a character from the beginning of the show, a smart young black man Archie considered one of the “good” ones. Then, the family moved in next door to the Bunkers – the first black family in the all-white Queens neighborhood.
George wasn’t introduced for a couple of seasons. Sherman Hemsley was in a Broadway production, but Lear was so intent on him in the role that he found workarounds. George was the black version of Archie: stubborn, bullheaded, archaic in some of his thinking, and prejudiced towards people who he deemed other. George was sharper than Archie, though, and a fighter, which created great tension between the two characters as their families fell into a neighborly relationship. Usually at odds, one of the best scenes between the two happens in a set-up episode for the spin-off. The Jeffersons are meeting the Willises for the first time, and George and Archie are equally horrified to discover Tom and Helen Willis are an interracial couple. As they watch Tom dance with Louise at the end of the scene (I think I might have preferred this Tom…I don’t think he would have taken George’s sh*t), they toast to their shared disapproval.
George: Bunker, what is this world coming to?
Archie: Beats me, Jefferson. All I got to say is (raises glass), here’s to yesterday.
Feedback from the scratchin’ and survivin’ work of Good Times impacted how Lear developed The Jeffersons. Three Black Panther party members showed up a Lear’s production company one day to express their displeasure with Good Times. Lear recounted the story for an interview, saying, “They were pissed off that the only (black) family that existed, the (patriarch) had to hold down three jobs.” The Panthers asked why there couldn’t be an affluent black family on television, and Lear listened. Maybe George and Weezy would have stayed next door to the Bunkers, or moved to the black middle-class Queens enclave Jamaica Estates, or back uptown to Harlem for the spinoff, but that random visit sent them to a deluxe apartment in the sky in Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
The Cosbys, the Banks, and other upper middle class to upper-class TV families that came later were comfortable being comfortable. But the Jeffersons were adjusting to having finally attained the dream, being part of the early post-segregation black upper class, and the mixture of pride, guilt, and responsibility that came along with it – and so were the white people and other black people in their orbit. What happens when you’ve made it? When you jump from being a black housekeeper to hiring a black housekeeper? When your old friends from around the way come around? When you can buy your family whatever they want just because? How do you stay real in the midst of that?
The Jeffersons addressed not just race and class, but also race vs class. George wasn’t educated, but he worked hard, and expected his success to afford him respect and access – his theory was that green was more influential than black, and he was furious every time that proved to be untrue. There were plenty of puns based on George making social faux pas to impress elite white people, but there was also the very clear message – even if you’re a black millionaire: you still a ni**a.
I recently went back and watched the entire series on TV One, and the first few seasons are the blackest thing I have ever seen on television. As George and Louise are adjusting to their money and their lifestyle, the Harlem stayed jumping out. George still spoke in “jive” (the AAVE of the ‘70s), and would call somebody “ni**a” in a minute. Louise had a lot of fire early on, too. Her character became more one dimensional (and low key annoying) as the series progressed.
George was written to be abrasive and dislikable on the surface with redeeming qualities beneath, but Hemsley brought the character to life, with the walk he gave him without thinking, with Louise’s nickname, “Weezy,” with his attitude and mannerisms. Sherman was quiet, reserved in real life, and found playing George difficult. The blatant intolerance and insults, the rudeness and door slamming. It’s amazing from today’s more politically correct viewpoint that not only did this fly on primetime TV, but it was also one of the top sitcoms on air. The think pieces, Twitter hot takes and “What if this was a white character acting like this?” would be on a hundred if the show aired today. But George’s ridiculousness was the point.
At its best, the series educated viewers through George’s development, dispelling myths and stereotypes, and not just expanding the awareness of white viewers, but black ones, as well. At its funniest, the wit and wordplay were some of the best on TV. I would bet money that Martin pulled from George and Florence (a role we really don’t give Marla Gibbs enough love for) when writing Martin and Pam.
By the early ‘80s, the black professional class had grown and with the Reagan boom, plenty of families had moved on up. Now that the Jeffersons weren’t a unique story, the show was still cute but had lost its heart. CBS abruptly canceled it without a series finale.
George Jefferson endures, though. We know his walk, we know his dance, we know his door slam, we know him. We literally all know an old black man like George: ain’t gonna take no sh*t, kind of an a**, you worry he might say something extremely foul in public, but also has all the confidence and swagger.
Morehouse honored Norman Lear in 2016, and Dr. John Silvanus Wilson Jr., the university’s president, proclaimed that Lear “showed America 40 years ago that Black Lives Matter. He opened the eyes of millions of Americans when it came to civil rights, women’s rights, and gay rights, all by making us laugh about it heartily so that we can think about it differently. Norman Lear is and will always be, in TV and race relations, a pioneer.”
I know we stopped giving cookout invites, but somebody please send Norman Lear a plate.
The Vibe Mix Newsletter
All things VIBE.
Daily – Straight to your inbox.
All things VIBE.
You have signed up and will start receiving the Vibe Mix Newsletter immediately.
From the Web
More on Vibe
There was a lady who sold bootleg DVDs on my block when I was a kid—three for 10 dollars. My mom would usually let my brother and I pick whichever ones we wanted, and on one occasion, I specifically remember us picking out American Pie 2, Austin Powers in Goldmember, and 8 Mile. Those were the days when we’d watch movies over and over again until we could recite every line before it reached our ears. My brother always wanted to put on Goldmember. I, on the other hand, was obsessed with 8 Mile, more specifically with Brittany Murphy’s character, Alex. I understood exactly why B-Rabbit (Eminem) was so into her. She spoke in a low, sultry voice and always knew what she wanted, then went for it. That was in 2002, when I was 10. It was the first time (that I can remember) that I suspected I liked girls.
I didn’t know, for sure, that I was bisexual until I was in college. I had been “pretend kissing” girls and being turned on by ones I liked as long as I could remember, but I always attributed that to my hypersexuality. I’ve always been a very sexual person. The way I heard people talk about bisexuality reinforced that belief for a long time: bisexual men are gay boys in denial, and bisexual women are insatiable straights. I always think about how different my teenage years would’ve been had I seen more bisexual characters on TV, ones who could help me navigate questions that I didn’t feel comfortable asking and conversations that no one had with me. Right now, there are more bisexual characters on TV than ever before, and even though some shows have a lot of work left to do, lots of them are putting in the work to portray important stories and jumpstart necessary conversations. Here are 10 times TV shows actually got bisexuality right.
Courtesy of Edelman
When a 2016 Allure video segment on beauty and aging with grace hit the internet, one of the three subjects immediately held the attention of the masses hostage. It was hard not to quickly fawn over the 60-something woman’s sleek, mature looks, palpable wisdom, gripping gaze, and grounded sense of self. Three years later, that same model, JoAni Johnson, continues to display her elegance for video campaigns, strut down the runways of the designer elite, and stare down cameras for high-stakes fashion photoshoots.
But JoAni Johnson the person barely even likes photos. The 5’4” model with more-salt-than-pepper hip-length tresses waves off compliments about her edgy portfolio. So far, she has photographed for Vogue, ELLE and Essence magazine shoots and campaigns like Pyer Moss, Ozwald Boateng, and most recently, the debut of Rihanna’s Fenty luxury line. However, for the Caribbean American woman—while born in Harlem, her family hails from St. Elizabeth, Jamaica—gratitude and humility run richly through her veins.
In fact, she considers herself to be a tea blender and specialist before the shinier profession that kicked off in her 60s. That, and a mother, which makes her role as a spokesperson for Vaseline’s #ListenToYourMoms campaign all the more fitting. “#ListenToYourMoms speaks to me because as a proud mom, continuing to keep traditions alive and passing it onto the next generation of beautiful and strong women in my family, is important,” Johnson said. “Throughout my life, my beauty regime has remained simple and the knowledge of the versatility coupled with the healing powers of Vaseline Jelly, has always been a trusted ‘go-to’ for generations of women in my own life.”
Her successful modeling career has admittedly been a whirlwind of excitement, nerves, glamour, risks, and stepping way outside of her comfort zone. However, above all her main goal is to stay present and take in each and every moment as it comes. While taking a break from overseeing a New York photoshoot, Johnson opened up about the art of living in the now, how beauty and self-care are intertwined, and all the lessons she’s learned from motherhood.
VIBE: You’ve been the face of so many notable campaigns this year, like Fenty and Pyer Moss. Would you describe your modeling journey as something that you’ve planned or more serendipitous?
JoAni Johnson: Totally serendipitous, I did not plan this. If you would’ve asked me two and a half years ago or told me that this would be my life, I would have told you are insane. It happened by chance. The universe has been very, very good to me and I’m just very grateful.
View this post on Instagram
Enormous thanks and love to @Badgalriri (a true visionary!) and @LVMH for choosing me to be on the right side of history with you, as unapologetic fashion game-changers. Representation matters. It always has and this @Fenty campaign is so excellent and so important for multiple reasons in 2019. The marathon certainly continues. #DisruptAllFashionRules #greyhairdontcare #Fenty Shot by @_glen_luchford
A post shared by JoAni Johnson (@joanijohnson6000) on May 28, 2019 at 8:40pm PDT
In terms of the serendipitous journey to modeling, what was that opportunity that you seized and said, “This could be right, this could not be but let me take it?”
I didn’t even really think about it. I did not get involved in this of my own. My husband encouraged because I just didn’t think it was for me. I come from old-school [train of thought] that said you had to be a certain something in order to be successful. When he encouraged me to—it’s so funny, I’m not very fond of photographs of myself. It’s gotten a lot better in this new world but in the past with the limitations even in cameras, that industry has expanded. We’re getting much more quality photographers. Everything has changed and it’s all happening at once, so in the past I’ve never been very happy with photographs of myself.
How did you, looks of photos aside, to be in front of the camera takes a certain confidence just the presence of being there, how did you I guess?
Who’s confident? (Laughs) Whenever I do something, it’s about being in the moment. This is what the universe has presented me with, I am blessed. I am doing the best that I can in that moment. What is the artist, photographer, make-up artist, hair [stylist], what are they looking for? I am just the muse or the conduit. What is the designer looking for? I shared with someone earlier, I don’t look at the photographs, I’m not that person. It’s your vision, I am just here to carry out your vision.
What things have you learned about yourself in terms of personal style?
My idea of me is different than I am. I grew up in a world where I read Ebony fashion for the glamour in them, but on the real side I fight with myself because I will get things that are really glamorous but it’s hard for me to wear them because it attracts people’s attention. It’s not that I don’t care for it, but it’s hard. I’m me. I want people to know the human not the outside, the human. It’s more important because we’re all beautiful. We all have certain gifts that the universe has bestowed on us, it’s for us to find it and to share it.
Let’s talk lineage and the things that we pass on to each other, whether it’s our friends, our families. What things have you taken from your mother figures that molded who you are, and that you would in turn pass to those who see you as a mother figure?
The biggest influences on me as a child were my grand aunts. They were hardworking beautiful women who had such a sense of style and I’m from Jamaican background, so there’s a certain expectation that you were taught. You would call it refinement or whatever but it was the English way, that’s where it came from. Good, bad or ugly, that’s where it emanated from and they were always very stylish. I watched them as my image of beauty and how they cared for themselves, whether it was using Vaseline on their skin or their nightly rituals of taking it off and washing and I was fascinated. It also showed me their doing it was an expression of their love for themselves and also a relaxation, like they were treating themselves. They worked so hard but it was their time with themselves that they chose to carve out because they didn’t have to do it. They carved out in their day to really reward themselves with the hard work that they had endured.
So then how do you carve time out for yourself? What is your relaxation look like?
I have passed that on to my daughters as well and my mother was also part of that because she learned from them. She taught me and then I passed it on. How do I do it now? I am a tea specialist, tea consultant, tea blender. Taking that time to sit down and make yourself a cup of tea takes time. Just taking that time, that special time for you to stop and just relax.
Whether I am doing a face mask—and I do a lot of them with tea as a base. I do that once a month with tea as a base and then use the Vaseline to moisturize. I love face massages and I can’t afford to pay for them. I have to do it myself and I think Tracee Ellis Ross was showing the [jade] roller that she used, I got one. The simplistic things in life, moisturizing my skin with Vaseline and then using the roller, that’s relaxing.
For me it’s what I owe myself because nobody is going to do it for me. We would like to think that we got it that way and you know people look at me in this role and think it’s so glamorous, and it is. There’s parts of it that are absolutely glamorous—when I get to wear a Prada suit, just to see the workmanship and admire the thought that they put into creating something like that and I get to put it on. There’s the other times when I’m not in that world, what am I doing to take care of me?
What do you learn from now your children? With Vaseline’s campaign, the idea is to listen to your mothers and your mother figures and take what they’ve put into your life, but what have you taken from them? It’s a two-way street, learning is both ways. What have you learned from your children?
My daughters teach me that no matter what we have a responsibility in this world that we’re in. I came up in the age of the late ‘60s/early ‘70s, there was a struggle there was I was in, there’s stories about that but you’ll read it in my memos. My girls have another journey and they teach me it’s got to be done daily.
My oldest and I were walking down the street and she’s got like this vision, peripheral vision and she sees this elderly woman—and I say elderly only because it’s a way to describe [her physically]—and she was waiting for the bus. She had packages and was trying to hail a cab and they wouldn’t stop. My daughter out of the corner of her eye saw it and she walks over to her and she says, do you need a cab? The woman said yes. I did not see that. Because I am in my life, I don’t have that. I wasn’t gifted with that kind of vision so she teaches me to be more observant with what is going on around.
When I was growing up, we closed off. I lived in a really tough neighborhood at the time and you just closed off. You just kept it moving from one space to another. My daughter is not like that and she has taught me to be more observant and to be more generous with showing the humane qualities.
The music group The Commodores and actress Donna Summer on the set of the Columbia Pictures movie ” Thank God It’s Friday” in 1978.
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
For years, disco was the black sheep of music genres. Characterized as schmaltzy and over the top, the sound of polyester suits, platform shoes, and strobe lights. With this iteration of the dance genre in our minds, it was easy to understand how and why the genre met a swift end 40 years ago.
On July 12, 1979, the Chicago White Sox hosted “Disco Demolition Night,” now often referred to as the night disco died. Disco was the victim of a smear campaign, the effectiveness of which has only been seen again in music when 50 Cent destroyed Ja Rule’s career and Jay-Z’s “Death of Autotune” killed T-Pain’s. But those were artists. This was an entire genre – a culture, ended by 50,000-plus mostly young, straight white men who were tired (and afraid) of something that wasn’t for or about them.
Music fans and historians have had a collective realization over the last couple of decades that the anti-disco sentiment was all spin. Not really about the music, but who the music represented: Black, Hispanic, Latinx and LGBTQ+ people and women – basically everybody except the bros holding onto classic rock for dear life. By the late ‘70s disco had, in fact, become overly formulaic and cheesy, but in the early days the sounds were lush and rich, the “four on the floor” 120 bpm tempo was infectious and irresistible. Disco created new lanes for DJs and producers, pioneered the modern nightclub/lounge scene (for better or worse), and gave fans license to just dance and be free on the floor. Most importantly, disco provided a sonic backdrop for a changing America, and that’s why Chicago DJ Steve Dahl and his fans were determined to kill it.
In the early ‘70s, marginalized communities were gaining voice and visibility. The “end” of the civil rights movement with the 1968 signing of the Civil Rights Act, the Stonewall Rebellion and subsequent repeal of a NY law forbidding men to dance with each other, and the rise of the women’s liberation movement changed the social conscience first in major cities, and soon the country. The rock and roll and protest music of ‘60s counterculture gave way to something new, especially in major urban metros: dance music.
On Valentine’s Day 1970, DJ David Mancuso threw an invite-only party at his downtown loft which turned into a weekly event, and eventually one of NYC’s hottest nightspots, The Loft. Mancuso’s parties were primarily meant as a safe space gay men, but attendance grew to anyone else who wanted to commune through dance. The Loft was the beginning of NYC disco club culture, and of the guest list-only nightspot. Studio 54 cranked that exclusivity up to create the velvet rope and table service scene we know today. Underground dance clubs like the Paradise Garage followed, niche community havens that served as an escape from the political and fiscal turmoil of the decade. Gay, Black, Hispanic, Latinx and some straight folks partied together all night, literally. The drugs and free love of hippy culture carried over to the scene, but there was usually no alcohol, until 54 opened. These first parties also broke some of the earliest disco hits, before they were called “disco.”
What we overlooked for years in disparaging convos about disco is that it was our music. Disco evolved from black and latin sounds; funk and soul with driving rhythm and layered instrumentation and production. James Brown’s bandleader Fred Wesley once called disco “funk with a bow-tie.” It was smoother and more polished than funk, but more complex than straight soul.
The proto-disco sounds that bridged the gap from soul to disco are largely attributed to two sources. The OG Barry White’s “Love’s Theme” (which Barry composed and arranged; please put some respect on his name), is considered one of the first “disco” hits. That big sweeping sound he created with the 40-piece Love Unlimited Orchestra was a trademark of early disco songs. By the time “Love’s Theme” hit radio, it had already been in the clubs for about six months.
Philly Soul architects Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff are also credited as laying the foundation for the early disco sound. Philly soul was soul with a kick – a little extra percussion. A few more layers on the instrumentation. A little uptick on the rhythm. A bit more bass. It was danceable. You had to move!
MFSB’s “Love is the Message” (on Gamble & Huff’s Philadelphia International) became a favorite of the early disco set. It was the unofficial theme song of The Loft, a favorite of The Paradise Garage’s famous DJ Larry Levan, and fans of FX’s POSE will remember Pray Tell insisting the song be played nonstop at the balls for weeks, because it reminded him of the simpler, carefree years before the AIDS epidemic hit the community.
In 1972, Manusco found a super obscure import in a Brooklyn record store and started playing it at his parties, then other DJs started bootlegging it to play at their parties. Frankie Crocker, one of the most influential black radio DJs of the 70s, heard Manu Dibango’s “Soul Makossa” and put it on rotation on NY’s WBLS. Atlantic Records – the one label that never missed a black music moment – licensed the song from Dibango’s original label and released a reissue. In the Summer of ’73, the song became the first official disco song to crack the Billboard Hot 100.
Disco wasn’t just Saturday Night Fever moves, especially pre-commercial peak. It was also pop-locking, the bump, roller skating jams – a lot of music we never stopped listening to, but just consider dance music, soul classics, cookout music, Soul Train line joints… We always just called it something else.
Disco also brought back hand-dancing (or couple’s dancing), which had disappeared in popular music after “The Twist” took over dancefloors in 1960. We’ve all seen old heads (or, if you’re my age, tried to get in with the old heads) getting their dance on and just watched in awe of how graceful, effortless and fun it looks. This ain’t nothin’ but the hustle.
Now that we’ve established that disco started as soul and funk with a little extra on it, let’s talk about how disco’s impact endures. Disco is short for “discotheque” – literally translated to “music library.” Named as such because records were the focus at discotheques instead of live music. DJs controlled the room, and quickly became crucial to breaking a record. Songs started in the club, not at radio. DJ pools – which later became essential to hip-hop – were created during the disco era to get new songs and mixes out to the clubs as soon as possible.
In NY, DJs started remixing for the first time, extending the best parts (breakbeats, etc) of the hottest songs to keep the crowd in the moment (I still think NY DJs put together the most cohesive music sets because it’s in their DNA, but that’s another sermon), and eventually the 12” version was born. Or in the case of Donna Summer’s “Love to Love You,” the 16:50 opus.
Disco also elevated the music producer. Rather than pairing one or two people/teams with an artist for the majority of a project, or automatically using label-affiliated producers, producers became sought after talent for their sounds. They were tapped for a song or two, or some had songs ready and just and needed to find the right vocalist. Producers were beginning to break artists, and the vocal stars were overwhelmingly black women. Church-bred black vocalists, to be exact.
Sounds were about agency, freedom, sexuality, belonging, surviving on their own terms, and they became anthems for the gay rights movement.
Disco allowed for a freedom of identity not seen before in popular culture. Androgyny, fluid and open sexuality, excess and camp. The more outrageous, the better, if that was your thing. Only in disco could an openly gay, COGIC-raised black man like Sylvester transcend from drag shows to superstardom.
As big as disco was growing in cities like NY, Philly and Chicago, it was still a somewhat niche culture. With disco came a level of glamour and opulence that the average American joe wasn’t ready to lean into yet… plus many still saw it exclusively as gay culture. Then, in 1977, “Staying Alive” and Saturday Night Fever changed everything.
Saturday Night Fever marked that tipping point all good things hit once the masses come on board. The movie framed disco around a straight, white (Italian) blue-collar worker and white artists (the Bee Gees). Now it was palatable. The movie and soundtrack were both massively successful, and by 1979 disco had evolved from a cosmopolitan culture to a national scene. Discos started opening in small-town USA, and labels rushed to have any artists who hadn’t dipped their toes into disco yet to record a dance track. Even hardcore rock and pop stars – like Dolly Parton, Sinatra, the Rolling Stones – some with less success than others – all tried their hand. Rod Stewart hates disco hit “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy,” but it’s one of his biggest songs, so no matter how often he’s tried to take it out of his tours in latter years, fans want it.
Disney and The Muppets even got in on the disco craze, probably encouraged by Rick Dees’ 1978 utterly ridiculous, completely novelty No. 1 hit “Disco Duck.”
If we’re keeping it a buck, though, I had the Sesame Street Fever album, and it was a jam. Larry Levan ain’t just hop on any ol’ thing.
Ironically, the Bee Gees never set out specifically to create a disco sound, but they became synonymous with the genre. All of their songs for Saturday Fever had been recorded before the movie was made. But the affiliation defined them for the rest of their careers, and they hated it. “The media made it as if people were afflicted with ,” Maurice Gibb told The Washington Post when the group finally reunited to tour a decade later. “And then there were the Village People, ‘Disco Duck’ and ‘Kung Fu Fighting,’ all these stupid, silly records that were based on what we were doing but nowhere near it…Unfortunately, it cheapened what we did.”
The phase of “stupid, silly records” is what comes to mind when most think of disco, but this was also when disco was at its peak. It was supplanting rock n’ roll as the sound of America, and straight white men started developing that anxiety that straight white men get whenever something isn’t centered around straight white men (see: everything happening in US politics right this moment). The anti-disco movement found an unlikely leader in a Chicago DJ named Steve Dahl. Dahl was a chubby, awkward guy with a baby on the way, when his station manager called him into his office on Christmas Eve 1978 to tell him the station was converting to an all disco format at the top of the year. It was like the moment in comic books when the otherwise normal person becomes a villain.
Dahl got another gig at Chicago classic rock station The Loop, but fed his animosity towards disco with daily segments where he’d “blow up” a disco record on air. He built a following, the Coho Lips: a group of young white men who, according to Dahl, “want(ed) to wear our t-shirts and our jeans. And we (didn’t) want to have to wear white three-piece suits to get laid.” (It’s like “economic anxiety”, but with clothes.)
He started hosting anti-disco events, first clad in Hawaiian shirts and then in full military uniform and helmet, where he’d lead enthusiastic chants of “Disco sucks!” as he broke albums over his head. The Chicago White Sox’s owner’s son was a fan, and suggested a co-promotion for a game: fans would bring a disco record to destroy in between doubleheaders, for a discounted admission price of $0.98 cents. The event at first seemed a huge success – over 50,000 fans showed up with reports of 10,000 more outside trying to get in. But after Dahl appeared in an army jeep to set off the dumpster full of vinyl, things went left.
The firepower was stronger than anticipated and destroyed the field, pieces of vinyl started flying all over the place like missiles. The crowd descended from the stands, first in revelry, but then it became more like a riot. People set seats on fire, lit a bonfire in the middle of the field, threw bottles and albums. Players were barricaded in the locker rooms, staff was ordered to evacuate, and the police came to shut it all down.
People were rightfully horrified at the scene, recalling book-burning and dystopian warnings from Bradbury. But Dahl has consistently maintained that Disco Demolition Night wasn’t homophobic or racial, instead calling it a “joyous heat-and-beer-infused celebration” and “one of the greatest radio promotions in history.”
Chicago house pioneer Vincent Lawrence was a 15-year old usher at Comenski field that night, and remembers it differently. He first noticed that people weren’t just bringing disco records to destroy, but black music period. “There’s Marvin Gaye records. And Stevie Wonder, Songs in the Key of Life. Records that were black records,” he recounted on Gimlet Media’s Undone podcast. He tried to enforce a strict disco rule for the discount, but his boss overrode him. Later, as the melee grew on the field, Lawrence found himself confronted by anti-disco folks. “There were just angry people running up to me, getting in my face saying disco ducks, disco sucks,” he shared. “A kid came up to me and took a 12-inch disk and broke it right in my face. It was like a Marvin Gaye 12-inch or something like that. And I didn’t understand it,
until much later, that that was just hate, and that they were directing it at me because I was black and the record was black.”
Disco Demolition Night became a national news story, and by 1980, disco was passe. The anti-disco militia had accomplished their goal; the genre practically disappeared from the airwaves, and punk, new wave and pop took over radio. But disco didn’t really die. It morphed. The underground house music scene immediately started bubbling in Chicago with a sound that was basically stripped down disco. In fact, house pioneer Frankie Knuckles called it “disco’s revenge,” but also thought, as he told music writer Jon Savage, a rebirth was necessary. “Those guys declaring disco being dead actually was kind of like a blessing in disguise, because (the culture) had to turn itself, because it‘d just gotten too much.”
Vince Lawrence, who was working at Disco Demolition Night to save money for a synthesizer, co-wrote and produced what are considered the first house record, “On and On,” with DJ Jesse Saunders.
Some acts made the seamless transition to boogie music; the mellow, groovier side of disco.
Disco and house are the roots for so much of hip-hop, latin freestyle, techno and electronica, and now EDM. The name may have been tarnished, but the culture simply evolved, even as straight white men continue to fight the advance of anything “other” with all their might. At the core, great disco songs are just great songs. They inspire, they encourage, they speak to you, and they make you dance with abandon. How can anybody hate on that?
Disco legend Gloria Gaynor summarized disco’s legacy for Vanity Fair: “Disco music is alive and well and living in the hearts of music-lovers around the world. It simply changed its name to protect the innocent: Dance music.”
#MusicSermon is a weekly series by Naima Cochrane that highlights the under-acknowledged and under-appreciated urban artists and sub-genres from the ’90s and earlier. The series seeks to tell unknown and/or forgotten stories that connect the dots between current music, culture and the foundations of the past.