History of American Disco

When someone mentions the 1970s, most people think of all things disco – the glitter balls, flashy clothes, dancing, the movie “Saturday Night Fever” and the music. Artists like Donna Summer, Chic, Gloria Gaynor, KC and The Sunshine Band, The Jackson 5 and The Bee Gees were mainstays on the charts with their disco hits in the ’70s.

History of the Genre

Though disco defined the ’70s, it originated in the ’60s in urban American dance clubs frequented by the LGBTQ, African American, Italian, Hispanic and Latino communities. Its name comes from the French word “discotheque,” which translates to a library of records and the genre is often viewed as a subculture backlash to mainstream rock music. Studio 54 in New York City was the most famous disco club of the time and dances like “The Bump” and “The Hustle” were popular during the disco era.

Defined by its fusion of funk, soul, pop and salsa rhythms, disco is known for its four-on-the-floor beats, basslines, and string sections, horns, synthesizers and rhythm guitars. Its music is layered with reverberated vocals and horns placed over a background of pianos, “chicken-scratch” rhythm guitars, and syncopated basslines. Drum kits used African or Latin percussion beats and orchestral instruments like the clarinet, trumpet, trombone, French horn and full string orchestras were commonplace in the genre. All of these elements made disco a costly production for record companies.

Disc jockeys, or DJs, were popularized during the disco era and were vital to the scene. They needed to gauge the mood of the crowd and pick music to match the energy level on the dance floor. Bass-heavy sound systems and spectacular lighting systems including multicolored lights that flashed with the beat, illuminated dance floors and mirror balls added to the experience coordinated by DJs. Because of these elements, DJs were influential in the disco scene as they began to remix and re-record existing songs to match the tastes of their dancing audience. Record sales during the ’70s were dependent on dance-floor play by DJs in leading clubs around the country. Because of this, DJs were influential on the music being produced for record labels.

Disco Dominates the 70s Charts

From 1974-1979, disco topped the music charts in the U.S. In 1974, The Hues Corporation had an early disco hit with the #1, million-seller song “Rock the Boat.” Gloria Gaynor had a hit in 1975 with “Never Can Say Goodbye” but she solidified her place in Disco history with her 1978 hit “I Will Survive,” which became a disco anthem.  Miami’s KC and the Sunshine Band had five hit singles between 1975 and 1977, including “Get Down Tonight,” “That’s the Way (I Like It),” “(Shake, Shake, Shake) Shake Your Booty,” “I’m Your Boogie Man” and “Keep It Comin’ Love.” With the release of the movie “Saturday Night Fever,” the Bee Gees topped the charts with five singles also, including “You Should Be Dancing,” “Stayin’ Alive,” “Night Fever,” “More Than A Woman” and “Love You Inside Out.”

Donna Summer is considered the undisputed Queen of Disco. In 1977, she released “I Feel Love,” which was produced by Giorgio Moroder. In 1978, the disco-version of her single “MacArthur Park” was #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart for three weeks and earned her a Grammy nomination. From 1978-79, Summer had hits that were all landed on the top five or higher on Billboard charts: “Last Dance,” “Heaven Knows,” “Hot Stuff,” “Bad Girls,” “Dim All the Lights” and “On the Radio.”

Disco dancing originated as a freestyle form but later popular styles like “The Bump,” “The Boogaloo” and “The Robot” were developed. However, no other style defines disco more than “The Hustle,” which had its own song in 1975. It was highly stylized and overtly sexual dance, which even had its own variations including the Brooklyn Hustle, New York Hustle and Latin Hustle.

Disco dancing became so popular that dance classes were offered around the country, TV shows like “Dance Fever” dedicated to the style were hits and movies like “Saturday Night Fever,” “Fame” and “Thank God It’s Friday” were instant hits.

End of an Era

By the end of the ’70s, disco faced as a backlash as it was criticized for being mindless, overproduced and escapist. Slogans like “disco sucks” became common and there were even disco record burning parties. July 12, 1979 became known as the “day disco died” because of an anti-disco demonstration at Comiskey Park in Chicago. Two DJs from a local radio station staged a promotional event called Disco Demolition Night where disco records and paraphernalia were burned. Because of the backlash, disco returned to its club roots.

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