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Who Invented Disco?

Disco music was not magically born at New York's Studio 54 or during the movie "Saturday Night Fever." It had its precedents at the underground dance clubs in New York City in the early 1970s. Most people agree that the inventors of disco were the deejays who were mixing funk, R&B, pop and soul to create extended dance tracks for the people out on the floor. As the crowds responded, deejays started mixing in rhythms with faster and funkier beats, and disco was born. One of the key incentives behind this deejay experimentation was actually the record companies who were comping new tracks and singles to deejays in exchange for reviews of which songs got the most people dancing.


Some of the earliest disco songs were influenced by funk and soul hits, such as James Brown's 1970 hit "Sex Machine," with a track that ran 10 minutes. Many fans say the first official disco hit songs were Love Unlimited's "Love's Theme," Elton John's "Your Song" and the O'Jays "Love Train," all from 1972-1973. The first extended dance mix that was truly influential in disco was Gloria Gaynor's 1975 release, "Never Can Say Goodbye." The album contained three disco tracks--"Honey Bee," "Reach Out, I'll Be There" and the title track--that ran together, lasting 19 minutes. This album marked a shift for many people in that it was engineered for the dance floor.


One of the features that inventors of disco favored in their music was longer song length, breaking the previous format of pop songs that lasted only three minutes. Deejays used two turntables so they could mix sounds, moving from one dance track to another. Recording artists took a cue from the deejays and began incorporating mixing into their new releases. One hit compilation album, "A Night at Studio 54," stacked dance songs one after the other, without pauses. Another common feature was the extended dance mix, a version of a radio hit that added more instrumentation and lyrics to make it suitable for the discotheque scene. The medium of choice for nightclub deejays was vinyl, a standard that has survived the introduction of many new gadgets and formats.


The behind-the-scenes guru that made Gloria Gaynor's album such a hit was producer Tom Moulton, the premier mix master who went on to work with other notable musicians and producers. One such artist was Jose Rodriguez, the recording engineer credited with being the inventor of the first 12-inch single, an ideal format for the new extended dance mixes that were setting disco dance floors on fire. Moulton took the new format to the streets, bringing the 12-inch singles to nightclubs and handing them to deejays.

Time Frame

While purists insist disco was invented in the 1970s, others take a broader view. One of its early precedents was found back in 1939, when Swing Kids inhabited jazz clubs. A place called La Discoteque was the toast of Paris in 1942. A couple decades later, the Twist overtook dance and music fans and New York City opened a nightclub known as the Peppermint Lounge. The 1960s also marked a major cultural step in England when Roger Earle became deejay at Manchester's The Twisted Earle and spun Northern Soul classics, a major influence on disco music. By 1965, New York's Arthur opened and hosted deejay Tery Noel, who allegedly was the first deejay to mix tracks. In the next year, Eurodisco and Europop was born, courtesy of The Equals' covers of "Baby Come Back" and "Hold Me Closer." September 1968 saw a major development in gay history, which overlaps with the history of disco, when the Continental Baths opened. The late 1960s and early 1970s saw many seminal moments, including Jerry Butler's release of "Only the Strong Survive," the Stonewall Riots, David Manucuso's loft parties, the opening of The Ice Palace on Fire Island, the recording of Eddie Kendricks "Girl You Need a Change of Mind," WPIX-FM hosting the first disco radio show and, of course, Van McCoy's single, "The Hustle," taking over the world.


The influence of disco was far-reaching, with hits played around the world. Just as many trendy people embraced disco music, dancing, clubs and fashion passionately, they were just as quick to drop it when there was a huge backlash against disco, exemplified in the "Disco Sucks" movement. However, the effects of disco music were here to stay. Deejays kept spinning at clubs, and hip-hop became the dance style to master. Extended dance mixes and 12-inch singles were still the format of choice on the club scene, this time promoting the latest rap, electronica, house or new wave hit.

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