How a 1970s musical team crafted a bouncy dance-floor hit that helped launch the disco era.
By Marc Myers WSJ.com 4/03/14
Forty years ago this spring, disco emerged as a national sensation. Urban clubs, FM radio, record companies and young adults all began to embrace elaborately produced, beat-heavy recordings, unleashing a dance craze that would last roughly six years. While the first pure disco recording has long been debated, one of the earliest was the Hues Corporation’s “Rock the Boat,” which initially appeared on the group’s first album (listen at the 10:10 mark) in the spring of 1973 and became a No. 1 hit single in May 1974.
The song’s soulful vocals, churning rhythm and glittery brass and strings advanced the O’Jays’ “Love Train,” and predated MFSB’s “The Sound of Philadelphia.” At the heart of “Rock the Boat” was a rumba-like beat and light-reggae bass line—an unusual combination that the song’s arranger first heard on a Caribbean vacation.
Initially, “Rock the Boat” was nearly passed over by the music industry—twice. Inspired by “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” the song needed a stronger arrangement before RCA would record it and a more powerful remix to tease out its bouncy beat before radio would play it. The hit’s writer Wally Holmes, 85, producer John Florez, 67, pianist Joe Sample, 75, and Hues Corporation singer H. Ann Kelley, 66, look back on the seminal song that helped launch the disco era. Edited from interviews:
Wally Holmes: I was a trumpeter, songwriter and surfer living in Los Angeles in 1968 when I formed a soul-pop group called Brothers and Sisters. My plan was to manage the two black male and two black female singers and book them into Las Vegas clubs with an eight-piece band. But in 1969, the group broke up. We had the wrong mix of singers. St. Clair Lee, the lead singer and a surfing pal of mine, suggested we start another group. We found H. Ann Kelley at a radio talent show and she found Fleming Williams.
I was a rebel then and disliked wealthy people. So I named the new trio the Children of Howard Hughes, since they obviously weren’t. When we began playing gigs at the lounge at Circus Circus in Vegas in ’69, some guy said, “If you use Howard Hughes’s name, you’re going to get sued unless you have a contract with someone named Howard Hughes.” I saw the complications and changed the group’s name to the Hues Corporation. We caught a break in early ’72 when a friend—arranger Gene Page—orchestrated the score for “Blacula,” a cult film. He asked the Hues Corporation to record three songs for the soundtrack.
My business partner, Norm Ratner, and I quickly went looking for a record deal. RCA, which had had hits with the Friends of Distinction, a soul-pop group, gave us a shot, pairing us with John Florez, the group’s producer. For our first RCA album, we came up with a bunch of soul-funk songs, including Allen Toussaint’s ballad “Freedom for the Stallion.”
John Florez: I was in my 20s then and didn’t really know what I was doing. I knew that Gene Page, who arranged “Stallion,” was superb and that the song would be the album’s hit.
Mr. Holmes: But too much of the material for the album sounded similar. I wanted to include a song that was more upbeat and pop. At home, I sat down at the piano and wrote “Rock the Boat” in about 15 minutes. I think in terms of do, re, mi and so on—without using sharps or flats. Those kinds of songs, like “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” tend to last a long time. But I originally wrote the song on the beat, so it was stiff.
Mr. Florez: The first version was a dog. It had nothing going on. But Don Burkhimer, RCA’s head of talent acquisition in L.A., insisted we work with it, since the group was gaining clout.
Mr. Holmes: During this time, RCA in L.A. hired David Kershenbaum, a young executive who liked to go out to hear new music. The Hues Corporation was at the Starlight on Santa Monica Boulevard one night when David was there. He liked “Rock the Boat,” so we had one more shot. By the album’s second recording session, I had added horns to the ending, and John reluctantly agreed to include it. But he insisted on a punchier arrangement.
Mr. Florez: Wally’s original production started with the line, “Ever since our voyage of love began.” But it sounded too straight, so I asked if we could open instead with, “So I’d like to know where, you got the notion.” It had much more attitude. He agreed.
Mr. Holmes: A friend told me about arranger Tom Sellers, who lived in the San Fernando Valley, so I brought him in for the song. Tom had just come back from the Caribbean and had heard a dance beat down there that had an up beat at the end of each measure and a light reggae bass line on top of it.
Mr. Florez: For the recording session, I brought in pianist Joe Sample, bassist Wilton Felder and guitarist Larry Carlton from the Jazz Crusaders. Horns and strings were added later, after we had the rhythm and vocal tracks down. Jim Gordon was my first-call drummer for everything, and Grover Helsley was the engineer.
Joe Sample: The song’s feel started with Jim’s new beat and my strong piano chords. Then Wilton’s bass picked up on what my left hand was doing, Larry’s rhythm guitar built out my right hand and everything fell into place. And Larry had that wailing rock solo at the end. We killed it.
H. Ann Kelley: What sold the song was the melodic beauty of the verse that burst into a romp. I had never heard a beat like the one Tom had come up with. It was a backward beat, like a rumba. And Wally wrote and played that wonderful trumpet line at the end. [Singers] St. Clair, Fleming and I went in the isolation booth and listened as the band played the song several times in our headsets. Then we recorded together, but I had to stand on a box. I had this big voice for a little girl and needed to be on the same level in front of the mikes. Fleming’s lead vocal was just fantastic.
Mr. Florez: At the end of the final take, my jaw dropped. I ran up to Wally to hug him and said, “My god, you were right.” It was still a lousy tune but now it was a commercially viable one. Wally said to me, “Your issue John is that you want to make special, meaningful records. Instead, you should feed the market.” Then I made a mistake. I mixed the entire first album at once, which left “Rock the Boat’s” new beat sounding flat.
Mr. Holmes: When “Rock the Boat” was mastered, a demo went up the chain at RCA but they decided instead to release “Stallion” in the summer of ’73 as the album’s first single. “Rock the Boat” was planned for February ’74.
Mr. Florez: Then something crazy happened. Tom Draper, RCA’s R&B promotion director of talent acquisition in New York, called in late ’73 and said the track was the rage at the city’s underground gay dance clubs. They were putting on two copies and looping them to extend the song. Almost overnight, without any radio airplay, demand was climbing. Anticipating radio interest, I took the tapes back into the studio and remixed “Rock the Boat” to make the bass drum, electric bass and the other rhythm instruments sound bigger and snappier.
RCA released the remixed single in February, just as radio picked up on the song. By May, it was No. 1 on Billboard’s pop chart—the dance chart didn’t exist yet. After “Rock the Boat” hit, dozens of records followed that had a similar Tom Sellers-Jim Gordon beat. We put the newly mixed version on the group’s second album, “Rockin’ Soul.”
Mr. Florez: Wally knew his stuff. He knew which simple things worked. My mistake was trying to turn the Hues Corporation into the Friends of Distinction. It was a new era, and “Rock the Boat’s” sound emerged from a divine moment. It wasn’t manipulated. It just happened, and the studio musicians there were everything. Within weeks, singles with a chunky beat followed—like George McCrae’s “Rock Your Baby.” Everyone wanted a dance hit.