Jacques Morali and the Euro-Philly sound
This month (July 2022) I've gone all-in on the time-capsule specials where I recreate the sound of a particular month in disco history. Now that I've reached the half-way point of 1977, it is hard to ignore the rising dominance of the Euro-disco sound. When I started the show, I was keen to explore early disco history to demonstrate that it had an edge and dynamism that somehow got lost as the time went on in bland over-long European productions. But now, I've come to recognize how difficult it is to separate the European style from the main progression or story of the genre. DJs were paying attention to everything coming out, and the European artists were just part of that: Cerrone, Giorgio Moroder, Alec Costandinos, Silver Convention, Belle Epoque, and so on. Import records were important, and some of the stylistic innovations stretching the genre were coming from Europe, especially the glut of full-side, 15-minute suites that were prominent in the summer of 1977, and which I have been playing out on the show.
Casablanca Records chief Neil Boggart apparently is responsible for making the suggestion of turning Donna Summer's Love To Love You into a long side back in 1975, and Tom Moulton created one of the first suites the same year when he linked all the songs on the first side of Gloria Gaynor's LP Never Can Say Goodbye into one long suite, but the Europeans took the full-side records to a new level with songs like Love and Kisses' I've Found Love (Now That I've Found You), Belle Epoque's Black Is Black, and especially Giorgio Moroder's From Here to Eternity, all songs I've played on the show this month. There's a lot more I could say about this, but the point I wanted to make on this post was to draw attention to the close link between the orchestral, Philadelphia sound and the European disco sound. And the quintessential example of this is the case of Henri Belolo and Jacques Morali, two Europeans who would play a big role in the Euro-disco sound by producing groups like Ritchie Family and the Village People.
Henri Belolo from Morocco met Jacques Morali from France and the two decided to work together to create music in the style of Philadelphia International with members of MFSB, including drummer Earl Young. Peter Shapiro recounts this progression in his book Turn the Beat Around: The Secret History of Disco (2005). Shapiro puts their music in the camp category from the get-go, but to my ears, there's a lot more similarity between the Ritchie Family's first album, Brazil, and the Philadelphia sound they were copying, than you would expect. That record really pops sonically, just like the Philly records. Also, my personal tolerance (appreciation, even) for the light-weight, ridiculous, or just over-dramatic aspects of European pop has gotten quite high since I started the show, so it kind of works for me. "Deliciously bad taste," as Shapiro puts it? Yes, I'm probably guilty of that charge myself. But it is delicious! There is another aspect of orientalism or exoticization of different cultures in the music that deserves a critical analysis, which is beyond the scope of this post. A topic for a later post, perhaps.
Here is an excerpt from Shapiro's book (p.218-219. Turn the Beat Around: The Secret History of disco. 2005. Faber and Faber: London):
"They recruited three singers – Cheryl Jacks, Cassandra Wooten and Gwendolyn Oliver – to become the voices and faces of the group that was called the Ritchie Family after the arranger, Ritchie Rome. Although it was a pretty pale imitation of the Philly sound, 'Brazil' reached number eleven on the American charts and was followed by other over-orchestrated and ever more ridiculous travelogues like 'Peanut Vendor', 'African Queens', 'In a Persian Market', 'Quiet Village' and the medley 'The Best Disco in Town'. Jacks, Wooten and Oliver laid the shtick on thick with their theatrical over-enunciation, Morali's lyrics were the cheapest fantasies imaginable ('I am fire/ I am sex / I am brown and I'm beautiful / A gyrating, vibrating, heartbreaking sister') and Rome arranged as if he was scoring a Busby Berkeley movie, but the absurdist nature of the project was highlighted by their album covers, which were even kitschier than the lyrics.
Morali and Belolo went from the high camp of the Ritchie Family to what may be the most subversive group in the history of popular music [i.e., the Village People]. Of course it wasn't intentional - just the deliciously bad taste of men raised on Johnny Halliday and Charles Aznavour - but to explode Kenneth Anger camp into hypertrophic cartoon characters so absurd that only children and grannies from Arkansas could possibly like them was probably the most effective weapon in the battle of assimilating gay culture into mainstream America this side of the pill and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy."