Thursday, October 05, 2006

When disco dominated, briefly

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The disco fad may have been short lived but it held sway in Escanaba for a few years.

Fueled by a national obsession over the 1977 movie "Saturday Night Fever," starring John Travolta, the dance craze spread to every corner of the country.

Escanaba boasted three discos:

--Back Door Disco, 1214 Ludington St., now offices for certified public accountant Kathleen J. Paulson. Owned by Edwin Young, the dance club was located above Mr. Ed's Grotto North.

--The Station, 1837 3rd Ave. N., owned by Jon Anderson, now Fish & More.

--Sherman Lounge, 710 Ludington St., owned by Duane and Judy Hamelin. The business changed hands several times over the years and was eventually destroyed in a fire. A fourth disco in the area, Ford River's Pier One, was also leveled by fire.

The local clubs featured colorful synchronized dance floors and deejay booths, all bathed in the swirling light of disco balls.

Disc jockeys, like Mike VanEffen, armed with dual turntables, kept the vinyl hits revolving and patrons on the floor.

Lessons were also available so dancers could learn the latest moves inspired by the BeeGees or Donna Summer, the "Queen of Disco."

In fashion, polyester leisure suits and platform shoes were the rage.

Rock 'n' roll bands took a hit during the disco era as live venues switched to deejays and flashy lights, forcing some musicians into the unemployment line.

Other bands adapted. Many of the biggest rock bands recorded disco songs.

As you might expect, disco took over the airwaves as well.

One of the era's biggest hits was also one of the last. "Funkytown," by Lipps, Inc. (pronounced lip-synch), spent four weeks at number one on the Billboard top pop singles chart beginning May 31, 1980.

During a business trip to lower Michigan for the Upper Peninsula Commission for Area Progress (UPCAP), co-worker Bill Cook and I happened on to Lipps, Inc. performing at a club in East Lansing while their song was firmly ensconced at the top of the hit list.

The group and song were masterminded by Minneapolis writer and producer Steven Greenberg, who has seen the tune, issued as Casablanca 2233, earn him royalties for over 25 years.

Vocalist Cynthia Johnson, singing "Won't you take me to Funkytown," led the multi-racial band through several sets while keeping the dance floor packed mainly with Michigan State University students from across the street, all presumably over the age of 21.

Back in Escanaba, however, the local discos didn't have a built-in clientele of 45,000 college kids when the drinking age was returned to 21 in 1978, after six years at 18.

Dan Young remembers his dad's Back Door Disco as being "very successful until the drinking age was increased to 21. However, disco was almost over by 1981 or '82 anyway."

"Disco sucks" bumper stickers were seen on more and more vehicles and many dance floors and deejay booths fell silent around the country. Disco had suffered a backlash.

Still, "Funkytown" didn't go away. The song has been featured in numerous television programs, commercials and movies, including "Shrek 2." Singer Johnson, meanwhile, formerly a secretary at Maplewood Police Department, performs regularly in Minneapolis area jazz clubs.

By the way, disco didn't die. It just morphed into dance music. You know, the stuff Madonna does.

The leisure suit, on the other hand, is gone forever, hopefully.

1 comment:

Bud Lemire said...

Hi Steve,
I was a Senior in High School when Disco was around. I recall many of the songs going through the Disco age. Many of them played over and over and it got very sickening to hear. Lipps Inc "Funky Town" was one I never got sick of, and I would have loved to have seen them.

It's interesting how we go through phases of different styles in music as the generations change their likes and dislikes.

I am still glad I have my collection of CDs to listen to, and if we ever go through another stage like Disco, I will have my own music to fall back on.
Hmmmmm....anyone going to Funkytown?