Do the Hustle and Remember the Legacy of Van McCoy
By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 30, 2004; Page WE06
WASHINGTONIAN Van McCoy's classic, "The Hustle," sold 10 million copies, making it the biggest dance record of the '70s. It won a 1975 Grammy (for best pop instrumental) and almost three decades on, continues to pop up all over the place, from disco-themed compilation CDs to television, where "The Hustle" has been used on "Ally McBeal," "The Drew Carey Show" and "The Simpsons," as well as in Old Navy's 10th anniversary spots, which featured a reunion of the B-list '70s celebrities who'd appeared in its ads over the years, including Morgan Fairchild, Erik Estrada, Joan Collins, Sherman Hemsley and the late Isabel Sanford. They all did "The Hustle."
Sadly, the composer didn't get to enjoy his best-known song's amazing durability: On July 6, 1979, McCoy died of a heart attack in Englewood, N.J., at age 39. In January of this year, McCoy's heirs reclaimed copyright on "The Hustle." The song's initial copyright (held by Warner-Chappell) dated from publication, and copyright law gives heirs the right to reclaim a work after 28 years. Van McCoy Music, headed by McCoy's sister, Mattie Taylor, did just that, as it had been doing for several years with the rest of McCoy's 600-song catalogue.
Regaining "The Hustle" kicked off a seven-month campaign by the company to raise awareness of McCoy's work and rekindle interest in his catalogue, an effort that peaks with Saturday's "25 Year Legacy Tribute to Van McCoy" at Theodore Roosevelt High School (4301 13th St. NW), from which McCoy graduated in 1958. The program will feature performances and reminiscences by Melba Moore, who recorded numerous McCoy songs, including "Lean on Me" and "Good Love"; Jean Carne, who recorded the 1995 album "Carne Sings McCoy"; Herb Fame of Peaches and Herb, the Washington duo discovered by McCoy in the mid-'60s; musical director Nathan Heathman and the Legacy Band; evangelist Dorothy Norwood; and Silvana and Brian Gallagher, winners of the 2004 International Hustle and Salsa Dance Competition held in Miami in April. There is no charge for the concert, scheduled from 4 to 6 p.m., with doors opening at 3:15, but admission is limited to adults and teenagers only.
Ironically, "The Hustle" was already a popular dance that had emerged in the early '70s in Latino circles and was brought to McCoy's attention when a New York DJ took him to a local nightclub to check it out. McCoy loved seeing people dancing together again -- he once said it reminded him of ballroom dancing -- and he wrote "The Hustle" in an hour, at the last minute tagging it onto the already finished "Disco Baby" album. "The Hustle" catapulted McCoy into the spotlight and helped fuel a pulsating disco frenzy here and abroad.
The word "hustle" captured a work ethic as well: McCoy started taking piano lessons at age 4 and, with older brother Norman on violin, began to give neighborhood concerts. He wrote his first song when he was 12 and sang with a doo-wop group called the Starlighters; in a preview of things to come, their first single, "The Birdland," was named after a popular '50s dance.
After attending Howard University for a couple of years, McCoy moved to Philadelphia and started a record label, Rockin' Records, which released his "Hey Mr. DJ." It was picked up by Scepter Records, which then hired McCoy as an A&R man; he eventually went to work as a staff writer and arranger for Mitch Miller and then for legendary songwriter-producers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Among McCoy's best-known songs: Barbara Lewis's "Baby, I'm Yours," which figured in a 2003 episode of "American Dreams." McCoy also wrote for the Shirelles, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Ruby and the Romantics, and later, Aretha Franklin, Nancy Wilson and Tom Jones. Additionally, he championed local talent, producing such acts as the Blossoms, the D.C. Playboys and Choice Four. His last major project was 12-year-old Stacy Lattisaw, whose 1979 album, "Young and in Love," featured a dozen new and old songs composed by McCoy.
McCoy also created groups he named State Department and the Presidents -- until the federal government asked him to change those names because overseas audiences might think the groups were state-sponsored (he also had to change his company name from White House Productions). And McCoy's Soul City Symphony was his version of Barry White's Love Unlimited Orchestra, albeit a much less expensive one.
"Van liked to have a showcase for his own works and to have control over presenting it," Mattie Taylor says. "But Soul City Symphony was not people but the music, all scored by hand by Van, who hired studio musicians, passed out the music and fine-tuned it while producing." And when that aggregation toured, it was made up of musicians hired city to city. "Soul City Symphony traveled in a foot locker," Taylor explains.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Van McCoy died in July 1979.