In the late 1940s, a singer named Laurie Lee had a hit called "Since I Fell For You." Twenty years later crooner Lenny Welch re-recorded the song and made it a gold record. Just last week the song was back on the Billboard charts - sung by a group called Hodges, James and Smith, a female disco trio whose syncopated style produces a version for which Laurie Lee fans would hardly fall.
In discos across the country "Since I Fell For You" has become a hit. In Chiago's disco market stores have trouble keeping records stocked. In New York it sold more than 20,000 copies in two weeks.
Yet, a couple of weeks ago, few AM stations had yet played the song. Some local Washington stations confirmed this detail - none had even heard of record. But to Billy Smith, national radio coordinator for London Records and recently nominated by Billboard magazine as Disco Promoter of the Year, the anonymity of his company's new hit record was natural. It was all in The Plan.
"What we're seeing," said the 28-year-old smith, who helped promote disco star Barry White, "is a reversal of an old, old trend. It used to be that once a record was a hit on the radio, then you would hear it on the jukebox in a bar or at a disco. Now the discos are three to four weeks ahead of the radios at times. If it becomes a hit in the discos, it will eventually make the radio."
With discos becoming as much a part of America as Holdiay Inns, record companies are making every effort to use the new social scene to sell records. Almost every major record company has established an office like "National Disco Coordinator" to promote records with deejays across the country.
But when Smith and other disco coordinators mail their records out, the packages are not addressed in care of radio station call letters. Instead, they go to "Dogs of War," "Seemingly Better Productions," "Casbah," and "Harrah" - titles of disco deejay pools and disco bars. These "off-the-air jocks' are the key to making a disco record a chart buster.
"It's paying off," said Ray Caviano of T. K. Records in Miami, who may spend as much as $2,500 to promise a record in a single disco. "When a disco deejay plays a record he gets an immediate response from the people on the dance floor. If the song is good, the people dance. If it isn't good they leave the dance floor. We can learn faster by the dancers' response than we ever could be radio surveys."
Caviano evinces the case of the song "Rock The Boat" by the Hues Corporation. It took nearly two years of popular disco play before the record made the AM stations and became a million seller. But from disco club play alone the single sold 60,000 copies.
Because of their new influence with the record industry, in-club deejays across the country have organized deejay pools (currently there are 30 pools, with over 2,500 members) and they provide the record companies (in exchange for free promotional records) with their own personal surveys of each record. The deejays rate the records as to "audience response," "pressing quality," "d.j. opinion" and "additional comments."
In addition, Billboard, as well as other publications which rate records , calls the deejays of popular clubs in the large cities each week for their top 15.
When London Records released the album of Hodges, James, and Smith, the first black female trio ever on the label, the record was a flop with the rhythm 'n' blues stations.
That's when they gave the album to Billy Smith.
"The feeling was that even though it didn't make it with the 'r' b stations initially there was still a chance for it in the disco market," said Smith.
Last April, Smith sent the album to all 30 deejay pools in the nation and to 300 other disco deejays on his "personal list." London's hope was that the deejays could see some potential in the disco market for a few cuts off the LP, thus salvaging an otherwise unsuccessful album.
Through his feedback system Smith learned that three songs on the album had caught the ears of disco-going public: "One More Love Song," "Don't Take Away Your Love," and "Since I Fell For You." After visiting the New York discos himself and judging all three songs and their audience response, Smith chose "Since I Fell For You."
"That song, more than the others, had the soft, mellow beat which could do well in a disco format," said Smith. "It was also easy to extend it and not lose any of its smoothness."
Length was one of the song's primary problems. In a disco it is not unusual to have a 10-minute song. Paul Poulos, a disco spinner in Atlanta, said that "Since I Fell For You" was doing well, but because of its brevity (three minutes, 10 seconds) he had two copies of the record and was playing them back-to-back.
Taking the cue, Smith went into the studio and "mixed" a 10 1/2-minute version of the record on a special 12-inch disco disc. He then decided to test it on radio station WBLS in New York. After two weeks of play on WBLS alone, the new 12-inch had sold 5,000 copies.
With that response, London Records began promoting the 12-inch with the major record stores across the country. Over the weekend of July 4 Smith sent the new disco version of "Since I Fell For You" back out to his deejay pools and waited for the response. By the middle of July the song had climbed to number 18 on the national disco charts.
In Dallas at the Old Plantation disco, spinner Howard Metz reported a slow takeoff, but a great curiosity in the song itself.
"I had a lot of people asking about that song and where they could get it," said Metz. "That's when you know a song is hot - when the dancers start asking questions."
A.J. Miller, who spins at 836 North in Los Angeles, reported that the song had great popularity there too, though not as great as in the East. At New York's Harrah disco, Larry Sanders, who sometimes earns an ovation as a spinner, said the song has been number one in his disco for two weeks in a row.
The success of the record was enough to lead Smith to think that it might still make it in the r'n'b market as a 45 rpm. When the song reached number 12 on the disco charts, London Records entered the r'n'b market by "crossing the song over" - a term used to describe the promotional efforts of a record company trying to take a song from one market to another.
London Records then sent out promotional 7-inch 45s to 215 r'n'b stations. Smith felt that if he could get the record into the r'n'b top 40, he could cross it over again - this time into the lucrative pop and middle-of-the-road (MOR) markets.
"We were really pleased with the way the song was moving," said Smith, who noted that if a song "crosses over," it usually takes a least eight weeks. "We knew that we had a solid hit record."
To help, London began a $5,000 promotional tour for Hodges, James, and Smith. The trio visited popular discos and radio stations on the East coast meeting deejays and fans of their hot single.
During the second week of August "Since I Fell For You" was high on the r 'n' charts. In Louisville, it reached number one on station WSTM. On Philadelphia's WCAU, the song, though not in the top 10, had reached a position of "regular rotation." When it reached number 32 with a bullet on the Record World chart, London decided to try the pop and MOR markets. On Aug. 8, Smith sent the 7-inch 45 to pop and MOR stations.
By mid-August the song reached 97 on Billboard's top 100.
Total sales of Hodges, James, and Smith (including 7-inch, 12-inch and LP) have reached 350,000. In addition, the trio has received a regular booking on this fall's Richard Pryor Show.
Many of the disco and radio deejays believe that Hodges, James, and Smith still have a way to go before achieving superstardom. At Washington's WOR, "Since I Fell For You" has peaked out. In the words of Michael Lee, a San Francisco spinner, "their follow-up song will be the most important one."
But for Billy Smith the last hurdle is near.
"Now we have to build from 100 to the top 40 on the top charts," Smith said from his New York office. "Once we get into the top 40, my job is done. If all goes well, by the end of September, early October, we'll have a big record on our hands."