If you were an unknown rhythm & blues artist in the mid-'70s, the message was clear: If you wanted a record contract, you had to play disco. Thus the most talented artists of that generation first made their mark as disco artists, even if their true interests lay elsewhere. Now that the disco hegemony has been shattered, these artists are moving into more flexible musical forms. Singer Donna Summer has become a first-class rock-gospel singer. Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band moved towards swing jazz, while co-leader August Darnell formed the calypso-theatrical Kid Creole & the Coconuts. Sylvester switched from his disco falsetto to an old-fashioned soul baritone.
Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards coproduced an album by New Wave singer Debbie Harry and now a rugged guitar-dominated album by Chic. Sandy Linzer, who produced the first Dr. Buzzard album, has now written and produced the second T.S. Monk album, a delightful pop-funk collection. Harry Casey and Richard Finch have slanted their new K.C. & the Sunshine Band album toward mainstream soul. All these records prove that even a genre as limited as disco will inevitably produce true artists.
After their glitter-rock and jazz-rock demos failed to land a contract, Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards finally scored with their disco band, Chic. Chic's fifth album, "Take it Off" (Atlantic, SD 19323), takes off the disco facade and reveals their rock roots. The famous Chic strings have vanished; in their place are punchy soul horns. Rodgers' guitar and Edwards' bass are so prominent in the mix that it often seems the vocals are accompanying the instruments. Yet the sparkling instrumental solos never take off on a Stanley Clarke or Al DiMeola ego trip; Chic's solos always stay inside the contagious dance beat. "Take it Off" combines imaginative playing and a sure groove better than any album since the heyday of Booker T. & the M.G.s.
Nile Rodgers turns in one of the hottest guitar solos in recent memory on "So Fine." He builds choppy chords and sharp, single note runs into an impatient momentum. Yet he is disciplined enough to improve on the beat. Bernard Edwards does the same on his showy bass solo for "Burn Hard." Longtime Chic keyboardist Ray Jones and Rob Sabino bring the same imagination and discipline to their synthesizer solos.
Just the same, Rodgers and Edwards -- who composed, arranged and produced all 10 songs -- haven't abandoned their innovative rhythm tracks. With the guitar playing syncopated eighth notes steadily, the bass and drum exaggerate the pause-and-rush syncopation. Thus every track is irresistibly danceable. The lyrics are still slight, but the melodies are always hummable. "Stage Fright" and "Would You Be My Baby" have anthemic chant melodies that rank with past Rodgers & Edwards compositions as "We Are Family" and "Upside Down." "Just Out of Reach" is an effective romantic duet ballad with a yelping sax solo by Lenny Pickett.
T.S. Monk is a vocal trio named after Thelonious Sphere Monk Jr., the son of the legendary jazz pianist. The trio is completed by Boo Monk Jr.'s sister and Yvonne Fletcher, Junior's former partner in Natural Essence. Yet the two T.S. Monk albums bear little trace of the Monk family's illustrious jazz background, but are dominated instead by the pop-funk of Sandy Linzer. Linzer produced and coauthored all seven cuts on the latest T.S. Monk album: "More of the Good Life" (Mirage, WTG 19324). The resulting songs are not very original, but are rather very likable imitations of good funk. Every song has a strong dance beat, a convincing momentum, a jingly melody and sweet vocal harmonies.
The album's catchiest song, "Too Much Too Soon," written by Linzer and Four Tops producer David Wolfert, sounds like an early Chic anthem. The strings are arranged like horns, and the three voices chase each other across the catchy, chanted melody. "Falling in Love With You" and "First Lady of Love" pit the soaring falsettos against the anchoring tenor much like Earth, Wind & Fire's vocal arrangements. A full horn section pushes the vocals insistently on "Everybody Get On Up and Dance," much like a Con Funk Shun song. "More Love" contrasts the torch ballad vocal by Boo Monk on the verses with the Funky Ensemble singing on the choruses.
K.C. & the Sunshine Band's first album for a major label is "The Painter" (Epic F E 37490), yet it was made with the same Miami musicians, singers and studio personnel that made the Band's disco hits for T.K. Records. Producers Harry (K.C.) Casey and Richard Finch have abandoned the four-beat electronic percussion of disco for the offbeat snare drum accents of '60s soul. The duo dives back into its original roots with an infectious glee. Casey gets a chance to prove how well he can really sing and comes through with a warm tenor on Van McCoy's "Baby I'm Yours" and a giddy falsetto on his own "Love Me." Their disco experience shows up in the shimmering electronic accents and staccato string arrangements they give to the soul songs. This album is a welcome comeback after Casey's embarrassing solo album "Space Cadet."
Though it has been drastically reduced, a disco scene is still active here and abroad. The big hit on the disco charts last fall was "Walking into Sunshine," a 12-inch single by Central Line. Now that song and six others are on "Central Line" (Mercury, SRM-1-4033). This London quartet has filtered American funk through the British dance scene. As a result, the beat is carried by electronic percussion and the melodies are spiced by snythesizer surges. Reflecting the Eurodisco and techno-rock infatuation with studio gimmickry, producer Roy Carter (of Heat Wave) washes every song in synthesizer treatments. Like so much disco, this works on the hit single but soon grows tiresome over a full album.