Sunday, September 21, 2008

A Former School Teacher Rings The Bell At #1

Undoubtedly one of the best known ‘one hit wonders’ in pop music history is vocalist Anita Ward, who scored an international #1 hit during 1979 with the disco classic ‘Ring My Bell’. But there’s more to the Anita Ward story than one memorable song.

Anita Ward grew up in a musical family, with both her parents amateur singers and her older brother a keen singer/drummer. But it was when she started attending Rust College that she took her interest in music to a more professional level. She joined the Rust College A Cappella Choir, and honed her talent on gospel and classically based material. A college administrator called Chuck Holmes heard Ward audition for a production of ‘Godspell’ and offered to manage her as a singer. Soon after Holmes arranged a recording session with Juana Records, and Anita Ward’s first single was a little known song called ‘Spoiled By Your Love’ (later included on her album). Nothing much seemed to be happening with that song, and it was while waiting to record some more material that Anita Ward put her recently acquired college degree in psychology to good use. For a period of time she worked professionally as a substitute teacher in the Memphis elementary school system to pay the bills.

But soon after Ward was introduced to singer/songwriter turned producer Frederick Knight, who owned the Juana Records label. Knight had in fact scored a top forty hit himself back in 1972 with the song ‘I’ve Been Lonely For So Long’ (US#27) but that would be nothing compared to the monster hit he would go on to pen and produce for Ward. Initially Knight signed on to produce a three song demo session for Anita Ward, but soon the singer’s extraordinary vocal talent prompted Knight to extend the recording sessions into a full album project.

At the end of the sessions Knight and Ward agreed they needed one more song to round out the proposed album. Knight had previously written a song called ‘Ring My Bell’, originally intended for teenybopper singer Stacy Lattisaw (who would go on to have several 80s hits including ‘Let Me Be Your Angel’). The song’s original lyrics focused on teens gossiping away on the phone, so Knight duly gave the song a lyrical overhaul, and decided in the process to give it the full disco treatment. Ward was reportedly less than keen on the song but agreed to record it. It took just two days, with Knight himself playing most of the instrumental accompaniment, including the use of a synthesized drum, for one of the first times on a major hit record. The additional synthesizer work of Carl Marsh also became a signature feature of the track, and was much duplicated on future disco/dance tracks for other artists.

Through a connection with Knight’s Juana Records, the Miami based T.K. Disco label jumped at the song and offered to distribute Ward’s debut album ‘Songs Of Love’ as well. ‘Ring My Bell’ was released in the U.S. in May 1979 and debuted almost immediately on the Hot 100. By July the song was ringing the bell at #1, staying there for two weeks. Such was ‘Ring My Bell’s appeal to the disco market, it debuted in both Britain and Australia within a few weeks of its American debut, and in fact reached #1 in Britain two weeks before it topped the U.S. charts, again spending two weeks at the summit. ‘Ring My Bell’ didn’t quite reach #1 in Australia (#3), but was only stopped by the likes of Racey (see future post). To give some idea of just how big the disco craze was at that time, during the weeks that ‘Ring My Bell’ sat atop the U.S. charts, the top five also featured Donna Summer’s ‘Bad Girls’ and ‘Hot Stuff’ as well as ‘We Are Family’ by Sister Sledge. ‘Bad Girls’ eventually supplanted ‘Ring My Bell’ at #1. A 12” remix of the song by Richie Rivera also added to the song’s immense popularity at the time. On the strength of the single, Ward’s album ‘Songs Of Love’ peaked at #8 in the U.S. (OZ#73).

Anita Ward wasn’t a fan of disco per se, preferring ballad and mid tempo R&B, and on the whole the balance of her album’s material reflected that. So when it came time to find a follow up for the disco smash ‘Ring My Bell’ the cupboard was pretty bare. The follow up single ended up being ‘Don’t Drop My Love’, but the song bombed (US#87). Anita Ward recorded a follow up album with Knight titled ‘Sweet Surrender’ which had included ‘Don’t Drop My Love’, but the album and a couple of subsequent single releases, ‘Llama A Mi Puerta’ and ‘Can’t Nobody Love Me Like You Do’, missed the charts completely, and soon Ward’s name was well and truly overtaken in the disco diva pecking order. But ‘Ring My Bell’ would ring loud again on the charts in Australia during 1989, for blonde bimbo singer Collette (OZ#3).

During 1981 Anita Ward received serious head injuries in a car crash, the ongoing effects of which have proved a factor in hampering any kind of major comeback at a music career. There was also a major falling out between Ward and writer/producer Knight, resulting in all sorts of legal action preventing Ward from releasing any new material in the States, that wasn’t recorded by Knight. Apparently Ward had recorded a third album with another producer but it only received a very limited release outside of the U.S. All in all, having read an interview conducted with Anita Ward from around 2000, it was a pretty unpleasant turn of events, that also badly handicapped any chance of a second phase to her recording career. The writer/producer of ‘Ring My Bell’ later recorded his own follow up to the song titled ‘Let Me Ring Your Bell Again’, but it fell on deaf ears.

In 1998 a ‘best of’ collection was released by Anita Ward, not surprisingly featuring ‘Ring My Bell’, with a remix of the song released in 2000. The song has also been sampled by numerous artists over the last 30 years, including the 1991 hit ‘Ring My Bell’ by Monie Love Vs. Adeva (OZ#29/UK#20), and DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince hit of the same name in 1991/2 (US#20/UK#53/OZ#45).

Anita Ward did in fact return to teaching for a time after her recording career lost momentum, but has performed/toured on occasions during the years since. On New Year’s Eve 2002 Anita Ward appeared at New York’s Times Square before an estimated audience of 750,000 people. She sang ‘Ring My Bell’ a cappella style as a prompt for 50,000 of the audience to simultaneously ring bells, setting a world record in the process. See what the power of just one song can achieve!


Johnny said...

You've got an entry for this one-hit-wonder and nothing for Donna Summer? Anita became a has-been immediately after Ring My Bell slipped off the charts, she was a forgettable singer with modest talent. Ring My Bell was a hit because it was well-produced, they wouldn't have had any trouble finding some other nobody to sing the song as well or better. Anita hardly earns the title "diva" for one hit, and when there were true divas like Donna in comparison.

A. FlockOfSeagulls AKA Rhys Jones said...

Thanks for your comment Johnny. You'll find a lot of the artists I've written about on this blog are the lesser known ones. That's been a deliberate intent on my part to research and write about artists that people might not know much about. The title 'diva' is a subjective term, and do I really care if someone else agrees or disagrees with my personal assessment - no - we are all entitled to our opinion. Having said that, you are spot on in saying that the immensely talented Donna Summer is in another league. One day, when I have the time, I'll probably write an entry (or even two) about her as well - not to mention 300-400 other artists. If you'd rather not wait for me to do the work in researching and writing about Donna Summer, you can always do it yourself.