Friday, February 6, 2009

A V.I.P. Invite To The Best Disco In Town

Just about every era, and every genre, of popular music has come to be represented by one (or several) signature tracks, songs that immediately bring to mind the time and style of music, encapsulating an almost singular definition of both. Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ instantly conjures up the early 90s grunge movement, the Sex Pistol’s ‘Anarchy In The U.K.’, does likewise for the mid 70s punk explosion, and Four Tops’ ‘Baby I Need Your Loving’ screams the 60s ‘Motown sound’. Love it or hate it (and for the most part I loved it), disco too came to be represented by a handful of stand out songs - think Chic’s ‘Le Freak’, or the Trammps ‘Disco Inferno’ (see earlier posts), to name just a couple. During the second half of 1976, the touch powder had well and truly been lit on the disco movement, and the Ritchie Family’s celebratory ‘disco anthem’, ‘The Best Disco In Town’, was among the first of many disco numbers to explode on the music charts.

Though arguably the best known offering from Philadelphia based group The Ritchie Family, ‘The Best Disco In Town’ wasn’t their biggest hit, at least not Stateside. The Ritchie Family were the brainchild of Jacques Morali, the man behind the Village People phenomenon, which I guess makes The Ritchie Family and Village People siblings. In contrast the original quartet of female vocalists weren’t related, but Cheryl Jacks, Cassandra Wooten, Gwen Oliver, and Nadine Felder had worked together under the name Honey & The Bees. After the departure of Felder, the remaining trio took the name The Ritchie Family in deference to their producer Ritchie Rome. The trio were essentially a studio based project, designed and constructed with one purpose in mind - to fill dance floors with their music, and of course sell a gazillion records in the process.

The Ritchie Family’s debut single ‘Brazil’, was a disco-fied reworking of a 1943 US#2 hit for Xavier Cugat. ‘Brazil’ hit the U.S. charts during August of ‘75, and though it did indeed become a staple on the dance floors, The Ritchie Family had to make do with a peak position at the doorstep of the American top ten (#11/UK#43/OZ#65). An album of the same name was also released (US#53), which was produced by Jacques Morali, but arranged by Ritchie Rome, was released on RCA soon after. The stand alone single ‘I Want To Dance With You (Dance With Me)’ flirted with the lower reaches of the U.S. charts (#84) at the end of ‘75.

Morali and Rome shared production duties for The Ritchie Family’s next single ‘The Best Disco In Town’. Released in mid ‘76, the song was essentially a medley of recent disco style hits (a pre-cursor to projects like Stars On 45 - see future post), linked by an original chorus. The songs featured in the medley for ‘The Best Disco In Town’ included; ‘Reach Out, I’ll Be There’ (Gloria Gaynor), ‘I Love Music’ (O’Jays), ‘Bad Luck’ (Harold Melvin & The Bluenotes), ‘T.S.O.P.’ (M.F.S.B. Ft. Three Degrees), ‘Fly Robin Fly’ (Silver Convention), ‘Brazil’ (The Ritchie Family’s very own), ‘Love To Love You Baby’ (Donna Summer), ‘That’s The Way’ (KC & The Sunshine Band), ‘Lady Bump’ (Penny McLean), ‘The Express’ (B.T. Express), and ‘Lady Marmalade (LaBelle) - I’ll cover some of those artists in future Retro Universe posts. ‘The Best Disco In Town’ became an overnight anthem for the entire disco/dance scene, and was soon shaking its booty inside the U.S. top 20 (#17), U.K. top 10 (#10), and in late ‘76 jumped and jived its way all the way to #3 on the Australian charts. The song formed the centre piece for The Ritchie Family’s second alum ‘Arabian Nights’ (OZ#3/US#30), the balance of which featured a Middle Eastern themed mix of dance tracks.

Just as ‘The Best Disco In Town’ closed for business on the charts, The Ritchie Family released their next single ‘Life Is Music’ (OZ#55), lifted from the album of the same name (OZ#23/ US#100) in early ‘77. Not unlike producer Alex Costandinos’ studio project Love And Kisses (see Dec. post), The Ritchie Family’s albums generally comprised only a handful of tracks, generally clocking in at between five and ten minutes in length, and following a general theme, I guess in the conceptual vein of things. For the ‘Life In Music’ album, the theme or concept was centred around the 1930s, with the cover art reflecting that era. Before 1977 was done and dusted The Ritchie Family released yet another album, titled ‘African Queens’ (OZ#66/US#164). The first album side (we’re talking vinyl LPs here) comprised the medley title track, but the single ‘Quiet Village’ kept its silence in terms of chart action. With each subsequent album The Ritchie Family continued a steady slide downwards from the lofty heights achieved by ‘The Best Disco In Town’.

1978 saw a complete overhaul of The Ritchie Family’s line-up, with three new vocalists assuming the moniker. Jacquie Smith-Lee, Theodosia ‘Dodie’ Draher, and Ednah Holt worked with Jacques Morali (Ritchie Rome having opted for a different road) on the album ‘American Generation’ (OZ#78/US#148). The new trio donned rather revealing sporting attire for the album cover, whilst between the covers, the music remained the flavour of the month… well flavour of the year really, disco. The title track did provide The Ritchie Family with their last foray inside a major charts top 50 (UK#49), but despite the image change, the group were proving to be one dimensional in terms of their music. The follow up album ‘Bad Reputation’ (OZ#76) surfaced before the end of ‘79, but quickly sunk again, despite a good reception on the dance floor for the track ‘Put Your Feet To The Beat’. Whilst Morali’s other project, the Village People, were still attracting an audience, The Ritchie Family continued to wane in popularity. Vera Brown replaced Ednah Holt for the trio’s next set ‘Give Me A Break’, released in 1980. The title track scraped into the Australian top 100 (#91) mid year, and featured in the film ‘Can’t Stop The Music’, along with The Ritchie Family , but disco had by then well and truly reached its use by date, and the trio’s days were numbered.

Producer Jacques Morali departed the scene (he later died of AIDS in 1991), but The Ritchie Family continued for a two more albums ‘I’ll Do My Best’ (1982), and ‘All Night All Right’ (1983), both with the production team of Jacques Fred Petrus and Mauro Malavasi. Neither album managed to turn The Ritchie Family’s fortunes around, and by 1984 the final split in the family occurred. Vera Brown fronted Linda James and Jacqui Smith-Lee for a one off single ‘Too Much Too Fast’, but it proved to be a swansong for the combo. Some years later Brown, Draher and Smith-Lee revived The Ritchie Family name for live performances, but no more original material was recorded. The Ritchie Family were of their time, of their era, and of the disco world - which they not only inhabited, but helped to define.

No comments: