Sunday, February 1, 2009

A Wild Cherry Flavoured Funk-Disco Anthem

Every era of popular music produces its own signature songs, and memorable lyrics, that in subsequent years remain strongly associated with the period of their origin. The lyric “Play that funky music, white boy” will forever conjure up the mid to late 70s, when the disco tsunami was about to wash over popular music, particularly in the U.S., and may also bring the taste of Wild Cherry to the tip of the tongue.

In 1970 singer/guitarist Rob Parissi put together his first band in the town of Steubenville, Ohio, just up river from his original home town of Mingo Junction (of no particular relevance to Ringo Starr). The band’s first line-up featured Parissi, guitarist Louie Osso, drummer Ben DiFabbio, bassist Larry Brown, and keyboardist Larry Mader. The quintet were all influenced by the music they grew up with, a lot of the 60s guitar driven pop-rock groups including The Yardbirds, and some of the more contemporary soul-funk outfits such as Sly & The Family Stone. They began rehearsing in earnest with a view to playing some live shows, when Rob Parissi was landed in hospital with suspected ulcers. The test procedures involved having tubes put down his throat, and upon discharge Parissi was sporting a very sore throat. The band had already lined up their first gig together, and were at a rehearsal when the issue of coming up with a name for the band arose. Parissi was of the view that it wasn’t the name that made the band, but “the band made the name”. To illustrate his reasoning, he pointed at a box of ‘Wild Cherry’ cough drops which he had on hand to treat his sore throat. Parissi’s point being that the band could name themselves after anything, even a box of cough drops, and if they were good enough they’d still make it. The rest of the band developed an instant liking for Parissi’s off the cuff suggestion - for them, Wild Cherry was going to be the name of the band, but Rob Parissi wasn’t so sold on the idea initially, and threw a number of other suggestions into the hat. In an effort to woo Parissi around to the name Wild Cherry, at their first gig, the other members of the band organised for girls in the audience to approach Parissi during breaks in the set, and wax lyrical to him about how much they loved the name Wild Cherry. Parissi eventually relented and so Wild Cherry the band came to be (I’m wondering if the other band members would have been so keen had Parissi pointed to a box of butter menthols?).

Over the next few months, Parissi and Wild Cherry started playing regular gigs in and around Ohio Valley, West Virginia, and Pittsburgh, and at that stage they were almost exclusively a straight up rock outfit. They recorded a handful of self funded demos over the course of 1971, including ‘Something Special On Your Mind’, and eventually came to the attention of Grand Funk Railroad producer/manager Terry Knight, via Knight’s association with Ken Hamman, owner/engineer of Cleveland Recording studios (where Wild Cherry had recorded some other demo tracks). Knight signed Wild Cherry to his Brown Bag label. During 1973 Wild Cherry released a couple of singles, ‘Get Down’ and ‘Show Me Your Badge’, neither of which attracted any attention, and it was during this period they experienced several personnel changes, including the recruitment of Parissi’s cousin Coogie Stoddart on guitar. By 1975, the original flavour of Wild Cherry had reached a crossroads, and somewhat of a crisis point. Essentially the other members of the band staged a coup of sorts against Rob Parissi, going so far as to organise a break away band, with the notion of recruiting Parissi as effectively a hired gun. Parissi was having none of it. Wild Cherry was his band, and being relegated from the band’s creative driving force to the status of hired gun was not an option. He quit the band altogether, and went further by opting out of the music business for a time. The remaining members breakaway band folded within a month.

Somewhat disillusioned by the experience, Parissi took the opportunity to try his hand at an entirely different enterprise. Some friends of his had a food business and Parissi poured his energies into a new career. But he was a musician at heart, and after a three month hiatus, he resolved to assemble a new Wild Cherry line-up and give it another shot. Over the course of late ‘75, early ‘76, Rob Parissi had noticed the radical shift in popular music, as the entire industry began to be shaken up by the explosion of disco, and grass roots movements like punk and new wave injected new life, and new hope, for previously struggling musicians the world over. He was inspired to establish his band in this brave new world of music, but the previous flavour of Wild Cherry would need to be reformulated to appeal to a changing musical palette. Parissi recruited a new roster of players, including Bryan Bassett (guitar), Allen Wentz (bass), and Ron Beitie (drums). Initially the new recipe Wild Cherry stuck to the old rock formula, but with disco dominating the minds of the music conscious public, the band began hearing catch cries of “play that funky music” emanating from patrons during live performances at, admittedly, disco venues like the ‘2001’ in Pittsburgh. The harder Wild Cherry tried to rock, the louder the calls for “funky music” came. Backstage one night, a frustrated Parissi asked the rest of the band what they could do to appease the audiences. Drummer Ron Beitie suggested they give the audience what they want, and remarked “play that funky music, white boy”. The phrase struck Parissi like lightning, and he grabbed a bar order pad and immediately jotted it down, along with an order for two Jack Daniels and a Manhattan (well maybe not the drinks). Soon after Parissi had penned a song that took elements of the band’s guitar rock roots, and infused them with an unmistakably disco-funk drive.

Rob Parissi had made the very astute, and very conscious decision to adapt Wild Cherry to the disco-funk formula, and soon the band entered a local studio to lay down a cover of the Commodores’ ‘I Feel Sanctified’, which Parissi was confident would be a breakthrough hit for the band. His new song, inspired by audience chants, ‘Play That Funky Music’, was originally intended by Parissi as the B-side. Carl Meduri, who was the co-owner of local record label Sweet City Records, preferred ‘Play That Funky Music’ to the Commodores’ cover, and pushed the song to Epic, who immediately heard the potential for a major hit, and signed Wild Cherry to a deal. The irresistible funk-rock anthem ‘Play That Funky Music’ was released as Wild Cherry’s first single release for Epic, and the timing couldn’t have been better. ‘Saturday Night Fever’ was riding high in the charts and Wild Cherry were about to catch a ride on the crest of the disco wave. Produced by Parissi, and recorded at the same Cleveland Recording studios they’d demoed at years before, ‘Play That Funky Music’ was released in mid ‘76 and made its chart debut soon after. By September ‘76 it had ascended to the #1 spot on the U.S. Hot 100 chart, following in the chart topping wake of the Bee Gees’ ‘You Should Be Dancing’ and KC & The Sunshine Band’s ‘(Shake, Shake, Shake) Shake Your Booty’, and spending three weeks at the summit. ‘Play That Funky Music’ rocketed to #5 in Australia, and even the more disco resistant British market pushed the dance-funk classic to #7. In an interview with Billboard at the time, Parissi attempted to explain Wild Cherry’s approach to music by defining them as “an electric funk people’s band”, who were looking to add a bit of rock weight to the disco-funk genre. ‘Play That Funky Music’ certainly achieved that, and became only the third single to be certified platinum by the R.I.A.A., following Johnnie Taylor’s ‘Disco Lady’ and the Manhattans’ ‘Kiss and Say Goodbye’. The song was replaced at #1 in the U.S. by another ‘Saturday Night Fever’ hit ‘A Fifth Of Beethoven’ by Walter Murphy & The Big Apple Band, which in turn gave way to ‘Disco Duck (Part 1)’ by Rick Dees & His Cast Of Idiots (see future post), clearly demonstrating disco’s definitive dominance at the time.

On the back of the phenomenal popularity of ‘Play That Funky Music’, Wild Cherry’s eponymous debut album racked up platinum sales (US#5/OZ#14), and the band received a swag of awards, including Billboard’s ‘Best Pop Group of the Year’, an American Music Award for ‘Top R&B Single’, and two Grammy nominations for ‘Best New Vocal Group’ and ‘Best R&B Performance Group or Duo’. Even more astounding, was the fact that Rob Parissi produced Wild Cherry’s debut album for a bargain basement budget of under $15,000 - which for the time was quite remarkable by industry standards, but for some reason that fact flew under the radar of industry/media scribes (unlike the hype surrounding the low production cost on The Knack’s 1979 set). It’s also worth noting that the cover art for Wild Cherry’s debut set became one of the iconic album covers of the era, and inspired the cover art for the Epic label’s dance records for several years hence.

Wild Cherry were in high demand as a live act from the moment ‘Play That Funky Music’ broke, and their touring schedule was relentless. In between travel and shows, Rob Parissi did his utmost to direct the business of organising the follow up singles, and had indeed made his wishes quite clear to Sweet City Records that the album cuts ‘I Feel Sanctified’ and ‘Hold On’ should be the follow up singles to ‘Play That Funky Music’. But as so often happens, the record label’s strategy contradicted the artist’s vision. In the midst of a tour in support of Average White Band, Rob Parissi received a visit from the co-owner of Sweet City Records, Carl Maduri. Maduri expressed the view that neither he, nor Epic Records believed that any of the other album tracks were worth releasing as a single - in short they just wouldn’t rise to the level of success that ‘Play That Funky Music’ had achieved. What Maduri proposed as an alternative would begin the slow but steady derailing of Wild Cherry from what had been, to that point, a runaway train of success.

Parissi reluctantly agreed to the proposal that he take Wild Cherry back into the studio, and record a second album asap. Had the label complied with Parissi’s initial request to release the two follow up singles, as Parissi recalls, it would have afforded him “time to get off the road, and have a clear head to write songs for, and record a second album”. As it panned out, Wild Cherry returned to the studio amidst a flurry of activity, with the task of attempting to capture lighting in a bottle - for a second time. As if that notion wasn’t daunting enough under the best of circumstances, Parissi had the Herculean task of pretty much writing and recording the album “on the fly”, as he put it. Parissi had recruited ex-Bluestone keyboardist Mark Avsec to the band (Avsec had played on a few tracks on the debut set), but even the expanded Wild Cherry line-up faced an uphill battle. In early ‘77 ‘Baby Don’t You Know’ (US#43) gave the first indication that the challenge was going to be beyond Wild Cherry. It was the lead out single from their sophomore album, titled ‘Electrified Funk’ (US#51/OZ#51), which fell well short of expectations (much to the chagrin of Parissi). It spawned two more minor hits in ‘Hot To Trot’ (US#95) and ‘Hold On’ (US#61/OZ#98), which was a re-recorded version of a first album ballad. The re-recording of ‘Hold On’ was somewhat ironic, as it came at the behest of Carl Maduri, who had felt the song in its original incarnation wasn’t strong enough to be a Wild Cherry single - one of the very same follow up single’s Parissi had pushed for to be released post ‘Play That Funky Music’. Parissi only agreed to re-record ‘Hold On’ and release it as a single, with the addition of a string arrangement - something he had argued for when the track was originally recorded, but was denied by Sweet City’s, let’s say, tight fiscal policy.

By the time Wild Cherry harvested their third album, ‘I Love My Music’ (which featured a scantily clad woman with a tattoo of the band’s name on her derriere), the band was beginning to lose a definitive sense of direction and cohesion. As Rob Parissi stated, the album was “a desperate attempt to play catch up”. There was also a fracturing within the band’s ranks as to which direction they should be headed, musically and stylistically, and what approach should be adopted to achieve those ends. Parissi summed up the mood at the time in one word - “panic”. Despite its eye catching front cover, the music contained between the covers of ‘I Love My Music’ didn’t engender much love from the public, as both album (US#84), and title track single (US#69), failed to revive Wild Cherry’s rapidly flagging fortunes. To their credit though, Parissi and the band were exploring other styles of music, such as the Motown influenced ‘1 2 3 Kind Of Love’, and a couple of Holland-Dozier-Holland covers, in an effort to rediscover a formula that worked.

Ex-Jaggerz member Donnie Iris came on board for the band’s swansong album, ‘Only The Wild Survive’, released in 1979. Parissi chose the title to reflect his growing frustration with the record company. Such was the breakdown in relationship between artist and label, that Parissi point blank refused to act as producer on the set. He did however agree with Sweet City Records to enlist the services of famed Muscle Shoals producer Rick Hall. By all accounts the resulting material was decent enough, but it didn’t feature another ‘Play That Funky Music’, which to be fair, was arguably the only thing that was going to sweeten the public’s appetite once more for Wild Cherry. In a sea of acrimony, Rob Parissi was pushed to the point of boarding the good ship litigation, in an effort to break free of his contract with Sweet City. With the release of ‘Only The Wild Survive’, he had fulfilled his contractual obligation to record and release a fourth Wild Cherry album. Soon thereafter, Parissi “pulled the plug” on the band. Donnie Iris and Mark Avsec went on to work together in the group The Cruisers, Bryan Bassett became a long term member of rock stalwarts Foghat (see future post), but for Rob Parissi the period post-Wild Cherry would throw up some considerable challenges.

During the 80s, Rob Parissi turned to life behind a microphone (of a different sort), as a radio disc jockey. As he explained it, the move into radio was “out of necessity to make a living because of a 10 year litigation with Sweet City records”, that ultimately wasn’t resolved until 1990. The seeds for that legal dispute had been sewn way back in 1976. Essentially, something called a ‘cross collateral clause’ had been buried somewhere inside the contract which Parissi initially signed with the label. The upshot of which meant that, as Rob Parissi explained it, “any monies that were due them (Sweet City) to recoup recording costs, management fees, commissions, promotions (for Wild Cherry) could be taken from anywhere that revenue was generated”. The result was that Sweet City records held on to any/all royalties that would have been due Rob Parissi, in his capacity as the owner of Wild Cherry, the co-publisher, and writer of their music. Sadly, Wild Cherry’s costs overall exceeded their income, as their debut album was the only one that made it into the black. It left Parissi, as he put it, “suffering the brunt of all Wild Cherry’s debt”.

But thankfully, ‘Play That Funky Music’ would prove once more to be a salvation to Rob Parissi, though perhaps not in a manner that he expected. The song returned to the U.S. top 10 (#4) in early ‘91 for rap-tragic Vanilla Ice, who failed to acknowledge Rob Parissi with a writers credit. Parissi duly took action for flagrant copyright infringement, and received an appropriately large cut of the performance royalties from ASCAP. The unexpected windfall afforded Rob Parissi the means with which to up the litigation ante, and finally achieve a favourable resolution. More than thirty years after taking Wild Cherry to the top of world charts, Rob Parissi can justifiably take pride in his band Wild Cherry’s work, and he holds the honour of writing and recording one of the most enduring dance-funk songs of all time, ‘Play That Funky Music’.

A special word of thanks to Rob Parissi for his generous and invaluable assistance in providing some unique facts and insights regarding his career and the story of Wild Cherry.

4 comments:

Rob Parissi said...
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A. FlockOfSeagulls said...
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Rob Parissi said...
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A. FlockOfSeagulls said...
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