It’s been a good two decades now since American popular music had any sort of truly mass dance culture — one featuring reasonably widespread integration across race, generation, sexuality and class. There are plenty of reasons for that: The rise of identity politics; the deregulation of the radio industry; the semipopularity of punk and college rock; the very popular (because, in part, racist and homophobic) backlash against disco; the near elimination of regional scenes, labels and sounds; and the increasingly segregated programming that, not coincidentally, has accompanied these developments.
But there was a time when dancing was so broadly popular that every decent-size city had an R&B band (or six) that might crack regional playlists and inspire black and white listeners to crowd dance floors. During the late ’60s and early ’70s, when national acts such as James Brown, Sly Stone, the Temptations and the Average White Band were winning over fans, you could find local funk outfits, often integrated themselves, that were looking to ignite dance crazes with self-produced 45s on tiny hometown labels.
Most of these acts never made it out of the neighborhood, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t deserve better. The Funky 16 Corners rounds up nearly two dozen presumed-lost tracks from this earlier era. Today, obscure funk sides are more likely to become source material for DJs, but Stone’s Throw Records lets us hear it the way it really was in towns across America. In Indianapolis, the Highlighters goaded fans to do “The Funky 16 Corners” with a Diamonds-label single from 1969. In Syracuse, New York, the funky white boys of Bad Medicine released an innervating instrumental breakdown titled “Trespasser” in 1974 on the Enyx label. In Spartansburg, South Carolina, James Reese & the Progressions blew through a funked-up brand of Jimmy Smith-style jazz called “Jody’s Breeze.” In Houston, the Kashmir Senior High School Band self-released “Kashmir” in 1973, an intoxicating record that sounds like the Bar-Kays gone big band. If you dig it on the one, or if you just like to dance around a bit while fixing dinner, this 2001 anthology is nearly essential.
Philadelphia Classics, on the other hand, features nine dance-floor smashes that remain as known-by-heart today as the cuts on 16 Corners remain collector’s-item secrets. In 1977, as disco was about to go nationwide and Philadelphia International — the label that had done most of the spadework for that trend — was about to pass forever from Top 40 ubiquity, remixer extraordinaire Tom Moulton was commissioned to transform earlier hits by the O’Jays, the Three Degrees and others into sophisticated yet sweaty epics of club-land desire.
It didn’t hurt that Moulton was working with rock-solid originals. He built his 12-inch singles upon the already indelible arrangements of Thom Bell, Norman Harris or Bobby Martin; upon the lush soul production and “Love Is the Message” songs of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff; and upon the deep, relentless grooves of Philly’s Sigma Studios house band, MFSB, which featured that master of the unflagging disco high hat Earl Young. You can (hell, you must) track down the irresistible pop-radio version of these hits on Philly Super Soul Hits. But it was Moulton’s modifications — creating or expanding string parts, laying down solos on a variety of additional instruments, fashioning even denser and more propulsive rhythm tracks — that packed dance floors from Pogo’s to Studio 54.
What Moulton mostly did, though, was simply keep the party rolling — pushing dancers ever onward through lengthy, roller-coaster workouts of rise-fall-rise, build-release-and-build-again. A quarter century later, the dramatic results can still serve as make-out music, headphone music or music to wash dishes by, but they work best out on the floor. The eleven-minute saga of anguished, pleading heartbreak that Moulton makes of Teddy Pendergrass’ lead vocal on “Don’t Leave Me This Way” must not only be heard to be believed; it must be physically endured. Even Tom Moulton’s less-ambitious six-minute remix of the O’Jays’ “Love Train” wound up starting an East Coast conga line that just kept going and going, bound for strip-mall discos and junior-high roller-skating parties everywhere — until finally it seemed the whole world had climbed aboard.