Disco is back in town! DJ Joey Carvello returns to Boston and the compilation Boston Goes Disco! is released.
By Noah Schaffer
Forty years down the road and the once-maligned disco era looks pretty good. The period’s cultural revolution of all-night parties paved the way for today’s dance music DJs. And contemporary crate diggers justly treasure the sounds that came out of the final golden era of vinyl. Boston held its own as a disco town, thanks in no small part to the national influence that Kiss 108 held in the dance music world.
Over the next two weeks that era will be celebrated at two events taking place at the Middle East complex in Central Square, Cambridge. Saturday, September 22 finds former Kiss 108 and Kenmore Club resident DJ Joey Carvello returning to his old stomping grounds as part of the weekly Soulelujah party inside the Middle East Upstairs and Zuzu. (It will be one of the final Soulelujah parties in Central Square. in October, the night is moving to The Sinclair in Harvard Square after 15 years at the Middle East.)
Around the corner at Sonia, local DJ Serge Gamesbourg will be celebrating the release of his new compilation Boston Goes Disco! on September 28. The comp has already garnered international press notice for its collection of super rare small label disco, boogie, and modern soul, tunes recorded in and around Boston during the late ’70s and early ’80s. Besides a DJ set, the night will include live performances from two of the artists on the collection, Cojo and the Christopher Michael Band.
Joey Carvello checked in to answer e-mail questions from his New York home where he still spins weekly as part of the Mobile Mondays 45 party. Gamesbourg also responded to e-mail queries.
Arts Fuse: You helped out Serge Gamesbourg when he was doing the research for this recording project. Do you remember any of the groups/records that were in the Boston Goes Disco comp? Or were they so obscure they wouldn’t have been eligible for airplay on a major station like Kiss 108?
Joey Carvello: Serge is one of those “30 /40 somethin” deejays with a huge record nerd need to constantly dig. He has to have “everything.” When he reached out to me about Boston Goes Disco! we chopped it up for a hour. It was evident that he has done his homework. The only help he needed from me was to give him a vibe as to how big the tracks he was looking at were in the clubs and if any got on the radio. I remembered The Carrie Mimms, Hypnotics, Larry Woo, and Second Wind tracks, but the rest are new to me. It’s always a thrill to hear old records for the first time, especially disco and soul dance 45s. I recall Kiss 108 gave the Second Wind “Free For All ” some looks and we definitely gave Larry Woo’s “No More Games” a bunch of looks because the Celtics were in the playoffs.
AF: People inevitably think of New York when they think of disco. How big was the Boston scene? Were there records that broke in Boston before going on to be national disco hits? When you come back and spin locally — whether it be at a North End Italian Feast like Saint Gennaro where you’re spinning Friday or a club gig such as Soulelujah — are there tracks you know you need to have ready that might not be as crucial in New York?
Carvello: Yes, and there are records that work in NY that don’t work nearly as well in Boston. For instance, the Five Specials The More I Get To know You, Ecstacy Passion and Pain’s Ask Me, and Jean Carn’s Free Love must be in my crate when I play Boston, but are not a must have for me when I play in and around NYC. On the other hand, Black Ivory’s “Mainline” and Tony Lee’s” Reach Up” are monsters here in NYC, but not a must play in Boston.
AF: I know besides your radio work you were constantly DJing around Boston. What were the hot spots? Was the scene centered around the Downtown/Kenmore nightlife area or was there an active suburban scene as well? The early disco scene was a place where black, Latino, and queer people could express themelves. Was that the case here? Do you agree with the growing historical consensus that the “disco sucks” movement had more than a tinge of racism and homophobia? On a related note, some are surprised that disco was nurtured and kept alive by the Italian-American community — any thoughts on that?
Carvello: I’ve written a book, The Boston Hustle, which is coming out next year that addresses the issues you have raised. Here’s the short answer: The disco movement in Boston was founded in the Back Bay / Fenway (LGBT), the Financial District (black), and Kenmore Square / Comm Ave (straight). The suburban areas were Revere, Cambridge, and Saugus. The main source of racism and homophobia towards disco mainly came from the source who profited the most: major label record companies. What that moron Steve Dahl did in Chicago [when he burned disco records] was a platform for the other morons who followed him. And ABSOLUTELY this is a fact: No guidos = No disco!
AF: I couldn’t discuss disco in Boston, and especially Kiss 108, without mentioning your former boss, Kiss 108 program director Sunny Joe White. What made him such an influential figure?
Carvello: Sunny was my dearest of dear friends. The most fun I have ever had in the music business was working for Sunny as his music director. I’m not sure I can say what made Sunny so unbelievably special. He was just Sunny. Between 1979 and 1986 (the years of radio station deregulation) Sunny Joe launched more careers and broke more acts and changed Top 40 radio as we knew it.
When he was at WILD in the mid-’70s he was the only program director of any station in Boston area who was going to clubs. He was going to straight and gay clubs looking for records. The only outlet for music was WILD, which was just a daytime-only AM station. And, in a racist town, Sunny could go to Charlestown, Southie, the South End, Cambridge — anywhere he went they knew him. When he came into Yesterday’s [in Kenmore Square] people would go crazy, and he drew on what he heard in those clubs to program WILD. In 1979 [Kiss 108 honcho] Richie Balsbaugh chose him to be the first black program director for a major market top 40 radio station. It was a disco station, but he had the vision to turn it into a top 40 station leaning towards dance music. It was genius and really was the birth of what crossover radio remains to this today.
Every label waited every Tuesday to see what Sunny Joe added to the playlist. And it wasn’t just American music — he was way ahead on British acts like Culture Club and the Thompson Twins, at a time that they were just import records. He broke songs like Denroy Morgan’s “I’ll Do Anything For You”and Junior’s “Mama Used to Say.” Not to mention his selection of on-air personalities like Billy Costa, Ed McMann, Jerry McKenna, Diana Steel, and Lisa Lips — he gave them their first shots and developed those talents. He was able to bring out the best in people without pressuring them.
Arts Fuse: Who were making these records that came out on labels like GrooveHall and Bean City? Were they homegrown musicians? Were they just getting their start as disco blew up?
Serge Gamesbourg: Some were homegrown but I’d say the majority came here for Berklee College of Music or came from other places [and settled here]. None of these acts started out with disco. Most played r&b, funk & soul, even some rock — disco was just a natural progression for them at the time these songs were created.
AF: People tend to think of disco as more of a recorded than live scene. Were these bands playing out a lot?
Gamesbourg: All of these acts, except ones that were studio projects only, played out quite a bit on the local scene here, some more than others. For instance, Gypsy and the Chris Rhodes Band were gigging 5-6 nights a week in Boston, Dreamflight played out a lot in their hometown of Worcester, and Herb Lee did a lotta “general business” gigs with Carrie Mims and their band — plus he owned his own venue, Herb Lee’s Players Club, where many groups performed. Larry Wu (Wedgeworth) used to sing with his old group The Ambitions at The Sugarshack and other places. Second Wind and Hypnotics played around Cambridge.
AF: Joey Carvello and his Kiss 108 colleagues like Sunny Joe White were big time players in the disco world. Did that trickle down to the small label disco scene in any way or were they in two different universes? Did any of the acts on your compliation score airplay at all?
Gamesbourg: Joey Carvello and Sunny Joe White were major players in the Boston disco scene for sure, but they were more in the mainstream disco world, which obviously had tons of great records as well. It’s safe to assume that almost all the bands on my compilation were totally under their radar at the time … John Luongo, another legendary Boston dj/remixer knew some of these, in particularly The Christopher Michael Band’s “You Make Me Happy,” because he knew the group and actually encouraged them to record something. When they did that 7” he thought it was real raw and cool, which it really is. Nothing more than college airplay.
AF: I understand at least one group is actually reuniting for the release party. Can you talk about how that came out? Was it hard to pull off? When you contacted these groups were they amazed that you had tracked them down? Are any of the members still active in the local music scene?
Gamesbourg: Yes, the Boston Goes Disco! record release party will actually feature two live performances by Cojo and The Christopher Michael Band. All of the groups on the compilation were pleasantly surprised that there was still interest in their music decades later and were impressed with my dedication and persistence in locating them to clear licensing. The bassist/singer/producer of Cojo, Joe Sumrell, is a good friend of mine now. He plays out and records quite a bit to this day; he said he’ll perform “Play It By Ear” at the release party. The Christopher Michael Band literally haven’t played together in almost 40 years. I’ve been in Mike Matarazzo’s (lead singer) ear the last few months about the group getting back together to perform at the release party, I guess they finally rehearsed and it went well. I’m beyond amped to hear all these guys perform live — it’s gonna be one for the books!
Over the past 15 years Noah Schaffer has written about otherwise unheralded musicians from the worlds of gospel, jazz, blues, Latin, African, reggae, Middle Eastern music, klezmer, polka and far beyond. He has won over ten awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association.