Arts & Entertainment
6 min

Gay disco night at Bluesfest

Gloria Gaynor and pals take to the stage

'I Am What I Am'. Gloria Gaynor, famous for at least two key queer disco anthems will appear along with Kathy Sledge ("We Are Family") for gay night at Bluesfest Jul 16.

Fans of disco will be sure to blame it on the boogie Jul 16 at Bluesfest as three iconic acts — Gloria Gaynor, Sister Sledge and KC and the Sunshine Band — take the stage like it’s the 1970s all over again.

This Gay Day at Bluesfest will also feature a look-a-like contest, starting at 7:15 pm, inviting drag kings and queens to come dressed as either Ms. Gaynor or Mr Casey and lip synch their hearts out. The competition will culminate with the top two entries receiving backstage passes to meet the legends and perhaps tell them how the disco era impacted their lives.

Gay bars through the ’70s and early ’80s were filled with men dancing to disco, much of it written and created especially for them. Artists like Sylvester, Patrick Cowley and Paul Parker wrote disco hits, sometimes with clearly gay sexual lyrics, of 20 minutes duration. Meanwhile, the general population became enamoured of the Bee Gees and KC and the Sunshine Band. Their hits were also played in the gay bars.

By the early ’80s music inspired by gay dance clubs had entered the mainstream of Canadian and US music and gained significance in popular music. New-wave bands were played on the radio and turned many music fans on to the upbeat sound. Even though some of the artists had no connection to the queer community, many emerged from the gay disco scene and owe queers for their success and continued support.

The gay fundamentals of 1980s dance pop generally went unacknowledged by the straight masses, but queers, long accustomed to searching for subtexts relevant to their experiences and way of life, quickly understood where this music came from and for whom it was primarily created. Some, like the Bronski Beat and Erasure put out blatantly gay songs like “Smalltown Boy” and “Gimme Gimme Gimme A Man After Midnight.”

At its roots, all varieties of disco have something in common: fun dancing music.

“There’s a lot of happiness in that music,” says Harry (KC) Wayne Casey of KC and the Sunshine Band. “People want to be uplifted, that’s how this music has survived.”

KCs biggest hit is probably “Shake Shake Shake (Your Booty)” which became a fixture in gay clubs in the late ’70s and early ’80s, and was also adapted for a nestle Tollhouse cookie ad in 2000 as “Shake Shake Shake Your Cookie”. Their other successes include “I’m your Boogieman” and “That’s the Way I like It.”

Casey’s musical taste was heavily influenced by his mother’s record collection, which included Nat “King” Cole and the Flamingos.

“I gravitated more towards blues,” he recalls.

In his teens, Casey joined a band named Five Doors Down. Some went on to help form the Sunshine band.

“We were the local band in Florida,” says Casey. “There were five of us and the name came from the way we looked when we would stand all together — it went from tallest to shortest. We played local parks and I think we started playing for about $16 a night.” Soon, Casey had met future bandmate and collaborator Richard Finch.

For the band’s debut LP, Do It Good, bandmates Jerome Smith, Robert Johnson and Femin Goytisolo were added. The LP didn’t manage to stir up much notice in the US, but the very queer-friendly-sounding single “Queen of Clubs” became a Top 10 smash in Europe, prompting a 1975 tour.

For the tour, the band expanded to eight more musicians and singers.

“The 1975 tour was amazing and hectic,” reminisces Casey, “We did 48 cities in 24 days. We would do a show and pick up and fly to another city right after.”

It wasn’t until they released their self-titled album in 1975, which included “That’s The Way I like It” that the band hit it big stateside.

In 1976 the band won five Grammys, and thankfully for North American queers, reissued “Queen of Clubs.” And who can possibly forget the 11-million selling Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, which included KC and the Sunshine Band’s “Boogie Shoes.”

And then there’s the sister-formed group Sister Sledge. Formed in Philadelphia in 1971, siblings Debbie, Kim, Joni, and Kathy Sledge reached the height of their popularity during the disco era.

Sister Sledge’s first national hit came in 1974, when “Love, Don’t You Go Through No Changes on Me” reached number 31 on the R&B charts and the Philadelphians recorded their debut album, Circle of Love. Their second album, Together, was released in 1977 and contained the number 61 R&B hit “Blockbuster Boy.” But it was in 1979, when Chic leaders Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards produced We Are Family, that Sister Sledge exploded commercially. Of course, the title song from the album became a queer anthem. “He’s the Greatest Dancer” and “We Are Family” both soared to number one on the R&B charts.

In a 2005 interview with the Montreal Mirror, Kathy Sledge recalls how much she initially loved the song.

“You know, when I think of ‘We Are Family?’ I think of me, after we got the rough version of it — we had recorded it that day in the studio. I remember taking it to the hotel and playing it back and dancing to it in the mirror and saying, ‘I wonder if this song’s gonna fly, because I like this song,” said Sledge.

Sister Sledge’s next album, Love Somebody Today (1980), was also produced by the Rodgers/Edwards team, and the single “Got to Love Somebody” became a number six R&B hit.

After a record company change or two and declining sales, friction grew inside the band.

“The challenge of it is that we really are family, and like any family we will butt heads,” said Kathy Sledge in 2005. “We finally made the decision that we wanted to branch out and do our own things. It’s one reason why you don’t see us performing as much together. It’s not to say that we’re fighting all the time, but we have our differences and it’s a challenge to be a family group and stand for that song. It’s a lot to live up to.”

The Bluesfest lineup also features the singer of two of the largest gay anthems in disco history — “I Am What I Am” and “I Will Survive.” Born Gloria Fowles on Sep 7, 1949, in Newark, NJ, she first sang as part of the obscure R&B outfit the Soul Satisfiers before being discovered by MGM Records head honcho Mike Curb. Gaynor began issuing albums on a regular basis beginning in 1975 and with her 1976 release Never Can Say Goodbye, the singer became one of the first ever dance artists to issue an album aimed primarily for club use. There were no breaks between the songs with one track automatically segueing into the next, a method used to this day by DJs and some dance artists.

Although Gaynor enjoyed a few moderate hits, it wasn’t until the release of 1979’s aforementioned disco gem “I Will Survive” that Gaynor racked up her first true smash hit. Written by Freddie Perrenn and Dino Fekaris, the song was awarded in 1980 the first and only Grammy Award for Best Disco Recording. The category was discontinued upon disco’s fall from popular favour shortly afterward, and although Gaynor was unable to follow up “I Will Survive” with an equally sizeable hit (though gays took to “I Am What I Am” in 1983 with as much fervour as her most famous hit), the track subsequently took on a life of its own.

It is still popular in dance clubs and queer bars and has appeared on countless movie soundtracks and disco compilations. The song has been a source of strength for many, something that has pleased Gaynor, as she stated in an interview with the Queer Cultural Center’s Owen Keehnen in 1997.

“It’s wonderful. That’s the reason I recorded it. The song was written for me after the writers talked to me about what sort of subject matter I liked to sing about and what kinds of emotions I liked to disseminate. The song was written for me because I like to bring encouragement to people. I like to bring hope,” said Gaynor.

The song’s lyrics describe a narrator who finds strength while getting over a breakup; it has often been used as an anthem of female empowermentt, a gay anthem, and an HIV/AIDS survival song. It reached Number One on the Billboard music charts.

Gaynor continues to issue albums and play shows, especially in Europe, which is where the diva herself was touring at press time. Her late 1990s autobiography was titled, naturally, I Will Survive. Gaynor’s last album was The Answer released in 2004 on Personal record label.

With three of the top legends of disco, and a look-alike contest to boot, local queers can be expected to make Jul 16 a night to remember.

“As it’s the last day of the festival, what better day to dance like there’s no tomorrow?” laughs AJ Sauve, the Bluesfest director of communications.