Drugs, Music, Our City, Our World

SOUL SURVIVORS: A DEEP LOOK AT THE HUB’S OBSCURE DISCO SCENE

Peter Roberge (digboston/ Dirty Old Boston) sits down with disco legends Eddy Barnett and Serge Gamesbourg

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Boston has been known primarily as a rock ’n’ roll city thanks to major bands that got their start here such Aerosmith, the Cars, and (obviously) Boston. But as those who were around back in the day know, disco and soul had major followings around here as well. Most are aware of Boston native Donna Summer, our claim to fame within the genre, yet beyond her work a lot of bands never got the recognition they deserved.

 

To that end, we sat down with Charlestown native, disco aficionado, and 45 collector Eddy Barnett (affectionately referred to as Eddy B by those who know him) to ask about his experience during Boston’s disco fever in the ’70s and ’80s, as well as with local DJ and fellow vinyl lover Serge Gamesbourg, whose latest mix project, Boston Goes Disco, is the product of his strong desire to illuminate the classics that got lost in history.

 

New York and Philly obviously played the most influential role in the disco scene. Where does Boston fit into that influence?

EB: Boston played a very little role. Of course there were always groups around like the Energetics, Larry Wu and the Ambitions. We had a group called the Nine Lords. They did a few things, made a couple 45s. … There’s no doubt that Disco was popular. Radio stations like WILD … it was kind of an underground thing.

 

As a music fanatic, what drew you to disco?

EB: I’ve been listening to black music my whole life. In ’54 I heard a song at my cousin’s house, “Gee” by the Crows. I said to my cousin, “What is that, that’s great,” and she said, “That’s rhythm and blues.” Right then and there, I loved it. …

 

I was always a big dancer. … Charlestown really has a deep appreciation for soul and disco music. A lot people there know their stuff, even the younger generation. … Which is ironic, considering the racist history. But the clubs all over the city brought locals in from Southie, East Boston, everywhere. It brings people together and I love that.

 

You’re considered somewhat of a record detective. What are some of the biggest resources for your collection?

EB: Well, a lot of the sources now don’t exist . But when I started getting into this very heavily, Philadelphia is a city I’ve been to many, many times and gotten some great stuff down there. Locally there was always Skippy White’s, places like that.

 

What were some of those areas and venues that fostered the scene?

EB: The best of the best, hands down, was a place called the Sugar Shack. It’s been closed for 40 years and people still talk about it, so I’d say that’s a pretty legendary club. Other than that you had the Carousel lounge, you had Lane’s Lounge in Mattapan. Estelle’s later on had some great entertainment. … But I basically lived at the Sugar Shack. … I saw many great bands there.

 

What were some of the early places you spun at?

EB: The Hampshire House, which was up above the old Cheers place. It opened in 1972, and that was a place where the college crowd went to hear a disc jockey. Zelda up in Allston on Comm Ave, one in Revere called Friends, there were like 14-year-olds going there.

 

This comp took three years to make. What were some of your biggest resources?

SG: I found the majority of the tracks locally. Of course I found some online, ya know, Discogs was a huge resource along with the local community. It wasn’t easy considering a lot of these are real rarities, and I definitely had to shell out some dough. It took a lot of patience. It wasn’t an easy three years to get the records I wanted before I could start making the actual mix.

 

What kind of problems did you run across getting ahold of them?

SG: Finding the artists and the people involved was the biggest challenge. Of course, people wanted more money because of licensing fees, but ultimately most of them were just happy to get the recognition and exposure after all these years. This one Ambitions record took two years to finally get my hands on. I spoke to Allen Day , and he only knew the first name of the guy, so from there I spoke to Larry Wu and he gave me more information.

 

Which artists in particular do you think deserves more recognition?

SG: Ah man, All these groups were really amazing. It’s tough to pick any over the others. Looking at the listing, everyone was top-notch, and that’s what I was going for. Part of the reason a lot of these artists never really got bigger recognition was because of an oversaturation in the market. For example, Cojo’s “Play It by Ear,” that could’ve been a hit. Larry Wu’s “No More Games” was supposed to be a hit—it was originally written as the official song for the Celtics, but it never really stuck.

 

Another great example is Second Wind; they came out of Worcester. When I talked to them they said they were recording original tunes all the time, and Arista records was actually looking to sign them. … Another great example would be Andre Evans and his Royale record “I Want Your Body.” I mean, the guy was literally a genius, he played every instrument on that record. You listen to it and you’re just awestruck, considering these were the days when you had to do a straight pass . It was just too time-consuming to do multiple takes; nowadays you can do as many takes as you want.

 

Locally, who would you say went on to meet greater success, in terms of Boston disco groups?

SG: Thank God Donna Summer put Boston on the map, I’ll say that. Tavares, they came out of New Bedford. Certain groups were popular, like the guys from Gypsy—they were selling out local shows. When the band split up the guitarist actually went onto play with Rod Stewart for years. Larry Wu and the Ambitions, obviously, they played at the Sugar Shack with the other big name groups in the ’70s. His song “Let Me Show You What My Love Can Do” was released by Atlantic records, and that’s a song that people love all over the world. It met a lot of success in Europe as well as in the US.

 

Did the feel and flow of the mix come naturally to you, or was it a grueling process?

SG: As I was working on the project the flow came naturally. I wanted something cohesive sonically, so I pulled from my DJ background. I actually kept the project under wraps for so long because as I mentioned before, tracking down these artists was no easy task, with licensing and stuff, so I didn’t want to get people all excited about something that I wasn’t sure would even happen. … For those who want solid listening, the second CD has all the tracks unmixed and untweaked. A lot of it is in the edits; I wanted to breathe life into these tracks for clubs without taking away their authenticity. A few tracks I left untouched because there was nothing I could do to make it better.

 

Tell me a little bit about your hiphop background and how that played into your passion for Disco music.

SG: In the ’90s and early 2000s hip-hop was my forte for DJing. The hip-hop stuff is so instrumental to me because of samples, ya know, you find one you really like, do some more listening on the artist and find they did a solo project, or had a limited release of some really good stuff. Early hip-hop were disco records, and disco is the mother of hip-hop. It’s funny, the title of the mix is actually a homage to a hip-hop mix that came out called Boston Goes Def.

 

Did a lot of those bands go on to see larger audiences, or did they become obscured into history?

SG: The majority went to see larger success after their local thing, but quite a few stuck around Berklee and became professors. John Cline, for example, he was a scoring professor for 30 years there. The keyboard player for Second Wind went on to teach piano at Berklee. Certain groups definitely had to find work where they could given how much of a hustle music is as a living.

 

A couple of these guys still play professionally like Cojo, but a lot did get obscured into history, so that’s a huge inspiration for this project.

PETER ROBERGE
Peter Roberge writes Throwback articles for the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism (BINJ) and is an administrator of the popular Facebook page Dirty Old Boston, which is a partner of BINJ and DigBoston.
This piece first appeared at digboston on September 19th, 2018 and is being re-posted here with the express consent of that fine publication.
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