Roy Ayers on the Dance Floor

Posted September 14, 2016 by J Matthew Cobb in Features

The disco output of soul-jazz fusionist Roy Ayers may have a stronger shelflike than his hip-hop-worshipped stuff

EDITOR’S NOTE – After penning this article, I just discovered that Roy Ayers, 76, shares the same birthday as me. September 10. And it just recently passed. What a coincidence. 

When one thinks of disco, they think of top-tier true-to-the-game stars and divas who dominated. They don’t think of jazz fusion mavericks like Roy Ayers. But the cool vibraphone musician who crafted the moody, spaced-out, highly hip-hop sampled “Everybody Loves the Sunshine,” the gorgeous mid-tempo gem “Searching” and whose name rotates in the same rhythmic jazz-funk orbit as George Duke, Quincy Jones and George Benson, pulled off two precise dance floor romps in the late ’70s, both ironically book ending the Disco Inferno era.

Unlike many of his experimental jazz contemporaries, Ayers didn’t shy away from disco in its early formative years, evidenced in the pure underground 1975 track “Brother Green (The Disco King).” In that offering, Ayers stayed true to his bad-ass funk while nodding at the dance floor R&B that helped land Kool & the Gang, B.T. Express, and Brass Construction on disco’s radar. After signing with the US arm of Polydor, a label home to virtually plenty of disco’s mighty warriors and buzz acts (the Bee Gees, Gloria Gaynor, Alicia Bridges, Gregg Diamond, even James Brown and Isaac Hayes), Ayers assembled his most majestic contribution to disco with “Running Away.” With his Roy Ayers Ubiquity band, this 1977 track lifted from the Lifeline LP sums up the best of disco-meets-fusion. It’s good enough to sound underground and unapologetically black, but slick enough to land on the most commercial pop playlist. And with a host of albums nestled in his catalog, “Everybody Loves the Sunshine” and this bouncy disco ditty usually comes up as his top requested offerings.

So what exactly makes this track so phenomenal?

First, there’s those goofy feelgood lyrics. Its zany chorus could easily be compared with Earth, Wind & Fire’s “bah-de-bah” chant. “Do-be-do, run, run, run” is heard inside there, and throughout much of the track, up and down and in between its coherent verses. But thanks to its party atmosphere (Dee Dee Bridgewater, co-writer Edwin Birdsong both aiding backing vocals) and rollercoaster-like sections, it provided irresistible joy for dance enthusiasts and DJs alike.

Halfway into the extended 12″ disco version, after a Fender Rhodes solo is echoed, Ayers summons himself to the vibraphone and pulls off a mesmeric solo donned with dreamy punctuation. Despite few ears hearing the 12″ take, except for those glued to Larry Levan’s Saturday night magic at the Paradise Garage or Frankie Crocker’s hypnotic spill on WBLS, this Top 20 R&B hit (14 on dance) features one of Ayers’ best jazz-fusion vibraphone solos ever captured.

The same spunky energy can be located on “Give Me Your Love,” a Sylvia Striplin cut released in 1980. Released on Ayers’ Uno Melodic record label, the buoyant track penned by songwriter and co-producer James Bedford finds Striplin channeling the coy soprano styling of Minnie Riperton, but on unapologetic disco beats. After two minutes in, session drummer Dennis Davis, known for playing regularly for Ayers and on David Bowie’s plastic soul expedition Young Americans as well as Stevie Wonder’s early-’80’s jams (“Do I Do,” “Did I Hear You Say You Love Me,” “Master Blaster (Jammin’)”), switches his drumming technique to use a time-clock-sounding hi-hat combo pattern that expands on the disco hiss punctuated in the in-demand Earl Young-MFSB formula. It is that fierce contribution along with Striplin’s squeals, supporting backing vocals, bubbling bass work from Stevie’s Nathan West and Phillip Woo‘s Oberheim Obxa synths that elevates the song into the stratosphere of disco nirvana. Of course, this is 1980 when disco was hastily making an exit from the Top 40 radio programming due to the rise of “Disco Sucks” campaigning.

The single did fairly well in discos, particularly inside NYC’s Paradise Garage where Levan played it extensively. When the single and its hip-hop landmark B-side “You Can’t Turn Me Away” finally made its way onto Striplin’s debut solo album Give Me Your Love in 1981, the single experienced renewed interest, earning a higher chart re-entry to number 23 on the re-titled Club Play charts. But disco was now coined dance, authentic disco was heading underground and the public’s newest craze was now on the UK-led New Wave and electronic-led productions. By the early ’90’s, “Give Me Your Love” had found a new home with deep groove enthusiasts, giving wind to the assertion that Ayers’ disco work was destined to have that aftertaste of being pure underground.

Almost two generations later, “Give Me Your Love” and “Running Away” are both reaching newer audiences. It’s not as severely sampled as much as “Sunshine” or Striplin’s “Can’t Turn Me Way,” but it’s resting warmly on our ears. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas picked up on “Running Away.” Spike Lee used it in his film Summer of Sam. The opening drum roll on “Running Away” can also heard opening Jennifer Hudson and R. Kelly’s neo-disco gem “It’s Your World.”

Although Ayers, unlike many of his jazz-orbiting contemporaries, jumped into disco more often than he was supposed to, like on his sole Top Ten dance hit “Don’t Stop the Feeling,” it is these two tracks, believe or not, that defines his best dance floor romps. And the shelf life of these two cuts may just be up to par with his influential handiwork on early neo-soul and hip-hop.

About the Author

J Matthew Cobb

Managing editor of HiFi Magazine


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