Disco is tremendously important when it comes to modern electronic music; its DNA lurks everywhere. It emerged in the early ’70s as a smoothed-out version of funk, when the more psychedelic moments of Sly and the Family Stone and The Temptations combined with the Philadelphia sound of producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff.
Disco gave us the 12-inch single, the remix, many new studio techniques and much of the cult of the modern DJ. During its heyday, disco records got longer and more tailored towards the DJ’s mixing needs. Many of its most passionate adherents were black and Latino gay men, with gay clubs in New York forming the hub of much of its earliest action. And in the “disco sucks” backlash, it also attracted many of the same criticism as other forms of electronic music (fake, inauthentic, soulless, commercial) from many of the same people (cis white straight men, in particular).
But if most histories of disco concentrate on men, the iconic sound of disco is unmistakeably female—the wailing sound of a disco diva. And there is no better diva than Loleatta Holloway. After some earlier soul records, Holloway entered the disco fray with her album Loleatta, released on Salsoul records.
So some music.
First, my personal favorite song of hers: “Runaway.” “Runaway” was recorded for the third Salsoul Orchestra album Magic Journey, and it’s a sad example of the lack of credit I was talking about in my second piece—despite being the featured vocalist, the song artist was “Salsoul Orchestra,” with Holloway relegated to a line in the credits. This is extraordinary given how wonderful her vocal performance is, recorded famously while she had a nasty cold. Nuyorican Soul in the late ’90s did a lovely cover of it with salsa singer India on vocals.
Next, one of her biggest hits, “Hit And Run,” in two versions. The first is the original, the second is the Walter Gibbons remix, which was notable for being the first song a studio let a DJ completely rework a song from the multitracks. Gibbons removed two minutes of the vocals, stripping the sound back. In Last Night A DJ Saved My Life: The History of the Disc Jockey by Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton, Salsoul executive Joe Cayre recalls his reaction to the remix: “When Walter played me his mix, I initially wanted to choke him. Loleatta wasn’t there any more. Walter just told me to get used to it.” So here we can see a kind of displacement in disco that foreshadows the house era (and beyond), from the artist and their performance to the producer or remixer.
Last is perhaps Loleatta Holloway’s most famous song, “Love Sensation.” Originally released in 1980, “Love Sensation” took on a surprising second life when Italian producers Black Box sampled Holloway’s vocals for their 1989 hit “Ride On Time,” a huge hit in the UK for which Holloway was uncredited and unpaid, having to sue Black Box for her share of the profits.
So here we see the dynamic of the remix taken to its logical conclusion—decontextualized anonymous sampling. It’s difficult to estimate how many records have re-edited or sampled a Holloway lick, I’m guessing a few, knowing house white label culture. It’s awful that she had to sue to get her share of the record—the racial dynamics of a black woman being ripped off by two white men isn’t lost on me—but in some ways that same technology of samplers eventually ensured her influenced was spread far and wide. Remix culture, especially once major records at least start paying for their samples, has revitalized numerous careers.
Another song sampling “Love Sensation” is the Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch song “Good Vibrations” which was a US number one. As far as I know—and Wikipedia needs a citation—she was paid and credited for that one, if not a featured artist.
Not only was she sampled, but her vocal style was widely imitated. In terms of her incredible ability to wail, she’s the archetypal disco and house diva. Sadly, Loleatta Holloway passed away, just a few weeks ago in March.