Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area and coming of age as a gay man in the 1970s, I absolutely loved Disco. Although it was a music genre people loved to hate (many considered Disco a scourge in much the same way I felt about Rap in the 1990s), it was immensely popular, lasting from early 1974 to around 1980, by which time the genre rapidly flamed out. Once the “I Love Lucy” theme was made into a Disco remix, it was quite honestly time for the genre to die. But, man, what a great run it had!
Disco’s origins were inspired by R&B, soul and funk, which is why many of the early Disco songs were from Black artists like Hues Corporation, Van McCoy, The O’Jays, Donna Summer, Gloria Gaynor, The Trammps, and Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes. Some of the popular Disco songs were also big chart hits, but beginning around 1976, many were extended compositions or remixes recorded with the intention of being played in the clubs, and lasted ten minutes or longer, often with lush orchestration and heavy use of synthesizers.
Just like today, where club DJs play electronic or house music with one track blending seamlessly into the next without interruption, so did the DJs of the Disco era. As Sister Sledge so eloquently put it in one of their songs, people could get “Lost in Music”. Gay men especially love their divas, so it was only natural that many of the biggest stars of Disco were women – most notably Donna Summer, but also Gloria Gaynor, Thelma Houston, Patti Labelle, Linda Clifford, Alicia Bridges, Betty Wright and Grace Jones, to name but a few. Even some of the big mainstream artists like Diana Ross, the O’Jays, Rolling Stones and Rod Stewart had big Disco hits.
There were so many great Disco songs produced that it was really tough narrowing my list to only 20. That said, the point of this post is to pick what I consider the best, so these are my choices based on my personal memories of what songs were the most fun to dance to, or drove crowds crazy. While some dance songs like “Stayin’ Alive” and “Le Freak” – both of which I love – were massive chart hits and incredibly popular, they weren’t necessarily as fun (for me anyway) to dance to as the following songs were. Also, while there have been great dance songs released from the 1930’s (beginning with the jitterbug & swing) through the present day, this list only includes songs released between 1974 and 1980. Many of the songs I chose are about dancing, going to the disco, and/or have the word ‘dance’ in their title.
20. I NEED A MAN – Grace Jones (1977)
It goes without saying that a song titled “I Need a Man”, combined with her striking, androgynous appearance, made Grace Jones a fashion and gay icon in the late 1970s and 80s (her cross-dressing style would later have a major influence on such artists as Annie Lennox, Lady Gaga, Rihanna and Lorde). Born in Jamaica, Jones moved with her family to Syracuse, New York when she was 13, and later began a modelling career in New York, then Paris, working for fashion houses such as Yves St. Laurent and Kenzo, and appearing on the covers of Elle and Vogue.
“I Need a Man” was originally recorded and released in France in 1975, while she was still working as a model, but went nowhere. The track was later re-mixed and released in the U.S., appearing on her 1977 debut album Portfolio, whereupon it became a huge hit in the dance clubs, reaching #1 on the Billboard Dance chart. It also contributed to her popularity among the gay community, and she became a star on New York City’s Studio 54-centered disco scene. After Disco fell into disfavor in the early 80s, Jones transitioned to new wave music, as well as acting, appearing as Zula in the Arnold Schwarzenegger film Conan the Destroyer, and as May Day in the 1985 James Bond movie A View to a Kill, among other minor roles.
“I Need a Man” features a fast-paced dance beat, lush strings, guitars and keys, and Jones’ emphatic vocals exclaiming “I need a man, perhaps a man like you. I need a man, to make my dreams come true.” Damn right!
19. SHAME – Evelyn “Champagne” King (1978)
Evelyn “Champagne” King was born in the Bronx to a musical family (her father was a back-up singer at Harlem’s Apollo Theater, her mother managed the band Quality Red, and her uncle Avon Long played the part of Sportin’ Life in the first Broadway revival of Porgy and Bess, and worked with Lena Horne at the Cotton Club), and later raised in Philadelphia. King had a rich and mature singing voice, and was only 17 when she recorded “Shame”. The song features a strong, irresistible dance beat, but it’s the incredible saxophone work by Sam Peake that’s the real highlight. The piano, funky bass and intricate guitars are terrific as well. It was a relatively big hit, and one of my favorite songs of 1978.
18. YOU SHOULD BE DANCING – Bee Gees (1976)
The Bee Gees began their career writing and singing mostly heartfelt ballads, but transitioned to a more rock-oriented style in the mid 1970s with their single “Jive Talkin”. Some consider it a Disco song, and though it’s certainly danceable, I don’t consider it true Disco. For me, it was their later single “You Should Be Dancing”, with it’s infectious, thumping dance beat, that qualifies as Disco, and what a fun song it was to dance to! It was later used for one of the great dance scenes in the film Saturday Night Fever, where John Travolta wows us with his amazing moves on the dance floor. The brothers Gibb of course went on to record several more iconic dance songs for the film, including “Stayin’ Alive”, “Night Fever” and “More Than a Woman”.
Fun fact: I once sang this at Karaoke and did a damn fine job!
17. DON’T LEAVE ME THIS WAY – Thelma Houston (1977)
This gorgeous, heart-wrenching anthem was originally written by the Philadelphia songwriting duo Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff for Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes (whose version I prefer, thanks to Teddy Pendergrass’s passionate soulful vocals), however, it was a #1 hit for Thelma Houston, who also did a wonderful job with the song. I’ve included both versions so you can listen and decide for yourself.
16. BOOGIE WONDERLAND – Earth, Wind & Fire with The Emotions (1979)
“Boogie Wonderland” is unquestionably one of the most exhilarating dance songs – or any song for that matter – ever recorded. As its title implies, it turns a dance floor into a ‘boogie wonderland’, and I used to dance myself into a frenzy when I heard this song played in the clubs. I’ve always loved Earth, Wind & Fire’s music, and teaming up with female group The Emotions on this track resulted in sonic gold. I realize I use the word ‘exuberant’ a lot, but my god, this song has exuberance in spades! I love the powerful dance beat and Earth, Wind & Fire’s signature piercing horn section that they generously employ on this track. The male and female vocal harmonies are absolutely marvelous.
15. THE HUSTLE – Van McCoy (1975)
Van McCoy’s production using lush orchestral strings, jubilant horns, chirping flute and funky guitars made for a gorgeous and joyful dance song that just makes you feel so happy. Other than for choral vocals singing “Ooh ooh ooh ooh ooh. Do it!” and occasional shouts of “Do the hustle!“, the song is essentially an instrumental. The song spawned the hustle dance craze, and was a massive Disco hit, reaching #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, Soul and Dance charts.
14. HE’S THE GREATEST DANCER – Sister Sledge (1979)
Sister Sledge became famous for their monster hit “We Are Family”, but it was their previous single “He’s the Greatest Dancer” that really does it for me. Written and produced by guitarist/songwriter/composer/producer Nile Rodgers and bassist/songwriter/producer Bernard Edwards – the esteemed front men for the band Chic – the song was originally intended to be performed by Chic, but they decided to have Sister Sledge do the song instead. It quickly became a huge hit in the dance clubs upon its release in early 1979. I love that unmistakable Nile Rodgers funky guitar riff that continues throughout the track. It’s a perfect Disco song, both musically and lyrically, although there was an early snag during its production.
Rodgers later recalled the sisters being upset at being asked to sing the lyric “My crème de la crème please take me home“, as they felt it would make them seem like loose women. They suggested a lyric adjustment to “My crème de la crème, please don’t go home,” but Rodgers says he and Edwards refused to change the lyric “because we knew the world that we were writing about obviously more than [Sister Sledge] did, because they had never even been in a disco…He ain’t going to go home because [he is] the greatest dancer…he’s gonna stay there longer than you.” Rodgers later described his and Edwards’s approach with Sister Sledge as one of “sing this,” and admitted to “misrepresenting” them because neither of them had even met the sisters before the sessions. (Wikipedia)
The song was later sampled by Will Smith in his 1997 hit “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It”.
13. LAST DANCE – Donna Summer (1978)
One of the most iconic of Donna Summer’s many hits, “Last Dance” is from the soundtrack album to the 1978 film Thank God It’s Friday. It was written by Paul Jabara, co-produced by Summer’s regular collaborator Giorgio Moroder along with Bob Esty, and mixed by Grammy Award-winning producer Stephen Short, whose backing vocals are featured in the song. The song became a critical and commercial success, winning both Academy and Golden Globe Awards for Best Original Song, the Grammy Award for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance, and peaked at #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. The song was often played at closing time at the bars and discos in 1978 and 1979.
12. DON’T STOP ‘TIL YOU GET ENOUGH – Michael Jackson (1979)
Generally considered a ground-breaking turning point for Michael Jackson’s career, in which he transitioned from being part of a group to a major solo artist, “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” is not a Disco song per se, but man is it an awesome dance song! The lead single from his hugely-successful and critically acclaimed album Off the Wall, the song was Jackson’s first #1 hit as a solo artist. Masterfully produced by Quincy Jones, the song starts off cautiously, with Jackson softly speaking, accompanied by a bass riff. Suddenly, the song explodes into a lightning storm of piercing horns as Jackson screams “Ooh!”, setting the airwaves afire. From that point on, were hopelessly hooked by this brilliant song overflowing with exuberant horns, swirling strings, funky guitars, and head-bopping percussion.
11. SUPERNATURE – Cerrone (1977)
By 1976, in increasing number of musicians & producers from Europe like Cerrone, Giorgio Moroder and Alec Costandinos were using synthesizers to make elaborate dance music. Marc Cerrone was a French disco drummer, composer, record producer and creator of major concert shows, and was considered one of the most influential disco producers of the 1970s and ’80s in Europe. The album Supernature, which has sold over eight million copies worldwide, is considered his magnum opus work. A departure from the lush orchestration with electronic instrumentation added to the mix, it was co-written by Alain Wisniak. The lyrics to “Supernature”, written by Lene Lovich, have a sci-fi theme, concerning the rebellion of mutant creatures, created by scientists to end starvation among mankind, against the humans. It was a massive hit in the discos and clubs, and I loved it so much I bought the album.
10. THAT’S WHERE THE HAPPY PEOPLE GO – The Trammps (1976)
The Trammps are best known for their smash hit “Disco Inferno”, which was featured in the film and soundtrack for Saturday Night Fever. But it was their earlier work that made the Philadelphia band a staple of the disco clubs beginning in the mid 1970s, and “That’s Where the Happy People Go” was their greatest song in my opinion. The jubilant song was a celebration of going to the disco, letting loose and having a ball, and lead singer Earl Young’s raw, soulful vocals are wonderful. Like many of the long disco songs of that period, it featured full orchestration and a powerful, exhilarating beat that just compelled you to get up and dance!
9. DANCE, DANCE, DANCE (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah) – Chic (1977)
From the late 1970s to late 1980s, the powerhouse songwriting team of guitarist Nile Rodgers and bassist Bernard Edwards could do no wrong, producing not only a string of hits for their band Chic, but also writing and producing hits for such acts as the aforementioned Sister Sledge, Diana Ross, Debbie Harry and Johnny Mathis. Their very first single release as Chic was “Dance, Dance, Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah)” a catchy as hell dance song that had everyone dancing with glee. I could just as easily have put their equally great songs “Everybody Dance”, “Le Freak” or “Good Times” on this list instead, but chose this one as it was their first hit that introduced the world to their infectious dance-funk music.
After the break-up of Chic in 1983, Rodgers went on to produce hits for David Bowie (Let’s Dance album), Madonna (“Like a Virgin”), Duran Duran (“The Reflex” and “Notorious”), among others, and of course went on to win three Grammy Awards for his work with Daft Punk on Ramdon Access Memories. Before his untimely death in 1996, Edwards helped form the supergroup Power Station, and worked with Jody Watley, Rod Stewart and Air Supply, among others.
8. FROM EAST TO WEST – Voyage (1977)
Voyage was a French disco and pop/funk group, consisting of André “Slim” Pezin (guitar/vocals), Marc Chantereau (keyboards/vocals), Pierre-Alain Dahan (drums/vocals) and Sauveur Mallia (bass), together with British lead vocalist Sylvia Mason-James, who sang on the group’s first two albums, Voyage (1977) and Let’s Fly Away (1978). From East to West reached #1 on the Billboard Hot Dance Club Play Chart. The song was long, full of interesting, buoyant and spacey synths, and gave me such a strong feeling of euphoria – another one to get lost in, which was what the discos were all about back then.
7. TRY ME, I KNOW WE CAN MAKE IT – Donna Summer (1976)
Everyone knows Donna Summer’s big hits like “Hot Stuff”, “Bad Girls” and “She Works Hard For the Money”, but only her biggest fans and lovers of true Disco know of this song that was a massive hit in the discos in 1976. “Try Me, I Know We Can Make It” is an epic 18-minute long trilogy that plays sort of like a disco version of a classical rhapsody. It’s probably three or four minutes too long, and parts of it become repetitious, but it was the perfect type of extended song that became very popular in the discos by 1976. The song was written by Summer and her frequent collaborators Italian songwriter/producer Giorgio Moroder and British songwriter/producer Pete Bellotte. I used to nearly get lost in a trance while dancing to it, which kept me nice and thin back in my early 20s.
6. ROCK THE BOAT – Hues Corporation (1974)
“Rock the Boat” is often touted as the first disco hit to hit #1, although that’s not entirely accurate, as T.S.O.P. topped the Billboard Hot 100 Chart a few months earlier. Initially, “Rock the Boat” appeared to be a flop, as months went by without any radio airplay or sales activity, but after it became a Disco favorite in New York clubs, it was picked up by Top 40 radio stations around the U.S. and quickly zipped up the chart in the summer of 1974. It was also a big hit in the UK. It’s a perfect, fun little song in its own right, Disco or not.
5. T.S.O.P. – MFSB featuring The Three Degrees (1974)
T.S.O.P. (which stands for The Sound of Philadelphia) by MFSB (Mother, Father, Sister, Brother) was written by the prolific songwriting/producer team of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff as the theme for the TV music program Soul Train. It’s generally considered the first Disco song to reach #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, which it did in April 1974. MFSB was actually a pool of more than 30 studio musicians at Philadelphia’s Sigma Sound Studios, who worked under the direction of Gamble and Huff, along with producer/arranger Thom Bell. They played the amazing back-up music for such acts as Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, the O’Jays, the Stylistics, the Spinners and Wilson Pickett – all artists & bands I loved. Featuring vocal harmonies by female soul band The Three Degrees, T.S.O.P. was a beautiful exuberant dance song with a big, brassy orchestral sound. The song was a #1 hit and is not only one of my absolute favorite dance songs, it’s also one of my favorite songs of the 1970s. This video of an exciting performance at a Sound of Philadelphia tribute in the 2000s really shows what a gorgeous composition this song is.
4. IF MY FRIENDS COULD SEE ME NOW – Linda Clifford (1978)
“If My Friends Could See Me Now” by R&B/Disco singer Linda Clifford is a wonderful dance version of the classic song from the 1966 musical Sweet Charity. The celebratory song of personal triumph is electrifying, with lush orchestration, frantic piano riffs, soaring horn synths and impassioned vocals. Clifford had been an extra in the 1969 film with Shirley MacLaine, and initially dismissed a suggestion by a secretary at her record label that she record a dance version of the song, thinking it would be sacrilegious. But once she heard the music, she reconsidered and recorded the Disco version. Later, after hearing the song, its composer Cy Coleman called in to a radio station where Clifford was being interviewed and thanked her for doing a dance version and bringing it to the masses. If this song doesn’t get you up and dancing, then I don’t know what to say.
3. LOVE HANGOVER – Diana Ross (1976)
Talk about getting lost in a song! I’ve always loved songs with sudden and drastic change-ups in tempo and melody, and “Love Hangover” is one of the best examples of this. Oh man, how I loved this song back then, and still love it now. It’s my favorite song from Diana Ross of all her solo hits. I love how the first few minutes of the extended version are slow and soulful, with Diana seductively crooning about her ardor, setting the mood for what’s to come. Once the hypnotic disco beat kicks in, it’s as if Diana becomes lost in her love hangover, and we’re more than happy to go along with her for the mesmerizing love-drunk ride.
The song was written by Pamela Sawyer and Marilyn McLeod, and producer Hal Davis recorded the lush instrumental track in 1975 thinking it ideal for Marvin Gaye or Diana Ross, who were his two favorite vocalists to work with. He ultimately chose Diana, and I’m so glad he did, as her wonderful, sultry vocals are perfect for this track. Background vocals were provided by Motown’s in-house trio, The Andantes. The song went to #1 on several charts, including the Billboard Hot 100, Soul and Dance charts.
2. THERE BUT FOR THE GRACE OF GOD GO I – Machine (1979)
This brilliant song by American funk group Machine was not only a massive Disco hit that caused people in clubs to go wild with delight, but also a deeply compelling social anthem that railed against racism. The lyrics describe two Latino parents who move out of The Bronx to protect their baby daughter: “Carlos and Carmen Vidal just had a child. A lovely girl with a crooked smile. Now they gotta split ’cause the Bronx ain’t fit for a kid to grow up in. Let’s find a place they say, somewhere far away, with no Blacks, no Jews and no gays.” In their new surroundings, their daughter is cut off from her own heritage and becomes self-destructive from their over-protective parenting. Ironically, when the daughter grows up, her parents find she’s the type of person from who their peers are trying to protect their own children. Carmen sadly concludes that “Too much love is worse than none at all.”
The hard-driving beat, piercing synths, gorgeous piano riffs, funky guitars, passionate vocals and soaring choruses are magnificent, bringing chills upon chills.
1. I LOVE MUSIC – The O’Jays (1975)
I distinctly remember the first time I heard this song. I already loved the O’Jays, arguably the greatest R&B/soul band of the 1970s, but when I heard this song played at one of my local bars I went crazy! Oh my god, what a fucking fantastic song! The O’Jays were anything but a Disco act, having recorded an impressive string of outstanding R&B hits like “Back Stabbers”, “Love Train”, and “For the Love of Money”. But “I Love Music”, written by the brilliant ‘Sound of Philadelphia’ songwriting team of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, is not only an incredible dance tune, but also a gorgeous celebration of music and love itself. It really could be the theme song of my life, as it perfectly describes my passion for music.
I love the way it starts off with those bongo beats, then that fantastic hypnotic drumbeat grabs you by the hips, the driving bass line and jubilant horns kick in, and it’s pure bliss. The intricate funky guitar riffs and jazzy piano keys are pretty incredible too, making for an exhilarating song of great complexity and emotional depth. Lead singer Eddie Levert’s passionate vocals are wonderfully joyous and heartfelt as he sings “Music is the healing force of the world“. The song peaked at #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart, and was a #1 hit on the Billboard Soul and Dance Club Songs charts, where it spent 8 weeks at #1.
Though I seriously doubt “I Love Music” would rank among the top 5 of anyone else’s picks of best Disco songs, it’s my absolute favorite.
LOVE TO LOVE YOU BABY – Donna Summer
I FEEL LOVE – Donna Summer
MACARTHUR PARK – Donna Summer
HOT STUFF – Donna Summer
BAD GIRLS – Donna Summer
NEVER CAN SAY GOODBYE – Gloria Gaynor
I WILL SURVIVE – Gloria Gaynor
GET DOWN TONIGHT – K.C. & the Sunshine Band
(SHAKE SHAKE SHAKE) SHAKE YOUR BOOTY – K.C. & the Sunshine Band
STAYIN’ ALIVE – Bee Gees
NIGHT FEVER – Bee Gees
EVERYBODY DANCE – Chic
GOOD TIMES – Chic
LE FREAK – Chic
I WANT YOUR LOVE – Chic
MACHO MAN – The Village People
Y.M.C.A. – The Village People
I LOVE THE NIGHTLIFE – Alicia Bridges
DISCO INFERNO – The Trammps
DO YA THINK I’M SEXY? – Rod Stewart
MISS YOU – Rolling Stones
BOOGIE OOGIE OOGIE – A Taste of Honey
TURN THE BEAT AROUND – Vicki Sue Robinson
THE BOSS – Diana Ross
SHAKE YOUR BODY – The Jacksons
GOT TO GIVE IT UP – Marvin Gaye
BAD LUCK – Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes
FOUND A CURE – Ashford & Simpson
YOU STEPPED INTO MY LIFE – Melba Moore
ROCK YOUR BABY – George McCrea
YOUNG HEARTS RUN FREE – Candi Staton
YOU MAKE ME FEEL (MIGHTY REAL) – Sylvester
DANCING QUEEN – ABBA
LADY MARMALADE – Labelle
CAR WASH – Rose Royce
SHAKE YOUR GROOVE THING – Peaches & Herb
SHAME, SHAME, SHAME – Shirley & Company
WHERE IS THE LOVE – Betty Wright
THIS TIME BABY – Jackie Moore
BORN TO BE ALIVE – Patrick Hernandez
YOU & I – Rick James
GROOVE LINE – Heatwave
INSTANT REPLAY – Dan Hartmann
MOVE ON UP – Destination
FUNKY TOWN – Lipps, Inc.
KNOCK ON WOOD – Amii Stewart
What are your favorites, and are there any great Disco songs I neglected to mention?