For Black Music Month, we're looking back 15, 25, 35 and 45 years to take stock of black music's most memorable and pivotal moments. In part three of our four-part series, we revisit 1977 — the year when funk, hip-hop, reggae and disco emerged as wildly influential genres. Tell us what you loved most about black music 35 years ago in the comments below.
Captions by Brett Johnson
Prince Rogers Nelson kicked off his amazingly prolific career when he began recording his debut album, For You, in 1977. The Minneapolis native had signed to Warner Bros. Records as a teenager and demanded that he be allowed to produce and write his first album. Label bigwigs relented, and the deal proved to be extremely good business in the long run. When the album dropped the following year, it only produced a minor hit, the sexually suggestive funk-pop workout, "Soft and Wet." No matter: His Purple Highness had arrived. Can you even fathom that he's 54? Neither can we.
There was a bumper crop of now classic reggae albums released in 1977 including Augustus Pablo's East of the River Nile, the Congos' Heart of the Congos and Culture's Two Sevens Clash. But the indomitable force that was Bob Marley and the Wailers continued to propel the skankin' riddims from Jamaica onto the international stage. After surviving a failed assassination attempt in 1976, Marley and his bandmates released their ninth studio LP, Exodus. They temper the title track's fiery proclamations with monster tunes such as "Jamming" with its killer piano chord intro, the lovelorn lilt of "Waiting in Vain" and the ultimate ode to irie vibes "One Love/People Get Ready."
By the mid-to-late '70s, the Jackson brothers were determined to wrest creative control over their careers and their songs. Going Places was the last group album shaped by outside producers. Songwriting duo Gamble and Huff lent this LP a slicker, more mature sound. (Listen to its irresistable title track.) Meanwhile, the family continued to expand their brand, filming episodes of their popular variety TV show. And Michael landed his first film role as the Scarecrow in The Wiz, opposite Diana Ross, Richard Pryor and Nipsey Russell.
Few artists have dominated an entire decade like Wonder. Coming off successive masterful albums — Music of My Mind (1972), Talking Book (1972), Innervisions (1973), and Fulfillingness' First Finale (1974) — he managed to top himself again with Songs in the Key of Life. Though the sprawling double album dropped in late '76, its biggest smashes were released the following year. In 1977, "I Wish" and "Sir Duke" were both No. 1 hits, and groovy love songs "Another Star" and "As" climbed the charts and packed dance floors.
One of the lesser-known efforts from the late jazz poet and singer Gil Scott-Heron, Bridges was significant for its sociopolitical messages more than its chart positions. It's an excellent slice of thought-provoking funk with Heron, aided by collaborator Brian Jackson, laying down a set of strong vocals. Tracks like "Delta Man (Where I'm Comin' From)" and "We Almost Lost Detroit," about a nuclear power plant meltdown in 1966, expressed sensitivity and self-awareness that would soon take a back seat in black music as disco began to make inroads.
Hard Again, one of the year's best albums, was a comeback of sorts for bluesman Muddy Waters. Teaming with Pinetop Perkins and James Cotton, Waters displayed undeniable vitality on this effort that wasn't apparent on his previous output during that decade. Tracks such as the remake of Bo Diddley's "Mannish Boy" (which the rapper Nas later sampled), with its driving drum slaps, and "Bus Driver," buoyed by slide guitar licks, were proof that blues music could sound just as vibrant as the biggest radio hits of the era.
Two years prior, George Clinton's Parliament released Mothership Connection, a breakthrough concept album based on an idea of black outer-space aliens landing to save their Earthly descendants. Funkentelechy vs. the Placebo Syndrome, a follow-up album that came out in 1977, furthers that otherworldly premise to include a critique on consumerism and the impending disco craze. Though only six tracks long — two tracks clock in more than 10 minutes long — the album features an expansive hodgepodge of squelchy snyths and incredible vocals. "Flash Light" became the group's first No. 1 hit, while "Bop Gun (Endangered Species)" rolled along with carefree energy that only Clinton could create.
Having already made a name for himself in jazz circles as a musical director and bandleader, Jones turned to scoring films during the mid-'60s and then producing TV specials in the '70s. But he also had an abiding interest in the civil rights and black nationalism movements of the period. In 1977, he married his interests in music and black history and culture, scoring Alex Haley's ABC miniseries, Roots.
Like high-minded contemporaries Stevie Wonder and George Clinton, Earth, Wind & Fire sought to make bold statements with its music. The 1977 album All 'N All is definitely something special. Weaving spiritual and cultural elements into its elaborately designed album cover and stage shows, EWF combined substance and style. The lush arrangements (listen to the smash hit "Fantasy") showcase the group's musicality. And whether it is Maurice White belting out the romantic lyrics of "Love's Holiday" or Philip Bailey's falsetto on "Serpentine Fire," the album is an example finely crafted funk and soul.
It was little surprise that the soundtrack to this disco blockbuster starring John Travolta had such a huge impact on pop culture this year. The Bee Gees had the album's biggest hit ("Stayin' Alive") but the LP is full of great club tracks from black dance acts, too. Kool and the Gang's "Open Sesame," Tavares' "More Than a Woman" and the Trammps' barn-storming "Disco Inferno" were all remarkable in that they turned disco into a national phenomenon. They also had a hand in helping the album sell more than 40 million copies worldwide.
Formed in 1977 by New York duo Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards, Chic was disco era's most innovative band. Between gigs, they recorded their self-titled debut with Luther Vandross, who sang background vocals on some tracks. "Dance, Dance, Dance" quickly became a chart-topping anthem, and Rodgers — a master guitarist — lent the genre some credibility. Through the '80s, he went on to produce some of the biggest names in pop music such as Madonna, David Bowie and Duran Duran.
The Commodores formed in 1967 when two groups of students at Tuskeegee Institute in Alabama joined forces. A decade later, the band, featuring Lionel Richie on vocals, was one of Motown's best-selling male acts. Their self-titled album, released in 1977, had big hits on divergent ends of the soul-funk continuum. "Brick House" dripped with sweaty horns and clever come-ons, while "Easy" displayed a soft-soul side that Richie eventually embraced in his long solo career.
Two legendary night clubs opened this year in New York City — the star-studded, disco-loving mecca Studio 54, and Paradise Garage, home of the Jimi Hendrix of dance music. Regarded by many club-culture experts as the best-ever DJ, Larry Levan started his residency at the latter hotspot. By spinning an incredibly eclectic mix of rock, pop, world beats and his own productions, he revolutionized the club experience. Some have claimed his hours-long sets were as moving as a religious service.
If you're of a certain age and grew up in New York City, there's a good chance you've been to one of the vaunted block parties that are now an integral part of hip-hop lore. In 1977, Afrika Bambaataa, a former gang leader and DJ maestro in the Bronx, convinced local youth to channel their energies into music and breakdancing. He started organizing the outdoor parties and B-boy battles that birthed hip-hop culture.
Oozing sex appeal and sporting a whole lotta hair, Chaka Khan (born Carol Yvette Marie Stevens) was the incomparable vocal force that pushed Rufus to soul-soaring heights in the 1970s. In 1977, the group released its fifth album, Ask Rufus, which featured Khan's amazing instrument and the band's lush jazzy-soul musical arrangements. She did it all — cooing languid ballads ("Magic in His Eyes" and "Everlasting Love") and belting out the big notes ("Egyptian Song" and the up-tempo opening track "At Midnight"). Despite the album boasting hits like "Hollywood" and a Grammy nomination, Rufus the group was on its last legs. Internal creative battles caused them to split ways soon after. The next year, Chaka established her solo career with "I'm Every Woman" — the ultimate statement of intent.
Despite the criticism music purists loaded on the genre, the year spawned loads of great singles. Even some respected R&B artists dabbled in it to score a radio hit or appease label bosses. For example, Marvin Gaye reluctantly recorded "Got to Give It Up" but it's undeniably funky. Other disco hits of the year included: First Choice's "Let No Man Put Asunder," Rose Royce's "Car Wash," Heatwave's "Boogie Nights," Thelma Houston's "Don't Leave Me This Way" and Donna Summer's Giorgio Moroder-produced "I Feel Love." The track's reliance on synthesizers opened the door for much of the electronic music that would become popular in the '80s.