The Untold Story of Disco and Its Black, Latino & LGBTQ Roots

As a white Mid­west­ern child of the ‘70s, I received two mes­sages loud and clear: dis­co was a breath­tak­ing­ly glam­orous, sexy urban scene, and “dis­co sucks.”

Cul­tur­al­ly, the lat­ter pre­vailed.

It was the opin­ion voiced most loud­ly by the pop­u­lar boys.

Dis­senters pushed back at their own per­il.

I didn’t know what YMCA was about, and I’m not con­vinced the ski jack­et­ed, puka-neck­laced alpha males at my school did either.

(My father, who sang along joy­ful­ly when­ev­er it came on the car radio, def­i­nite­ly did.)

Disco’s been dead for a long time now.

In the four plus decades since dis­grun­tled Chica­go radio DJ Steve Dahl com­man­deered a base­ball sta­di­um for a Dis­co Demo­li­tion Night where fans tossed around homo­pho­bic and racist epi­thets while destroy­ing records, there’s been notable social progress.

This progress is the lens that makes Noah Lefevre’s Poly­phon­ic video essay The Untold His­to­ry of Dis­co, and oth­er inves­ti­ga­tions into the racial and sex­u­al under­pin­nings of dis­co pos­si­ble.

I cer­tain­ly nev­er heard of Stonewall as a kid, but many con­tem­po­rary view­ers, com­ing of age in a coun­try that is, on the whole, much more LGBTQ-friend­ly than the world of their par­ents and grand­par­ents, are famil­iar with it as a gay rights mile­stone.

Lefevre ties the birth of dis­co to the 1969 Stonewall Upris­ing, and a sub­cul­ture born of neces­si­ty, where­in gay men impro­vised under­ground dance clubs where they could cut freely loose with same sex part­ners.

Instead of live dance music, these venues boast­ed DJs, crate dig­gers open to any groove that would keep the par­ty going on the dance floor: psy­che­del­ic, clas­sic soul, pro­gres­sive soul, jazz fusion, Latin Amer­i­can dance music, African pop…

(Thus the name dis­cotheque)

A dis­co sound began to coa­lesce around exist­ing hits as the O‑jays’ Love Train and Isaac Hayes’ Theme from Shaft.

You can hear it in Jim­my Nolen’s chick­en scratch lead gui­tar for James Brown and ses­sion drum­mer Earl Young’s open high hat and four-to-the-floor beat on Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes’ The Love I Lost.

In the begin­ning, crowds were pri­mar­i­ly Black, Lati­no and gay at New York City dis­cos like The Loft, which start­ed out as a rent par­ty, and The Sanc­tu­ary, housed in a decon­se­crat­ed mid­town Ger­man Bap­tist church. Map­plethor­pe mod­el Leigh Lee recalled The Sanctuary’s cachet to the Vil­lage Voice’s Peter Braun­stein:

It was sup­posed to be a secret, but I don’t know how secret it could have been when fag­gots and les­bians can come out of a church from mid­night till sun­rise.

As dis­cotheque DJs began dri­ving the record charts, main­stream pro­duc­ers took note, open­ing the gates for such mon­ster hits as the Bar­ry White-helmed Love Unlim­it­ed Orchestra’s Love’s Theme, Don­na Summer’s Love to Love Ya, and Chic’s Le Freak.

A glit­ter-bedecked nude man rode a white horse into Bian­ca Jagger’s birth­day par­ty at Stu­dio 54 on the stroke of mid­night, while hin­ter­land squares did The Hus­tle at their local Hol­i­day Inns. 

By the time celebs like the Rolling Stones and Rod Stew­art start­ing horn­ing in on the act, dis­co had already reached its tip­ping point.

Lit­tle twerps like me, whose moth­ers wouldn’t let them see the R‑rated Sat­ur­day Night Fever bought Bee Gees 45s from our local Peach­es and sang along to Glo­ria Gaynor’s I Will Sur­vive, as did some of our dads…

(An unex­pect­ed plea­sure of Lefevre’s video is see­ing all those famil­iar record labels spin­ning just the way they did on our pre­cious stere­os — Atlantic! Casablan­ca! Poly­dor! RSO!  Some­body pass me a Dr. Pep­per and a yel­low plas­tic insert!)

Radio DJ Rick Dees’ nov­el­ty hit with Dis­co Duck seemed so harm­less at the time, but it was sure­ly music to the main­stream “dis­co sucks” crowd’s ears. (Good luck to any punk who betrayed a fond­ness for Dis­co Duck )

Disco’s reign was brief — Lefevre notes that its end coin­cides with the begin­ning of the AIDS cri­sis — but its impact has been greater than many assume at first blush.

Disco’s empha­sis on turnta­bles and long play ver­sions influ­enced hip hop and elec­tron­ic dance music.

Near­ly half a cen­tu­ry after dis­co­ma­nia seized the land, its deep con­nec­tion to Black, Lati­no and LGBTQ his­to­ry must not be tossed aside light­ly.

Watch more of Noah Lefevre’s Poly­phon­ic video essays here.

Relat­ed Con­tent 

Dis­co Demo­li­tion Night: Scenes from the Night Dis­co Died (or Did It?) at Chicago’s Comiskey Park, 1979

Two Decades of Fire Island DJ Sets Get Unearthed, Dig­i­tized & Put Online: Stream 232 Mix­tapes Online (1979–1999)

How Gior­gio Moroder & Don­na Summer’s “I Feel Love” Cre­at­ed the “Blue­print for All Elec­tron­ic Dance Music Today” (1977)

- Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo. Her Indi­ana ties result­ed in an invi­ta­tion to Rick “Dis­co Duck” Dees’ 1977 wed­ding. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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Comments (3)
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  • Stan Flouride says:

    Great arti­cle!
    I recall in the late 70s have a mild argu­ment with one of my co-work­ers at a pizze­ria whether what we were lis­ten­ing to on the radio sta­tion on SF sta­tion KSOL FM was dis­co or soul music.
    Though it was first used as a short­ened ver­sion of a dis­cotheque in 1964 as a name for a club that played records in stead of hav­ing a live band, it was­n’t until 1972 that it became a gen­er­al term for the style of music.
    Label­ing it soul or dis­co is, from a dis­tance of sev­er­al decades, an insignif­i­cant dif­fer­ence (much like Punk/New Wave, Rock n Roll, Acid Rock, Hard Rock, etc) but it is quite inter­est­ing his­tor­i­cal­ly to trace the path of their devel­op­ment and evo­lu­tion.
    The use of portable turnta­bles def­i­nite­ly led to the devel­op­ment of Hip-hop and Rap music. Two forms of music that have spread more wide­ly across the globe than any­thing since Jazz. You can lis­ten to the syn­co­pat­ed rhythms in just about every lan­guage these days.
    I have been quite amused that the pre­vi­ous occu­pant of the White House always had Vil­lage Peo­ple music play­ing at his ral­lies. (I am con­vinced that the per­son in charge of the music was trolling him but no one on his staff or he was sharp enough to catch on)

  • Reality Calling says:

    Dear god, this is revi­sion­ist non­sense, but you posed and vir­tu­al sig­naled hard. Have a cook­ie and tro­phy.

  • Wil Hewson says:


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