The Infectious Rhythm Of A Disco Classic

by Kevin Burton

   For those rock and rollers who hate disco, one song makes me wonder.

   I have always wondered what that group thinks of “Turn The Beat Around” by Vicki Sue Robinson.

   Robinson was born on this date in 1954.  She was only 45 when she died of cancer in 2000. 

   She took Turn The Beat Around to number 10 in August of 1976 at the height of the disco era. The song is rightfully labelled as disco, but it seems less disco-y to me than many others.  By comparison check out her follow-up tune “Daylight” (which charted at number 61) which got the full disco treatment. 

   I wonder if some die-hard rock and rollers might like it, the way I like much of the Anne Murray stuff.  Murray’s songs seem to me to be on the edge of country, but not really country.

   Could Turn The Beat Around be called disco, but not really disco?

   The song was written by brothers Gerald Jackson and Peter Jackson of the R&B band Touch Of Class. Here’s how the song got to Robinson, according to Wikipedia:

   “Peter Jackson knew Al Garrison, an engineer at Associated Studios in New York, through Jackson’s work as a session drummer, and it was at Associated Studios that Touch of Class cut its demos.”

   Peter Jackson called Garrison one Sunday, and said the group wanted to come in and cut a demo.  Garrison was planning to leave at four and said, “My girlfriend’s coming to pick me up for dinner. You have to be done [by then].”

   “Garrison’s girlfriend turned out to be singer Vicki Sue Robinson whose debut album was nearing completion requiring one additional track,” according to Wikipedia.

    “On arriving at Associated Studios that Sunday, Robinson overheard the playback of the “Turn the Beat Around” demo which Touch of Class had just recorded and according to Peter Jackson said: ‘Oh, man, I’ve gotta have that song.’”

   “Gerald and Peter Jackson initially demurred, wishing to submit Turn the Beat Around along with four earlier demos to be green-lighted for the Touch of Class debut album.”

   The next day the A&R people at Midland Records, Touch Of Class’s label,  passed on the song saying, “We don’t like that one. The lyrics move too fast. You have that jungle beat in there. It’s not what’s happening,” according to Wikipedia.

   The song went to Robinson at RCA Records, where producer Warren Schatz  hated the track at first.

   The basic master of the song was recorded “on a Friday after a very depressing week of rain [and] I hated [the track]! I listened to it in my office and I just couldn’t get it. It had been such a bad week that I just couldn’t hear anything with an open mind,” Schatz said.

   “Then David Todd, the head of disco promotion at RCA, came into my office and he went crazy over the track! He convinced me to finish it as soon as possible.”

   Robinson nailed the lyrics in one take at RCA Studios on Sept. 26, 1975, after recording her own background vocals.   

   Turn the Beat Around reached number one on the disco chart in March 1976 where it stayed for four weeks. It peaked at number 10 on the Hot 100 in August and propelled the Never Gonna Let You Go album to number 49.

    The song reached number 14 in Canada, 11 in the Netherlands and 12 in South Africa. The track would earn Robinson a nomination for a Grammy Award for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance.

   In music parlance to turn the beat around means to start the drum pattern over. And with all the inanities people write about, why not a song about the music itself?

   Robinson sang background vocals on the 1980 Irene Cara hit “Fame.” She also sang backup for Michael Bolton and Cher.

   “Robinson was born in Harlem, New York, to African American Shakespearean actor Bill Robinson and his European American wife Marianne, a folk singer,” according to Wikipedia.

   “She gave her first public performance in 1960 at the age of six, when she accompanied her mother on stage at the Philadelphia Folk Festival.”

   “Ten years later, while a student at the New Lincoln School, Robinson made her professional performing debut when she joined the Broadway cast of the musical “Hair.”

   Robinson made her recording debut as one of several Hair veterans who sang on Todd Rundgren‘s Something/Anything? Album, released in 1972.

   “She also established herself as a career jingle singer for such products as Wrigley‘s

Doublemint chewing gum, Maybelline cosmetics, Downy fabric softener, Hanes underwear, New York Bell, and Folger’s coffee.”

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