By Dave Austin – “The Music Professor”
I stopped by the “music store” a few days ago and encountered a couple of fellow DJs, who like me, were there to browse the latest gear and talk shop. Our conversation soon turned to a discussion about music guests at our gigs like most to hear and dance to.
Of course, there were differing opinions, but one thing we agreed on was music from the 1970s. Depending on your particular type of audience, you might disagree, but for those of us who perform mostly for wedding receptions, holiday parties and similar events, it seems one just can’t go wrong with those musical gems from the ‘70s.
Younger DJs, may regard ‘70s music as old hat, but I’m never surprised when I get requests from younger audiences (such as a high school prom) for music from that decade. Which brings up the question: what is it about music from the ‘70s that causes it to have such a wide appeal to audiences of all ages?
Perhaps it was the love songs. I’m talking about songs with beautiful melodies, meaningful lyrics expressing true affection and singers who knew how to deliver an erotically-charged ballad without resorting to crudeness or vulgarity. High on many lists was Barry White with his booming basso voice, his sly and sexy lyrics and that easily danceable backtrack. Then there were the Jackson 5 and “I’ll Be There,” the J5’s most successful single and a simple declaration of unconditional love – a sentiment that still resonates with a lot of people.
Wanna get ‘em on the dance floor? Just drop Eric Clapton’s “Wonderful Tonight” and watch the wallflowers jump out of their seats. Another goodie is Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” – not only the definitive Al Green song but also one of the sexiest love songs of all time.
Singers and songwriters were in their heyday during the decade as Joni Mitchell, Elton John, Billy Joel, Carly Simon and Carole King stoked the fires of the hit factories, composing songs with deeper themes and more laid-back arrangements. Almost all of them became solo acts and gained worldwide recognition as performers.
Love songs are nice, but we can’t play them all evening, and we simply cannot talk about 1970s music without disco, the dance movement which perfectly fit the decade. Beginning on Valentine’s Day, 1970, with the opening of The Loft in New York City, disco was born. It rapidly cut across diverse segments of the population, offering a way to dress up and step into a futuristic and elegant world with the Bee Gees, Gloria Gaynor, K.C. & the Sunshine Band, Donna Summer, Village People and others. In fact, during its peak, disco even became a lifestyle for many devotees as illustrated in the movie, “Saturday Night Fever.”. It also saw a return to real partner dancing after the ‘60s decade of the Twist and other solo steps. However, just as abruptly as it was born, disco died in 1980, but its traditions remain with us today, most notably in dance music.
When it came time to get down and boogie, ‘70s bands and singers gave us plenty of great material. Still a personal favorite, “My Sharona” by the Knack provided the perfect musical accompaniment for those who wanted to stomp the dance floor and shout the lyric. Three Dog Night cemented their place in music history with Hoyt Axton’s “Joy to the World,” and Don McLean took us back in time with his timeless “American Pie.” Even today, no dance event worth its salt ends until “Play That Funky Music” by Wild Cherry and Y.M.C.A. by the Village People give guests an opportunity to put their hands in the air and sing it loud.
Motown, you say? The iconic Detroit label rolled in gold during the ‘70s, cranking out heavyweight hits by The Supremes (“Nathan Jones”), Stevie Wonder (“Signed, Sealed, Delivered…), The Jackson 5 (“ABC”), Marvin Gaye (“Let’s Get it On”) and the Commodores (“Brick House). Ask almost any party planner the kinds of music they’d like and “Motown” is sure to top their list.
Let’s don’t overlook those memorable country tunes as this was the time when Nashville went pop and began to cross over into the mainstream. For many, the leader of the pack is Debbie Boone’s “You Light up My Life” which not only was a #1 hit in 1977, but immediately became a wedding ceremony anthem. Among the country artists who became pop favorites were Jimmy Buffett (“Margaritaville”), Charlie Rich (The Most Beautiful Girl), Ray Stevens (“Everything is Beautiful”), John Denver (“Annie’s Song”), Dr. Hook (“When You’re in Love with a Beautiful Woman”), Charlie Daniels Band (“Devil Went Down to Georgia”) and Crystal Gayle (“Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue”). Even today, 40 years later, many of these songs are still crowd-pleasers.
For authoritative guides to the most popular 1970s music, check the Billboard archives for year-by-year lists of the top hits. Also, for its subscribers, DJ Intelligence annually publishes an extensive listing of the top requests from specific time periods, as well as helpful lists of top song requests for first dances, bouquet tosses and other wedding-related events. There are also numerous blogs and sites which list their top picks, however I’ve found many of these are too eclectic to be of much use to many working DJs.
When something works, and has worked all these years, why tinker with it? Just make sure that when you set up for your next gig, your ‘70s music is close at hand. You’re probably going to need it.