UNT Disco Library
The Brad Files
Courtesy of The Dallas Morning News

Learn, baby, learn: UNT has disco covered

By DAVID FLICK / The Dallas Morning News

DENTON – One of the largest collections of disco records in the academic world sits in a cluttered office on the fourth floor of the University of North Texas library, awaiting a time when someone will care.

Need to contrast the early Donna Summer with her mature period? Here's where you do the research.

Deconstructing early post-feminist theory in the music of Disco-Tex and His Sex-O-Lettes? This is the place.

Want to listen to seven versions of "Disco Duck"? Why?

Even Morris Martin, librarian of UNT's music library, is unsure how many records are in the Bert Hile Collection, as it is formally known, though the number is probably well above the university's Web site estimate of 2,500.

The amount of scholarly interest is easier to count.

"Hardly any, frankly," he said.

Part of the problem, Mr. Martin said, is that the collection has never been cataloged, which would make it more accessible to researchers. Another reason is that few musicologists are willing to invest their careers researching lyrics such as:

"Shake it/Doo, doo, doo, whoa/Shake it/Doo, doo, doo, whoa/Shake your groove thing/Shake your groove thing."

 

"No, it's not the greatest music ever recorded," acknowledged Bert Hile, who donated the collection.

"Look, by the end of the disco era, disco even made fun of itself. And if you don't respect yourself, how can anyone else respect you?"

Mr. Hile, 58, who is now a substitute teacher in the Central Texas town of Wimberly, was a disc jockey at some of Dallas' most popular clubs in the late 1970s, when disco was at its height.

In that capacity, he received hundreds of promotional copies from record companies, most of which would otherwise have been thrown away.

He had heard good things about the music department at North Texas State University, as UNT was then known, and called Mr. Martin to ask if he wanted the discarded promos. He did.

Over the next few years, Mr. Martin would wait late at night in the parking lots of clubs such as Carlos and Pepe's, The Begger and the Red Dog Saloon, where Mr. Hile worked.

During breaks, the disc jockey would turn over records that he didn't use or were falling out of favor. The two men would transfer cardboard boxes full of vinyl from the trunk of one car to another.

"There were people who saw us, and I can only imagine what they thought we were doing," Mr. Martin said.

The donations continued into the 1980s, so the collection also includes hundreds of mainstream pop records of that era.

But disco makes up the backbone of the Bert Hile Collection. The pressings include Manu Dibango's 1972 "Soul Makossa," which is considered the first true disco recording.

There are also the often misguided attempts of non-disco artists to capitalize on the craze, including Paul Anka, Papa John Creach and, most memorably, Ethel Merman.

"I never played it in the clubs," Mr. Hile said of the Merman record. "She had a loud voice, but you listen closely, and it's obvious she was singing flat."

Disco is said to have died on Feb. 3, 1980, the day New York's Studio 54 closed. But Mr. Hile said its fate was sealed by a movie released three years earlier.

"Saturday Night Fever is what killed disco. It ran it into the ground," he said. "You know how when you have a scratch and you keep itching and itching until it starts to bleed? Well, that's what happened to disco. It got overplayed."

Susannah Cleveland, UNT's music recordings and digital resources librarian, has day-to-day charge of the collection, which sits in rows behind her desk. Her office has been nicknamed "The Disco Room."

It is not a busy place.

"We actually get fewer requests from students than we did a few years ago," she said. "Students then were just old enough to remember something of the era. The ones today weren't even born then."

Asked what she thought of the genre, Ms. Cleveland paused to choose the right words: "I'm not opposed to disco."

Even Mr. Martin sounds pressed to explain why disco records should be preserved.

"In spite of what we may think of disco, it's part of our heritage," he said.

But Mr. Hile feels that disco, even with its limitations, has its place in musical history.

"A lot of it can be really bland," he said. "But good disco makes you want to dance – thump, thump, thump – right along with it.

"There was something about it that makes you happy."

E-mail dflick@dallasnews.com

Dallas Morning News critic Mario Tarradell ranks the best and worst of disco:

TOP 5 BEST SONGS

1. "Got to Be Real," Cheryl Lynn (Columbia, 1978) – Long recognized as a disco song even if rhythmically it's more R&B, Ms. Lynn's debut single merged a wicked groove with powerhouse vocals and became an instant classic.

2. "This Time Baby," Jackie Moore (Columbia, 1979) – An obscure song from an obscure artist, but a tune that basked in stylish, soul-soaked dance floor rhythms and a vocal performance oozing with attitude.

3. "I Feel Love," Donna Summer (Casablanca, 1977) – A pioneering song that took disco down an electronic path; it also signified the sound's inherent sexiness, with Ms. Summer's velvety vocals and that pulsating bottom beat.

4. "Can't Get Enough of Your Love, Babe," Barry White (20th Century, 1974) – For those who dismissed disco as mindless and manufactured, take a listen to the late maestro's trailblazing command of a full orchestra complete with stirring string sections and plush voices.

5. "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)," Sylvester (Fantasy, 1978) – The late Sylvester was disco incarnate from head to toe, and this song captured the hedonistic, intoxicating swirl of beats, strobe lights and falsetto vocals.

TOP 5 WORST SONGS

1. "Disco Duck," Rick Dees and His Cast of Idiots (RSO, 1976) – A novelty song, yes, but that's no excuse. Better known as a disc jockey, Mr. Dees tried to poke fun at the genre, and instead he was the one who came out looking like the idiot.

2. "Get Dancin'," Disco-Tex and His Sex-O-Lettes (Chelsea, 1974) – So many disco acts were merely studio players assembled strictly for a record. This was one of those, and among the worst of the bunch. Useless song, too.

3. "Ring My Bell," Anita Ward (Juana, 1979) – It was a sensation, but it was also ridiculous, a repetitive mess that never got beyond the simple hook. It quickly outstays its welcome.

4. "(Shake, Shake, Shake) Shake Your Booty," KC and the Sunshine Band (T.K., 1976) – Not the group's finest moment, far from it. Although he's never been a cerebral songwriter, KC was obviously going for the quick, easy sell judging by the tune's stifling repetition and silly lyrics.

5. "Macho Man," Village People (Casablanca, 1978) – Campy? Yes. But the essence of good camp is a sly, wink-wink demeanor to go with the flamboyance. On this cut, the Village People could never get past the bludgeoning hook and inane lyrics.

 

 

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