If you’re looking for a perfect document of disco as it existed right before it went from trend to craze, forget the ‘Saturday Night Fever’ soundtrack: this is how to get down. A showcase for Salsoul Records when the label was the ultimate circa-’77 seal of quality for dance music, this set assembled by DJ Walter Gibbons includes four continuous, momentous mixes on four LP sides that lay out plenty of deeper cuts (naturally, there’s a ton of great Salsoul Orchestra jams) and Paradise Garage faves (including Tom Moulton mixes of First Choice’s “Dr. Love” and Claudja Barry’s “Sweet Dynamite”). Hold on to your ass when you hit Side 4: it starts with Loleatta Holloway’s “Hit and Run” and somehow gets even more intense from there.
At first glance, the Salsoul label — established in 1974 and decommissioned roughly ten years later — seems like a simple-enough chapter in the story of disco’s momentous rise and fall. They struck while the iron was hot, notched a lot of clubland classics and a handful of minor pop-crossover successes, earned a loyal following among the disco cognoscenti beneath the radar of a largely skeptical rockist music press, and then receded from the spotlight when the disco market hit its early ’80s downturn. But in another, more tangled sense, Salsoul’s story hinges on both incredibly fortuitous luck and inexplicable star-crossed tumult — the kind of thing that only really happens when a ruthless business sense grapples with artistic demands and winds up staggering into a brief but rare win-win.
The Cayre Brothers, Joe, Ken, and Stanley, were a nomadic sibling trio with a history of getting into every kind of business from duty free retail to nylon hose to plastic injection molding. Eventually they found their way into the music biz, and after some awkward misunderstandings and false starts — including a copyright-flouting enterprise selling 8-tracks of CBS and RCA’s Mexican-market recordings in the U.S. Southwest without actually securing the American rights — they found a promising niche in the New York Latin music scene. After the brothers transitioned from distribution to helming an actual label, Mericana Records, Joe Cayre pulled the surprise coup of signing Latin-music star Joe Bataan after the popular singer grew disillusioned with Fania Records’ stingy payouts. Bataan gave his first (and only) album on Mericana the title Salsoul, a fittingly characteristic portmanteau of “salsa” and “soul,” and while it didn’t move units, it did get the most crucial co-sign any New York soulster would ever want when tastemaking WBLS DJ Frankie Crocker put Bataan’s instrumental Deodato cover “Latin Strut” in heavy rotation.
After selling CBS the short-term rights to the record for $100,000, the Cayres figured that more music like “Latin Strut” — danceable, uptempo, funky and soulful Latin-inflected instrumentals — might make a few bucks off the growing New York trend of DJ-driven dance clubs. Bataan agreed, and had designs on starting a label — something the Cayres were more than happy to support. Goodbye Mericana, hello Salsoul. Bataan’s efforts were just the first part — though it would soon become apparent that an A&R role and 25% partnership in the new label with the Cayres would be the best offer he could get. (He’d eventually lose his share in the business, but not before he released a pioneering early rap single, “Rap-O Clap-O,” on the label in 1979.) And while their efforts to cultivate a roster of Latin music stars outside the increasingly constricting aegis of Fania gave them a foothold in the New York music world, it was the Cayres’ opportunity to take advantage of another city’s foundational scene that put Salsoul over the top. Many of the musicians who’d written and played on all those big Philly soul hits for Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff’s Philadelphia International Records had, like Bataan, started to resent how light their pockets were feeling despite their integral role in a massive corpus of R&B hits. Ken Cayre, already being enamored with the Philly sound, had made the decision to start assembling a studio group that would emulate its symphonic-yet-danceable power — and instead of looking for ringers, he wound up discovering that the working musicians and arrangers of PIR were more than willing to jump ship themselves. In signing arranger/vibraphonist Vincent Montana Jr., singer/songwriter Bunny Sigler, and the production/writing/musician unit of Norman Harris, Ronnie Baker, and Earl Young, Salsoul essentially siphoned the Philadelphia Sound into their own vision at just the right moment for that sound to become even more lucrative than it was in the early ’70s.
While the sales-driven and airplay-focused mainstream charts rarely took notice, Salsoul would thrive for years just off the strength of how well their records did in clubs. While their soul offerings were strong — both on Salsoul proper and its Norman Harris-helmed subsidiary Gold Mind — Salsoul soon became synonymous with disco, for better and for worse. The “worse” is subjective anyways — there have been far more grievous sins committed on the genre’s behalf than kitschy Christmas albums and Charo records — and the “better” in this case is just about the best American disco ever got. And above all else, Salsoul’s role in DJ culture was pivotal to the point where it’s hard to imagine how things would’ve panned out without them. Their hold on the disco world was driven by prescient innovation that was borne out of necessity: taking the then-unusual risk of pressing singles on 12" records, putting out a 1977 double LP (Disco Boogie) that served as one of the earliest and best commercially released dance mixes, and giving shine to a new movement of DJs who refused to settle for merely playing records when they could transform them. Walter Gibbons, Tom Moulton, and (especially) Larry Levan built up the Salsoul pantheon one remix at a time, and while the best collections of these mixes — particularly the early ’90s Classic Salsoul Mastercuts entries and the stunning two-CD 2004 compilation Larry Levan: The Definitive Salsoul Mixes ’78-’83 — are woefully absent from streaming platforms, they’re worth seeking out by any means available as the next step after immersing yourself in this wide cross-section of what albums Salsoul had to offer in their heyday.
Yes, it’s uneven. Yes, it’s kitschy. Yes, there is an absolutely irritating cover of cornball ’50s novelty song “Short Shorts.” But at its most dizzying, bigger-than-big-band heights, the third Salsoul Orchestra album is difficult to top for disco bombast. Opener “It’s a New Day” might be upbeat enough to cause hazardous blood sugar levels, but its hey everybody let’s have a good time energy rivals that of the most beloved Broadway musical showstoppers. The marching band-gone-supernova run-through of Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Getaway” is a killer, too — proof positive that you can positively drown a classic funk jam in sea-of-brass orchestration as long as you make sure the beat remains unstoppable. And the full-throttle symphonic thrust of its loose-concept three-fer end run — the Stravinsky-meets-honky-tonk “Magic Bird of Fire,” the massive luxury-starship grandiosity of “Journey to Phoebus,” and the rhinestone-constellation glimmer of “Alpha Centuri” — conjures up an alternate universe where Vincent Montana Jr. got the Close Encounters and Star Wars gigs that went to John Williams in ours. But nothing beats “Runaway”: they hit the jackpot with Loleatta Holloway’s voice at full flight delivering a crystalline vision of romantic ambivalence and the orchestra dialed back just enough to sound more like Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band than the Studio 54 Philharmonic — albeit blessed with a great string section and an extended vibraphone solo that’d do Lionel Hampton proud.
Vincent Montana, Jr. had a vision: assemble a disco-soul orchestra so massive and highly polished that Love Unlimited and MFSB would sound like four-piece garage bands in comparison. When Salsoul gave him the green light, the ensuing creation of the Salsoul Orchestra drew in dozens of musicians — some numbers point to as many as 50 — including some of the best the R&B world had to offer (like the original core of the aforementioned MFSB). It was this all-star team that would anchor dozens of the biggest soul and disco classics of the late ’70s and early ’80s, and while their sound added an additional degree of separation from R&B tradition — a bit less brass, and a lot more strings — they never sacrificed the all-important matter of not just keeping a groove going but putting it at the forefront. The Orchestra’s first album is a bit funkier than subsequent disco-heavy releases, but it’s still as melodically breezy and light as it is rhythmically insistent and intricate. A boogie-down take on WWII-era big band standard “Tangerine” charted well, and its lighthearted frivolity is a sign of kitschier things to come, though it’s pretty hard to resist its charms once the solos start flying. Instrumentals like the cheery “Salsoul Hustle” and “Chicago Bus Stop (Ooh, I Love It)” capitalize on dance-craze familiarity without sacrificing a sense of purposeful drive and big-band musicianship; the latter cut even seems to pick up where the big-band euphoria of MFSB’s “Love Is the Message” left off (complete with joyful sax solo). And a couple numbers — the saucy “You’re Just the Right Size” and the instrumental chops-showcase “Tale of Three Cities” — add a bit of welcome deep-funk oomph into the mix, with some gnarly fuzz guitars and Montana’s subtly tense string arrangements giving a subtle nod back to the increasingly distant echoes of Norman Whitfield’s psychedelic soul.
Joe Bataan’s first album for Salsoul isn’t just an excellent follow-up to its immediate label-naming predecessor on the Cayre Brothers-run precursor Mericana Records. It’s also a powerfully reinterpretive set from an artist aware enough to put his cultural background front and center in the title, and legit enough that Afrofilipino stands as a landmark of his prominence as a pillar of Latin soul. Recorded bicoastally and featuring two different session bands, you can hear something of a dichotomy in the “East Coast” and “West Coast” sides; the former’s got sweeter strings and packed-disco atmospherics while the latter’s heavier, organ-driven funky soul skews closer to open-top lowrider vibes. (Chicago’s “Woman Don’t Want To Love Me” has never sounded more destined to be a gem of brown-eyed soul.) But while his biggest hit came from the way he reworked Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson’s “The Bottle” into a brisk, David Sanborn sax-laced instrumental that upped the original’s Nuyorican sound, the deeper cuts shine because they complement both the mischievous joy and the bewildered pain in his voice’s warm, subtly raspy resonance. The former mode’s easily ingratiating — his cover of the theme to “Chico and the Man” and the 42nd Street throwdown of “X Rated Symphony” transcend good-time ’70s kitsch in part because he’s got the kind of voice that can also convey the modesty of an “Ordinary Guy.” But it’s the pathos behind that revamp of his own Riot!-era Fania classic — and another one, “What Good Is A Castle,” that reaches final-form perfection as a two-parter that flips from downer ballad into uptempo vamp — that seals his rep as one of the boogaloo-to-disco continuum’s greats.
Arguably the finest ’70s Philly soul group to never cut a single under the aegis of Thom Bell or Gamble & Huff, Double Exposure might’ve suffered for it on the mainstream charts but never fell short when it came to performance. The vocal quartet — Leonard “Butch” Davis, Joe Harris, Charles Whittington, and Jimmy Williams — were finely-honed group-soul vets who sounded primed to be Salsoul’s equivalent of the O’Jays, and even thought Ten Percent is more historically notable than it was commercially, it can stand toe-to-toe with the mid-decade likes of Family Reunion or Survival. Granted, the message in their music isn’t always optimistic; the bootstrap lecture of “Everyman” must’ve sounded like tough-love scolding during an inflation-wracked 1976, to say nothing of how it comes across now. But hell, better it comes from a bottom-heavy disco-soul groove than some TikTok hustle-culture vulture, at least — and they’re a lot more generous when it comes to romance, taking affection as the best compensation on “My Love Is Free” and choosing rare but simple pleasures over unattainable standards on the immortal “Ten Percent.” That latter song’s what made them a part of disco history, with Walter Gibbons’ 12" mix becoming in-demand enough to both make that emerging vinyl format commercially viable, and prove the value of the extended DJ mix concept to a skeptical industry. (It also proved what different worlds the radio and the disco were inhabiting: it didn’t even make Top 50 on the Billboard Hot 100, but it hit #2 on the club charts.) Their uptempo cuts are so emblematic of everything that made the Philly soul-to-disco continuum so deep and rich that it’s easy to forget they’re fine balladeers, too — “Gonna Give My Love Away,” “Just Can’t Say Hello,” and “Pick Me” are all strong evidence of that.
Walter Gibbons and Tom Moulton might’ve helped establish and popularize the 12" single and the extended remix, but when it came to Salsoul’s go-to DJs, nobody flipped their hits quite like Larry Levan. The don of the Paradise Garage had a thing for the label’s sides — legends abound of his DJ setlists taking Salsoul cuts by First Choice or Inner Life and turning them into half-hour long epic journeys at his hands — and this hard-to-find but well-worth seeking out compilation is the best possible collection of the mixes that transmitted those dynamics onto wax. As someone who treated disco like the R&B-steeped movement it really was, he had an unmatched ability to wring constant yet unpredictable momentum out of dancefloor anthems from Salsoul Orchestra’s “How High” (which he tweaks to give it a subtly dubby bass boost) to Loleatta Holloway’s “The Greatest Performance of My Life” (which he strips to its percussive foundations, only to rebuild a cathedral around her powerful high-drama vocals). But some of his best work came well after disco had been declared dead, and he works magic with the neon-in-the-sunshine midtempo boogie-funk — Logg’s “I Know You Will,” Steve Arrington’s “Summertime Lovin’,” Jimmy Castor’s 1983 re-recording of his hip-hop breaker classic “It’s Just Begun” — that would sustain Salsoul throughout the early ’80s. The comp closes on Inner Life’s slow-glide post-disco comedown “Make It Last Forever” — a sentiment he answers by stretching it to 13 gloriously languid minutes that feel like they’ve earned another 20.
The first half of Salsoul’s genre-portmanteau origins isn’t as widely remembered as the latter, but even if the label’s salsa offerings tended to have relatively niche commercial appeal, they could push the boundaries of that sound every bit as much as the soul records did. Lo Dice Todo is the second LP from Andy and Jerry Gonzalez’s massive multi-generational ensemble Grupo Folklorico Y Experimental Nuevayorquino, and the supposedly-contradictory promises of both deep-rooted tradition and innovative exploration in that name are met with both scholarly knowledge and deep, learned experience. Serving as a deliberate break from what the Gonzalez brothers considered commercial Latin music’s increasing reliance on formula, their approach not only reconciled the regional rural origins and melting-pot big-city expansions of the music, but redrew its borders around an increasingly expansive world. And since the open-ended, momentum-shifting improvisational descarga jam sessions on this release drew in musicians from a wide variety of disciplines and backgrounds, that offers a perspective that’s well-represented by Puerto Rican bomba (“Cinco En Uno Callejero”), Cuban rumba (“La Mama”), Brazilian samba (“Ao Meu Lugar Voltar”), and the kind of origin-point Afro-Latin percussive folk (“Aguemimo”) that sounds so deeply timeless it seems to predate the concept of genre entirely. Lo Dice Todo was even singled out by the New York Times in 1977 as being a potential crossover success to help salsa “escape the cultural ghetto,” emphasizing its’ players’ virtuosity and eclecticism as a potential way to gain generalist listeners while retaining its Latin identity. But while it never really reached that next-big-thing level — and was the last LP the Grupo would cut as a unit — Lo Dice Todo is as good an entry point into the fundamentals of Afro-Cuban-rooted music as you could ask for.
The Philadelphia-based First Choice were one of disco’s most consistently enjoyable groups — one with a career that span practically the entire initial lifecycle of the genre from early ’70s Philly soul origins to its turn of the ’80s burnout. And 1979’s Hold Your Horses might be the best of their three-album Gold Mind/Salsoul run, even if the hits off this album tended to feel more gigantic than they actually were. Three singles all bolstered the LP’s particularly strong Side 2, with the thoroughbred gallop of the title cut, the mid-tempo clavinet-heavy rump-shaker “Love Thang,” and the slap-bass-driven high drama of “Double Cross” all shining like the clubland chart-toppers they inexplicably weren’t. (“Hold Your Horses” was a Dance #5 in the States, granted, but the other two didn’t crack the Top 40 anywhere — a damn shame.) But the trio of album cuts that comprise the Side 1 medley — the gleaming sax flourishes of “Let Me Down Easy,” the flamenco exotica of “Good Morning Midnight,” and the melodramatic Eurodisco pulse of “Great Expectations” — are momentously fun, too, highlight reels for both the headliners’ incredible vocal chops and the immaculate mixing and production skills of Tom Moulton. Recorded partially in Giorgio Moroder’s Musicland Studios in Munich and partially in Philadelphia’s Sigma Sound, Hold Your Horses embodied the broad international sound of peak disco at its best, right as that peak was on the downswing towards a backlash-driven valley — bad timing for an ambitious LP that pulls off every one of its surprisingly eclectic gambits.
For a group with a name that sort of sounds like a punchline at disco’s expense (“it’s powdered dance music, the kind that goes up your nose”), Instant Funk were actually a pretty legit powerhouse of an R&B group — and, for a while, a more low-key and underheralded Philly equivalent of the Funk Brothers. The Trenton-based group made some initial waves bolstering some Philly greats in the mid ’70s — Bunny Sigler got them a few studio sessions backing the O’Jays, as well as recruiting them for his own solo LPs — and then followed Sigler to Salsoul subsidiary Gold Mind in ’77 to back him up for his label debut Let Me Party With You. But when a jam they worked out with Sigler coalesced into the massive smash “I Got My Mind Made Up (You Can Get It Girl),” they became hitmakers in their own right. That legendary 12"’s perfect-hook catchiness and canyon-deep groove earned the dual reward of a #1 R&B chart position in spring ’79 and, just as crucially, a stunning Larry Levan remix. (If that wasn’t enough to immortalize it for future generations, De La Soul masterfully flipping a sample of it for “A Roller Skating Jam Named ‘Saturdays’” in ’91 sure was.) But their self-titled sophomore LP shows there’s a lot more where that came from: as a vocal ensemble led by the from-the-gut passion of James Carmichael, they not only kept up with but drove the momentum of a slate of club classics and underrated oddities gathered here. That goes for the boomshakalaka-laced entreaties of Brothers Johnson-rivalling jam “You Say You Want Me to Stay,” the relentlessly heightened disco pathos of “Crying,” and the amazingly weird Star Wars-goes-Blaxploitation novelty of “Dark Vader."
Patrick Adams and Jocelyn Brown say to hell with your received “disco died in ‘79” wisdom: here’s a miracle of a record featuring one of the best Motown covers ever recorded in “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” the love-affirming cruiserweight bout “(Knock Out) Let’s Go Another Round,” and a host of album tracks that’d be most dance club contemporaries’ best singles. Do yourself a favor and cop a reissue with the Tee Scott and Larry Levan mixes.
Far and away the best disco album fronted by a 50-something musician who got his start before even rock and roll was a thing, Candido’s Dancin’ & Prancin' took a somewhat off-kilter idea — hey, let’s get a veteran Afro-Cuban congalero in the studio and see what we can get happening for the dancefloor — to its ideally feverish conclusion. As one of those LPs that manages to get a ton of mileage out of just four songs — three of which push past the nine-minute mark — Dancin’ & Prancin' thrives because it feels like a big-budget studio-session group letting their freeform jam-session tendencies loose. Candido’s role is crucial, of course; as the man of the hour, his blistering performance through a wide array of Latin percussion provides both a steady rhythmic hand and an unpredictably emphatic sense of dynamic intensity. (The opportunity to hear him go absolutely all-out on Olatunji’s “Jingo” is worth it in itself — he finds pretty much every available space to elaborate between the lines of the 4/4 beat that it feels like a deliberate riposte to disco’s rep for repetition.) But in another, less-heralded way, this is also an excellent Louis Small showcase: the Bronx-rooted Latinaires co-founder makes like the Keith Emerson of Latin soul on three of the four tracks here (“Jingo”, the ebullient title cut, and the muy misterioso “Thousand Finger Man”), riffing off Candido’s percussion with a litany of percussively-propulsive yet melodically lively keyboards ranging from funky clavinet to space-age Arp synths to house-anticipating piano.
If any song truly announced that Salsoul and their subsidiary Gold Mind were prepared to outdo Gamble and Huff at their own game, it was the leadoff cut from the album that also announced Loleatta Holloway’s emergence as a top-of-the-line disco diva. “Hit and Run” is one of the most stunning compositions and performances to ever solidify that the Philadelphia Sound had become the keystone of American disco. (It helped the case that it was practically written, arranged, and produced by the same Baker-Harris-Young braintrust that orchestrated much of the Philadelphia Sound in the first place.) And it’s hard to top; its fuzz-guitar-permeated symphony of gospel-trained emotional intensity made Holloway’s demands for faithful monogamy sound like an even bigger thrill than any Casanova player’s anthem ever could. Beyond that, there are at least a couple other highlights on Loleatta that damn near match it, enough to make a case for Holloway as a singer who was more than capable of helming an entire LP of uptempo grooves — the punchy, cathartic get over him intensity of “Dreamin’” struck all the right nerves as the other big club hit, and “Ripped Off” joined them in the upper reaches of the Billboard Dance charts — she could really tap into the club-hit potential of songs that so effectively fused dancefloor euphoria and recriminatory anger. But Holloway’s a strong balladeer, too: she puts it all out there on her to-the-rafters performance of “Worn Out Broken Heart” and a luxuriously longing slow-simmer take on Gene Chandler’s Curtis Mayfield-penned ’64 lost-classic “What Now” (the best possible nod to her Chicago roots — at least, the best before she became the godmother of house music).