It’s been said that the greatest music is transporting, to another time or another place. If that’s true, it was no secret where the sounds of TK Records intended to transport the listener. Henry Stone’s TK family of labels originated in Miami, Florida, and the sleeve artwork for TK’s singles featured a tropical setting of palm trees, bright flowers and pristine waters. That serene scene serves as the cover for Gold Legion’s new TK Records Story (67094 562442 7), a 12-track anthology of disco gems from the label originally issued between 1976 and 1978.
TK was at the forefront of the disco revolution when George McCrae’s “Rock Your Baby” reached No. 1 on the U.S. Pop chart in 1974. “Rock Your Baby” is usually considered the second bona fide disco track to reach that coveted spot, following another “Rock” song – The Hues’ Corporation’s “Rock the Boat.” TK was so named for Terry Kane, the engineer who built Henry Stone’s studio, and counted singer/producer Steve Alaimo among its personnel. Alaimo had credits ranging from Burt Bacharach to Gregg Allman, and gained national fame hosting Dick Clark’s Where the Action Is. As Vice President, he proved a good match for the entrepreneurial Stone, and the duo didn’t have to look very far to discover a smash act when they discovered Harry Wayne Casey and Richard Finch working in the TK warehouse. Casey and Finch not only produced “Rock Your Baby,” but as the core of KC & The Sunshine Band notched 15 chart hits (of which five were No. 1s) between 1975 and 1979.
So it might be a surprise that both George McCrae and KC & The Sunshine Band are absent from The TK Records Story. Like its semi-companion volume, The Salsoul Records Story, this new compilation doesn’t tell the whole story of its titular label. Other big hits from the TK family of labels are missing – Anita Ward’s “Ring My Bell” (No. 1, 1979) and Bobby Caldwell’s “What You Won’t For Love” (No. 9, 1978), to name two. But the twelve songs here paint a strong and vivid picture of the days when TK ruled the disco roost alongside labels like Casablanca and of course, Salsoul.
Stone’s TK family encompassed such labels as Dash, Drive, Alston, Royal Flush, LRC, SRI and Marlin, and all of those are represented here. Like Salsoul (and of course, Motown and Philadelphia International), TK had a nominal “house band.” In his foreword, Stone praises his own rhythm section of Benjamin “Benny” Latimore, Little Beaver, Timmy Thomas, Ish Ledesma and George “Chocolate” Perry. They brought a funky flavor to TK’s disco recordings which lent themselves first to extended twelve-inch mixes and much later to hip-hop sampling. (Every track on the new compilation was released in the 12-inch format, and all told, TK issued more than 200 twelve-inch singles worldwide.)
Head straight to paradise after the jump!
The pleasure factor in these tracks can’t be underestimated. The good time party music epitomized by KC & The Sunshine Band is reflected in spirit if not in style on a number of these tracks. After all, the disco genre itself is rooted in liberation, and the shedding of all inhibitions. That freedom is excitingly expressed via the beats here that will keep your pulse, as well as your feet, racing. Dancing – and dancing as an entrée to other pleasures – is the topic of Rocky Mizell and the Sugar Rock Band’s “Hey Sexy Dancer” (1977) with its insistent, catchy horns echoing its lyrical admonishment to “Come on, let’s dance!” Party sounds and whistles embellish Herman Kelly and Life’s 1978 “Dance to the Drummer’s Beat.” Naturally, there’s plenty of percussion bouncing from speaker to speaker, with vibrant horn blasts and cries of “Let’s dance!” The instant party vibe extends to Foxy’s saucy “Get Off,” a funky R&B No. 1 from 1978. “Get Off” featured vocals by TK’s session group known as Wildflower, and that group is credited with a 1977 revival of Earle Hagen’s 1939 “Harlem Nocturne.” Wildflower’s take on the big band standard pulls out all of the stops from wailing saxophone to sirens, whistles and soulful vocals. Produced by TK stalwart Cory Wade, it’s an atmospheric and offbeat 5+ minutes that pushed the envelope of disco’s more widescreen aspirations.
It isn’t the only offbeat track that stands out on The TK Records Story, though. Buddy Scott and Phil Medley’s “Lady Fingers,” resonantly sung by the versatile Tony Middleton, is another atypical song here. Middleton had used his dark-hued R&B voice to great effect on Broadway and in the recording studio (including a rocking take on “My Little Red Book” produced and arranged by its composer, Burt Bacharach) and it proved a surprisingly good match for disco, too, with “Lady Fingers.” Prominent strings add tension to the track’s breathy, lustful whispers of the title phrase and such exclamations as “Good God how the memory lingers, Lady Fingers!”
Middleton wasn’t the only veteran artist to find a rebirth at TK. Jazz organist Dr. Lonnie Smith (not to be confused with another pianist/keyboardist, Lonnie Liston Smith) first made a splash playing alongside George Benson in the mid-1960s before going solo for labels including Blue Note, Groove Merchant and CTI/Kudu. Smith adapted remarkably well to the funky strains of disco, moving away from the jazzy Hammond B3 sounds on which he made his career. It was a successful transition, at least as evidenced by the title track of his 1977 album Funk Reaction. “Do you wanna, do you wanna get hot? Do you like it? Do you like it a lot?,” the female backing vocalists seductively query on this New York City-recorded track.
Though TK was based in Florida, the music of New York had a major place on its roster. In addition to “Funk Reaction,” The TK Records Story spotlights Gregg Diamond’s “Star Cruiser.” Diamond’s other work for TK included George McCrae’s album Diamond Touch, named for its producer. “Star Cruiser” was a TK production recorded in New York with all the energy of the big city. It also provided the title of Diamond’s 1978 album on TK’s Marlin imprint.
But the song here that best epitomizes New York disco is the big, brassy and bold “Plato’s Retreat,” from flautist/saxophonist Joe Thomas. Like the infamous nightspot that inspired it, “Plato’s Retreat” is the ultimate of these odes to dance and letting go: “If you need some lovin'/Some part-time huggin'/Move to any beat/At Plato's Retreat…Gettin' hot and bothered?/Loosen up your collar!/Let's all do the freak/At Plato's Retreat!” The rhymes are far from perfect, but the evocation of a particular place and time is! Plato’s Retreat set up shop in 1977 in the former Continental Baths, located in the basement of New York’s famous Ansonia building. A heterosexual swingers’ club with an infamous “Mattress Room” for orgys of every size and style, Plato’s attracted hedonistic celebrities and suburbanites alike in the days of free love. Though it vacated the Ansonia in 1980, Plato’s remained open in a downtown location until it was finally closed in 1985 by the City of New York in response to the mounting AIDS crisis. Thomas’ song utilized many of the same vocalists who performed on “Star Cruiser,” and the song remains a particularly indelible snapshot of the disco era.
Midnite Flite’s 1977 “Don’t Turn Away” has one of The TK Story’s most intriguing back stories, having been co-written and produced by a jingle writer (Kevin Gavin of “You Deserve a Break Today” fame) and having evolved from a theme to NBC’s NFL football broadcast! Alluring female vocals, tough guitar licks and prevalent Latin percussion enhance the big, positive anthem (“Take the love that you feel in your heart and turn it on today”). Also notable is the torrid “Do You Wanna Get Funky with Me,” co-written and performed by Peter Brown and produced by Cory Wade. The song earned Brown the first-ever gold record awarded for a 12-inch single. Also a Top 20 Pop hit, the raw groove of “Funky” made room for elements of jazz such as tasty, extended percussion and saxophone breaks. The lengthy track incorporates the distinct section known as “Burning Love Breakdown.” Devised by Brown simply as a way to extend the song, it quickly became recognized as an integral part of it. Brown went on to write “Material Girl” for Madonna and work with Bob Gaudio, and as for “Do You Wanna Get Funky with Me,” it had further life as part of the soundtrack to Grand Theft Auto, of all things!
The TK Records Story is handsomely packaged with a color booklet. Shots of each original single and sleeve accompany the track-by-track notes by Christian John Wikane, who also annotated The Salsoul Records Story. Wikane is an entertaining and knowledgeable tour guide through the history of these seminal songs. Henry Stone’s foreword completes the retrospective package.
Henry Stone boiled the sound of his enterprise down to “a combination of Latin, blues, Caribbean – a whole mixture of music down here in Miami.” Indeed, all of those elements and many more coalesced to give TK’s disco records a lasting sound. The TK Records Story is an engaging, enjoyable survey of a brief but blazing period when the Florida label stood at the vanguard of cutting-edge dance music. Loosen up your collar, and get funky!
The CD can be ordered at the Amazon link below or directly from Gold Legion!
Various Artists, The TK Records Story (Gold Legion CD 67094 56244 2, 2013)
- Do What You Wanna Do – T-Connection (Dash 12” TKD-24, 1977)
- Funk Machine – Funk Machine (Drive 12” TKD-23, 1977)
- Hey Sexy Dancer – Rocky Mizell and the Sugar Rock Band (Drive 12” TKD-16, 1977)
- Get Off – Foxy (Dash 12” TKD-88, 1978)
- Dance to the Drummer’s Beat – Herman Kelly and Life (Alston 12” TKD-100, 1978)
- Lady Fingers – Tony Middleton (Royal Flush 12” TKD-12, 1976)
- Funk Reaction – Dr. Lonnie Smith (LRC 12” TKD-12, 1977)
- Harlem Nocturne – Wildflower (Dash 12” TKD-55, 1977)
- Don’t Turn Away – Midnite Flite (SRI 12” TKD-43, 1977)
- Do You Wanna Get Funky with Me – Peter Brown (Drive 12” TKD-25, 1977)
- Plato’s Retreat – Joe Thomas (LRC 12” TKD-94, 1978)
- Star Cruiser – Gregg Diamond (Marlin 12” TKD-110, 1978)