Can You Feel the Force? asks the title of Groove Line Records’ new compilation of The John Luongo Disco Mixes. The force is undeniable on this 2-CD, 21-track selection of some of the finest floor-fillers crafted by the Boston DJ-turned-pioneering disco mix master. Luongo had a vision for disco that extended beyond the expected; hence, this dynamite set mostly drawn from the Sony vaults features an eclectic array of artists from the realms of R&B (The Jacksons. Gladys Knight and the Pips, Patti LaBelle), pop (Johnny Mathis, Marilyn McCoo & Billy Davis, Jr.), gospel (The Mighty Clouds of Joy), funk (Sly Stone), jazz (Stanley Clarke, Marlena Shaw), and even rock (Santana). John Luongo’s catholic vision for disco was just one ingredient of his success. Another, as this collection so vividly displays, was his uncanny knack for the right percussion elements to be added to give a song the extra zing that would be needed to make it soar on the dancefloor.
Luongo broke through to the mainstream with the success of Melba Moore’s “You Stepped Into My Life,” one of the artist’s two selections on this set. His transformation of the Bee Gees-penned anthem (produced by the Philadelphia team of Gene McFadden and John Whitehead) for her 1978 Epic debut Melba earned the powerhouse singer-actress her biggest pop hit and a top five disco entry as well. McFadden and Whitehead also wrote its follow-up, “Pick Me Up, I’ll Dance.” While it didn’t match the success of its predecessor, it’s a simply irresistible pop-soul dancer with a happily infectious chorus.
A number of Luongo’s successes had a Philly connection, including Jackie Moore’s sleek “This Time Baby.” Producer Bobby Eli revived an O’Jays song written by Casey James and Leroy Bell (and originally produced by Leroy’s uncle, Thom Bell) for Moore’s album of the same name, but Luongo took the uptempo dance track originally arranged by Philadelphia International stalwart/MFSB flautist Jack Faith to the next level by restructuring the song and adding the powerful percussion of Jimmy Maelen. The result was a Disco chart-topper. (Moore’s entire This Time Baby album has been recently reissued by Cherry Red’s Big Break Records imprint.) Dan Hartman’s epic “Vertigo/Relight My Fire,” featuring the soulful vocals of Loleatta Holloway, was another No. 1 in Luongo’s mix. Like “This Time Baby,” it was recorded at the City of Brotherly Love’s legendary Sigma Sound Studios, with the redoubtable Norman Harris arranging and conducting.
Luongo brought Patti LaBelle to the forefront of disco with the 1979 mission statement “Music is My Way of Life,” and also got behind the controls for her Labelle bandmates Sarah Dash and Nona Hendryx, as well. Dash’s invitation “(Come and Take This) Candy from Your Baby” has an alluring Latin flavor in Luongo’s intimate, sensual remix.
One unquestionable high point here is Luongo’s even-more-rhythmic take on The Jacksons’ “Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground).” His approach to the track was noticed by Quincy Jones, who later acknowledged his debt to Luongo as he envisioned the full-throttle, dynamic percussion style for Michael Jackson’s Epic solo debut, Off the Wall. Before “Shake Your Body,” Luongo had remixed The Jacksons’ catchy, more relaxed “Blame It on the Boogie,” which has also been included here. Michael and co. are the only artists to appear here three times. 1981’s “Walk Right Now” became another top five hit in the wake of Michael’s own solo success – and indeed, his vocal sound had changed and grown since those earlier hits. Note his famous squeals on full display here!
Yet the most compelling tracks to rediscover are the most unexpected ones. The eternally youthful, silken-voiced Johnny Mathis has always been formidable in various soul settings, whether working with Thom Bell or CHIC behind the scenes, or Deniece Williams in front of the microphone. Luongo extended and emphasized the burbling rhythms of the shimmering “Gone, Gone, Gone,” arranged by Gene Page and produced by Mathis’ longtime friend and collaborator, Jack Gold. The singer’s smooth, lighter-than-air vocals are ideal counterpoint to Page’s strings and Luongo’s insistent beat and additional orchestrations. Like Mathis, the former 5th Dimension pair of Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, Jr. were equally comfortable with pop and soul. “Shine On, Silver Moon” is on the lighter end of the disco spectrum, as Luongo respected its breezy texture while still adorning it with the additional bells and whistles to become a top 40 Disco success. Indeed, his essential esteem for the artists and producers’ original intentions shines throughout this collection.
The gospel group Mighty Clouds of Joy adapted to the disco era with the imploring “In These Changing Times,” retaining their core message in this funky outing. Surely songwriters Ron Miller and Michael Masser never imagined their plush ballad “Touch Me in the Morning,” a 1973 No. 1 for Diana Ross, turned into the defiant disco groove reimagined by arranger/co-producer Harold Wheeler for jazz vocalist Marlena Shaw and remixed by Luongo. Though the uptempo reworking lacks the sheer emotional pull of Miss Ross’ original, Shaw’s distinctive vocals and dramatic monologue lend the song a wholly new flavor. Bassist and Return to Forever founder Stanley Clarke, like so many of his contemporaries, embraced a crossover R&B sound to his musical fusion – as represented by his slinky slab of jazz-funk-disco “Just a Feeling.”
What happens when you cross a jazz-rock pioneer with the songwriter-producers behind hits for The Grass Roots and Glen Campbell? The result was Santana’s “One Chain (Don’t Make No Prison),” written and produced by the team of Dennis Lambert and Brian Potter from 1978’s Inner Secrets. Lambert and Potter had originally helmed the song for The Four Tops, but it adapted well in Santana’s versatile hands. It’s not typical fare for the guitar hero, but Luongo’s propulsive mix stands up well today in no small part due to the integrity of the original composition and Greg Walker’s compelling vocal.
Making it equally timely today, the title of The Real Thing’s “Can You Feel the Force?” was inspired by 1977’s blockbuster Star Wars. The U.K. soul band’s 1979 release pulsates with energy and brass-driven urgency, making it one of the finest examples of Luongo’s art. The same goes for the 1979 version of Sly and the Family Stone’s “Dance to the Music.” When the original multi-track wasn’t completely available, Luongo and his band, including future David Letterman bandleader and session pro Paul Shaffer, re-recorded much of the track to create a fresh, almost-seven-minute take on the 1960s classic.
Luongo’s own Pavillion Records yielded hits into the 1980s, including The Quick’s “Zulu” and Cerrone’s “Back Track,” both of which are featured here. Gladys Knight and the Pips, true soul survivors, embraced the post-disco dance sound with 1981’s “I Will Fight,” written and produced by Ashford and Simpson and mixed by Luongo with clear reverence for the group’s signature sound even within the modern framework.
Can You Feel the Force? The John Luongo Disco Mixes is a reminder of the breadth and scope of disco, as re-interpreted by a master of the form; Luongo’s remix structures were often imitated but rarely equaled. Groove Line’s presentation, produced and compiled by Wayne A. Dickson, is typically top-notch. Both discs are housed in a digipak with a colorful, photo-packed 24-page booklet. Its essay and track-by-track annotations by Christian John Wikane boast contributions from Luongo and artists including Mathis, McCoo, Davis, Dash, Shaw, Cerrone, and others. Nick Robbins has potently remastered these 21 tracks, many of which are new to CD. Can you feel the force? If you can’t, it’s doubtful you have a pulse…
- Vertigo/Relight My Fire – Dan Hartman feat. Loleatta Holloway (Blue Sky 4Z8-2790, 1979)
- Shake Your Body (Down To The Ground) – The Jacksons (Epic 28-50721, 1978)
- Music Is My Way Of Life – Patti Labelle (Epic 28-50664, 1979)
- This Time Baby – Jackie Moore (Epic 23-10994, 1979)
- Gone, Gone, Gone – Johnny Mathis (Columbia 23-11002, 1979)
- Shine On Silver Moon – Marilyn McCoo & Billy Davis, Jr. (Columbia 23-10875, 1978)
- Can You Feel The Force – Real Thing (Epic 28-50689, 1978)
- Pick Me Up, I’ll Dance – Melba Moore (Epic 28-50665, 1978)
- In These Changing Times – Mighty Clouds Of Joy (Epic 28-50693, 1979)
- Touch Me In The Morning – Marlena Shaw (Columbia AS 678, 1979)
- Dance To The Music – Sly Stone (Epic 48-50794, 1979)
- Blame It On The Boogie – The Jacksons (Epic promo ASD 523, 1978)
- You Stepped Into My Life – Melba Moore (Epic 28-50601, 1978)
- Just a Feeling – Stanley Clarke (Nemperor 4Z8-7522, 1979)
- On Our Way – Southern Exposure (RCA PD-11667, 1979)
- (Come and Take This) Candy From Your Baby – Sarah Dash (Kirshner 2Z8 4282, 1978)
- One Chain (Don’t Make No Prison) – Santana (Columbia 23-10957, 1978)
- Zulu – The Quick (Pavilion 4Z9 02433, 1981)
- Back Track – Cerrone (Pavilion 4Z9 02961, 1982)
- I Will Fight – Gladys Knight & The Pips (from Touch – Columbia PC 37086, 1981)
- Walk Right Now – The Jacksons (Epic 49-02403, 1981)