Burn, baby, burn. The Trammps' "Disco Inferno" blazed its way into history when it was included on the record-breaking Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. A No. 1 Dance hit and top ten R&B entry, the storming track climbed to No. 11 Pop and became one of the disco era's most significant anthems. But there's more to The Trammps than just "Disco Inferno." An 8-CD box set from Cherry Red's Robinsongs imprint, Disco Inferno: Albums 1975-1980, collects The Trammps' album discography on Golden Fleece, Buddah, and Atlantic plus a handful of bonus tracks to chronicle the near-complete discography of the hitmaking group.
Like many of their Philly brethren, The Trammps evolved from other groups, in their case The Volcanos (who later changed their name to The Moods). Although the group's line-up has altered over the years, the Trammps' classic roster notably included lead singer Jimmy Ellis, first tenor Harold "Doc" Wade, second tenor Stanley Wade, baritone Robert Upchurch, and drummer/bass vocalist Earl Young. The Trammps' story is inextricably linked to that of the Baker-Harris-Young production triumvirate. Bassist Ronnie Baker, guitarist Norman Harris, and drummer Young were, for many years, the backbone of Philadelphia International "house band" MFSB before moving on to other labels including Salsoul Records.
The Trammps first recorded for the Buddah label, where the group announced itself with a soulful revival of "Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart," the standard most closely associated with the legendary Judy Garland. Neil Bogart (future head of Casablanca Records, but then a Buddah executive) picked up "Zing..." and the record went to No. 17 on the R&B chart in summer 1972. Buddah later issued an LP, The Legendary Zing Album, largely from existing single sides, and Tom Moulton handled the remixing. But Zing is the second, not the first, album in Robinsongs' box...
B-H-Y established Golden Fleece Records under the umbrella of Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff's Philadelphia International Records in 1973. While a number of singles were issued, only one full-length album was released on Golden Fleece: 1975's Trammps. It included three chart entries: Norman Harris and Leroy Green's proto-disco "Love Epidemic," (No. 75 R&B, 1973), Ronnie Baker's brassy, uptempo "Where Do We Go from Here" (No. 44 R&B, 1974), and Mervin and Melvin Steals' bright "Trusting Heart" (No. 72 R&B, 1974). Although The Trammps were known for their disco floor-fillers, they didn't shy away from more expected Philly-style ballad fare, represented on Trammps by Baker's mellow, swooning "Every Dream I Dream Is You" and "Down Three Dark Streets." Familiar Philly faces such as guitarist Dennis Harris, pianist Ron Kersey, and saxophonist John Davis all contributed to the lush sound of Trammps as did mix engineer Moulton. In 1977, Philadelphia International reconfigured Trammps as Disco Champs, adding three previously unreleased songs ("Promise Me," "Oh Waa Hey," and "Just Say the Word") and remixing others. Unfortunately, that unique material is absent from this set.
Buddah continued to release material from The Trammps, though, and the previously unreleased "Hold Back the Night" (later a hit for Graham Parker) scored on that label late in 1975 when it reached the Pop top 40 in the U.S. and No. 5 on the U.K. Singles Chart. But by that point, B-H-Y had brought The Trammps to Atlantic Records, then immersing itself in the Sound of Philadelphia with such artists as The Spinners, The Persuaders, and Jackie Moore. The group's 1976 Atlantic debut dovetailed with the rise of disco, a connection made overt with Baker's ebullient "That's Where the Happy People Go" ("And they're just dancing along/To a perfect song/Down at the disco..."). It topped Billboard's new Dance chart and crossed over to No. 12 R&B and No. 27 Pop, their best showing yet on the latter chart. Irresistible grooves were the order of the day on the Where the Happy People Go LP, anchored as always by Young's majestic drums. The album also welcomed Philly's Bobby Eli on guitar, Larry Washington on congas, bassist-keyboardist T.G. Conway, pianist Bruce Gray, and bassist Michael "Sugar Bear" Foreman. Balladry wasn't completely absent, though, with Ronnie Baker's closing track, "Love Is a Funky Thing," sinuously melding Norman Harris' Wes Montgomery-inspired jazz guitar with liquid bass and a drum machine to create a slinky instrumental track.
The disco wasn't just where the happy people went; it was where The Trammps went with late 1976's Disco Inferno. Once again, The Trammps - with the aid of the Sweethearts of Sigma vocal trio (Barbara Ingram, Carla Benson, and Yvette Benton), Don Renaldo's Horns and Strings, M.C. Flash Wilson, and the usual MFSB/Salsoul Orchestra suspects - delivered a set of plush disco rooted in the elegant Philly soul sound. "Don't Burn No Bridges," exhorting against using people on the road to success, even tapped into the social conscience that informed so many Philadelphia classics. But the impressive likes of sexually-charged Dance chart-toppers "Body Contact Contract" and "Starvin'" and the similarly lusty "You Touch My Hot Line" were overshadowed by the majestic and imploring title track, nearly eleven minutes' long in its epic original album version. Once the song was included on the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack issued in November 1977, it was propelled into the mainstream of pop music. The 16x Platinum soundtrack spent 24 straight weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and an astounding 120 weeks on the chart. The Trammps shared in that success.
While recorded and mixed, as always, at Philly's Sigma Sound, The Tramps III opened with a track inspired by a real-life event in New York. Allan Felder, Norman Harris, and Ron Tyson's "The Night the Lights Went Out" imagined what was happening during the NYC blackout of July 1977. While the record was typically alluring - glossy production from B-H-Y, melodic hook, danceable beat, and The Earl Young Drum Groove, of course - it didn't build on the Pop success of "Disco Inferno" though it did reach No. 6 Disco. Atlantic took a completely different approach for the second single. The attractive, romantic "Seasons for Girls" became the first ever ballad to adorn the A-side of a Trammps single, with falsetto vocals from Robert Upchurch and subtly supporting strings by Don Renaldo's group. Just as delectable is the album's slow-burning closing cut, "It Don't Take Much." Like "Seasons for Girls," it emphasized dreamy harmonies as much as "Love Per Hour" and "People of the World Rise" concentrated on their driving rhythms.
The Trammps and co. reunited at Sigma Sound for the optimistically-titled The Whole World's Dancing. Their fourth LP for Atlantic, it faced an uphill battle. It was released for Valentine's Day 1979, just months before the notorious Disco Demolition Night in July. The genre was facing a backlash rooted in no small part in racism and homophobia, but the soul survivors weren't quite down for the count yet. Though the album was overshadowed by Atlantic's release of a greatest hits collection, it found the Trammps still diversifying their music. The single was Leroy Green and Ron Kersey's "Soul Bones," an unusually funky offering recorded in Hollywood with Maurice Spears and His Horns and Paul Schorr and His Strings. Stevie Wonder even dropped by to add some harmonica, but the track languished in the lower reaches of the R&B survey and peaked just out of the top 30 in Dance. 1980's Mixin' It Up would take the group's experimentation even further. While technically a B-H-Y production, individual tracks were doled out to Earl Young, Ron Kersey, and Ronnie Baker. The drummer penned the majority of the album himself, including the lone single and opening track. "Hard Rock and Disco" fused rock guitar with a dance beat for a sound unlike any previously heard on a Trammps record, but audiences at the turn of the decade didn't pay it much attention. Even more urgent were the frenetic "You Can Make It" and "Dance Contest," the latter of which boasts a bass line echoing "Disco Inferno." Baker's "Wake Up from Yesterday," like "Hard Rock and Disco," incorporated edgy guitar into its tight groove.
Though Mixin' It Up missed the charts, Atlantic stuck by The Trammps for one final studio LP. 1980's Slipping Out was released under the aegis of B-H-Y but produced by Mass Production, the dance-funk group then signed to Atlantic's Cotillion imprint. The musicians of Mass Production wrote and played on the album, too, lending it a completely different quality than any of the Trammps' previous LPs. The result was a slick, somewhat more spare effort with shorter songs that lacked the personal stamp of Earl Young and his fellow Trammps. The material on Slipping Out is solid - the funky "Trained Eye," pretty "Loveland," sleek "Our Thought (Slipping Away)," and insistent "Groove All Mighty" - but the personality is absent. Though Slipping Out marked The Trammps' Atlantic swansong, they did briefly continue to record. A 1983 single arrived on the indie label Venture, followed by a 1984 LP for the Dutch Injection Disco Dance Label. That remains the group's final studio release.
Robinsongs' box spreads eleven single versions across the discs, with bonus material on every album except the two that bookend the set, Trammps and Slipping Out. Each album is housed in a mini-LP sleeve replicating the original front and back cover artwork, while the discs themselves are adorned with custom rather than period labels. A 16-page booklet has Charles Waring's liner notes as well as credits for each disc (but no discographical annotation for the albums or bonus tracks). Additionally, this set marks the official CD debuts of the final three Atlantic LPs.
Today, The Trammps may be largely remembered for "Disco Inferno," and that's no small accomplishment. But this box set reveals the depth of their discography. It's one that can stand proudly alongside the cream of the Philly soul crop, with plenty of zing to spare.
CD 1: Trammps (Golden Fleece KZ 33163, 1975)
- Stop and Think
- Trusting Heart
- Every Dream I Dream Is You
- Love Epidemic
- Save a Place
- Trammps Disco Theme
- Where Do We Go from Here
- Down Three Dark Streets
- I Know That Feeling
CD 2: The Legendary Zing Album (Buddah BDS 5641, 1975)
- Penguin at the Big Apple/Zing Went the Strings of My Heart
- Pray All You Sinners
- Sixty Minute Man
- Tom's Song
- Rubber Band
- Hold Back the Night
- Penguin at the Big Apple
- Zing Went the Strings of My Heart (Buddah single BDA 306, 1972)
CD 3: Where the Happy People Go (Atlantic SD 18172, 1976)
- Soul Searchin' Time
- That's Where the Happy People Go
- Can We Come Together
- Disco Party
- Ninety-Nine and a Half
- Hooked for Life
- Love Is a Funky Thing
- Soul Searchin' Time (7" Version) (Atlantic single 3345, 1976)
- That's Where the Happy People Go (Single Edit) (Atlantic single 3306, 1976)
- Ninety-Nine and a Half (7" Version) (Atlantic single 3365, 1976)
- Hooked for Life (Single Edit) (Atlantic single 3286, 1976)
CD 4: Disco Inferno (Atlantic SD 18211, 1976)
- Body Contact Contract
- I Feel Like I've Been Living (On the Dark Side of the Moon)
- Disco Inferno
- Don't Burn No Bridges
- You Touch My Hot Line
- Disco Inferno (Single Edit) (Atlantic single 3389, 1977)
CD 5: Trammps III (Atlantic SD 19148, 1977)
- The Night the Lights Went Out
- Love Per Hour
- People of the World Rise
- Living the Life
- Seasons for Girls
- Life Ain't Been Easy
- I'm So Glad You Came Along
- It Don't Take Much
- The Night the Lights Went Out (Single Edit) (Atlantic single 3442, 1977)
- Seasons for Girls (Single Edit) (Atlantic single 3460, 1978)
CD 6: The Whole World's Dancing (Atlantic SD 19210, 1979)
- Love Insurance Policy
- The Whole World's Dancing
- My Love, It's Never Been Better
- Soul Bones
- Love Magnet
- More Good Times to Remember
- Teaser (7" Version) (Atlantic single 3573, 1979)
- The Whole World's Dancing (7" Version) (source TBD)
CD 7: Mixin' It Up (Atlantic SD 19267, 1980)
- Hard Rock and Disco
- You Can Make It
- Music Freek
- Dance Contest
- Everybody Boogie
- Let Me Dance Real Close
- Wake Me Up from Yesterday
- Hard Rock and Disco (7" Version) (Atlantic single 3654, 1980)
CD 8: Slipping Out (Atlantic SD 19290, 1980)
- Trained Eye
- Mellow Out
- Groove All Mighty
- Looking for You
- Our Thought (Slipping Away)
- I Don't Want to Ever Lose Your Love
- Is There Any Room for Me
- Breathtaking View