05/10/2010

KC and the Sunshine Band - They put Miami on the map

For those of us who lived in Miami during the '70s and '80s, the ``Miami Sound'' is synonymous with a band that put the Magic City on the map long before Gloria and Emilio Estefan reached their success. That band was KC and the Sunshine Band.

A seemingly ragtag group of kids fronted by a long-haired, starry-eyed kid from Hialeah, Harry Wayne Casey (KC) busted onto the top of the pop charts in the mid 1970s and left an indelible mark on the music world.

I recently sat down to chat with KC, and while his hair is not what it used to be, there is still a twinkle in his eye when one talks about the glory years at TK Records, the label where KC began working as a ``go-fer''/stock boy and where he learned all that he could from the founder and president of the label, Henry Stone.

A Bronx native, Stone settled in South Florida after World War II and began to work on a career that can only be described as legendary. ``During the war, I played with the first integrated army band,'' Stone recalled. ``I spent a lot of time with black musicians and that's where I developed my ear for the blues.'' Stone's ears would serve as a radar for such talents as Ray Charles, John Lee Hooker and James Brown. He recorded them all. But even more masterful -- and what separates Stone from other great music impresarios -- was his ability and daring. He took chances on new sounds and developed unproven talent.

In a warehouse in East Hialeah, Stone amassed a group of talented musicians that draw parallels to the session players in the revered recording studios of Muscle Shoals or Motown. Talented performers like Willie Clarke, Clarence ``Blowfly'' Reid, Timmy Thomas, Willie ``Little Beaver'' Hale, George and Gwen McRae, Benny Latimore and the amazing Betty Wright.

``It was like a big family and Henry sat at the head of the table like our dad,'' explained KC. ``I was fortunate to collaborate and learn from such amazing talents.''

It was precisely one of those collaborations that launched KC's career. He originally named his band KC and the Sunshine Junkanoo Band after a Bahamian style junkanoo group he saw perform at Betty Wright's wedding. KC soon dropped the Junkanoo from the name while teaming up with bassist Rick Finch, guitarist Jerome Smith and drummer Robert Johnson. Early singles like Blow Your Whistle and Sound Your Funky Horn had moderate success on American R&B charts and overseas.

However, it was a demo that KC co-wrote with Finch for George McRae in 1974 that reached No. 1 in the United States and in 50 other countries and unknowingly ushered in the era of disco.

``There was no such thing as disco music,'' KC says. ``It was a label that the industry decided to put on the music. To me, it was just fun, exciting music that we wanted to listen to. The country was steeped in the post Vietnam doldrums and it was time to dance.''

The following year (1975) KC and his Sunshine Band would top the charts on their own with a contagious song that will forever live on as a Miami anthem, Get Down Tonight. The group continued its onslaught of the hit parade by posting four more No. 1 sensations -- That's the Way, Shake, Shake, Shake, Boogie Man and Please Don't Go -- along with a tune that reached the second spot on the popularity listings, Keep it Coming Love.

As sudden as KC and the Sunshine Band's ascension onto the music scene was, their demise was equally abrupt. The ``disco'' moniker doomed the band's fate. KC's songs have stood the test of time and have remained popular throughout the world. ``They're good songs that put smiles on people's faces,'' KC reasoned. Yet KC and the Sunshine Band, TK Records and Henry Stone are inexplicably not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. No matter. The songs still echo throughout South Florida and have wed, bar mitzvahed, quinced -- and helped conceive -- thousands of Miamians.

Joe Cardona is a documentary fimmaker in Miami.