Harry Wayne Casey – “KC” of KC & The Sunshine Band – talks with Pollstar about 40 years of inspiring people to shake their booties.
Spending some time on the phone with Casey is like hanging out with an old friend. During the 1970s Casey and his then-writing partner Richard Finch were a veritable hit factory. With such songs as “That’s The Way (I Like It),” “Get Down Tonight,” “Boogie Shoes” and “(Shake, Shake, Shake) Shake Your Booty,” KC & The Sunshine Band not only dominated radio but the group’s music served as a prelude to the disco craze that later swept the nation.
And the nation as well as the world loved KC & The Sunshine Band. Playing more than 100 shows a year and selling more than 100 million records, the group received nine Grammy noms, won three Grammys and picked up an American Music Award.
KC & The Sunshine Band hits the big 4-0 this year but Casey still boogies like it’s 1973 by releasing new music and playing several dates a year. While talking with Pollstar, Casey touched on a number of subjects, including how he creates his music, his pre-Sunshine Band days working in a record store, and why he didn’t want to perform on a Grammy Awards telecast.
You’re celebrating your 40th anniversary in music. Was there ever a moment when you seriously considered quitting?
I did call it quits in 1984. I didn’t want to have anything to do with the record business ever again. I was done.
It sounds as if you were disenchanted with the business of music and not the music itself.
Correct. It was just the pressures, just the whole thing, it’s more political than our government [laughs]. I got tired of being told when to smile, when not to smile, when to be happy, when not to be happy. I was done.
From 1969, 1970 to ’84 I pretty much devoted my life to music and the music business and that sort of thing. It was a 24-hour, seven day, 365 day gig. It was time, I think, to smell the roses and to check in with who I was, who I thought I was, who I thought I should be or who I thought I wasn’t.
Was there a singular moment that caused it?
I don’t know. I just had “Give It Up.” It was a huge hit although it didn’t reflect on the Billboard chart. It was a No. 1 record but it never reflected on the Billboard chart because of the way they counted the numbers. We went on some big major stations really early so by the time the rest of the nation had caught up, it was already coming down on those stations, so the numbers were subtracted from your chart position.
I had just come off of a big No. 1 record, pretty much worldwide. My father had died that year and it was a lot for me. It was kind of frustrating. I was with Epic and I kind of felt … I don’t know what I got with Epic. The first album I put out, they’re all raving [about it]. When it came out, of course they didn’t do anything about it and nothing happened with it. It really wasn’t a great album. I remember getting so upset about it. I went to them and said, “Look. I’m not a charity here. I don’t need you to just give me money. Don’t tell me something’s great if it’s not.”
So, the second album we got back on track a little bit with everything. Then, when “Give It Up” was a huge hit in Europe, they didn’t want to release it in the States.
I got out of my contract. They gave me $100,000 and the single, and I put it out myself through the independents. I was just so disenchanted with the whole thing. I think I was maybe burned out a little bit, just tired of it. I just wanted to stop for a minute and not have any pressure to do anything. I just wanted to find myself, somehow. Of course, I went heavier into drugs and stuff. I don’t know or think that had much to do with it. I don’t know. Except that I made a conscious choice not to do anything.
KC & The Sunshine Band had its first hit before disco overtook the nation. Did you feel that fans of the disco craze were catching up with you and the band?
I … feel a little bit that we brought more energy to it. I kind of had an insight that it was coming. When I went on a tour in 1974 in Europe, everyplace we played were these clubs where they were spinning records. I kind of figured this is the new thing. I had already set up to gear my music towards that thing, anyway. Because in 1973 when I started doing my first record the whole idea was to create this party album and do this dance type of record that had never been done before. Everybody else would have a couple of hot tempos, a couple of mid-tempos, and my idea was to do nothing but nonstop high-energy or up-tempo songs on a record.
That’s what I set out to do before I took this trip in 1974 to England and did 48 cities in 24 days and saw that this was, excuse my French, the new shit. It’s really going to rock the world.
But I was already into doing that. So I feel kind of like a pioneer in the beginning of all of that.
Was there a lot of extra production on KC & The Sunshine Band records?
There was extra production. Sometimes we’d double the drums or double the keyboards or triple the keyboards. Or double the horns. So there was a lot of extra production done whether it was percussion, guitars, keyboards or whatever. Nothing was exactly what we could actually go out and play. And that comes back to when we were nominated for the three Grammy awards and they wanted me to appear on the Grammys, I was scared to death. And they took it as I was thinking I was too good to play on the show. But back then they didn’t have very good mixing qualities or capabilities for sound on television. They wanted me to play live and I was freaking out because I was afraid it would ruin me if I played it live because of some of the extra production that was on [the record] that we weren’t going to be able to present on television. I should have just done it but I didn’t. I felt like I got a little slapped by the Grammys also.
Didn’t KC & The Sunshine Band perform on TV shows such as NBC’s “Midnight Special?”
We never performed on “Midnight Special,” but I was a co-host many, many times. Of course, we did “The Merv Griffin Show” and “Dinah Shore.” For a while there we were in the top five most requested … our ratings were like, up in the top five for all of these TV shows like “Merv.”
Did you perform live on those shows?
Most shows back then, as far as I can remember, would want you to bring an instrumental track and then the vocal would be live. But the instrumentation wasn’t live because they didn’t have the capabilities of setting up sound in these studios.
“Midnight Special,” I can’t remember if some of that was live. I’m pretty sure it was done the same way. Some people might have played live, I’m not sure. I want to think all of that was track also for everybody that was on the show.
Some people might go in and record a live version and probably lip-sync or sing to the live version. It seems like if you watch the “Ed Sullivan” show and see The Supremes singing one of their songs, you hear a completely different version of what the record was. They might have gone and re-recorded it to make it like a live version and sing along with it, or whatever.
That’s why it amazes me that all of a sudden now because Beyoncé decides to lip-sync something so important when it’s 32 degrees out – you never know how your voice is going to react in that kind of weather – that it’s such a big deal. It’s like, part of our history. You didn’t watch television without a lip-sync going on back in the ’50s and ’60s. So it amazes me, here we are in 2013 and all of a sudden she’s not allowed to do it after we’ve been doing it for 100 years.
When you were writing songs like “Get Down Tonight,” “Shake Your Booty” and “That’s The Way (I Like It)” with Richard Finch, did you begin with the title and then write for the title?
Actually, with “Get Down Tonight,” when I started writing the song it was really called “What You Want Is What You’ll Get.” Then through whatever process after the record was recorded, I then changed it to “Get Down Tonight.” “I’m Your Boogie Man” was called “I’ll Be A Son Of A Gun.” “That’s The Way” was pretty much called “That’s The Way,” “Shake Your Booty” was called “Shake Your Booty.”
I’ll go into the studio and as for the recording, I have the chords and I have an idea of a melody. But when we’re recording, sometimes, I’ll just start singing whatever is in my head, whatever words, whatever anything.
This one cut on my new album, I went into the studio and as I was recording it I never really wrote it down. The way it is is almost the way I sang it that night. I had to actually go back and write the words down when I had to do some overdubbing. So it can start out with the song title. Sometimes it’s a working title or an idea I have in my head and it changes later or I stick with it.
Sun Life Stadium, Miami Gardens, Fla.
January 20, 2010
Do you hear KC & The Sunshine Band’s influence on groups that came after you?
That’s hard to say. I think we’re all so intertwined. It would be impossible to say that I didn’t influence a lot of groups. We were on TV and all of a sudden bands started coming out with more people dancing, although James Brown had been doing that before me. … And I still hear my influence in music of today. And I’m sure people before me probably heard their influence in stuff I’ve done.
What are you listening to these days?
I’m a Top 40 type person. Growing up, I really loved more R&B or funky stuff, more rhythmic stuff. But I always listen to everything. Like some of the funky stuff on Led Zeppelin albums. Grand Funk had some great funky stuff, or the James Gang. I loved Lee Michaels’ keyboard stuff, he’s kind of funky. And the whole Joe Cocker stuff.
I grew up on the Motown and Stax and all the great Atlantic soul records. Philadelphia and Chess Records, I always loved everything. I still love Top 40, so whatever is hot today, I like that. I’m probably more into commercial. I like rock, country, I like some classic stuff. I like a little bit of everything.
Regarding some of the bands you just mentioned – Led Zeppelin, James Gang, Grand Funk Railroad – with the emergence of radio formats such as album rock or AOR in the 1970s, was it disheartening that radio stations that were playing those bands weren’t playing KC & The Sunshine Band and other bands people only heard on Top 40 stations?
No, it wouldn’t be disheartening because they [Top 40 stations] weren’t just playing KC & The Sunshine Band. They were playing Elton John and everybody else who had records out at the same time. I know we did take over the airwaves for a while. We ushered in a new sound, like Elvis did and The Beatles. And some of the people joined the bandwagon, like Rod Stewart, David Bowie.
The only reason I became aware of all this other music I was talking about was not so much from radio but because I worked in a retail record store from 1967 to ’70. I was introduced to all this new wonderful music. I remember when Fleetwood Mac would be a special order. Somebody would come in and say, “You got Fleetwood Mac?”
“Fleetwood Mac? Who are they?” And we would have to look it up in this big, big glossary. I don’t remember what it was called, “The Something, Something Index.” It had every record that was out and the release number. It was always kept up to date. I’d go in there and find Fleetwood Mac. “Okay, here’s the order number.” Then we’d call the record distributor and order the record.
How old were you when you worked in the record store?
At that time did you think it was the greatest job in the world?
I loved it because I was such a record freak. I spent pretty much every dime I made buying records. Growing up, not only would I buy the retail version, but sometimes I’d go back in and they would have these three for 45 cents, or five for a dollar, and I’d go through those and pick out what I might have missed.
When I got to the record store and could buy them wholesale, it was like, “Whoa! I hit the lottery.”
Considering all the changes in the business of selling music that have taken place during the past 15 years or so, are there any individual changes that you would consider to be improvements for the industry?
None at all? Not selling downloads or iTunes?
That’s kind of cool that you can have the record [immediately]. I’m a guilty person as far as being one of the ones that helped record stores probably go out of business. It became much easier for me to download [a song] instead of getting in my car, going over there and deal with it. That part of it is kind of great because you can have it in an instant. But I still miss the actual physical record, the physical disc or the experience of the record store. The record stores screwed themselves up.
Do you think it was just the record stores and not also the recording industry that made some mistakes?
That was part of it. I think the more it [record labels] became corporate the more it got screwed up. In my day when I worked at the record store, it was a mom-and-pop store, and we had the top 20 to 50 45s. Every radio station had a chart and we’d go by whatever the top radio station was at the time. We’d keep their chart and people would walk in say, “I want the No. 5 record or the No. 1 record.” So you kind of bought locally. Now it’s whatever the No. 1 on iTunes is, it’s for the whole world and not necessarily in Florida. The regional hits are gone.
But working in a record store while still in your teens – I think that was the kind of job just about every music-loving teenager dreamed of having.
I was really, really lucky. The guy I worked for was crazy but he turned me on to a lot of music. We had a record player in the store and we would always open up a new album, put it on and listen to it. That gets back to how I would get to hear things like the James Gang or Led Zeppelin. Not only was I in the store with my taste in music, but I had other people that I worked with and their tastes in music. They were probably the ones that were more into rock stuff. I couldn’t say, “Take that stuff off, it sucks.” So I kind of got into it a little bit.
It’s your 40th anniversary in music. What do you see for the future?
I don’t know where it’s going. I’m kind of glad in a way that hip hop is kind of fading a little bit and we’re getting back to music. I think shows like “American Idol” and “X Factor” are like, “Oh, wow! People can actually sing.”
So it’s going back to some of that. But also, computers have taken over our lives. They’ve taken over the way our cars are manufactured and now they’re taking over how our records are made. I’m working on this new album and even some of the things that we do in the studio with the computer just amaze me. Being able to sample something or edit something with the click of a mouse.
Back in the day when we did background vocals, we would have to do it through the entire song from the beginning to the end. Wherever there was going to be a background thing you had to sing it. Now you do it once and fly it everywhere it’s supposed to go. In a way it kind of takes some of the guts out of it, it becomes very stagnant and sterile.
Your songs have appeared in television programs and in film soundtracks, and for anyone who grew up in the 1970s, your music is a part of the soundtracks of their lives. In short, the records you made years ago are still being heard today. That’s quite a legacy.
It has been a little rewarding with all this. Some people might look at it one way, but I think it’s given the songs some legitimacy.
When Hollywood makes the KC & The Sunshine Band story, who do you think should play you?
Right now? Ashton Kutcher would look more like me, I think. I think he would be a good person. I think he’s a lot taller than I am. But he kind of has that look. I don’t know who else would have that look.
Rams Head Live, Baltimore, Md.
August 27, 2009
Upcoming engagements for KC & The Sunshine Band include Greesnboro, N.C., at Carolina Theatre April 18; Glendale, Ariz., at the “Big Red Rib & Music Festival” at the University Of Phoenix Stadium April 27; Staten Island, N.Y., at St. George Theatre May 4 and Bel Air, Md., at APG Federal Credit Union Arena June 15. For more information, visit HeyKCSB.com.