Revisiting 1979 Music

By Tom Woron

More 1979.  Yes!  Only this time the focus is only on the music of that year.  After my writing of “1979” for the October issue of Neighbors, it was pointed out in the next issue that when I discussed the music of 1979 in my article, I neglected to mention any female and non-caucasian bands or singers that were popular that year.  I can assure that there was no deliberate intent to snub or disregard the musical contributions of female and non-caucasian musicians in the year 1979, rather it was more or less short sightedness that led me to only mention the bands and musicians that I did mention.  I knew that putting together a long article about a rather tumultuous year in the world would only allow me limited space to discuss the music of the year.  Facing the deadline for submission I chose to “wing it” by just going with the music that I remembered being exposed to on an almost daily basis in 1979.  I remember thinking that I could write a whole article on just the music of 1979 in which, of course, I would have thoroughly researched into the greater picture of the songs and all of the musicians that made the year a great one in music. 

In the summer of 1979 I started working my first job, as a dishwasher in a restaurant.  Just around the corner from where I did my work were the restaurant’s cooks.  They had a radio on at all times that I could hear clearly.  That radio, I believe, was always set on to just one rock station.  Prior to taking the job, my exposure to rock and pop music was somewhat limited.  I was familiar with a few bands and song artists such as Elton John, Steve Miller, Linda Ronstadt, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and a few more but I couldn’t always identify who sang most of the songs that I did hear.  Working a seven hour shift though, with a nearby radio set to one rock station that bombarded me with the same songs by the same bands and artists day in and day out burned those songs into my collective memory.  All day long when I worked I heard Supertramp, Kiss, The Knack’s “My Sharona,” (and also the Knack’s “Good Girls Don’t”), Rod Stewart, The Charlie Daniels Band, Electric Light Orchestra, Styx, Robert Palmer, The Eagles, Foreigner, Warren Zevon and some others.  I don’t really recall hearing any female singers on that particular radio station with the exception of Pat Benatar with her hit song “Heartbreaker” in late 1979.  I heard the Little River Band’s “Lady” often at home because in the morning my mother used to listen to radio personality Bob Steele who played the song frequently.   

It was actually in the early months of 1980 that I started to become aware of the music of Michael Jackson, Donna Summer, Blondie, Kool and the Gang and many others that I could not identify with before.  Sure, I heard their songs at times but didn’t always catch what the title of the song was and who sang it.  That all changed in early 1980 due to the fact that it was only then that I started to tune into other radio stations rather than just be exposed to the one I heard at my job.  (I got a radio for Christmas 1979!)  So I have long incorrectly associated many songs that were hits in 1979, or even earlier, with the year 1980 as that was when I began to identify specific songs with who sang them.  Without a doubt many more bands and singers than just those that I mentioned previously in my October article deserve to be recognized for their contributions to popular music in the year 1979.   An analysis of some of them follows.  

First of all in the late 1970s America was in the peak of what is now known as the disco era.  Disco was basically dance floor music.  As a different musical culture it was usually characterized by repetitive lyrics, a sort of catchy, hypnotic rhythm, and sounds that were electronic in nature.  A disco was a nightclub specifically set up for dancing to such music.  

The biggest name in disco was undoubtedly American singer and songwriter Donna Summer from Boston, Massachusetts.  Now known as the “Queen of Disco” Ms. Summers was well established as a highly successful musician and she was internationally famous by the late 1970s.  Her highly successful album “Bad Girls” was released on April 25, 1979 and it didn’t take long for it to reach the top of the U.S. Billboard 200 albums chart.  The album contained several hit songs.  Among them was the album’s title song “Bad Girls.”  Also big hits from the album during the year were the songs “Dim All the Lights,” “Hot Stuff,” and “Heaven Knows.”  Ms. Summers won many award for her music and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame On April 18, 2013 eleven months after her death.  

Led by Robert Earl “Kool” Bell, the American Rhythm and Blues band Kool and the Gang had their beginnings as a band in New Jersey in 1964.  Their hit album “Ladies Night” was released on September 6, 1979.  The single title song of the same name became an instant hit and a regular on many radio stations.  Described as “funky motion music,” “Ladies Night” is considered by many to be one of the best songs of the disco era. 

In 1971 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania four sisters, Debbie, Joni, Kathy and Kim Sledge formed the musical group Sister Sledge.  The group rose to international notoriety during the peak of the disco era with the release of their breakthrough album “We Are Family” in early 1979.  The single “He’s the Greatest Dancer” from the album charted number one as a Rhythm and Blues hit.   As I did mention in my October article, the 1979 World Series Champion Pittsburgh Pirates adopted the Sister Sledge title song “We Are Family” from the album of the same name, as their team’s anthem.  

Another example of a song that I heard occasionally over the years and found very appealing but never really identified who sang it was “Reunited” by American duo Peaches and Herb.  The song came in number 5 on the Billboard Year-End Hot 100 singles of 1979. 

The song that came in number 6 right behind “Reunited” on the Billboard Year-End Hot 100 singles of 1979 was Gloria Gaynor’s hit “I Will Survive.”  Gloria Gaynor is an American singer from Newark, New Jersey that has been active as a singer since 1965.  Ms. Gaynor achieved fame during the disco era especially after the release of her album “Love Tracks.”  The album was released in November 1978 with the single “I Will Survive” having been released the month before.  “I Will Survive” was to become one of the most popular disco songs of the disco era.  Again, I found “I Will Survive” to be a very appealing song when I did hear it however I tended to associate it with a later time rather than the year it rose up the charts. 

Obviously with limited space to work with it is impossible to analyze and discuss all of the songs and musicians on the Billboard Year-End Hot 100 singles chart for 1979.  However, one more certainly deserves special recognition and that is Michael Jackson, “the King of Pop.”

Michael Jackson, considered to be a major cultural icon of the 20th century, began his musical career as a child as a member of the Jackson 5 in 1964.  The Jackson 5 (later The Jacksons) were a pop music band consisting of Michael and four of his older brothers.   Michael was later to be catapulted to stardom as a solo artist with the release of his fifth solo album “Off The Wall.” in August 1979.  It was the first album to produce four hits that made the top 10 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 singles chart.  One of those hits was “Rock With You” which also charted as the third best number one hit of the whole decade of the 1980s.  Michael Jackson’s hits dominated the pop singles charts for many years and “Rock With You” is considered to be one of the last big disco hits of the disco era. 

It was in a bar in New York City in early 1980 that I first recall hearing “Rock With You.”  I was certainly glad to have the opportunity to catch the song there as no one questioned my age.  ($2.87 for a bottle of Heineken in a NYC bar!  Outrageous!)  

Michael Jackson outdid himself with the release of his 1982 album “Thriller.” The album has the distinction of being the best selling album of all time.  Seven songs from “Thriller” charted in the top ten which set a record for the most top ten hits from one album.  Two of those songs, “Beat It” and “Billie Jean” charted number one. 

In 1983 I was a fan of the band The Police and their hit album of that year “Synchronicity.”  I was quite pleased when I saw “Synchronicity” on top of the album charts for a little while.  It didn’t take long though for “Thriller” to take over the top spot and remain there for many weeks.  I preferred to see “Synchronicity on top but when I saw the MTV videos for “Beat It,” “Billie Jean,” and the title song, I went out and bought the “Thriller” album.  At the record store I saw several people also buying “Thriller.”  I could see why the album was on top of the charts.  It just seemed at the time that when the “Thriller” album was taking over the top spot on the charts it was telling the “Synchronicity” album to “Beat It.”

Among them was Michael Jackson’s hit “Rock With You” from his 1979 hit album “Off the Wall.”  

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