Harry Wayne Casey: The Boogie Man Returns

GRAMMY winner plots new course for KC And The Sunshine Band and reflects on the inspiration for the collective's distinctive sound
  • Harry Wayne Casey
March 28, 2013 -- 3:01 pm PDT
By J. Poet / GRAMMY.com

When "Get Down Tonight" came blasting out of car radios and home stereos in 1975, there was nothing else like it on the air. The cascade of glittering keyboards and guitars sparkled like the noontime sun on a tropical ocean. Then the thumping drums, booming bass and delirious hand clapping came in to lift you out of your seat. It wasn't funk, disco or R&B, but it had elements of all three, played with an irresistible sense of Caribbean swing.

"Get Down Tonight" was the song that turned Harry Wayne Casey and his KC And The Sunshine Band into superstars. The song was featured on their sophomore album, KC And The Sunshine Band, a blockbuster that also included the infectious "Boogie Shoes" and the GRAMMY-nominated hit "That's The Way (I Like It)."

Remarkably, KC And The Sunshine Band became the first act to have four No. 1 pop singles in a 12-month period since the Beatles in 1964. But the group toured infrequently because principal songwriters Casey and Richard Finch were constantly in the studio producing other artists, including Betty Wright, with whom they co-wrote "Where Is The Love," which won a GRAMMY for Best Rhythm & Blues Song in 1975. KC And The Sunshine Band also took home GRAMMYs for Album Of The Year in 1978 for their work on the soundtrack for Saturday Night Fever.

Casey dropped out of the music industry in the mid-'80s, but KC And The Sunshine Band's hits seemingly never went out of style. Their songs have been featured in more than 75 films and countless TV shows and commercials. And Casey is now back in action, performing regularly with a revamped KC And The Sunshine Band and preparing a double album celebrating the band's 40th anniversary, tentatively due this spring. 

This is the first music you've put out in a while, isn't it?
I've released older stuff that I had in the can now and then, but this is the first new stuff I've worked on in years. I started the first tracks in December 2011 [and] I have about 39 songs done: 19 classic tunes from the '60s and 20 or so new songs. I'm still editing and mixing, but I'm aiming for 34 songs. I've been collaborating with Bimbo Jones [Britney Spears, Lady Gaga] from London and merging electronics with my original sound. They sent me tracks and I wrote melodies and lyrics for them, and then brought in my band to add more production. I've also done some things completely with the band. It's been a fun project.

Do you have any titles you can share?
I still don't know what the final set list is going to be, but it will be the usual blend of R&B, pop, dance, and jazz — a bit of everything. I've always liked a variety of music, so it'll all be in the mix.

When you cut "Get Down Tonight," the disco revolution was just starting. Did you have any idea KC And The Sunshine Band would explode?
I always felt in my heart and soul that the songs were hits, so it was more exciting than surprising. A lot of the dance music back then was dark. I wanted to bring some light and energy and a positive message to the music. We wanted to make records you could put on at a party to get people moving. Everything we made hit the top 5 on the stations that played them. We had hits in Europe and England before "Get Down."

Your beat wasn't funk, pop or disco, but it had an uplifting swing to it.
My inspiration was the Caribbean music called Junkanoo. We called the band the Sunshine Junkanoo Band at first. Junkanoo [is] from the Bahamas and uses a lot of steel drums, horns, whistles, and cowbells. It's an intensely percussion-infused sound and it takes over your body when you're around it. The idea was to use Caribbean sounds and add a pop beat to it.

Despite the monster hits, you didn't tour much in the '70s.
We were primarily a studio band. The four of us [bassist Richard Finch, guitarist Jerome Smith and drummer Robert Johnson] didn't tour because I didn't like to and we had other obligations. I was producing albums for George McCrae, writing for other artists and making the Sunshine Band records. We had a lot on our plate. Using overdubbing, we got a huge sound from just four people. I'd do two or three keyboard tracks and we'd bring in a bunch of singers and the sessions did get pretty big. At that time, we were limited to eight or 12 tracks, so we had to do a lot of dumping. We did go out and support the records a bit, but it was limited.

Any thoughts on your GRAMMY wins?
I produced and wrote Betty Wright's "Where Is The Love." She'd been having hits since she was 13 years old and was the bread and butter of our label, TK, before the Sunshine Band. We got [10] nominations over the years and won three times. We all got Album Of The Year GRAMMYs [as artists and producers] for Saturday Night Fever, which was a huge album. I think everybody who worked on that album got a GRAMMY.

Why did you drop out of music in the '80s? What brought you back?
It wasn't fun anymore. I got tired of the rat race and the pressure of being told what to do and not to do and I kinda lost my mind. I had money from the songs, so I did OK, but I was also on drugs. I was doing "The Arsenio Hall Show" from time to time, and he said his dream was to reunite the Sunshine Band. So we did that for him. It was fun and got me back into it. I came out of my stupor, went to rehab and I've been clean and sober ever since.

There was an infamous "Behind The Music" episode about KC And The Sunshine Band that aired on VH1. Did that help your comeback?
It didn't hurt. They also did a live 45-minute concert series on us and dance music is huge again, although it never really went away. They just rename it, but the clubs and parties are getting bigger and bigger all the time. We're back on the road, mostly on the weekends, so I can have a life, and we're having a great time.

(J. Poet lives in San Francisco and writes about Native, folk, country, Americana, and world music for many national and international publications and websites.)

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