I was walkin' down the street in the City, on my way somewhere. You know, back in those days there was record stores everywhere, and they all had a loudspeaker out in the street. It drove the neighbors crazy but that was the way they all sold records! So I passed this little store up on Broadway and heard this song and stopped. I heard something I'd never heard before; it sounded like it came from Philly but it was so fresh, I just don't know. It was soulful but ooooh, could you move to it and there was this flute background that just had this 'sound,' and it was happy. It was happy music. I started movin' my hips right out on the sidewalk and didn't think nothing of it.

Well, there were a couple of people inside and I walked in and asked the guy behind the counter "what is that song you're playing — I don't want the single I want the whole album!" The man said to me "sorry honey, ain't no album; jus' the forty-five or the twelve-inch single right now baby doll." Well, I bought this album and I bought three copies for my friends 'cause I knew they was gonna ask me to borrow that shit for a party and there was no way...

— Winifred Riley†, commenting on the first time she heard "The Hustle" by Van McCoy

The transcription above is word-for-word from a †performer who chose not to allow use of her real name for purposes of this article. This story mirrors the experience of the writer of this article and anecdotes garnered from years in the music business, regarding Van McCoy's grammy-winning hit, "The Hustle," the first major disco anthem of the era.

In early 1975, the disco fad was already underway. Clubs were popping up everywhere where people could enjoy up-tempo music to which they could dance freestyle. The discos were also a hip alternative to the singles' bars which proliferated during that time. What the discos badly needed was a dance they could call their own. Dancing in discos was either freestyle or carefully rehearsed ballroom-style dances which had originated in the Latin dance clubs. When "The Hustle" came along, it was as if the disco scene was dry tinder and "The Hustle" was the match that lit it all on fire. "The Hustle" finally gave wallflowers an easy dance to a catchy song; it got everyone out on the floor.

The already-respected, prolific songwriter McCoy stumbled on "The Hustle" by accident. He was working on an album for successful RCA producers Hugo Perretti and Luigi Creatore (they produced Elvis Presley's "Can't Help Falling In Love With You) when one evening McCoy's partner, Charles Kipps, was invited to New York's exclusive Adam's Apple discotheque (a predecessor of Studio 54). It was here that Kipps first saw people doing the Hustle; a dance of New York origin with roots in both the Latin and Black communities. It was an easy step but could be executed with great flair. Kipps told McCoy the next day about what he saw. McCoy went out to see for himself.

McCoy assembled a group of superb R&B musicians to record the tune he jotted down in a very short time. He chose a peculiar instrument for the over-melody; the piccolo; but the sound that it created to McCoy's staccato notes was distinctive and very, very catchy. A strong brass section brought in the counter-melody, and the tune was basically an instrumental but for the words "do the hustle!" repeated by a male chorus, spoken; not sung, every verse. A sumptuous trumpet solo (uncredited) punctuates the rapid piccolo notes at one point, giving the feeling of flying. Suffice it to say, had "The Hustle" been played on the television show "Name That Tune," anyone who was old enough to dance in 1975 could guess it in 2-3 notes.
 

Always Writing Music

Van Allen Clinton McCoy was born in January of 1940 in Washington, D.C. to middle-class parents who ran a strict Christian household. As a child he sang with the choir at the famed Metropolitan Baptist Church in D.C. By age 12 was already penning his own music. He performed at school and in local programs with his brother. When he wasn't performing or at school, he spent hours at the piano. (It is here that McCoy's beginnings almost eerily parallel the life of Shirley Horn, the jazz singer. Both were child prodigies, both came from middle-class black families who had the means to buy a piano. Both musicians were born and grew up in D.C.)

As a teenager, McCoy formed a group called the Starlighters with some high-school chums. They recorded a single, "The Birdland," named after a popular dance of the time. How ironic that McCoy's first appearance on record was named for a dance, and his most popular record, eighteen years later, would also be named for a dance.

McCoy and his gang hooked up with Vi Burnsides, a lady drummer with Sweethearts of Rhythm, and she took them under her wing and on tour throughout the East Coast, including important exposure in Philadelphia and at New York's famous Apollo Theater. The draft and college pursuits broke the group up, however.

McCoy attended Howard University for two years, studying psychology. He dropped out, however, and moved to Philadelphia and eventually New York to pursue his love of writing and producing music.
 

The Big Time

He was hired by the nascent Scepter record label where he wrote the popular hit "Stop the Music" for The Shirelles. He then worked with the famed songwriting team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller at their record labels. Later on, he moved over to Blackwood Music, a publishing and production concern, where he penned hits for groups and artists including Chad and Jeremy, Ruby and the Romantics, Irma Thomas, Nancy Wilson, Barbara Lewis and the original Peaches and Herb.

Record producer Mitch Miller heard McCoy's silky smooth voice and produced an album of ballads, "Nighttime is Lonely Time" on the prestigious Columbia label. McCoy continuously shied away from singing during his career, but his few vocal recordings were notable, if not for their sales, for their quality of performance.

He continued turning out hit after hit, now for such notables as Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Roberta Flack, Vikki Carr, Tom Jones, Nina Simone, Jackie Wilson, Gloria Lynn, Brenda and the Tabulations, Nat King Cole, Melba Moore, Stacey Lattisaw, David Ruffin, Chris Bartley, Chris Jackson and many more.

The McCoy sound, including upbeat tempos, innovative use of "scatting" strings, and full-bore brass and sax riffs, became instantly recognizable to professionals and fans alike. More than a "formula," his composing and arranging style added excitement and varied greatly from tune to tune, while adhering to the "sound." This in itself is an accomplishment only a handful of far more well-known composer/arrangers have been able to match.

Beside turning out hits for the recording industry, he wrote music for television ("Woman Called Moses," the story of Harriet Tubman) and a movie for, of all people, an aging Mae West, who produced and starred in "Sextette." McCoy wrote the theme music and also made a cameo appearance in the movie.

During the '60s he was a frequent guest on "The Tonight Show" and appeared on the "Mike Dougas Show."
 

Disco Gold

He partnered up with songwriter and producer Charles Kipps in the early '70s. He formed his own orchestra, Soul City Symphony, following the lead of the great Barry White. The singing group Faith, Hope and Charity fronted the orchestra, and they produced a few minor albums and toured nationwide. By this time, McCoy was encouraged to resume singing, which he did on some of his cuts.

By the time the sensational platinum, Grammy-award winning "The Hustle" came along, McCoy embarked on a worldwide tour which ended in a notable show at New York's classical venue, Avery Fisher Hall.

McCoy's album "Disco Baby," which actually preceded the single "The Hustle" by a few months, was the only McCoy album to hit number one on the Black Albums chart for 1975 (it hit a respectable 14 on the Pop Albums Chart). "The Hustle" was first released on a couple of off-label compilations, and then included in 1976 compilation called "The Hustle and the Best of Van McCoy."

The tremendous success of "The Hustle" spawned many "me too" songs, most notably the Trammps' catchy "The Disco (Where The Happy People Go)."

McCoy's brief discography has been purposely omitted from this article, as it's available readily at www.allmusic.com. What's really amazing is his list of credits, as performer, and writer, producer, and instrumentalist for other artists in genres spanning soul, R&B, disco, rock, and even country. A selected list is offered below. During his lifetime, McCoy copyrighted over 700 songs, rivaling some of the most prolific songwriters of the 20th century.
 

A Life Lived Well, But Too Quickly Ended

Life had sped up for Van McCoy since his years of songwriting. The phenomenon of "The Hustle" and the popularity across-genres of his subsequent recordings, particularly "The Disco Kid," took its toll on McCoy. His website describes his life up until the disco explosion as "mellow."

On July 6, 1979 Van McCoy collapsed at his home in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. He died that same date at Englewood Memorial Hospital. The cause was massive heart failure. He was only 39 years old.

Van McCoy Music, Inc. includes an interesting, touching requirement of any artist who's seeking a mechanical license to sample or perform any of his works:

We will not license Van's music for a song that denigrates or dishonors women, uses profane or sexually explicit language, advocates or promotes violence, or insults any race or group of persons. Van wrote hundreds of songs and could sing any of them for his parents and beloved grandmother without apology. We are preserving his legacy, not perverting his music. To this end, we will uphold the standard Van set for his own catalogue of works. With this as a guide, we welcome all genres.

†The name "Winifred Riley" is a pseudonym for a female vocal performer who was interviewed and whose words are transcribed herein. She asked that her real name not be divulged.
 

Selected Album Credits/Performers

Year/Album Title/Artist/Credits *= McCoy Composition(s)

1966 Nighttime Is Lonely Time Van McCoy; Piano, Vocals*
1969 20/20 The Beach Boys; String Arrangements
1972 From Disco to Love Van McCoy; Piano, Vocals*
1972 Soul Improvisations Van McCoy; Piano, Vocals*
1973 Motown Superstars Series, Vol. 8 Jimmy & David Ruffin; Arranger, Producer*
1975 Disco Baby Van McCoy; Piano, Vocals*
1975 Disco Kid Van McCoy Piano, Vocals*
1976 Best of the Stylistics, Vol. 2 The Stylistics; Arranger, Conductor*
1976 Fabulous The Stylistics; Arranger, Rhythm Arrangements*
1976 Hustle and the Best of Van McCoy Van McCoy; Piano, Arranger, Vocals, Producer*
1976 Melba Melba Moore; Producer *
1976 Real McCoy Van McCoy; Piano, Vocals*
1976 This Is It Melba Moore; Producer*
1977 In My Stride David Ruffin; Keyboards, Vocals, Producer*
1977 More Stuff Stuff; Producer
1977 Still Together Gladys Knight & the Pips; Producer*
1978 Faith, Hope & Charity Faith, Hope & Charity; Arranger, Producer*
1978 My Favourite Fantasy Van McCoy; Piano, Vocals*
1978 One and Only Gladys Knight & the Pips; Producer*
1978 Woman Called Moses Original Television Soundtrack; Producer*
1979 Dancin' with Melba Melba Moore; Producer*
1979 La Diva Aretha Franklin; Keyboards, Vocals, Producer*
1979 Lonely Dancer Van McCoy; Piano, Vocals*
1979 Sweet Rhythm Van McCoy; Piano, Vocals *
1979 Dancin' Van McCoy Piano, Vocals*

There are over 40 posthumous compilation/re-issue albums McCoy either arranged, wrote or appeared on.
 

SOURCES:

"Van McCoy" by Jason Ankeny, Allmusic.com http://www.allmusic.com/cg/amg.dll?p=amg&sql=11:09frxq85ldje~T1 (Accessed 2/16/08)

"Van McCoy" Discomuseum.com http://www.discomuseum.com/VanMcCoy.html (Accessed 2/16/08)

Van McCoy Music, Inc. website: http://www.vanmccoymusic.com/VanMcCoy.htm (Accessed 2/16/08)

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