I love George McCrae’s Rock Your Baby. One of my favourite number 1s of the 70s, this is a landmark in early disco music, thanks to the slinkiest of grooves and McCrae’s heavenly falsetto – and to think, his performance was the happiest of accidents. Finally, after seemingly endless 50s rehashes and tributes, here was a new sound.
KC and the Sunshine Band were Florida-based disco pioneers, formed in 1973 by record store employee Harry Wayne Casey (aka KC) and TK Records engineer Richard Finch. The same year, Vince Aletti became one of the first to use ‘disco’ as a term to describe a genre, in Rolling Stone that September. Casey and Finch had begun releasing material with their new band and among the demos they worked on was Rock Your Baby.
The backbone of the track was courtesy of an early drum machine on a Lowry organ left in the TK Records studio, a rare sound back then. Casey took to the keyboards and Finch took care of the bass and real drums, and as they built up the track, they felt something magical. Finch told Songfacts ‘it was like God was in the building or something’. They paid KC and the Sunshine Band guitarist Jerome Smith $15 to lay down some licks and wrote lyrics inspired by Hues Corporation’s hit Rock the Boat. KC and the Sunshine Band were not an established act at this point, and Casey couldn’t reach those high notes, so who should they get to sing it? TK Records owner Henry Stone suggested soul singer Gwen MCrae, but fortune smiled on her husband, George, instead.
George Warren McCrae, Jnr was born 19 October 1944 in West Palm Beach, Florida, the second of nine children. He formed his own singing group, The Jivin’ Jets, before joining the US Navy in 1963. That same year, he married Gwen Mosley. Four years later, the McCraes reformed the group, but they split soon after, and they began working as a duo. Gwen signed a solo contract and began to have modest hits, so George became her manager. He was about to return to college to study law enforcement when he sang over Rock Your Baby.
KC and the Sunshine Band are mainly remembered these days for catchy disco anthems, great blasts of fun, but perhaps short on substance. With Rock Your Baby, they created something magnificent, entering unchartered territory by adding the sweet soul voice of McCrae to a drum machine with a holy melding of man and machine. I Feel Love is the most magnificent disco song, but without Rock Your Baby, would we have got there?
The keyboard melody at the start is almost nursery rhyme-like, setting the scene for a tender serenade in which a blissed-out McCrae surrenders to his love – which is pretty unusual for this time. He’s no alpha male, and is letting her take the lead. Smith’s choppy guitar line is vital, even if it sounds very similar to Rock the Boat. This would in time become one of the key ingredients to the disco sound.
Rock Your Baby is sexual, of course, but it’s sensual and seductive more than anything. Listen to the way McCrae’s falsetto glides over the rhythm in an aural orgasm, and it can move like few disco songs can. The six-minute-plus album version is superior as it lets the song stretch and breathe. To be honest, I could listen to an hour-long mix of this and not tire of it.
Rock Your Baby sold millions and was number 1 in the UK, US and across Europe. It inspired John Lennon’s Whatever Gets You Thru the Night and ABBA’s Dancing Queen. Not bad for a debut solo single. McCrae, the first black artist to top the UK charts in nearly two years, is considered a one-hit wonder, but he actually had other popular material. Follow-ups I Can’t Leave You Alone and You Can Have It All went number nine and 23 respectively later in the year, and in 1975, It’s Been So Long climbed to number four, and I Ain’t Lyin’ reached number 12.
Also in 1975, Gwen recorded a reply to Rock Your Baby, Rockin’ Chair, on which George provided backing vocals. The following year, he and Gwen divorced, and Honey I became his last UK charting single. We Did It! was his last album for some time in 1979, as he left TK Records and went into semi-retirement.
In the meantime, KC and the Sunshine Band became one of the biggest disco acts on the planet, with a string of floorfillers that encapsulated the genre’s positivity. They recorded Rock Your Baby too, but only as an instrumental. It wasn’t until 1983 that they scored a UK number 1, with the effervescent Give It Up.
McCrae surfaced again in 1984 with the album One Step Closer to Love, but it failed to chart. A remix of his number 1, known as the Frankfurst Mix, remixed by Paul Hardcastle, was released in 1986. He continued to make albums up until Do Something in 1996, then disappeared again, and has returned sporadically. He was part of Jools’ Annual Hootenanny in 2017. A cover of Rock Your Baby was a number eight hit for dance act KWS in 1992.
Written & produced by: Harry Wayne Casey & Richard Finch
Weeks at number 1: 3 (27 July-16 August)
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