By Gillian G. Gaar
If you were anywhere near a radio from 1975 on, you heard a steady stream of dance hits coming from Miami-based group KC and the Sunshine Band — “Get Down Tonight,” “(Shake, Shake, Shake) Shake Your Booty,” “Keep It Comin’ Love,” “Boogie Shoes” (featured in the film “Saturday Night Fever”) — all of them dedicated to helping you get your groove on.
The Sunshine Band, headed up as always by founder Harry Wayne “KC” Casey, is still out there, getting the crowds to dance. Late last year, the group teamed up with U.K. dance music duo Bimbo Jones to release its first new single in more than a decade, “I Can’t Get You Out of My Mind.”
“It just reminds me of the energy and everything that I felt when I started 40 years ago,” Casey says. “And that’s what exciting about it.”
It’s no surprise Casey’s still working at drumming up equal excitement about the Sunshine Band’s live shows. Aside from a break from 1984 to 1993, being in the music business is all he’s ever wanted to do.
“All I ever dreamed of doing was music,” he says. “As far back as I can remember, that’s just what I knew I was going to be doing. I never thought about anything else. I didn’t know how it would happen. I just had a strong conviction that it was kind of just meant to be.”
Casey grew up with diverse musical tastes, something that serveed him well when he began making his own music.
“I grew up in the gospel church so I had gospel music, I had R&B music, pretty much a little bit of everything,” he says. “My mother loved R&B music. And I’m Italian-Irish, and my father’s family is from Atlanta, Georgia, so when I went up there, there’d be country music playing all the time. And down here in Miami would be the R&B music. So I grew up around all types of music.”
By age 16, Casey was performing in what he calls a “small group … we did covers of The Rascals and Wilson Pickett and R&B stuff; some Animals stuff, some Rolling Stones. And then I started hanging out with Betty Wright [a soul/R&B singer whose breakthrough hit was “Clean Up Woman”], following her around, and she would let me do a couple songs before she came on. And I started joining some of the local bands, just going up there and doing a couple of numbers here and there.”
He also worked in a local record store, which gave him an insight into the “business” side of the music business. There were other benefits, as well.
“I was an avid record collector, so by working in the record store meant that I could now get my records wholesale!” Casey says.
Another of Casey’s jobs was working at Tone Record Distributors, whose owner, Henry Stone, gave Casey the chance to record a single for a label he owned, TK Records. Casey’s first effort, “Blow Your Whistle,” came out in 1973 credited to KC and Sunshine Junkanoo Band.
“‘Junkanoo’ is a sound of music from the Caribbean,” he explains. “It’s steel drums and horns and whistles and stuff like that. There’s not really words; it’s just music. And it’s a very infectious sound, and I wanted to try and bring that sound to the world, to the public, to the masses. And so I used a junkanoo band on the first record, and that’s why I was called ‘KC and the Sunshine Junkanoo Band.’ Because actually the people that played on the record were just studio musicians; there was no band. There was just me; it was just KC. I didn’t have a band. I didn’t have anything; I just had me.”
“Blow Your Whistle” reached the Top 30 on the U.S. R&B charts, after which “Junkanoo” was dropped from the band’s name. Subsequent singles also landed on the U.S. R&B charts and began making inroads overseas. “Queen of Clubs,” released in 1974, was a Top 10 hit in the U.K., the Netherlands, and Belgium. The band also released its first album, “Do It Good,” the same year. But what the Sunshine Band needed was a solid pop hit in its native country. Casey found it when the band returned to the studio after a U.K. tour.
“We recorded this track, and it was called ‘What You Want Is What You Get,’” he recalls. “And the more I listened to it, I decided to change the lyrics to ‘Get Down Tonight’ and went for that feel on it.”
Casey sensed that decision would change the trajectory of the band’s career for good.
“I knew the record was a smash from the minute we finished doing the background sessions that night,” he says. “ I just knew it. I just felt it.”
Yet it took the single, released in February 1975, some time to take off.
“It went on the charts and then it went off the charts!” he says. “And I went to the owner of the record company, and I said, ‘Henry, what’s going on? This record is a smash record!’ And he said, ‘Don’t worry about it.’ And I didn’t worry about it! The rest is history.”
By April, “Get Down Tonight” topped the R&B charts and crossed over to the pop charts, reaching No. 1 in August. The band’s second album, “KC and the Sunshine Band,” reached No. 4 Pop, No. 1 R&B, and sold more than three million copies. The Sunshine Band was on their way. “That’s the Way (I Like It),” “(Shake, Shake, Shake) Shake Your Booty,” and “I’m Your Boogie Man,” all went to No. 1, while “Keep It Comin’ Love” reached No. 2. The last three songs were all from the album “Part 3,” released in 1976.
“In those times, to have more than one hit record on an album was kind of rare,” Casey notes.
The songs were more than just hits. They became iconic songs that represent an era, and have become so frequently used in TV shows, films, and sporting events that they’re just as well known to teens of today as to teens of the mid-’70s.
“They were commercial songs; I wrote them as commercial songs,” Casey says. “Not that I didn’t put a lot of thought into them. I always put a lot of thought into what I write. But at the time, I just thought they were great songs, and I didn’t think about them being anything but what they were at the time. You don’t really think this far ahead. I never would’ve known that 30, 40 years later that what seemed like practically every company in the nation would want to use one of my songs in something promoting their product. I think I probably have been the most-used artist in the world as far as my music being in commercials and sporting events and everything. I think it’s been pretty unusual, if you ask me. Even though the critics and everybody tried to put me down, and say that our lyrics and our music was mundane and whatever, I think that they’ve stood the test of time.”
The uplifting energy of The Sunshine Band’s music has also been key to its longevity in a world where music became almost a throw-away commodity after the close of the 1970s.
“I don’t know of any songs that stick in my head like ‘Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing’ or ‘For Once In My Life’ or ‘Where Did Our Love Go’ or all those great songs from the ‘60s and ‘70s,” Casey says. “So it’s the last bastion of real music. There are songs in the ’80s that kind of stick in your head, but I don’t know of anything that’s going to stick in anybody’s head from the ’90s or now.”
At the time he was making it, Casey considered the Sunshine Band’s music to be R&B and pop. But the arrival of “Saturday Night Fever” rocketed disco into the mainstream, and it took anything that sounded even close into its disco orbit. The Sunshine Band’s “Boogie Shoes” was featured in the film, though the filmmakers had originally wanted to use “Shake Your Booty.”
“But I knew that ‘Shake Your Booty’ was going to be the next single release, and the movie was not coming out right away,” Casey explains. Instead, the filmmakers had to settle for “Boogie Shoes,” originally released in 1976 as the B-side of “Shake Your Booty” that became a Top 40 hit in its own right in 1977 as a result of its exposure in the film.
Disco soon drew hostility from rock critics, who were eager to jump on the anti-disco bandwagon. “Most critics at the time were rockers or into rock ’n’ roll, and I think when we came along, we became a threat. After a while, I just stopped even reading anything that was written about us. These critics would come to our show, and the stadiums or whatever would be packed and people going crazy, and then they’d write these scathing reviews about it. It’s like, kiss my ass! You have no idea what it took just to get here, how many nights in a row I’ve done this show, everything that I’ve had to deal with to get up here and do this show, and then you want to sit here and attack me? It’s just been this constant thing with the critics. We’ve even been left out of history at times. They’ll bring up the ’70s, and they’ll bring up the Bee Gees, the Village People and everybody, but KC and the Sunshine Band — the main group that actually created and started the whole craze. I just feel like we were never given our kudos. We’ve always been displaced. I kind of feel like the Rodney Dangerfield of music!”
By the time Disco Demolition Night was held July 12, 1979, at Chicago’s Comiskey Park, KC and the Sunshine Band was moving in a new direction. The group had a No. 1 hit that same year with the ballad “Please Don’t Go.” “Yes I’m Ready” (which had singer Teri DeSario sharing vocals with Casey), also released in 1979, reached No. 2; it was Casey’s last Top 10 pop hit. The 1983 single “Give It Up,” which reached No. 18, was the last Top 20 pop hit.
“And after ‘Give It Up’ was a hit, that was it; I was done,” says Casey. “‘Give It Up,’ and I gave it up! I never thought of it that way, but yeah. I was done with being in this business, with dealing with this business, with being told what to do, when to do it, how to do it, when to smile, when not to smile — you know. That whole thing. From the age of 17 or whatever, I did nothing but devote myself to my music and this career, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. And at some point you’ve got to go OK, that’s crazy! Where’s your life? I thought it was time to smell the roses a little bit.”
Casey is open about how he spent the next few years. “I partied,” he says. “I did everything I think in my 30s that most people do in their teens. Go figure. And I had no intentions of doing music again. I was going to fade off into the sunshine and that was going to be it. I didn’t care about coming back, or ever want to come back. I was done.”
Or so he thought. Casey’s talents were such that his friends simply wouldn’t leave him alone.
“I’d hear over and over again, ‘Why don’t you make some records?’” he recalls. “‘Why don’t you make music again? Haven’t you heard the radio? Everybody’s imitating you, blah blah blah.’ And I go, ‘I’m done; I’m done. I’m done with that. I’ve been there, I’ve accomplished pretty much every goal one person can dream of.”
But Casey still heard his father’s voice in the back of his head saying “Never quit.” When Arsenio Hall announced that he wanted to see KC & The Sunshine Band reunite at his nighttime talk show, it was an offer too good to refuse.
“It reawakened all these things that had been going on in my head. I realized, ‘Wow, this is what I was meant to be doing, this is what I love and I’m not doing it.’”
But there was one more obstacle.
“Drugs were a big part of it at that point,” Casey admits. “And in ’95, I had to make a choice. I thought, you know what, if I’m going to do this, I need to get my act together. I need to get off the drugs. And I went to a rehab place in North Carolina. I was only supposed to go for two weeks, and I ended up staying for three months. And then I came out and reformed a band and just really started going at it. And I haven’t stopped since.”
Casey released the albums “I’ll Be There For You” (2001) and “Yummy” (2007), which featured recordings he had already had in the can. “I thought, ‘I’m just going to put this stuff out before I’m dead,’” he says. Now, he’s working toward building a studio album of all-new material.
After all his career highs and lows, Casey is finally able to fully enjoy his success.
“I’m having a good time at it,” he says. “I’m relaxed now. It took me 40 years, 35 years, to understand what happened to me, to realize who I am now, or was, or whatever. To be comfortable with it, and to be proud of it. It was a heavy trip for me, the whole experience. It was one of the loneliest times of my life, and there was a lot of stuff that went along with it. And through the rehab and talking to psychiatrists, I found myself, and I realized, ‘Wow, you’re KC of KC and the Sunshine Band! You’re not this kid dreaming anymore. These dreams came true. You lived the American dream. You found your pot at the end of the rainbow.’” GM