In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
It’s tough to overstate the impact of the Hues Corporation’s “Rock The Boat” and George McCrae’s “Rock Your Baby” landing at #1 back-to-back. Here, we had two silky, bass-thumping soul-pop songs that started out in clubs and spread to the rest of the world. Both of them had the word “rock” in the title, and neither of them sounded remotely like rock. And when those two songs hit #1, it was immediately apparent to anyone paying attention that disco music was now a commercial force, something that had to be taken seriously.
But it would be a mistake to conflate “Rock The Boat” with “Rock Your Baby” too much. “Rock The Boat” was a song that DJs discovered. It wasn’t aiming itself at the clubs, but club DJs were the ones who found it and pushed it toward mainstream popularity. “Rock Your Baby” is another story. The people who made “Rock Your Baby” were watching the success of this pulsating, club-ready new form of R&B. (They paid special attention to “Rock The Boat.”) They knew that it was selling, and they knew that there was an audience that wasn’t being served. “Rock Your Baby” isn’t the first disco #1, but it might be the first intentional disco #1 — the first disco hit that knows it’s a disco hit.
“Rock Your Baby” was the baby of two young Florida musicians, Henry Wayne Casey and Richard Finch, both of whom were members of KC & The Sunshine Band, a group that will end up in this column many times. (Casey was KC.) At this point, KC & The Sunshine Band had released a couple of singles, and the members of the group were working as de facto studio musicians for TK Records, the Florida indie that had would eventually become huge in the disco era. TK had only become a label in 1972, and it had a hit right away with Timmy Thomas’ oblique and experimental soul lament “Why Can’t We Live Together.” (“Why Can’t We Live Together” peaked at #3 in 1973. It’s an 8. Meanwhile, Drake’s “Hotline Bling,” which was built from a sample of “Why Can’t We Live Together,” peaked at #2 in 2015. It’s a 6.)
Thomas used a Lowry organ, an instrument that included a primitive drum machine, to put together the incredibly strange “Why Can’t We Live Together” beat. When Thomas finished putting that song together, he left his organ in the TK studios. One day, Richard Finch was messing around with it, and he programmed in a weird and rickety synth-samba beat — a faster version of the “Why Can’t We Live Together” beat, really. Finch’s beat would become the backbone of “Rock Your Baby,” and it’s baffling to consider that the same instrument ended up on two leftfield hit singles. Two of the first hits ever to feature drum machines actually used the very same drum machine.
In the studio, Finch and Casey built on that beat. Finch played drums to the drum-machine beat, which he says helped him become a better drummer. He also put a microphone inside his kickdrum, which helped beef up the song’s drum sound. Together, Finch and Casey pieced together the “Rock Your Baby” groove, and then they paid Sunshine Band member Jerome Smith $15 to play guitar on it. The people at TK loved the song’s demo and didn’t want Finch and Casey to change anything. But “Rock Your Baby” needed someone who could sing notes higher than what Casey could reach. They needed another singer.
George McCrae had grown up in nearby West Palm Beach. He’s spent a few years in the Navy and formed a singing group called the Jivin’ Jets, which eventually came to include his wife Gwen. Gwen eventually made a couple of minor hits, and George, whose career wasn’t really going anyway, essentially became her manager. (He was also planning on going to school for criminal law.) Finch and Casey were considering a few different singers, including Gwen, to record “Rock Your Baby.” But George ended up recording it, mostly because he was literally the first person to walk into the studio. While they were waiting for Gwen to show up, George recorded a couple of takes, and he crushed it. (A year later, Gwen had a hit of her own with “Rockin’ Chair,” which had George on backup vocals and which peaked at #9. It’s a 6.)
“Rock Your Baby” doesn’t have the blunt-force impact of a lot of other disco songs. It’s softer and sweeter than that. George McCrae delivers it in a soft, fragile falsetto, more or less giving his best Al Green impression. He sings it like it’s a bedroom song, not a club song — which, of course, is a big part of why it worked so well as a club song. The lyrics are insipid sex invitations — “open up your heart and let the lovin’ start” — but McCrae delivers them with a playful sweetness. And he lets his voice dance easily through the beat, as if this weird jury-rigged electro-samba were the most natural thing in the world.
There’s something beautiful about the cheap DIY sophistication of “Rock Your Baby.” KC & The Sunshine Band would become disco conquerors, but when they put together “Rock Your Baby,” Casey and Finch were day-jobbing studio kids using the low-tech tools at their disposal. If you listen close, you can hear the seams — those thin synth sounds, the mechanistic insistence of that rickety beat. And yet they managed to piece together a soft strut, something that bubbles like champagne. The song was expressly geared at clubs — and the TK Records bosses allegedly bribed DJs to make sure that it would reach them — but its lilt is light enough to work anywhere.
Before working on this column, I’d never heard Rock Your Baby, the album that McCrae quickly recorded with Casey and Finch, and it’s pretty great. It’s also absolutely full of deja vu moments. I did not realize, for instance, that Yo La Tengo’s “You Can Have It All” was a George McCrae cover, but that’s what it is. And Casey and Finch were also responsible for the dipping, stuttering beat from the Notorious BIG’s “Respect.” McCrae never had another big hit after “Rock Your Baby,” and he’s mostly just remembered for that one song. It’s too bad. He had some great moments. Still, “Rock Your Baby” might be legacy enough.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the fuzzed-out, bleary-eyed “Rock Your Baby” cover that UK indie band the House Of Love released in 1992:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Lil B rapping over a sickly, slowed-down “Rock Your Baby” sample on the 2012 mixtape track “Myself”: