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.
John Travolta wasn’t the first guy to point at the sky on the dancefloor. When Saturday Night Fever hit theaters in 1977, people had been doing that for years. That iconic image — hip to the side, chest out, finger aloft — is on the cover of the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, an album that sold tens of millions. It’s the image that we’ll always associate with the movie, with Travolta’s entire career, with disco as a cultural movement. On the album cover, Travolta is alone on the dancefloor, with a glowing picture of the Bee Gees floating above him. But in the scene from the movie — a scene set to a song that will eventually appear in this column — Travolta is on a packed dancefloor, moving in step with everyone else. They’re all pointing their fingers at the sky, all at the same moment. They’re doing the hustle.
The hustle, the dance, predates “The Hustle,” the song, by at least a few years. The hustle came from the South Bronx. Puerto Rican teenagers — many of whom were part of a motorcycle gang called the Imperial Bachelors — invented and popularized the dance. It went through a few different versions and a few different names: the Spanish Hustle, the Latin Hustle. Sometimes, it was the line dance that we see in Saturday Night Fever. Sometimes, it was a swirling, intricate couples dance. The dance caught on throughout New York clubs, and plenty of musicians tried to latch onto it. In 1975, the Fatback Band released “Spanish Hustle.” James Brown released “Hustle!!! (Dead On It).” The J.B.’s released a whole album called Hustle With Speed. And Van McCoy released “The Hustle.” God only knows why the Van McCoy one was the one that caught on, but that’s what happened.
Van McCoy wasn’t a Puerto Rican teenager from the Bronx, and he wasn’t really a part of the disco scene, either. Instead, he was a music industry lifer who saw a trend, latched onto it, and had brief, unexpected, and monstrous success as a result. Van McCoy was in the right place, at the right time, with the right tootling piccolo riff. And when disco exploded out of New York’s clubs and into the rest of the world, McCoy rode it. That’s some classic music-business capitalism for you.
McCoy had come from Washington, DC, and he’d started playing piano at four and writing songs at 12. As a teenager, McCoy dropped out of Howard, moved to Philadelphia, and started a label called Rockin’ Records with his uncle. McCoy’s first self-released single was a lovely piece of late-’50s pop puffery called “Hey Mr. DJ.” In the early ’60s, McCoy went to work as a staff songwriter for Brill Building pioneers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, and he spent years cranking out minor hits for people like Gladys Knight & The Pips and Ruby & The Romantics. A couple of McCoy’s songs landed just outside the top 10: Barbara Lewis’ poised 1965 love song “Baby I’m Yours,” the Presidents’ lush 1970 ballad “5-10-15-20 (25 Years Of Love).” McCoy put together the duo Peaches & Herb, another act that would capitalize on the disco wave. (Peaches & Herb will eventually end up in this column.) And he arranged songs for Philly soul greats the Stylistics.
So McCoy was a longtime behind-the-scenes figure, an operator. But in 1975, he put together a mostly instrumental record called Disco Baby. Recorded with a studio-musician group that McCoy called the Soul City Symphony, Disco Baby is a fairly forgettable collection of slickster funk, and it’s got covers of jams like the Ohio Players’ “Fire” and the Average White Band’s “Pick Up The Pieces” that don’t come close to the originals. When he was finishing up the album, McCoy went to a New York club called the Adam’s Apple and saw people doing this new dance. (Later on, he said he liked it because it reminded him of ballroom dancing.) With about an hour of studio time left over, he wrote and recorded a song about that dance, throwing it onto the already completed album. That song would become the biggest thing he’d ever made, and it would take this South Bronx dance worldwide.
Those early disco years are funny. People were trying to make songs for discos, but they were still figuring out what a disco song sounded like. The howling, dramatic fantasias that we most associate with the genre would come later. “The Hustle” didn’t have the pulsing stomp or the vocal operatics. (It barely had any vocals at all.) But it’s not too far removed from what Barry White’s Love Unlimited Orchestra had been doing a year earlier — a stew of Philly soul, genteel funk, and chintzy easy-listening.
There’s a lot to like about “The Hustle.” The intro is a beautiful thing: the tense bassline, the shivery shakers, the cooing session vocalists insisting that you do it, the glimmers of guitar, the bass-drum kick. Later on, the song has swirling strings and chattering timbales and happily humming horns. But the thing about the song that immediately stands out is the piccolo tootle, which is fucking maddening. It’s catchy in exactly the wrong way. You could hear “The Hustle” once in your life and still find yourself torturing all your coworkers by whistling that riff 30 years later. Have you ever been woken up, way too early in the morning, by a bird that sits outside your window and absolutely refuses to shut up? The flute from “The Hustle” sounds like that bird, on a loop, for eternity. To paraphrase Timothy Olyphant in Go, that riff is The Family Circus. I hate it, yet I’m uncontrollably drawn to it.
Nobody was ready for “The Hustle” to blow up the way it did, least of all McCoy. McCoy spent a couple of years capitalizing on disco and then a couple of years trying to get away from it, and he didn’t really get a chance to do either. McCoy never made another big hit, and then he died of a heart attack in 1979, when he was 39. Put a finger in the sky for him.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s UK acid house duo 808 State’s 1989 track “Cobra Bora,” which samples “The Hustle”:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Justin Timberlake’s Neptunes-produced 2002 deep cut “Last Night,” which interpolates that maddening piccolo from “The Hustle”:
(Justin Timberlake will, of course, end up in this column a bunch of times.)
THE NUMBER TWOS: 10cc’s gasping, dreamlike studio-prog ballad “I’m Not In Love” peaked at #2 behind “The Hustle.” It’s a 9.