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.
In the spring of 1976, the Sylvers opened the world’s eyes to a dangerous plague that was sweeping America. The song’s narrator never even has time to understand the strange things he’s seeing. The young man takes his baby to the drive-in movie; she turns off the speaker so that she can keep dancing to the funky music on the radio instead. He takes her out to pizza, and she keeps dancing while she’s eating. This unfortunate young man never even realizes that he’s exposed himself to a dangerous new virus.
By the time the song ends, our narrator calls his doctor to plead for help: “I got this funny feeling / Rockin’ and a-reelin’ / Is it some new disease?” But it’s too late for our narrator. He’s got the boogie fever. He’s got to boogie down. Boogie fever: It was going around. And all night long, he does the bump bump bump. It’s a chilling vision of a rising epidemic. (And boogie fever really was going around. The week “Boogie Fever” hit #1, the Silver Convention’s “Get Up And Boogie” was at #7. “Get Up And Boogie” would later peak at #2, and it’s a 7.)
There were so many Sylvers. There were 10 Sylvers siblings, and when they hit #1 with “Boogie Fever,” nine of them were singing in the group. If you watch the Sylvers on any of the big TV shows of the era — The Midnight Special, Soul Train, American Bandstand — they make for a breathtaking spectacle: All these kids, most of them with towering afros, all doing complicated and busy dance routines while belting out some almost absurdly catchy music, looking like the damn Polyphonic Spree.
The Sylvers started making records in 1972, when youngest brother Foster was 10. (The oldest ones had already had a singing group called the Little Angels in Memphis, and they’d been on a few variety shows and toured with Ray Charles and Johnny Mathis.) The group had a clear model in the Jackson 5, but that’s really not a bad model to have. And when the Sylvers signed to Capitol, they had the best possible help at achieving maximum Jackson 5ness. Songwriter and producer Freddie Perren had been part of the Corporation, the four-man Motown team who’d written and produced “I Want You Back” and “ABC” and “The Love You Save” for the Jacksons. Perren stayed at Motown long enough to produce “Love Machine” for the Miracles, and then he moved over to Capitol and started working with the Sylvers. Perren co-wrote “Boogie Fever,” an absolutely incandescent piece of euphoric Jacksons-esque pop-soul. He also produced it, and he brought in a few Motown aces to play on it.
Bassist James Jamerson came up with the “Boogie Fever” bassline, and he clearly based it on the riff from the Beatles’ “Day Tripper.” If it was anyone else biting “Day Tripper,” the various ex-Beatles might’ve had some reason to get annoyed. But all through the ’60s, Jamerson was the bassist for the Funk Brothers, the legendary Motown session band. For years, Jamerson did fascinating, inventive things with his instrument. And Paul McCartney paid close attention; McCartney’s bass work on the Beatles’ mid-’60s music carries a clear and pronounced Jamerson influence. So if James Jamerson wanted to use the “Day Tripper” riff for a bubblegum disco jam about a boogieing pandemic, nobody was going to stop him.
And “Boogie Fever” really is top-shelf bubblegum disco. Perren manages to capture a whole lot of the magic he had with the early Jackson 5, even getting Foster to sing in yelpy ad-libs that sound a whole lot like young Michael. But Perren also updates that sound, adding in a relentless disco pulse that fits it nicely. Edmund Sylvers, the group’s 19-year-old frontman, sings the lead vocal, and he has a nice strut to his voice. But the real joy is in hearing all those different siblings layering up intricate, joyous harmony lines all over that beat. Because there are so many of them, they become a whole massed choir, breaking into little subgroups and then coming back together to yelp out the song’s title. “Boogie Fever” wouldn’t work nearly as well if it didn’t have so many damn kids singing it, but they turn it into something special.
The Sylvers played some kind of crucial connective role within pop music, acting as a bridge between early-’70s Motown and the disco explosion that followed. The Sylvers’ success couldn’t last, and it didn’t. The Sylvers scored one more hit: the fun but relatively clumsy “Hot Line,” which peaked at #5 later in 1976. (It’s a 6.) In different permutations, the Sylvers kept recording until 1985, when they finally broke up. The Sylvers didn’t launch any Michael Jackson-style breakouts, and lead singer Edmund Sylvers died of lung cancer in 2007, when he was 47. But Freddie Perren kept making big disco hits, and his work will show up in this column again.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the bit from 2010’s Despicable Me where a minion and some robots dance to “Boogie Fever”:
(The Despicable Me franchise will appear in this column eventually.)