The Number Ones

The Number Ones: Wild Cherry’s “Play That Funky Music”

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.

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Wild Cherry – “Play That Funky Music”

HIT #1: September 18, 1976

STAYED AT #1: 3 weeks

For years, I heard “Play That Funky Music” as some kind of statement of racial solidarity. The white boy singing the song, Wild Cherry frontman Rob Parissi, knew that nobody would expect a white boy like him to play that funky music. But he’d had his mind blown after deciding to disco down and check out the show. He’d seen people dancing, and singing, and moving to the groove. He’d had a personal epiphany, and just when it had hit him, somebody had turned around and shouted, “Play that funky music, white boy.” You can’t go back to playing rock ‘n’ roll after that.

I have since learned that, by the second half of 1976, every white boy who wanted to find any level of commercial success was playing that funky music. “Funky music” had become the default setting. The two songs that immediately preceded “Play That Funky Music” at #1 had both been funky music, and they’d both been sung by white boys, Barry Gibb and Henry Wayne Casey. Both of those songs, the Bee Gees’ “You Should Be Dancing” and KC & The Sunshine Band’s “(Shake, Shake, Shake) Shake Your Booty” had been specifically about discoing down. There was nothing special about Wild Cherry frontman Rob Parissi. He was merely adapting to a new world — a funky world.

Parissi came from the mining town of Mingo Junction, Ohio, and he formed Wild Cherry as a hard rock band in nearby Steubenville in 1970. Parissi named the band after the best cough drop flavor. (If Wild Cherry weren’t as good, they would’ve had to call themselves Honey Lemon or Mentho-Lyptus.) For a few years, Wild Cherry were a regional club band, playing working-class towns from Pittsburgh to West Virginia. They put out a couple of records on Grand Funk Railroad member Terry Knight’s Brown Bag label, but they had no national profile. For a few years, Wild Cherry broke up; Parissi had quit the band to manage a pair of steakhouses. But Parissi put together a new version of the band when he realized that he wanted to play that funky music.

“Play That Funky Music” is its own kind of origin story, and the song itself has a couple of different origin stories. In the more romantic version, the band was playing its hard rock at Pittsburgh venues, and people wanted to hear disco. At one point, drummer Ron Beitle urged the rest of the band to give the crowd what it wanted, telling Parissi to “play that funky music, white boy.” (Beitle was also a white boy.) Parissi, in this version of the story, scrambled for a pen and wrote the phrase down on a drink-order slip, and then he wrote a song about it.

Some version of that story is probably true, but it makes it sound like “Play That Funky Music” owed its existence to a moment of lightning-bolt inspiration. It didn’t. Parissi wanted to make hits, and he was a canny operator. He was adapting sounds that were already in the air. “Play That Funky Music” sounds a whole lot like the Ohio Players’ “Fire,” from the monster bassline to the cartoonishly nasal Snagglepuss growl that Parissi adapts. It can’t be a total coincidence. Still, Parissi originally intended “Play That Funky Music” to be a B-side to Wild Cherry’s cover of the Commodores’ “I Feel Sanctified.” (The Commodores will eventually appear in this column.) Parissi’s label, the Cleveland indie Sweet City, convinced him that the B-side was the hit.

So there’s nothing original or daring about “Play That Funky Music.” But that’s how popular music works. People hear sounds that they like, and they figure out how to make those things their own. On “Play That Funky Music,” Parissi basically admits that that’s what he’s doing. He hears funky music, somebody shouts at him to play that funky music, and he plays that funky music. Around the time the song was hitting, Parissi told Billboard that Wild Cherry were “an electric funk people’s band… We’re trying to do a white thing to R&B music, adding some heaviness to it.”

There was, of course, plenty of heaviness already there in R&B. (“A white thing.” Jesus.) Even the most hard-rock touch on “Play That Funky Music” — the screaming, wheedling guitar solo on the bridge — was the kind of thing that was already showing up on Funkadelic and Ohio Players records. But “Play That Funky Music” is an exceptional piece of heavy R&B. The bassline is a tremendous strut, and Parissi builds the entire song around it. Every new element that shows up on the song — the downstroke guitars, the merciless cowbell, the horn stabs — serves and accentuates the bassline. Even on the hook, Parissi is practically just singing along to that riff. So that riff never lets up; it just travels deeper and deeper into your brain.

Parissi clearly enjoys the hell out of his pinched, absurdist singing style. He’s doing a bit, adapting a persona, but he knows how to use it. He throws ad-libs everywhere he can, and he vamps like a pro. The story he tells is ridiculous. He never had no problems burning down the one-night stands, but everything around him still got to feeling so low. He heard something in that funky music, but he resisted it, too. When, at first, people had advised him to play that funky music, he couldn’t understand this; he thought that they were out of their minds. Eventually, though, he has his second epiphany: How could he be so foolish to not see that he was the one behind? But now it’s so much better. He’s funking out in every way.

Maybe that’s not much of a story, but it still is a story, a commendable tale of shedding prejudices. Rob Parissi frees his ass, and his mind follows. The song builds the same way the story does. And by the time Parissi hits the chorus — the kind of tremendous, indelible hook that might only occur to a songwriter once in a lifetime — the entire band sings along, like it’s a Slade song. It’s a perfect moment of mass-catharsis silliness.

Story time: When I was in high school, I spent my summers working at a camp in Western Maryland, literally across the street from Camp David. It was a residential camp for people with disabilities. (I wrote about it a bit in the “Lean On Me” entry.) We’d have sessions for kids early in the summer, and then we’d have sessions for adults later on. One of my favorite adults was a guy named Gus, a big white guy with some severe developmental disabilities. Gus looked and dressed like a car salesman playing golf on the weekend, and he loved to party. Gus wasn’t allowed under any circumstances to have sugar or caffeine, but he still snuck it all the time. And whenever he snuck it, he would bellow the hook from “Play That Funky Music.”

Gus loved “Play That Funky Music.” He thought it was hilarious. His favorite twist on it was to yell for some specific staff member to play that funky music. He’d think it was especially funny if the person he was yelling at was not a white boy: “Play that funky mewww-sic, white boy Yolanda!” Somewhere, I’ve got a photo of Gus mid-shout — hands cupped over mouth, face beet-red, eyes alight with excitement. Gus was a man with a fine appreciation for unabashed silliness. “Play That Funky Music” was perfect for him.

In Jonathan Lethem’s 2003 novel The Fortress Of Solitude, there’s a virtuoso stretch — presumably autobiographical — where Lethem’s protagonist remembers “Play That Funky Music” as an instrument of torture. Growing up as a white kid in a black Brooklyn neighborhood, Lethem’s hero would have to endure constant demands to play that funky music, often just before getting beat up. Jonathan Lethem, I’m guessing, has his own reasons for disliking “Play That Funky Music.” For me, it’s the opposite. I’ve got my own connections to the song, and they’re positive. When I hear “Play That Funky Music,” I think of Gus, and I smile.

So Rob Parissi was not the only white boy playing that funky music in 1976 — far from it. But he was still the one who discovered how much fun it was to yell about it. That’s its own kind of innovation. Wild Cherry never had another top-40 hit after “Play That Funky Music”; America evidently decided that it had heard enough funky music from this particular white boy. But the song still goes hard. And wherever Gus is now, I hope he is still loudly demanding for someone to play that funky music.

GRADE: 8/10

BONUS BEATS: On a 1989 self-produced track also titled “Play That Funky Music,” Vanilla Ice, a man who will eventually appear in this column, sampled “Play That Funky Music.” Ice’s “Play That Funky Music” eventually became a big hit in its own right. Ice didn’t clear the sample, so he eventually had to pay a big settlement to Rob Parissi. Here’s Ice’s “Play That Funky Music” video:

(Vanilla Ice’s “Play That Funky Music” peaked at #4 in 1990. It’s a 4.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the memorable Daft Punk-biting 1997 Intel Pentium ad that was set to “Play That Funky Music”:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Sheldon analyzing the self-reflexive properties of “Play That Funky Music” in a 2015 episode of The Big Bang Theory:

Tags: Wild Cherry