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.
Five days before his song “Disco Duck” hit #1, Rick Dees was fired. At the time, Dees was working as a DJ on the Memphis AM station WMPS. He’d recorded “Disco Duck” as a sort of side-hustle goof, but the song had taken off. WMPS wouldn’t let Dees play the song; they figured it would violate FCC rules about conflict of interest. Other Memphis stations wouldn’t play the song, either; they didn’t want to promote their competition.
So “Disco Duck” was basically taking off everywhere except Memphis. But one morning on the air, Dees casually mentioned that this song he’d recorded might hit #1, and he also noted that he wasn’t allowed to play it. Dees’ station manager heard him, and he fired Dees on the spot. Today, this all seems more than a little ridiculous. If you’re a local radio station, and one of your DJs suddenly has a hit single shooting up the national charts, you can probably get away with letting him play the damn song. But then again, this was “Disco Duck.” Can you blame the station?
Rick Dees was not the duck on “Disco Duck.” This blew my mind. “Disco Duck” sounds like the sort of song that you only write if you have a decent Donald Duck impression. The Donald Duck impression is literally the only thing that anyone remembers about the song. But no: Dees heard a guy doing a duck voice while he was working out at his local gym. Inspired by this duck voice, Dees wrote “Disco Duck,” and he hired the guy from the gym to do the duck voice on the song.
Dees, as you have probably already figured out, was not a musician. He’d grown up in Greensboro, North Carolina and studied radio at Chapel Hill. By 1976, Dees, then in his mid-twenties, had worked for a few different radio stations in the southeast before landing in Memphis. He also played records in clubs on the side, so he saw the rise of disco firsthand. His response to this was to write a song about a disco-dancing duck.
Dees had an easy time writing “Disco Duck,” but he had a hard time convincing anyone to record it with him. Eventually, Dees signed on with Estelle Axton, one of the co-founders of Memphis institution Stax Records, and her post-Stax label Fretone Records. (Stax had gone out of business in 1975, long after Axton had sold her stake in it.) Axton set Dees up with Bobby Manuel, a former Stax session guitarist. Manuel produced “Disco Duck,” and he presumably also made the quacking guitar noises on it. When the song took off in the South, Dees convinced RSO to give it a national release.
I actually like those guitar-quacking noises, by the way. It’s pretty fun when people can make guitars sound like other things. But Bobby Manuel wasn’t really a disco producer, and “Disco Duck” only barely qualifies as a disco song. It’s a relatively anemic production. There are some decent things about it — the rubbery bassline, the short bursts of horn, the duck voice. (It’s a pretty good duck voice.) But “Disco Duck” can’t compete with the actual disco songs of its era, and it doesn’t work as a joke. Because it’s not funny. Also, Rick Dees can’t sing. So that’s a problem, too.
The storyline of “Disco Duck” is something like this: Rick Dees went to a party the other night. All the ladies were treating him right. Moving his feet to the disco beat, how in the world could Rick Dees keep in his seat? Then, all of a sudden, Rick Dees began to change. Rick Dees was on the dancefloor acting strange. Flapping his arms, Rick Dees began to cluck. Look at Rick Dees! He’s the disco duck!
Ducks don’t cluck, by the way. They quack. Chickens cluck. And yet Rick Dees never considers the possibility that he’s the disco chicken. Rick Dees really should’ve fact-checked this narrative a little better. I can’t believe the Cast Of Idiots let that one slip past.
Anyway, that’s basically the whole story. Later on, there’s a subplot where Rick Dees goes and sits down, but then he gets up again and turns back into the disco duck. That’s the narrative tension in the song. Will Rick Dees become the disco duck again? Yes. He will. Also, I guess Elvis shows up at the end of the song? There’s a bit where someone, presumably Rick Dees, does a godawful Elvis impression, and Elvis and the duck seem to hang out with each other.
If “Disco Duck” belongs to a musical tradition, it isn’t disco. It’s the novelty song, the fading art form that was huge in the late ’50s and early ’60s but dying out by the mid-’70s. It’s possible that “Disco Duck” is the last true novelty to hit #1. There are plenty of later hits that you could call novelties — and many that I will almost certainly call novelties in this column — but they’re not novelties of the Ray Stevens/”Chipmunk Song” variety. They’re songs that are intended to work as pieces of music, however silly. “Disco Duck” merely exists as a vehicle for that duck voice.
Speaking of that duck voice: The guy from the gym who did the duck voice was a gentleman by the name of Kenneth Pruitt. Pruitt did a lot to help Dees promote “Disco Duck.” He went on Midnight Special. He went on The Merv Griffin Show. He did a promotional walk through Times Square with Dees while wearing a duck costume. A few months after “Disco Duck” hit #1, Pruitt sued Dees, claiming that he’d only been paid $188 for all of this. Talking to People at the time, Dees said, “It’s a frivolous lawsuit. That happens when you’re successful. There are a million Donald Duck voices but only one Rick Dees.”
There was only one Rick Dees hit. Dees never made the top 10 again. His follow-up single was another novelty track called “Dis-Gorilla” — a huge artistic departure in that it was about a disco-dancing gorilla. “Dis-Gorilla” peaked at #56. (I’m guessing it failed because Dees didn’t go with the much cleaner “Disco-Rangutang” pun.) But Dees kept finding work as a DJ. Immediately after he was fired, the crosstown rival station WHBQ hired Dees and let him play “Disco Duck” on the air.
In 1982, Dees moved to the giant LA station KIIS and shortly afterward began hosting the nationally syndicated radio show Weekly Top 40. Dees kept hosting that show until 2004, when Ryan Seacrest replaced him. Dees also hosted the TV show Solid Gold for a year in the ’80s, and he also had a late night ABC show called Into The Night Starring Rick Dees for a year in 1990. So he’s had a career! Just not a career as a musician.
“Disco Duck” routinely shows up on worst-songs-of-all-time lists, and it truly is a bad song. But as someone who was not yet alive during its heyday, I don’t find its existence offensive. I have definitely heard shittier examples of drive-time radio-DJ buffoonery translated into music. (I give you, for example, the Baltimore classic “Essex Wonderland.”) “Disco Duck” is less true irritant, more fascinating curio — a relic of a time when you could stamp the word “disco” on just about anything and sell some records.
One final postscript: I can’t find the scene on YouTube, but “Disco Duck” apparently appears in Saturday Night Fever, in a scene where some senior citizens are learning to dance to disco. So “Disco Duck” became a punchline within a punchline — a movie that capitalized on disco’s popularity using “Disco Duck” to make fun of disco’s popularity. Years later, Dees claimed that his manager refused to allow “Disco Duck” to appear on the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, figuring that it would cut into Dees’ own record sales. This manager obviously did the rest of us a favor, since we can now enjoy the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack without having to hit skip on “Disco Duck.”
BONUS BEATS: The duck-quacking guitar sound appears very briefly in the middle of DJ Shadow’s “Right Thing/GDMFSOB,” a track from the 2002 album The Private Press. (This is admittedly a reach, but it’s not like “Disco Duck” left a huge cultural footprint.) Here’s the Shadow track: