Guadeloupe born, Italian-based record producer Jacques Fred Petrus was one of the more enigmatic figures in early 80s black music. He was an expert at packaging studio concepts that paired American vocalists and lyricists with Italian musicians and arrangers (notably right-hand man Mauro Malavasi), leading to what some call “spaghetti disco.” He reputedly launched his empire with money from the Italian Mafia. And when he was murdered in 1987, rumors split over whether the shooter was a man turned away at one of his nightclubs, or an underworld mobster carrying out a deadly hit. In the years since, his productions have become treasured by DJs and lovers of boogie music.
Petrus’ most famous project was Change, whose 1980 debut The Glow of Love featured disco masterpieces like the title track, “A Lover’s Holiday,” and the Italo-disco mainstay “The End,” and effectively launched Luther Vandross as a solo superstar. High Fashion (which featured future R&B stars Alyson Williams and Meli’sa Morgan), Zinc, the BB & Q Band (a.k.a. the Brooklyn, Bronx & Queens Band), and the Peter Jacques Band: All were nearly faceless acts created by Petrus’ Goody Music team. The album cover designs featured beautiful models cavorting in a disco fantasia; Change’s covers were abstract images created by Frank Porto. The music itself was heavily influenced by Chic; and then Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis when their sound took over black radio. (In fact, Jam & Lewis produced Change’s Change of Heart.)
Despite, or perhaps because of the assembly-line nature of Petrus’ catalog, he made some of the best club tracks during that strange period in black music between disco’s effective demise and the rise of hip-hop, quiet storm and New Jack. High Fashion’s “Feelin’ Lucky” pulses with spirited, upbeat rhythms; The BB & Q Band’s “Genie” may be the best song Loose Ends never made. From Change’s “Paradise” to Zinc’s “Street Level,” this is some of the most entertaining boogie-funk of its day.
Before she launched rap into the mainstream by releasing the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” Sylvia Robinson owned one of the odder labels of the 1970s. (And before that, she made the 60s novelty “Love is Strange” as part of Mickey & Sylvia.)
All Platinum Records, which she co-founded with husband Joey in New York, had a roster that included the Philly soul ensemble the Moments and Sylvia herself. Both racked up hits: the Moments recorded the classic ballad “Love on a Two-Way Street,” and Sylvia landed a crossover pop smash with “Pillow Talk.” There was also Shirley & Company and “Shame, Shame, Shame.”
In his essential book Rap Attack, David Toop noted that All Platinum had a taste for “vocal eccentrics.” Linda Jones’s gospel-like exhortations on “For Your Precious Love” frequently ascended into yelping melisma, and staff songwriter George Kerr’s clumsy attempts at a love rap sparks the Isaac Hayes-like grandeur of “Three Minutes to Hey Girl.” “Pillow Talk” wraps itself around Sylvia’s breathy, kittenish voice, and she sashays in ecstasy over a tuft of string arrangements like a negligee barely hanging over her body. Her follow-ups included “Sweet Stuff,” where she coos seductively over a louche rhythm that epitomizes disco sleaze. The Moments made “Girls,” a platform boot groove that mixes up its falsetto appreciation for the fairer sex with cheerily lunkhead lines like “I like ‘em fat, I like ‘em tall, some skinny, some small.”
While those aforementioned hits made it part of the black music mainstream, All Platinum (and its offshoots like Vibration and Stang) espoused a grungy, home-cooked variation of 70s soul far removed from the tastefully appointed elegance of Philadelphia International Records. It’s catnip to collectors – copies of the Whatnauts’ 70s debut, which features the essential “Message from a Black Man,” have traded for over a hundred dollars. It’s been a sample source for producers like Kanye West, who rearranged Jackson 5 acolytes the Ponderosa Twins Plus One’s “Bound” into “Bound 2,” and sped-up a section of the Whatnauts’ “I’ll Erase Away Your Pain” for the chipmunk soul of “Late.”
Today, Sylvia Robinson is best known for creating the Sugarhill Gang –
controversy exists to this day on whether she assembled the trio herself or discovered them at a party in New Jersey– and the first important rap imprint, Sugar Hill Records. It was a triumphant coda to one of the funkier tangents of the soul era.
(October 16, 2016: It’s well-established now that the late Sylvia Robinson assembled the group after discovering the hip-hop scene at a party. However, her empire is controversial for many other reasons.)