Sunday, June 25, 2006

Disco Delivery #23:
Duncan Sisters (1979, RCA)

Duncan Sisters - Boys Will Be Boys
Duncan Sisters - Sadness In My Eyes
Duncan Sisters - Outside Love

I know it's been a little while since my last entry, I apologise for the brief absence.. In any case, In that time I've only gotten busier at work, bought a new iPod (yes, finally jumped on the bandwagon) and am nearly finished reading Peter Shapiro's excellent book "Turn The Beat Around - A Secret History of Disco," which has been an amazing read.. Even if you may not agree with everything he says, it's an extremely interesting and even illuminating read. Hope to write a longer review about it one of these days.

I've been wanting to do an entry on at least one of the great productions of Toronto-based producers Willi Morrison and Ian Guenther (A.K.A. Three Hats Productions/THP) for a little while now. In case some of you don't know, they were the production duo behind the THP Orchestra and their epic disco monster "Two Hot For Love." Some of their other projects included Sticky Fingers, Grand Tour, Skatt Bros. (an unfortunate name if there ever was one) to name just a few. One of those projects included this album for the Duncan Sisters, Phyllis and Helen whom they had been using as regular session singers on some of their major projects from that time. In the mid '70s, prior to their disco efforts, the Duncans had done backup vocals for the likes of Al Green and Ann Peebles on the Memphis Hi label. In 1978 they would begin appearing as the primary lead vocalists on Morrison and Guenther's third (second in the US) THP album "Tender Is The Night (1978, Butterfly) and later on their Sticky Fingers (1978, Prelude) project.

It seems by 1979 Guenther/Morrison were starting to branch out from their signature sound somewhat. They would take a rock-oriented direction on the Skatt Bros' "Strange Spirits" (1979, Casablanca) album and a more radio-friendly pop sound for the final THP album "Good To Me" (1979, Atlantic). The Duncan Sisters album, not surprisingly, falls on the more pop-oriented side of things. Originally released in the US on Casablanca's Earmarc imprint (but on RCA in Canada), the single off the album, "Boys Will Be Boys" had some of the same characteristics as their hit "Two Hot For Love". A very similar percussion/hi-hat intro, similarly lush light synths, except this time quickly merging itself into a full, layered Spector-esque power-pop/disco combo. Again, with those characteristic THP horns spread all over the place, gunslinger guitar and spirited, catchy vocals and lyrics, it has all the elements in place. There's a definite classic pop aesthetic in the song. With the way the sisters sing a lyric like "the traces of the tears I cried are on my face," they do what some of the best pop songs do. In other words translate heartbreak into something irresistably sweet, catchy and infectious..

With a title like that, probably not a surprise that "Boys Will Be Boys" was a hit in quite a few gay clubs. Interestingly, Ronnie Spector herself would cover this song on her Genya Ravan-produced "Siren" LP from 1980.

"Sadness In My Eyes" takes things a little bit more seriously. A song that, instead of brushing it aside like the previous, seems to revel in it's drama-queen sensibility. It's a song with a melody that is so simple, effective and original that it's hard to believe it's not a cover. Written (music and lyrics) by Willi Morrison, the lyrics are interesting, given 1979 as the last years of disco as most knew it. The line, "it's sad I know, when the good times have to go.." seem eerily prophetic for it's time. The end of a love-affair paralleling the end of disco perhaps? Maybe there was a lingering sense of what would happen at the time. I'm not sure, but like what Peter Shapiro touched on in his book, some of the best disco came from those that were able to take the bitter with the sweet. Those, like Rodgers & Edwards of Chic who didn't just leave disco as a pleasure free-for-all, but who acknowledged the sense of melancholy, bitterness and cynicism that was just as much a part of disco as the escapist, hedonistic party that was most visible. Then again, maybe I've just been into Shapiro's book a bit too much, but I digress..

"Outside Love" (also a single, apparently) is somewhat more conventional disco than the last two. Back to big diva vocals, powerful, sweeping buildups and layered instrumental breaks. One of my favourite parts ot this song is at the end of the chorus when the one of the ladies sings "I'd be better loving on the outside." Powerful vocals and drums punctuating every syllable.

Some of the other songs on the album include at least one other enjoyable disco track, "Love Is On The Way" as well as some good to awful attempts at balladry, namely "Rock Along Slowly," which is hopelessly pedestrian, to "You Give Me Such A Feeling" which is a great album closer.

The Duncan Sisters would release one more album in 1981 (which I haven't heard yet) called "Gonna Stay In Love" (pic stolen from eBay). This time around they were calling themselves just The Duncans and had switched to the blues & soul indie label Malaco. One of the singles off that album, "Too Damn Hot" was released as a 12". The title track and another song, "Your Love Still Brings Me To My Knees" (these titles certainly sound promising..) were also released as singles.. Since then the Duncans have occasionally surfaced as backup vocalists for the likes of U2 and B.B. King to name a couple. The most recent news about them was of a performance together, once again as the Duncan Sisters, at the 1999 Poretta Soul Festival in Italy. According to the brief bio on the Soul Festival's website, at that time Helen was a soloist in the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir and Phyllis was working with the Jim Johnson Orchestra of Memphis.

This is just the first of several THP Productions that I would like to put up. It's really too bad that very little of their output has been featured on CD as of yet. They were one of the best representations of what some have called a "Canadian disco sound" - a unique hybrid of both American and European styles. There have been some reviewers who type them as "Eurodisco," and there was certainly that element, but there was also a definite (North) American continental sound it. In other words, it definitely didn't sound like anything from either Munich or even New York. Given the penchant for some Canadian productions to be somewhat on the cheap side once in a while (after all, it was, relatively speaking, the early days of Can-Con), there was never anything cheap sounding about a THP production. Even just for that, they deserve their props.

Also something to note, Richard Bernstein, the graphic artist who did those iconic covers for Grace Jones' three disco albums and Loleatta Holloway's 1979 "Loleatta" album was also behind the photo-drawings on the cover..





Anonymous said...

You know I love all your disco deliveries, but I have to say the Duncan Sisters is already an especial favorite of mine!


Tommy said...

Thanks Connie! Glad to know you like it :)

Unknown said...

Wow! This is one of my all-time favorite dance albums. I stil have it somewhere in my vinyl collection. I just found your great dance blog and would love if you could maybe post these tracks one more time as I don't have them on mp3.

Thanks for doing such a wonderful job! Request: The Raes

Tommy said...

Thanks the kind words, David! I'll probably put the Raes up sometime. They had some good records..

As far as a repost, we'll see.. I deleted all my old files because my rips at the time were pretty awful, but I'll see what I can do one of these days..

Anonymous said...

Hi there

I don't suppose you have a high quality mp3 of "TOO DAMN HOT" do you by any chance????

I can't afford the vinyl currently but really want to hear it in full audio goodness.

Nice blog by the way

My email is

Anonymous said...

It's getting released on cd in england on 27 jan 2014

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