Burn that mother down.
To this day, those four words conjure images of white polyester suits, flashing lights, mirror balls, and Saturday
Night Fever. The Trammps' 1977 smash "Disco Inferno" became an instant dance classic through its appearance in the iconic film, but the group ultimately fell victim to the "Disco Sucks" backlash of the late 70s. Original lead singer Jimmy Ellis' March 8 death from Alzheimer's disease, however, has brought the funky group back into the public's consciousness. Their sharp threads, slick dance moves, and Ellis' soulful voice brought to life an irresistibly danceable song that is still played at parties today.
The Philadelphia-based group began in the 1960s as The Volcanos, later changing their moniker to The Moods. After numerous personnel changes, including the addition of vocalist Ellis, the act redubbed themselves The Trammps. According to the New York Times Ellis obituary, the unusual name and spelling derived from their early days as street corner singers. Keyboardist and manager Edward Cermanski explains that "the police called them tramps. So they said they wanted to be high-class tramps, with two 'm's in the name." Their first release was a 1972 remake of "Zing Went the Strings of My Heart"; their soulful treatment of Judy Garland's 1943 hit peaked at number 17 on the R&B charts, officially launching their career. They later signed to the Buddha label, where they cut more singles such as "Hold Back the Night" and "Where Do We Go from Here," both modest successes on the R&B charts. Their 1975 move to Atlantic Records, however, is where The Trammps caught their biggest break. They became known as one of disco's earliest big acts, scoring their biggest-to-date hit with "Where the Happy People Go" in 1976.
Then came 1977, the disco explosion, and Saturday Night Fever--The Trammps' time had come. Amazingly, the song's inspiration came not from that film, but from another blockbuster: The Towering Inferno. The track's co-writers, Trammps keyboardist Ron Kersey and Leroy Green, penned the song after viewing a scene where a disco on top a building catches on fire. When "Disco Inferno" was first released in 1976, it became popular with clubgoers but met with very modest success on the charts. After its inclusion in a dance sequence in Saturday Night Fever (and subsequently on the bestselling soundtrack), The Trammps rereleased the single to much better reception in 1978, peaking at number nine on the R&B charts and number 11 on the Billboard Hot 100. Unfortunately, the group fell victim to the growing rebellion against disco--since "Disco Inferno" became a disco anthem, the song and The Trammps thus became "uncool" and never charted again. However, they retained their core audience, and toured in various lineups around the world. Ellis lent his distinctive tones to the group until his 2010 retirement.
Without Ellis' raspy and spirited voice, "Disco Inferno" would never have reached the heights of success it achieved. His memorable performance lies not in the lyrics themselves, but in his inflections. After the chorus, Ellis practically screams the word "burnin'," injecting energy into the track. He grunts and shows off his falsetto in the lines "People getting loose y'all, getting down on the roof, y' hear/ Folks are screaming, out of control/ It was so entertaining when the boogie started to explode." He interprets the words as if he is narrating a story, emphasizing words such as "screaming" and "entertaining" to virtually act out the story in front of listeners. As Ellis ad-libs, he modulates his voice to incredible heights, leading to the improbable conclusion that being in a disco engulfed in flames can be both scary and a really good time. The horns, the driving beat, the backup singers chanting "Just can't stop when my spark gets hot"--all are supporting elements in a truly indelible performance.
Until now, The Trammps may have been relegated to the so-called unhip disco bin. But the best way to honor Jimmy Ellis' memory is to remember them as a fierce, tight band who could create a groove like few others. Ellis' incredible voice proved instrumental in making "Disco Inferno" a classic that beckons 2012 listeners to the dance floor.