Success, Vinylly

Gary Davis scored an underground dance sensation in 1979. In 2004, he heard it for the first time.

The year was 1979. The sound was disco, and the place was Opal Studios, a Manhattan recording house located a few floors above the legendary Studio 54. Perched behind a massive synthesizer, a 25-year-old music-composition student named Gary Davis was working on a slick dance number he'd just written. Davis and an eight-piece band of friends from his Camden, New Jersey, neighborhood laid down the track live in a single take with minimal overdubs -- the usual seat-of-the-pants technique for Davis' mentor and patron, Peter Brown. The song galloped along on Davis' wiry organ runs, a boogaloo bass line, and saucy, call-and-response vocals from Rhonda Whaley and a 15-year-old basso profundo named Clyde Alexander.

When the session was finished, Brown -- who reputedly ran 25 labels at one point -- knew he had a hit. But when he asked the group to sign to Heavenly Star, an imprint of his P&P Records label, Davis and the rest were hesitant. Because of Brown's shady reputation, the only one to step up was Alexander. Davis and Brown christened the cut "Gotta Get Your Love" by Clyde Alexander and Sanction, written and produced by Gary Davis.

"Some people say that was the biggest mistake I ever made," Davis says now, some 25 years later. Why? As he just learned a year ago, "Gotta Get Your Love" has become a cult phenomenon around the world. The German Internet radio program Ebony Cuts (www.metronomic-family.com) recently named the song the most famous, mysterious, and sought after disco classic of all time." And on September 23, a collector in Japan bought an original 12-inch single of "Gotta Get Your Love" from a Dutch seller on eBay. The final bid: $700.

Davis doesn't own a single copy.

Lanky, with thin dreadlocks streaming down his back, the 51-year-old Davis lives in Royal Palm Beach, works as a TV producer for WXEL, and is one of South Florida's most prolific indie filmmakers (see Eric Alan Barton's New Times piece "Flick Fixation," October 21, 2004). He grew up playing piano, the son of an RCA engineer and the nephew of Hammond B-3 master Richard "Groove" Holmes. He befriended Brown -- a notable disco producer and later one of the early architects of hip-hop -- at his first studio recording session in '78. It was Brown who gave him the opportunity to make his mark on modern music -- and who inadvertently took it away.

"Peter Brown was my mentor, so I don't want to put it in a negative way, because I love him to death, despite his idiosyncracies," Davis says. Brown never came clean about what he did with the single, claiming that every copy was taken to England, where it was a hit, but that there were no copies left in the States. "I never even knew Peter put that song out," Davis explains. "I'd say, 'Where's my song at?' and he'd say, 'We ain't got no more, but this song is bad, man.' Yeah, right," Davis would think, "he ain't never put my song out." Davis later realized that Brown, who was known as a bullshitter, may have taken advantage of him. Brown soon disappeared into Harlem and hip-hop, and Davis, the studious, self-proclaimed nerd stuck in Camden, quickly lost touch.

"That's how Chocolate Star started," Davis says of the label he launched in 1980, "out of desperation. I had this band, I had these artists -- I had a machine, and the machine needed to do something. So I took 'em into the studio and started doing it." The first LP he recorded included a new, smoother version of "Gotta Get Your Love" plus several more disco-funk tracks. Original Chocolate Star 12-inch records like "The Pop" fetch high prices on eBay, though not as much as those older, rarer, Heavenly Star cuts.

When he moved to South Florida in 1984, Davis brought the Chocolate Star imprint with him. He quickly fell in with the burgeoning Miami bass scene and worked briefly with a few of that genre's budding local talents, like Coolie C and KJ. He also began spending more time on his filmmaking and soundtracking, eventually drifting away from the urban, edgy music scene he was first introduced to in New York.

"Twenty-five years later, last October, I get the phone call," Davis says. It was a record buyer who had tracked down Davis after two years of searching: "'Yeah, it's out; the record's worth $700!,'" he recalls being told. "I can't even get a copy of it." He went to New York last Christmas and met with Brown for the first time since 1980. "He gave me a CD version that's on the compilation. I waited 25 years to listen to it!"

Now that he has, Davis' shiny, mirrored disco ball has finally started rolling. One of the world's premiere electronic auteurs, half of house production duo Masters at Work, and all-around arbiter of cool Kenny "Dope" Gonzales has reissued Davis' version of "Gotta Get Your Love." Dmitri from Paris, another esteemed vinyl junkie and purveyor of sexy-ass house music, is looking to collaborate. Traffic Entertainment, a Massachusetts-based reissue label, is releasing a compilation album of Davis' older work early next year. This week, Traffic also ordered 200 copies of A Sinner's Prayer, Davis' self-produced 2005 crime flick. All of which will boost Davis' stock in the music world as well as his bottom line.

"When you do reissues, that brings up the value of the original," Gonzales says by cell from his New York studio. "A lot of people don't like reissues or whatever, but you gotta think about the kids that can't spend $200 for a record. It's all about education and passing the music on. That's what we try to do is pass the music on."

Davis is flattered by the attention: "It's telling me if you do something well, sooner or later, people are gonna discover it." More than anything, he doesn't want to be remembered as some kind of aging, one-hit footnote in the history of disco. He's been making music and movies for 25-some years without recognition; the only thing the cult cred will change is the ease by which it's done. Like Gonzales, he sees himself as a part of the musical continuum, more for the generations to come than for the ones that have already disappeared.

"I want people who are out there struggling to know: Do not depend on other people having control over your destiny. If you wanna do it, do it!" he says. "The best part is doing it, so why worry about all this other nonsense? I've always felt that way, but now I have the evidence to back up what I've been telling people all along. It gives me the credibility I deserve."

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