04.16.2015

The Hub's EXCLUSIVE Q & A With KC & The Sunshine Band’s Lead Singer, Harry Wayne Casey

The Hub's EXCLUSIVE Q & A With KC & The Sunshine Band’s Lead Singer, Harry Wayne Casey

by Michael P. Coleman

KC & The Sunshine Band may not immediately come to mind when you think of 70s soul…but they should. With Harry Wayne Casey delivering infectious lead vocals, the interracial band cranked out a series of indelible #1 hits on both the R & B and pop charts. In addition to tracks like “I’m Your Boogie Man”, “(That’s The Way) I Like It”, and “Boogie Shoes” (which was featured on the multi-platinum, genre-defining soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever), Casey partnered with Teri DeSario on the gorgeous “Yes, I’m Ready” and co-wrote George McCrae’s classic “Rock Your Baby”, which became one of disco’s first international smashes.

KC & The Sunshine Band earned three Grammy awards during their heyday, and along with Donna Summer (who was a friend of Casey’s) they were among disco’s foremost ambassadors. In a nutshell, that white boy played — and sang — some funky music.

By the mid-80s, “disco”’s demise forced a burned out Casey into early retirement, and he spent a decade or so overcoming personal demons, including addiction. He reemerged in 1995 and has been touring ever since. He and a retooled Sunshine Band have just released a new album, Feeling You! The 60s, an infectious collection of covers from that decade.

Listen in on my conversation with brother KC. You may be as surprised as I was to hear about why he never liked the term “disco”, how Michael Jackson inadvertently cost him a few hit records, the similarities and differences between Casey the man and “KC” the lead singer, and his struggles to succeed as a white guy singing music that had been labeled as “black”.

This interview has been edited.

How'd a white guy in an interracial band wind up writing and singing R & B in the 1970s?

It was always my dream. I don’t look at color. I never have. I was always told that basically because I was white, I would never make it in an R & B world. I paid no mind to that. I would go to clubs and be the only white guy up there entertaining the audience and everybody was having a good time and it didn’t matter what I looked like. So I never did look at it other than I was very proud of the fact that I was helping to break down some barriers. I guess that was my purpose here, to facilitate the breaking down of the barriers and the walls that were existing at the time. Music never had that many barriers but unfortunately people do.

I remember hearing you guys and Hall & Oates and a few other acts on R & B radio while I was growing up. We couldn’t have cared less what color you were. We just knew the music was authentic and the groove was right. I never got a sense from you that you were trying to sound a certain way to sell a record…

Everything I’ve ever done is just what God has given me. I never tried to imitate anybody. I grew up listening to R & B music. That’s all my mother played in my house. I grew up listening to Nat “King” Cole and Ray Charles and Nancy Wilson and Sam Cooke and The Flamingos and all of this amazing music that came out back in the 50s and 60s. All of that was really natural to me. That’s why, when I was told that I couldn’t do this because I’m white, I’m thinking “What the f — are you talking about?” This is MY music. This is what I know — I don’t know anything else. I don’t know that the music belongs to a color. I just know that it’s natural to me.

Do you remember who told you that you couldn’t be an R & B singer?

It was Steve Alaimo, and he was a white artist with a very soulful voice. He was the host of a TV show called “Where The Action Is” that came on every afternoon at 4:30. He was from and lived in Miami, and actually Henry Stone who owned TK Records was his manager at the time. He was one of the main guys at the TK Records studios who worked on other artists at the label and stuff. I think that because [his singing career hadn't] worked for him, and he was 10 years earlier than me, he felt that maybe I shouldn’t take the chance. He was just trying to be kind and gracious and tell me in a nice way “Dude, you don’t stand a chance” because it had always been very difficult for him.

All of these years later, your music is still on network TV, in movies, in commercials…it’s everywhere. It never left. How’s it feel to have your music live on?

I think it’s a testament to the songs. So many critics tried to tear it down and tear the artists apart. I never did quite understand it. I never understood why everybody thought we artists of the day were such a threat. They just always tore it down and tore it apart. It was senseless. After awhile, I just stopped paying attention to what anybody wrote. I was there doing the shows and I was seeing the crowds' reactions to those songs. I knew what the sales were — they were beyond what anyone had ever sold. It always gives me…not the last laugh, but the last pat on my back to myself.

Do you think that you and your band’s sales ultimately suffered as a part of the “disco” backlash?

I got really pissed off when they started calling the music “disco”. To me, it was R & B. That’s what it started out being, and that’s what it was. I felt like it was a slap in the face to call it that, because I felt it was R & B’s time to shine and I felt like it had been taken away again. I was really kind of upset that they were calling it this new name. So I really took it personally, so much so that I would detach my name from it when it was possible to do that. And here I was detaching my name from something that I was so much a part of creating. I got pissed off because again…why did they have to rename the music after the place that played it? What does the venue have to do with what kind of music it is?

What’s your take on that? Why do you think they did that?

I don’t know. Why DID they do that? Why do we continually do it? They call “punk music” that because people dress like punks? I don’t get it. “New wave”. What the f — is “new wave”? It wasn’t a “new wave”. It was music played with electronic instruments — that’s a “new wave”? We keep renaming things and renaming things. There are so many genres and groups…I mean come on! Every record that comes out you could give it a new genre. It got tiresome. It was just pissing me off, to be honest with you.

After your stellar run with TK Records, you moved over to Epic and released two albums, The Painter and All In A Night’s Work.  You went to Epic around the time that Michael Jackson was shining there. Did you feel like you were further down Epic’s totem pole than Michael was?

If you look back at the history during that time, you’ll see very little happening on the Epic label except for Michael. I was listening to an A & R person at the label, Frank Dileo, and when they told me they were excited about the first album, I got excited about it. I thought later than maybe they were just “yessing” me and not being honest with me. Which was not what I every expect from anybody, really. I always felt he wanted to be Michael manager. I think Epic took every bit of extra money or whatever they had and put it into Michael. [Dileo became Jackson’s manager a few years later.]

Your new album is a great listen. I love the selections you chose. One of your peers released a 60s tribute album a few years ago and there wasn’t a single Motown song on his album. I’m from Detroit, so for me, that was practically blasphemous.

Wow. I had to be careful about not making it an ALL Motown record! When you mention 60s music, Motown is the first thing I think of!  

You covered two songs that had been originally recorded by Diana Ross & The Supremes. One of them, “I Hear A Symphony”, might be my all-time favorite Supremes song, and you nail it. Clearly, you heard that song differently than I and most of the world had heard it.

Eddie Holland, one of the song’s writers, had done a slow version of it. My manager introduced it to me. I heard that version, and a few years went by, actually. I was in Lake Tahoe and I decided to put the song in my show, because I always liked the lyrics to that song. I was sitting at the piano in my dressing room one day, just playing it really slowly. I took it out to the band right away, and we learned it that way and did it live that way. The audience was enjoying it, so I definitely wanted to make sure it went on my next album project.   I’m very proud of it.

Your version of “You Keep Me Hanging On” is very funky. And you included a song that, until I heard you sing it, I’d never really liked: “Blowing In The Wind”.

Thank you! That’s kind of my little political statement on the album. I just felt it was really appropriate for what’s going on right now in the world. The album is kind of a musical diary of my life. There are things in there that are very close to me. The way I feel about certain things, and then other things were put on the album because I thought they’d be fun to do live and fun to record. I always enjoyed those songs whenever I heard them, and I wanted to share that same enjoyment with my fans.

The album’s the first of a two-part project. What’s the second part sound like?  

The second one is all original stuff. The distributor just told me it’s going to be a ten track initial release, followed by a deluxe 2 CD set of all original stuff. It’s coming out in August.

On a recent OWN broadcast, you talk about some of the difficulties that came with stardom. You ended the clip saying “It’s taken me 40 years to understand who KC of “KC and the Sunshine Band” is.” Who IS KC?

[Laughs] Well, he’s a character, I’ll tell you that! There’s a big difference between Harry Wayne Casey and KC. They’re very close, but KC is this performer person and Harry Wayne Casey is a little bit shyer than that. And so it took me a long time to be comfortable with who KC is, to be relaxed with that part of it. When I’d go out in public and someone would compliment me, I used to not know how to handle that. Then someone said to me “Just say ‘Thank you.’ I would get nervous and not know how to react to that. It’s took me 40 years to be comfortable with that, to understand that I WAS KC from KC and the Sunshine Band, and when I walk out of that door, I belong to the public and there’s nothing to fear there. And so, it was just [realizing] that KC can be Harry Wayne Casey also, and learning to be comfortable with KC of the Sunshine Band. A lot of times, I just wasn’t very comfortable being him.

You’ve said that you are happy that God put you in a position to do what you were doing, and that you think God had put you here to bring joy to people. What spiritual path or tradition do you follow?

I’m not a very “church-going” person, but I grew up in the pentecostal church. I believe in Jesus Christ as my savior. I don’t always practice it, but I believe that’s between me and God.   I still believe in a lot of things that the Bible teaches, [but] there’s a lot of conflict on my part. My mother wouldn’t even give me a quarter to go to the slot car races because they served beer there. I couldn’t spend money in a movie theatre, although I don’t see anything wrong with going to a movie. Maybe there is, but I don’t know. Anything “of the world” as my grandmother would often put it…girls dancing on TV in tight outfits was sinful, for example.

You and I may have had the same grandmother. Mine didn't play!

[Laughs] We probably did!

 

KC & The Sunshine Band’s new album, Feeling You! The 60s, along with several excellent hits collections, are available at iTunes and Amazon.   The group’s The Painter and All In A Night’s Work are available for preorder at funkytowngrooves.com.

Michael P. Coleman is a Sacramento, California-based freelance writer, and he is also your boogie man! Connect with him at michaelpcoleman.com, via email at mikelsmindseye@me.com, or on Twitter: @ColemanMichaelP.