Past Times

Raleigh’s disco scene was a mix of beach and boogie

Disc jockey Larry Crockett warms up the crowd for a disco graduation party in 1978.
Disc jockey Larry Crockett warms up the crowd for a disco graduation party in 1978. N&O photo

Dance fever hit Raleigh along with the rest of the country in the 1970s. In 1978, writers Angelia Herrin and Jane A. Welch wrote about the phenomenon.

John Travolta, step back. Eastern North Carolina is heating up its own kind of “Saturday Night Fever.”

It may not be the glitter-slick celebrity scenes of the New York City discos. And the dancing may be closer to the old beach bop known as the Shag instead of the flashy coordination of the Latin Hustle.

But on the dance floors from Raleigh to Atlantic Beach, the boogie scene at local disco clubs is known as the only place to GET DOWN.

Discos aren’t the only place to hear disco music, of course, since the pulsating beat is already drumming across the air waves. On the American Top 40 radio show, nine disco tunes were in the top 20 hits nationwide last week. And the double-album disco sound track of the film “Saturday Night Fever” featuring the Bee Gees’ high-pitched wail has sold 22 million copies nationally.

Disco dancing has even hustled out of the clubs and into Arthur Murray dance studios and the YWCA gyms. Disco dance lessons have become a booming business. And at a recent statewide gathering of 4-H clubs, disco dancing enlivened the scene at the N.C. State Fairgrounds here.

But the disco club is the only place where it all comes together: the talk, the music, the clothes, the lights, the dancing. In Chapel Hill, Rocky Mount or Raleigh, that’s where the disco action begins.…

Disco decor is slick: black and red, with a little silver or gold thrown in “to make you feel like you’re steppin’ out.” Around the dance floor, the rooms are dark, cluttered with small tables and bars. At Gillie’s in Raleigh, swings hung from the ceiling take the place of bar stools.

On the dance floor, the flash of lights turns on the disco dazzle: strobe lights, chaser lights, colored lights and mirrored balls that bounce off a shower of light refractions. At clubs like Elliot’s Nest in Raleigh, the raised dance floor flashes with footlights.

Over and around everything comes the sound of the music, rhythms pounding out of giant speakers so loud and so close that on-lookers can be practically bounced out of their seats. Unless a band shares the bill with the discs, the recorded music never stops. “We’re just here to fill the time between records,” griped one band member. “And it all sounds the same.”

But if the recordings don’t have the excitement of live bands, they don’t have the expense either. Many of the clubs have a membership fee of $10 or more, but only charge patrons a nightly cover fee when a band is playing.

“Look, disco means discount,” said Lee Webb, manager of Players, a Raleigh disco that features records and bands. “Disco really hurt the band business. At a disco, the owners didn’t have to pay a whole band. They could just invest in a good sound system, hire a disc jockey and make money. But that’s changing. Live entertainment will make a comeback.”

Right now, the recorded tunes are a guaranteed success, Webb said, if the disc jockey knows how to play the right tunes at the right moments to keep everybody happy. In Eastern North Carolina, that means mixing in the beach tunes with the up-to-date boogie music.

“My job is to keep that dance floor packed, and that means you’re gonna play some beach,” said Garland Freeland in his disc jockey booth at Elliot’s Nest.…

The Saturday night crowds don’t have to dress in silk shirts and slinky, braless dresses to meet the clubs’ “neat dress” rule. Most of the 18- to 40-year-old dancers settle for sun dresses and neatly-pressed slacks.

So when a couple like Edna Briggs and Rodney Hudgins of Raleigh step on the dance floor in their disco outfits with matching metal belts, everyone knows something special is going to happen.

And it does. She spins in skirt-lifting twirls, he gyrates down to floor level, then leaps up and lifts her off the floor in a dazzling display of disco choreography.

“We go dancing as much as we can and stay until I’m so tired I can hardly walk up on the dance floor” the 21-year-old Miss Briggs said. “This is what we like to do. I can hardly wait for Saturday nights when we can go dancing.

“I buy these body suits and skirts just for dancing, so it will look good. But I can’t wear shoes, just hose. I can’t get my spins right in shoes.”

The couple does the kind of dancing usually seen in disco contests, with steps and moves that closely follow the music. But Miss Briggs claims most of it comes naturally after watching “American Bandstand” and “Soul Train”on T.V. The N&O Aug. 13, 1978

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Leonard: 919-829-4866 or tleonard@newsobserver.com

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