This is the first post in a biweekly series. Read about the series — and just what we mean by “freestyle music” — here. Freestyle Fridays post on the first and third Fridays of each month.
There’s only one way to do the first Freestyle Friday post, so let’s let love put us into a groove.
This video is pretty basic. We have a gorgeous Shannon dancing and singing on a set, while what look like cater-waiters in capezios get ready to join her. Fun fact: Listen to the chorus in the song. That’s not Shannon singing! The vocal on the chorus is sung by session guitarist/vocalist Jimi Tunnell, who was uncredited. In the video, Shannon lip-syncs the chorus, but it’s clearly not her voice.
A short history of the song: The production team of Mark Liggett and Chris Barbosa were shopping an instrumental track, “Fire and Ice,” written and arranged by Barbosa. Barbosa – a DJ for influential New York City radio station WKTU – had been influenced by Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock” and electro pioneer Arthur Baker; on”Fire and Ice,” he wedded those influences to a Latin-flavored rhythm with a heavier electronic drum sound. Barbosa teamed up with Liggett to produce the record, and wanted to add vocals. Young R&B background vocalist Brenda “Shannon” Greene was the first to audition, and immediately landed the gig.”Fire and Ice” evolved into “Let the Music Play.”
Barbosa’s unique production on the song was quickly dubbed “The Shannon Sound,” and would later come to be known as “freestyle.” Barbosa is credited with creating freestyle, and Shannon is considered the “International Queen of Freestyle.” Shannon is also considered a one-hit wonder because “Let the Music Play” was her only song to crack the Top 40 on the U.S. pop charts. The album did have another dance (and video) hit, “Give Me Tonight” — but more on that another time.
It may be hard to imagine what it was like to hear this song on the radio in 1983. The “death of disco” – which started with a racist and homophobic backlash in 1979 – had scrubbed almost all disco and dance music from pop radio stations in the very early 1980s. I think the sudden vacuum allowed some of the other existing (and fading) contemporary musical genres to bubble up into the Top 40 airplay, temporarily: songs tinged with country, folk, and hard/guitar rock, for example. Quite a few songs that now feel like novelties were gigantic hits, like Kim Carnes’s “Bette Davis Eyes,” or Sheena Easton’s “Morning Train.“ At the time, these holdovers felt a bit retro and kind of corny. This isn’t to say the music from 1980-1982 was bad. But, taken as a whole, it did have a certain family-friendly style that harkened back to the less controversial easy listening hits of the early 70s – like Christopher Cross took on the mantle of the Carpenters. I enjoyed a lot of it at the time, but, looking back, I think the songs and artists of this time period were just saving a seat for the cooler kids that were about to arrive in 1983.
To me, 1983’s music felt like a revelation. I’ve wondered if my being 15 years old had something to do with this impression – doesn’t every 15-year-old think his or her music is the most important music ever made? But look at some of the songs and artists that charted that year, many for the first time: Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” and “Beat It;” “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” by The Eurythmics; Culture Club’s “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me;” Madonna’s first Top 40 hit, “Holiday;” Duran Duran’s “Hungry Like the Wolf.” We were starting to leave the 70s behind, moving into something new. My puberty may have been peaking, but I’ll maintain that there were clearly other changes afoot.
Enter Shannon’s “Let the Music Play” in late 1983. It was different from everything on the radio at the time, even the other dance songs.* It was at once both a callback to disco and a totally new sound: slick, up-tempo, gorgeously produced, and supremely easy to move to. Critic and journalist Peter Shapiro described the song as a “cross between Gary Numan and Tito Puente.” The song was exciting, and somehow hinted that the adult playgrounds known as discos were still out there, filled with people like me – an important message for young gay boy not yet old enough to start exploring the world.
Facts about”Let the Music Play:”
- #1 on US Dance Chart in Nov 1983
- #8 on Top 40 Singles Chart in Feb 1984
- #49 of Billboard’s Top 100 songs of 1984
- Later ranked #23 among Billboard’s best dance songs of all-time
Notes: I suspect that most of the future Freestyle Friday posts will be much shorter than this one. But it’s appropriate to give the first freestyle mega-hit a bit more attention…
*The song most similar to “Let the Music Play,” in my mind, was Patrice Rushen’s “Forget-Me-Nots.” But these two songs have starkly different sounds. Rushen’s sound was clearly evolved from R&B/disco pop, reminiscent of 70s hits like, say, this Boz Scaggs song from 1976. And The Shannon Sound was just, well, new and different.