Play That Funky Music

Play That Funky Music by krin.jpg

Date Aired
October 25th, 2012
Running Time
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Todd plays "Play That Funky Music" on the piano

A one-hit wonder retrospective

Todd: A while back, I did a list...

Clips of John Travolta - "Let Her In" and Starland Vocal Band - "Afternoon Delight"

Todd (VO): ...of the worst songs of 1976, and one commenter wrote me a long post complaining about the fact that I put "Afternoon Delight" at #1, a song he liked, and not "Play That Funky Music" by Wild Cherry.

Todd: I don't think I ever responded to that guy, but here's my response now. You suck!

Video for "Play That Funky Music"
Rob Parissi: Hey! Do it now

Todd (VO): How the hell can you not like this song? I didn't even realize there even were people who didn't like "Play That Funky Music". This song is awesome.

Todd: What, do you want people to not play funky music?! What kind of jerk would want that?!

Todd (VO): I didn't say that at the time, but now I can...

Todd: ...because now I have One Hit Wonderland—my show where we talk about the full careers of artists who are known for only one song.

Todd (VO): And now that I have this show, I can devote a whole episode to how great "Play That Funky Music" is. But more importantly, I can find out what happened to Wild Cherry, the band that performed it, because I've always thought these guys should have been bigger. They had a unique sound—a rock band playing funk music. They were a complete anomaly at the time. [Early clip of...] They were like the Red Hot Chili Peppers before a decade before they ever existed, right?

Todd: And yet they never really went anywhere after their first song. How could they have not capitalized on their brief glimpse of fame? Well, let's find out.

Wild Cherry: Lay down the boogie
And play that funky music til you die

Todd: [joining in] Til you die!

Rob: Whoa, til you die
Come on…Play some electrified funky music

Before the fame

Pictures of Wild Cherry, Steubenville, and a box of Luden's cough drops

Todd (VO): Wild Cherry was formed in the early 70s in beautiful Steubenville, Ohio. They took their name from a box of cough drops and just never got around to changing it. [Cover of self-titled album] The Wild Cherry story basically belongs to their lead singer and songwriter, [picture of...] a man with horribly ugly 70s hair named Rob Parissi. And fortunately for us, he put his own backstory in his biggest hit.

Todd: So if you don't already know it, here it goes.

[Sings to the tune] Once he was a boogie singer

Todd (VO): Playing in a rock n roll band
He never had no problems, yeah

Todd: Burning down the one-night stands

Todd (VO): Then everything around him, yeah
Got to start to feelin' so low

Todd: So he decided quickly, yes he did...

To break up the band and go back to his day job.

Wild Cherry performing "I Feel Sanctified"

Todd (VO): Yeah, they had a record deal, but then they got dropped and Rob went back to managing a [picture of...] Bonanza Steakhouse. But later, Parissi got the music bug again and reformed the band with a new lineup.

Todd: Now basically, they were just a cover band for a while, playing a lot of Led Zeppelin and Rolling Stones, and playing in nearby [postcards of...] Cleveland and Pittsburgh. Now Cleveland is, of course, a rock and roll town.

Clip from This Is Spinal Tap
Derek Smalls: Hello, Cleveland! Hello, Cleveland!

Todd: But Pittsburgh was all about soul and funk,...

Clips of The O'Jays - "Love Train" and Lou Rawls - "You'll Never Find"

Todd (VO): ...I assume because of the Philly soul scene happening on the other side of the state. Now, this was '76, and disco was, at this point, just starting to really take over. [Footage of...] To us people who weren't there, the whole "Disco Sucks" movement and Disco Demolition Night seemed like a ridiculous overreaction to a harmless musical fad, which it was.

Todd: But understand that back in the day, disco was ubiquitous. [Clips of American Bandstand] Rock stations were adding disco to their rotations. [Rick Dees - "Disco Duck"] Travesties like this were happening. It was a rough time for rock bands. And right around the same time, Wild Cherry were discovering that they needed to steal a few tricks from the brothers if they were gonna keep getting gigs. So they began learning some funk music after getting no response from a predominantly black crowd more than once. And just when it hit them,...

Todd: [singing] Somebody turned around and shouted...

Wild Cherry: Play that funky music, white boy

Todd (VO): Yeah, "Play That Funky Music" is basically the entirely true story of how they got big, before they got big. Someone actually shouted, "play that funky music!" at them, and Parissi wrote the phrase down on a napkin and worked it into a song in about five minutes while they worked on other stuff.

Wild Cherry: I feel sanctified

Todd (VO): They thought their big hit was gonna be a cover of "I Feel Sanctified" by the Commodores, which, for the record, they do a decent version of. But after road-testing "Play That Funky Music" for a while, they polished it enough to where the producers thought that would be a bigger hit.

Todd: And it was. Oh, yes, it was.

The big hit

Video begins, Todd scats the bass line

Todd: God, I love that bass line.

Rob: Hey, do it now!

Todd (VO): Boy, did they pick the right bandwagon to jump on. Their first hit song both was, and was about, a story about how great it feels to sell out. Wild Cherry had had no success as a rock band, but as a disco act? [Chart from September 18, 1976, featuring...] All the way to #1, baby. They had discovered the same thing Elvis's manager Sam Phillips did in 1954—get a white act to make black music, and you can make a fortune.

Clip from 1977 American Music Awards
Merv Griffin: And the winner are..."Play That Funky Music", Wild Cherry...

Todd (VO): I've listened to my share of classic 70s tunes, and I would say that no act ever really lived up to what Wild Cherry did that year—making a good dance song with a rock edge.

Todd: They're a little bit disco, and a little bit rock n roll.

Todd (VO): Listen to that kick-ass guitar solo. [Parissi's kick-ass solo] Now, of course, let's not overstate this. [Performance on Soul Train] There were people mixing up funk and rock prior to Wild Cherry, and they also weren't the first white boys to be a credible 70s R&B act. [Album cover of AWB and clip of Soul Train performance of "Person to Person" by...] The Average White Band beat them to that by four or five years, and they don't sound nearly as dated as Wild Cherry does now. [Clip of "Staying Alive" by...] And we'd have to be pretty stupid to forget that the Bee Gees existed too. Even so, I feel that there's something special about "Play That Funky Music" anyway. The brothers Gibb made pretty much straight disco music; they didn't have the gnarly bar band background of Wild Cherry. [Play that Funky Music continues] Even if the song wasn't about being a funk convert, you can tell these guys are boogie-rock in their core. Nowadays, [clip of...] every average bar band does a crappy cover of "Brick House" or something, so it doesn't sound so fresh nowadays, but I think it may have been different in '76. [Clip of performance of "The Locomotion" by...] If Grand Funk had actually played funk (And didn't suck.), they probably would've sounded a lot like this.

Todd: I mean, you compare this to a few years later when a few other established rock acts tried to get in on the dance music bandwagon.

Clip of Rolling Stones - "Miss You"
Mick Jagger: Oooh oooh oooh oooh oooh oooh oooh

Todd (VO): I mean, you might disagree, but in my humble opinion, those songs were all terrible. [Clip of Rod Stewart - "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy"] They're not good disco, they're not good rock. Their grooves were all lumpy, and they clearly didn't get this kind of music, not the same way that "Play That Funky Music" did.

Rob: Now first it wasn't easy
Changing rock-n-rolling minds

Todd (VO): "Play That Funky Music" is about discovering that you're not too good for music you didn't think you understood.

Todd: As someone who underwent his own pop conversion a few years ago, I think it resonates pretty well.'s just so damn happy.

Todd (VO): They're just selling it. I mean, this song had a bad reputation for a little while after disco became [poster of Saturday Night Fever stamped with no symbol] the symbol of everything wrong with music; and by 1980, a whole song about a rock god becoming a disco convert, that got about the same treatment as a guy who had once suggested before the war that ["album cover" of Nazi Disco Party's Funk & Destroy] Hitler had a few good ideas. But once people stopped being too cool for disco, it popped right back up again, as well it should have. This is a song about expanding your horizons. And on top of that, it's a statement of racial harmony. Black people and white people gettin' down to that funky sound. [Clip of...] I find it more inspiring than "Ebony and Ivory" at the very least. Then again, I find being tasered in the nostrils more inspiring than "Ebony and Ivory" too.

Todd: No, you've gotta keep on playing funky music.

Wild Cherry: Play that funky music
Rob: You've got to keep on playing funky music

Todd: But what happens when you're done doing that?

The failed follow-up

Brief clip of Grammy Awards, with the Beach Boys introducing Best New Artist nominee Wild Cherry

Todd (VO): Naturally, after "Play That Funky Music" became a huge hit, the studio executives wanted them to keep pumping out the same thing over and over again. Now Rob didn't think rehashing one song could make a career, but he was under a lot of pressure from the studio.

Todd: Parissi had two options here. On one hand, he could try and [poster saying...] fight the system, [guy yelling at phone] pick up a reputation as being difficult, [busker playing on sidewalk] make the music he wanted to make, and just pray that it found an audience against the conventional wisdom. On the other hand, he could get in and [holding a cigar is...] follow the wishes of a bunch tasteless, stuffed-shirt executives [executives on The Simpsons] who probably wouldn't recognize good music if it'd punched them in the mouth. [beat] It's not an easy decision. Which one did they decide to go with?

Performance of "Baby Don't You Know"
Rob: Yeah, we play that funky music
And we were looking so good yeah

Todd: Yeah, that's right, they say, "play that funky music," right in the first line of the song. In case it's not clear, they went with option #2.

Wild Cherry: Baby, don't you know
Baby, don't you know

Todd (VO): To Parissi's eternal regret, he caved in and gave the studio execs exactly what they wanted; and for his obedience, he was rewarded with jack shit in the way of success. He himself called his follow-ups to his big hit the [DVD cover of...] What's Happening Now! of music, which, for the record, might be the most 70s way he could've put that. [Album cover of...] Even the name of the album, Electrified Funk, was also a line in "Play That Funky Music".

Rob: Play some electrified funky music

Todd (VO): Like "Play That Funky Music", "Baby Don't You Know" was also a true story about their lives as a white funk band.

Rob: They were screaming to me
Wild Cherry: Black now, white right oh what a sight

Todd (VO): Hell, it's a complete clone of the original. Not that the only people they ripped off were themselves.

Clip of The Ohio Players - "Fire"
Ohio Players: Fire

Todd (VO): Since they were from Ohio, one of their main influences were funk legends the Ohio Players. See if this sounds familiar.

Intercut between "Baby Don't You Know" and "Love Rollercoaster"
Wild Cherry: Baby, don't you know
Baby, don't you know
Ohio Players: Your love is like a rollercoaster, baby, baby

Todd (VO): Yeah...Wild Cherry were not exactly breaking new ground here. Hell, now that I think about it, they even kind of ripped off [album covers of Honey and Electrified Funk side-by-side] the Ohio Players' album covers.

Rob: Electrified funky feeling

Todd (VO): Beyond that, I'm confused about what's happening in the song. It's about how they'd show up to play for of black audiences and they'd be surprised that the band was, in fact, white.

Rob: That all those funky people
Had been misled

Todd (VO): Apparently, that's true. But I don't even understand how that could happen.

Todd: They called themselves "white boy" in the song. Eh.

Wild Cherry: Baby don't you know
That the honky's got soul

Todd: Don't call yourselves honkies. It''s just awkward.

Anything else of note?

Todd: Not really.

Todd (VO): I mean, hell, it's like they said in their first song: "play that funky music 'til you die." And that's basically what they did. Most of their songs sounded like "Play That Funky Music". Also, their album covers definitely got a little [cover of I Love My Music] desperate-seeming at one point.

Todd: They did also try to go the soft rock route at least once or twice, but Rob Parissi's voice was meant for hard rock and funk, and he wasn't even really amazing at that. He definitely wasn't meant for smooth AM Lite rock.

"Hold On" played over "Play That Funky Music" video
Rob: Don`t want no cloudy morning, won`t you hear what I say
There won`t be no tomorrow if you're not with me today

Todd: To be honest, I think "Play That Funky Music" is the only song where I can stand Parissi's attempt to sound "funky." Most of the time, he's just overdoing it.

Cover of Only the Wild Survive

Todd (VO): After three flop albums that I can't really find because most of stuff went out-of-print decades ago, [picture of band] Wild Cherry called it quits in '79 and went their separate ways. [Picture from Foghat performance] Their guitar player Bryan Bassett joined Foghat in the early 90s, [updated picture of...] Parissi kicked around various music jobs for a while, he was a DJ, he was an A&R guy, he was a songwriter behind the scenes.

Todd: By his own admission, he didn't save his money very wisely at first. [Clip of Vanilla Ice - "Play That Funky Music"] But then in 1990, he discovered that Vanilla Ice had sampled his song without permission. So of course, he sued the silver lamé pants off of him. [Older Parissi performing] He got a huge settlement. Seems to be doing all right for himself lately. He makes smooth jazz albums now. If you go to his website, you can hear a Kenny G-ified version of "Play That Funky Music".

Album cover of Ocean Sunset, with said "Kenny G-ified" version

Todd: Play that jazzy muzak, white boy

Did they deserve better?

Todd: No.

Todd (VO): Look, I love "Play That Funky Music", but let's be honest here. If you're listening to Wild Cherry, there are a bunch of better funk bands you could be listening to too. Most of the rest of their stuff is listenable at the very least, and I can imagine any number of these songs randomly showing up on a Tarantino soundtrack someday, but for the most part, I have to say...

Todd: ...I was wrong. They were not that unique.

Todd (VO): Except for "Play That Funky Music", you could find guys doing the same thing at any venue in America. Wild Cherry were basically a decent bar band that somehow lucked into one big hit, and never really made anything noteworthy again. Still, I hold by my opinion that anyone who doesn't like "Play That Funky Music" is no friend of mine. This is a song that brings people together. This is a song made in the absolute height of funk music, about knowing the joy of funk music knows no boundaries.

Todd: You got to keep on playing funky music. Lay down the boogie, play that funky music 'til you die. I'm out.

Gets up and leaves

Wild Cherry: Play that funky music
Rob: You've got to keep on playing funky music
Wild Cherry: Play that funky music

Closing tag song: Extreme - "Play That Funky Music"

"Play That Funky Music" is owned by Epic Records
This video is owned by me

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