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The "KC" in disco hitmakers KC and the Sunshine Band, Harry Wayne Casey was the co-founder, lead singer and producer for the hit dance/R&B group, which racked up an impressive roster of hits at the height of the disco era, including such effervescent songs as "Get Down Tonight," "That's the Way (I Like It)," "Boogie Shoes" and others. Casey launched the Sunshine Band in 1973 with bassist-engineer Richard Finch while both were employed at the soul/dance label TK Records. The group's unique sound - a blend of Motown soul and Caribbean dance music that hinged on a trance-like axis of constantly repeated lyrics and heavy percussion - found favor with clubgoers in the mid-1970s, who helped to provide Casey with five No. 1 singles and four platinum albums before the fizz dissolved from the disco scene in the early 1980s. The 1990s boom in Seventies nostalgia revived interest in Casey's music, prompting him to assemble a new Sunshine Band for numerous live dates and occasional, largely ignored new recordings. The Sunshine Band's enduring popularity underscored Harry Wayne Casey's status as one of the most successful purveyors of dance music in the 1970s and beyond.
Born Jan. 31, 1951 in Opa-Locka, FL, Harry Wayne Casey earned his enduring nickname and later stage name, "KC," at an early age. Music was a potent force in his life during this period; both his mother and sister sang on local commercials while maintaining a collection of R&B and early soul LPs that nurtured his interest in African-American pop material. Piano and organ music also captured his attention, and by his teenaged years, he was playing keyboards in local bands as well as at his family's Pentecostal church. Casey made his first recording at the age of 17, a vanity pressing of the single "If You're Ever in Miami" backed with "Emily My Darling," before attending Miami Dade Community College as a music major. To support himself, Casey worked at a record store, where he frequently made deliveries to the warehouse of Tone Distributors, a successful record distribution company that handled releases by the top R&B and soul labels, including Atlantic, Motown and Stax. He grew fascinated with the recording studio for their record label, TK Records, and eventually took a job there sweeping floors while also packing records in the warehouse.
In 1972, Casey teamed with another TK employee, bassist and aspiring recording engineer Richard Finch, to record their own material. Working afterhours at the TK studio and using discarded tape to cut demos, Casey and Finch began developing dance music built around a blend of classic soul and the festive, highly percussive brand of Jamaican music called junkanoo. After assembling a group of studio musicians under the moniker of KC and the Sunshine Junkanoo Band, Casey and Finch cut their first single, "Blow Your Whistle," which was inspired by R&B and dance audiences' penchant for blowing whistles to show their appreciation for a performance. The song rose to No. 27 on the R&B charts in late 1973. After finalizing their band's name as KC and the Sunshine Band, Casey and Finch scored a second Top 30 R&B hit with "Sound Your Funky Horn" in early 1974. They finally struck pay dirt that same year when they gave a demo for a song called "Rock Your Baby" to TK labelmate George McCrae. The track, recorded in just 45 minutes and with only two vocal takes by McCrae, topped both the R&B and pop charts in the summer of 1974, eventually selling over six million copies worldwide. The success of the song prompted the pair to record the Sunshine Band's debut album, Do It Good, that same year.
Upon release, Do It Good initially found few listeners in the United States. However, the single "Queen of Clubs" became a Top 10 hit in the U.K. and Germany, which led to a European tour the following year. Casey was initially terrified by the prospect of performing live - he had never sung and played keyboards at the same time on stage - but he took inspiration from Diana Ross by maintaining an upbeat composure at all times while leading his large, multiracial band culled from the ranks of TK's studio musicians and vocalists. Their success in Europe sent Casey and Finch back into the studio to record their second album, simply titled
After issuing The Sound of Sunshine (1976), a collection of instrumental tracks, Casey and Finch released Part 3 (1976), which generated three more Top 5 hits, including the No. 1 singles "(Shake, Shake, Shake) Your Booty" and "I'm Your Boogie Man." The first of three Grammy Awards also came their way that same year with "Where is the Love," a single performed by and co-written with their TK labelmate, Betty Wright, but the accolade was quickly overshadowed by their participation in the multi-platinum soundtrack for "Saturday Night Fever" (1977). Their contribution of the single "Boogie Shoes" led to shared Album of the Year and Producer of the Year Grammys with the record's other talents, but it also marked the beginning of the end of their reign on the music charts. Public taste had begun to move away from disco, which hobbled their fifth studio album, Who Do Ya (Love) (1978). The album reached no higher than No. 36 on the pop albums chart, while only one of its singles, a cover of the Four Tops' "It's the Same Old Song," broke into the Top 40 on the Hot 100. Casey and Finch shifted the band's focus towards pop for their next release, Do You Wanna Go Party (1979). The record's first single, a cover of Frederick Knight's "Betcha Didn't Know That," stalled at No. 25 on the R&B chart, but its B-side, the ballad "Please Don't Go," became the Sunshine Band's last chart-topping pop hit.
After Casey scored a No. 2 hit with former school classmate Teri DeSario on a cover of Barbara Mason's "Yes, I'm Ready" in 1980, TK Records filed for bankruptcy, forcing the Sunshine Band to sign with Epic. However, the group's efforts for their new label, which hewed closer to pop, failed to generate much interests from listeners. Casey himself was forced to take a lengthy hiatus from the music business after being seriously injured in a 1982 car accident. Upon his recovery, he scored a No. 1 hit in the U.K. with "Give it Up," a single from the band's ninth album, All in a Night's Work (1982). Epic, however, refused to release the song stateside due to its initial failure in the American market, prompting Casey to buy the rights to the song and release it on KC Ten (1984), the debut album for his own independent label, MECA Records. It became a Top 20 pop hit in 1983, but by then, Casey and Finch's collaborative partnership had come to an end. In 1985, Casey split up the Sunshine Band and went into retirement. But the group's music remained in the public consciousness, thanks in part to constant sampling of Sunshine Band music by hip-hop artists, as well as the wave of 1970s nostalgia that gripped pop culture in the early 1990s.
The sudden resurgence of disco music prompted Casey to launch a new Sunshine Band, which toured to capacity crowds at 200 live dates a year throughout the United States, Europe, Australia and South America. Casey also shrewdly licensed the band's music to countless television commercials and motion picture soundtracks, including "Forrest Gump" (1994) and "Boogie Nights" (1997). A new studio album, Oh Yeah! arrived to little acclaim in 1993, as well as a concert record, Get Down Live, in 1995. In 2001, Casey was awarded the Governors Award from the Florida chapter of the National Association of Recording Arts & Sciences. He continued to generate new studio albums, including I'll Be There for You (2001) and Yummy (2007), though listeners appeared to prefer the constant repackaged albums of his greatest disco hits to the newer material. In 2002, KC and the Sunshine Band received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
By Paul Gaita
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