Moving To the Grooving: The Wild Cherry Smash, ‘Play That Funky Music’

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Wild Cherry lead singer Rob Parissi

When Epic Records released the single “Play That Funky Music,” from funk-rock band Wild Cherry, in April 1976, its grooves and recurring horn riff were a welcome combination on Top 40 as the disco era was beginning to dominate the radio. But this fresh sound, with its outrageous lyrics, was coming from a Midwestern rock band!

Wild Cherry was formed in 1970 in Mingo Junction, Ohio, by Rob Parissi, who had recently graduated from high school. Like many new bands composed of members in their early 20s, Wild Cherry played mostly covers. “We were a heavy rock band in Pittsburgh. We played songs that would bring in the good-looking girls,” Parissi told the Tampa Bay Times in 2013. “If we got the good-looking girls, the guys would be there. But the girls were starting to go to disco.

“One night,” Parissi continued, “I got the band in the dressing room and I told them, ‘We’ve got to play more of this disco stuff.’ They went nuts: ‘We don’t want to be a disco band.’

“We had been playing on off-nights at a bar where some Black people would tease us: ‘Are you white boys going to play some funky music?’

“On the way back out to the set, I grabbed a drink order pad and started writing: Once I was a boogie singer, playin’ in a rock and roll band.

“It probably took me five minutes to write the whole thing.”

Newly signed to the Epic-distributed Sweet City Records label, Wild Cherry’s 1976 single started slowly at radio and didn’t make its chart debut until June 19. It quickly caught on with programmers, though, and in its fifth week took a significant jump from #66 to #39. On September 4, the rock band’s “Play That Funky Music” was the #1 single on the Hot Soul Singles chart, where it stayed for another week. And on Sept. 18, Wild Cherry also began a three-week run at #1 on the Hot 100.

Its success made it the year’s #5 song. Billboard even named them Best Pop Group of the year. A pair of Grammy Award nominations followed, including Best R&B Performance By a Duo or Group. And though their self-titled 1976 album went platinum, there were no significant follow-up singles, relegating Wild Cherry and “Play That Funky Music,” essentially, to “one-hit wonder” status.

Related: The song is included in our feature, ”11 Surprising 1970s Radio Hits”

As the song was dominating the airwaves, an 18-year-old named Prince Rogers Nelson was no doubt fascinated by the track. Not long after, the wunderkind was signed to Warner Bros. Records, where he soon became a star, writing, recording and producing his own material.

Though no studio recording of Prince performing “Play That Funky Music” is known to exist, he occasionally put his own electrifying live stamp on the song, many years later. [Of the well over 1,000 concerts that this writer has seen, it would be difficult to come up with a better live performer than Prince, whom I had the privilege of seeing four or five times, all in the ’80s, ranging from clubs to arenas.]

Watch Prince perform “Play That Funky Music” on April 28, 2011, at The Forum in Los Angeles

Prince’s drummer, shown in the occasional close-up, is John Blackwell, who died a few years later, at 43. As for Wild Cherry’s Parissi, not long after the band broke up in 1979, he moved to New York City. He has a gold record on his wall as one of the producers—along with Bruce Springsteen and Steve Van Zandt—of Gary U.S. Bonds’ 1980 comeback album, Dedication.

Greg Brodsky

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  1. ATarese
    #1 ATarese 11 May, 2024, 00:46

    They win some sort of dance music history gold medal, not just in the disco category. I adore tons of other 70’s-90’s funky groovy dance songs, but as a longtime DJ, I can attest that while many other once killer greats are losing their luster, no other song so consistently… and still!…. will more often get 50+ people leaping screaming and running to the dancefloor.

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