In the 1970s, Harry Wayne Casey seemed to have his finger on the pulse of Top 40 radio.
The man who would become known to millions as KC of KC and the Sunshine Band enjoyed some minor success with a pair of early singles, “Blow Your Whistle” in 1973 and “Sound Your Funky Horn” in 1974 on the Miami-based label, TK Records, before making the group’s 1975 self-titled debut album. And when he came up with a song he called “Get Down Tonight,” Casey knew he had a game-changing tune for the album.
“I even remember a story. It came on ‘Billboard’ at No. 98 one week and the next week it fell off. I went to the owner of the record company, who was Henry Stone at the time. I said ‘Henry, what’s happening? I have a smash record,’” Casey recalled in a recent phone interview. “He says, ‘Don’t worry about it.’ And six weeks later it was No. 1.”
Between 1975 and 1977, the group notched three more No. 1 hits– “That’s the Way (I Like It)”, “(Shake, Shake, Shake) Shake Your Booty”, “I’m Your Boogie Man”, and a No. 2 single in “Keep It Comin’ Love”. Another chart-topper, “Please Don’t Go”, arrived in 1979. Casey says he knew every one of those songs was going to be a hit. “I always had a feeling when I was writing the song and when I was in the studio, I could kind of feel this really mysterious aura happen during the recording of some of the songs,” he said.
“The only one I really wasn’t totally sure about was ‘Shake Your Booty’,” Casey elaborated. “‘Shake Your Booty’ seemed to happen so, the way I put it, it was just easier. It was quicker. And I felt like it wasn’t going to happen. But I really learned a quick lesson because before the record even came out, we went to Dallas, Texas for a show. We put the song in. We played it and the crowd went nuts. And I knew I might be a little wrong on this one.”
These songs made KC and the Sunshine Band one of the biggest stars of the disco era– and in fact, “Get Down Tonight” came out well before the term disco was being used to describe the music and before the Bee Gees, Donna Summer and the Village People joined the scene and led an army of acts that sought to capitalize on the trend. But the huge success during the 1970s wasn’t all fun and games for Casey. While he spent much of his time writing and recording songs, the KC and the Sunshine Band tours had their share of difficult moments.
“I can only describe it with one word. That was lonely,” Casey said of his touring life. “I was on top of the world, but the loneliest person I think I knew on the planet at the time.”
The reason for the isolation was his popularity. Casey spent many days on the road holed up alone in his hotel room with a pair of guards stationed outside the door, while throngs of fans gathered at the hotels hoping to see– or even meet– Casey.
“Sometimes I could just catch a commercial flight home after the show and sleep in my own bed and then get on another plane and go back to the show the next day,” Casey recalled. “I didn’t have to have a private jet because commercial planes flew every hour on the hour from practically anywhere we were. And when they didn’t, I just stayed in the room. I don’t remember much of what I did during the day.”
The glory days for KC and the Sunshine Band– like nearly all of the disco artists– came to an end, as punk/new wave became the next hot trend as the 1970s turned to the 1980s. Casey had one more Top 5 hit, “Yes, I’m Ready”, a duet with Teri DeSario, in 1980, but the new decade was otherwise trying. He and his long-time songwriting partner, Richard Finch, parted ways. TK Records went bankrupt, and KC and the Sunshine Band released four albums (three after signing with Epic Records), but managed only a modest hit single with “Give It Up” in 1984. The next year, Casey quit the music business.
“I didn’t want to have to deal with anything. I was sort of done, frustrated with the whole political part of it all and I just wanted out,” Casey said. “I found myself wanting to run away from something that I loved more than anything in the world.
“I had my last hit in ’84 or whatever, and I just decided that was it,” he said. “I was done.”
Casey spent the next decade out of the spotlight and essentially, as he put it, doing, “Nothing.” But the 1990s brought a renewed interest in the ‘70s, including disco. Eventually, Casey was enticed to get back into the music business.
“For the 10 years that I laid around and partied and did stuff, my friends were always saying ‘Why don’t you get back out there? Are you listening to the radio? Everybody’s emulating you,” Casey said. “I just kept laughing it off, and it wasn’t until Arsenio Hall did his TV show, and I got a call from a friend of mine, ‘Did you see Arsenio Hall? He wants to do a reunion of the band on his show.’ And I thought ‘Maybe I’ll go do that.’ So I called him, made all the arrangements, put a group together and went out and did the TV show and bells started going off in my head. I started realizing you know what, I miss doing this.”
Casey and the current version of KC and the Sunshine Band– 15 musicians, singers, and dancers strong– have been touring ever since. The live show, of course, features the hits of the ‘70s, with a smattering of other original songs and covers of hit songs by other acts from the 1960s that KC and the Sunshine Band recorded on their 2015 album, Feeling You! The 60s.
Aside from a few differences in the song selection, Casey sees one other significant difference between the current shows and the concerts from the group’s 1970s heyday.
“This show is definitely more choreographed than the shows I did back in the day. I mean, there was certain choreography that we did at certain points in the show, but this entire show is choreographed and has been since I came back (in the ‘90s),” he said. “It’s definitely a more choreographed show, per se, as far as the music and the dancing and all that sort of stuff. It’s a lot different now because we don’t have all the wedges (monitor speakers) on the stage and things you could fall over because of the invention of in-ear (monitors) and stuff.”
The setlist figures to evolve later in the year, thanks to some new KC and the Sunshine Band music. Casey said he will release a single soon (co-written with Tony Moran and Nile Rodgers of Chic fame, no less) and a double album of original material should arrive later this year.
“It’s been a five-year project, and I’m ready to let the baby go,” Casey said of the album. “It’s some of the best stuff I’ve ever done, I think.”