The Times, They Are A-Samening

KC and the Sunshine Band: a light that will never go out

Harry Wayne Casey certainly hasn'tdawdled. As a teenage stable hand at Miami's T.K. Records and studio complex, Casey was on hand for the initial merging of pop, funk, R&B, and Latin and Caribbean music into what would come to be known as "the Miami Sound." Then, in 1973, 21-year-old Casey and bassist Rick Finch mixed that Miami sound with the percussive Junkanoo of the Bahamas to create their own Sunshine Junkanoo Band. Their first single, "'Blow Your Whistle," made No. 27 on the R&B charts. Within a year, his band had four No. 1 hits, matching a record set by the Beatles a decade earlier.

It's been a straight vertical climb from there. Casey has sold more than 100 million records in the past 30 years, earning a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, nine Grammy nominations and a performance at the Olympics. And all this with a simple artistic formula that has suffered just one small, early modification: the shrinking of their name to KC and the Sunshine Band.

"It has been," he says as we speak on Inauguration Day, "a very interesting career." But ubiquity seems to have done him a certain disservice. KC and the Sunshine Band songs appear in commercials (General Motors, Nestle, Kmart, Burger King, Old Navy), soundtracks (75 movies and counting), samples, ringtones, cover songs, sports events and TV shows. Their most memorable hits—"Shake Your Booty," "That's the Way (I Like It)," "Get Down Tonight"—are encoded in the muzak of our elevator rides and estimated wait times. Americans have new pronunciations for the interjections "Ow" and "Aw" and "Uh-huh" thanks to KC. His songs have become the faded wallpaper of our modern life.

Not that this earns KC and the Sunshine Band much respect. It is easy to think of disco as a lightweight aberration, one colored by the "Disco Sucks" backlash of the late '70s. But it is hard to imagine that one could sell 100 million records in a vacuum. There are reasons this music resonated with America in the 1970s. T.K. Disco 12-inch releases came packaged in uniform jackets that featured a bamboo-label logo over an enchanting tropical beach. This motif was more than just an early form of branding—it marked disco as a Way Out, a travel-agency poster, an exit sign from the gasoline lines and stagflation of the Malaise Age.

Although the current KC and the Sunshine Band logo includes a sun that looks suspiciously like a buzz saw, a distinct and antiquated lack of irony still holds sway. Peek below the happy, randy surface of these songs, and you'll find only more surface. And yet: "I don't think [my music] was any more senseless than any of the Beatles songs or anybody else's songs, you know what I mean?" asks Casey. "My message was just a little more simplified."

Is this such a bad thing? Music is, fundamentally, a means of gaining entry to emotional realms otherwise inaccessible. KC and the Sunshine Band songs have limited emotional range, but what they lack in bandwidth they certainly make up for in signal strength. I ask Casey if he has any plans to slow down.

"Not any time soon, no," he says. "I'm 54 next week, and I'm thinking six more years, maybe, and who knows after that?"

This would have him singing past Inauguration Day '09. It's not plausible to argue here that KC's durability is a barometer of national happiness. His 1995 emergence from retirement, after all, coincided with the dawn of the Clinton boom years. But times are leaner now, and the graph of Casey's progress still shows no sign of leveling.

As we speak, coronation festivities rage 2,000 miles away. And as in 1977, Americans enter this presidential stretch with spiraling gas prices and a falling dollar. Manufacturing is going to China, white-collar jobs are going to India, interest rates and commodity prices are on the rise. Another war for the hearts and minds of a distant nation has been lost. A sequel for Bush could wind up looking a whole lot like a remake of Carter. And it is not so difficult to picture us poor souls of the next four years falling in love with KC and the Sunshine Band all over again.

KC AND THE SUNSHINE BAND AT HOUSE OF BLUES, 1530 S. DISNEYLAND DR. ANAHEIM, (714) 778-2583. SAT., 8 P.M. $40 IN ADVANCE; $42.50 DAY OF SHOW. ALL AGES.

 
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