“ROCK THE BOAT” (WRITER: WALLY HOLMES)
ARTIST: THE HUES CORPORATION
RELEASED 1973 ON 7” 45 AND ON FREEDOM FOR THE STALLION LP
Most of you have probably heard this record. It’s a classic of its era, indelible to those who enjoyed it at the time and still incendiary more than 40 years later. It also has one of the greatest videos ever.
Nearly as important, though, is that “Rock the Boat” was an early warning shot across the bow of popular culture: The new way is here.
The Hues Corporation was an African American vocal trio from Los Angeles. St. Clair Lee, Fleming Williams, and H. Ann Kelley paid their dues in SoCal clubs for several years before signing with RCA. The first Hues Corporation album, 1973’s Freedom for the Stallion, was cut with some of the finest studio musicians around, including Larry Carlton, Wilton Felder, Louie Shelton, Al Casey, and Hal Blaine.
The title track, a lovely slow jam written by Allen Toussaint, was a modest hit the next year, reaching #63 on the Billboard charts. “Freedom” had most of its radio action in smaller and mid-sized markets, never breaking through in the biggest cities.
“Rock the Boat,” written by the group’s manager, Wally Holmes, was also on the album. It has some great melodic moments and nice turns of phrase, but its lyrical pattern makes it tough to sing. Holmes’ use of sailing as a love metaphor was creative, though, and the old phrase “don’t rock the boat” made perfect sense.
The singing and arrangement elevate “Rock the Boat” to greatness. Fleming Williams’ lead vocal is graceful and tuneful, the group harmony coming out of the chorus is simply sublime, and arranger Tom Sellers’ Caribbean beat, which undergirds the song, made it sound unlike anything else at the time; it wasn’t soul, it wasn’t pop, it wasn’t rock, it wasn’t Latin, but it had elements of all them. It was essentially a precursor to Latin disco, but looser, funkier, more lyrical. The ecstatic fadeout remains exhilarating.
Nobody had considered releasing “Rock the Boat” as a 45 until, according to Fred Bronson in The Billboard Book of Number One Hits, RCA staff producer David Kershenbaum caught the Hues Corporation in a Sunset Strip club and was floored by how much the audience loved it when the group performed the song.
(Kershenbaum went on to become an enormously successful producer and executive at A&M, so this says something for his ears.)
The single was issued in February 1974 with little fanfare. Billboard magazine didn’t even review it. But once it was out, “Rock the Boat” was literally an instant smash. Not on the charts, or on the radio, but rather in the underground dance clubs and house parties of New York and Philadelphia. As a result of this exposure, the record leapt on to the Record World “looking ahead” chart, which tracked singles rating 100–150, by March.
This was the latest key indicator of a hot new trend: records breaking out first in dance clubs rather than the radio. “Rock Your Baby” by George McCrae, another great record from around the same time, had first gotten attention in Florida clubs and parties; the record was made and issued by TK, a small company in Miami. And less than a year earlier, a minimal, rhythmically innovative West Indian record by Manu Dibango called “Soul Makossa” was “discovered” and given its first exposure in New York. It hit in the clubs then moved to radio.
A key point to note is that the underground dance scenes of the biggest cities (Miami, New York, Philly, Chicago, Detroit) served audiences usually omitted from the larger culture. Most fanatical dance cultures—disco, house, New Romantic, techno—have always been largely populated by the LGBTQ community, people of color, and their white/straight allies. That’s not something that the music magazines would or could publish back then, but it was and remains true.
In New York, David Mancuso’s “Love Saves the Day” underground dance parties, at a warehouse called The Loft, started in 1970. These bacchanalian events are regarded as ground zero of modern dance culture. DJs mixed all sorts of music in a funky, psychedelic flow for dancers who wanted a special experience that went all hours and didn’t necessarily involve drinking alcohol or waiting for celebrities to show up. You couldn’t get that kind of thing in a bar.
“Rock the Boat” had played its way through the dance clubs by May, but now the “outside world” was beginning to listen. It leapt into the top ten on several New York stations and had caught on in Boston and Los Angeles. Soon, record buyers in Cleveland, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Atlanta and Detroit stepped up, and by the end of the month RCA had a completely unexpected hit. The company hadn’t promoted “Rock the Boat,” yet the song found its audience anyway.
On May 25, “Rock the Boat” hit the Billboard Hot 100 and RCA began to push the record hard, buying ads in the trade papers and lobbying with more radio stations to add it to their playlists. Soon it was a national smash, and by July 4 it had been certified gold, selling a million copies. By the next week, it had reached #1 in on all three charts—Billboard, Record World, and Cashbox.
Not only is “Rock the Boat” a great example of a left-field, pioneering musical sound, it’s also evidence that music, and the way it was heard, was changing. DJs in clubs could now give records exposure the way that DJs on the radio could, and the music business noticed. Soon would come 12-inch singles, promotion aimed mostly at club DJs, and a larger market for dance music.