The signature bamboo, blue skies and palm trees meant this was a record worthy of the name TK DISCO. Ray Caviano made sure DJs played it.
DEL’s Foundations series searches through the roots of modern dance music in print every month, and this month turns to disco’s most notorious label.
Related: The Essential TK Disco Playlist
Admit it: we’re a visual society. We love to look. We also love to listen – in our case, to music! Well there was a time that you began to look before you listened. With the birth of the 12″ vinyl single, the record “jacket” became synonymous with the sound, artists, or genre that you loved.
But for dance music, before you were even able to buy that record, or at times even hear it on the radio, the DJ in top clubs would have obtained it before its release from the record company. That’s how the hottest music was born. A synergistic musical equation that included the best DJs, the label’s promotional leads, and the members of the dance floors across the world combining to break new music!
I used to get “disco goose bumps” when I saw the bluish sky, azure waters, tall palm trees, and pink/red flowers surrounding a yellow center of a certain label. I was excited because undoubtedly, I had been hearing songs from that label for months at the best clubs. The name was easy to remember, even without it being written in its iconic pieces of bamboo… It was T.K. DISCO!!
Let’s get the easy, nerdy trivia out of the way. “T.K.” are the initials of the engineer, Terry Kane, that built the eight-track recording studio from which much of the T.K. Disco magic emanated and that great record sleeve artwork, courtesy of Page Wood. The real story of this label begins with its founder, Henry Stone. With humble roots, a penchant for music, A&R experience, and working relationships with the likes of Ray Charles and James Brown, he was poised to accelerate the disco explosion (a not too subtle foreshadowing of the Chicago White Sox disco “blow-up” that would eventually signal the commercial expiration of the genre). Strangely, all this would occur not from music and club hot beds like New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit, LA, SF, or Atlanta but from Hialeah, Florida! From there, T.K. carved out its own niche in history by creating the Miami sound: upbeat, tons of bass, some island-like influences, and strong R&B underpinnings.
Kebekelektrik: “Magic Fly” (’77, #9 Dance-Disco chart) was electronica magic!
T.K. Disco was the division of T.K. Productions that focused on 12″ disco singles for clubs. It was truly a label for the DJ, the dancer, and the lovers of DISCO. The early 12″ singles were also ONLY released as DJ promos. It wasn’t until one of my favorite groups, T-Connection’s hit “Do What You Wanna Do” came out as a commercial 12″ that T.K. Disco became one of the go-to labels for the consumer. The other rationale for why many labels had numerous sub-labels was to ensure that clubs and especially radio stations played all of their music. Remember, the issue of payola (pay-offs) plagued radio for years, although it wasn’t an issue in the club scene.
The label actually had two seminal affiliations. The first was the generally acknowledged release of the first real disco record with “Rock Your Baby” in 1974. Over SIX MILLION copies were sold after an investment of an hour of time and about $100!!
T-Connection: The best intro of all time in “At Midnight” (’78, #3 Dance-Disco)…
The other affiliation was related as one of the writers of that song would himself (along with his group) become one of the biggest stars of the era: Harry Wayne Casey! You don’t know the name? How about his nickname: KC? His group: The Sunshine Band? Ahhhh, you got it!
Unfortunately for T.K. and Henry, the aforementioned White Sox “disco is dead” protest in ’81 was the death knell for the label as they went bankrupt. Henry Stone would rise up though, continuing to be a presence in the music industry even today – in his 90s! In fact, I can’t wait for the documentary on his life in music (aptly titled Rock Your Baby) due for release in the fall!
Now onto the topic of promotion. For the last ten years, promotion has really been about small independent labels “informing… through emailed promos, social media, and online sites like SoundCloud. More often, individual producers (and we know how many of them there are!) are doing the same thing. Finally, vinyl has made a comeback but when success is measured now… it’s more about sales in the hundreds of units. So, tons of promo “noise” but nothing really “sticks”.
The huge difference vs. the past is the personal touch: the label to DJ promo 12″ vinyl delivered right to the turntable in the booth, the weekly telephone calls to determine what is “hot”… “moving”… and making the dancers crazy!
T-Connection: … the percussion of “Do What You Wanna Do” (’77, #1 Dance-Disco, #15 R&B, #46 Pop charts) …
The best at it was T.K. Disco’s Ray Caviano. His music foundation was deep as well. He helped grow Rolling Stone magazine at its inception. Did national publicity for ZZ Top, Al Green, and The Rolling Stones. Then really became “the man” when he broke several of the HUGE early disco acts: Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band, Vicki Sue Robinson, and the Village People!
I was able to speak with the energetic legend who has an encyclopedic memory of all things music. He shared that, “Smaller labels like T.K. had so much more flexibility than the larger ones.” Ray should know as he eventually ran the Dance & Music department at Warner Brothers as well as his own subdivision label with his initials – RFC.
At T.K. Disco, Ray emphatically underscored that, “Henry (Stone) gave me complete autonomy to choose the music I liked! My tastes and choices were directly determined by what I heard from the DJs and what I saw and experienced on the dance floors of clubs across the country.” Ray also made “hundreds of calls daily to DJs in the big markets”. His self-described “test marketing across my network of DJs” was the key to his and T.K. Disco’s success! With a laugh he added, “The fact that the songs were killer didn’t hurt either!”
T-Connection: … and the melodic complexity of “Saturday Night” (’79, #28 R&B chart).
Ray continued that targeted, focused, and personal touch at Warner Brothers. “I had regional disco promotion teams. They were able to build the DJ relationships, target market differences, and break songs that the dancers loved!”
Today, we can access almost every song released, nearly immediately. The top tracks in the non-EDM/commercial categories of House Music (aka today’s underground club music) sell, maybe, 500 units. DJs generally play 1-2 hour sets in a myriad of venues (most not proper clubs) and the majority have never had a dialogue about the songs they play nor what dancers want with anyone from a record label… and definitely not via an eye-to-eye or voice-to-voice exchange with someone like a Ray Caviano. Many of us would also LOVE to have an iconic, go-to record label to fuel our dance floor cravings… T.K. DISCO did it for so many and still does it for some today.
Related: The Essential TK Disco Playlist
Ray Caviano’s twin brother Bob was also a promoter and represented club luminaries like Larry Levan and Grace Jones. He died of AIDS in ’93 but not before starting LifeBeat to fight the war against HIV/AIDS with MUSIC!