YAKIMA, Wash. -- On a summer night in 1979 in Chicago, a baseball-promotion-turned-riot at a White Sox game heralded the beginning of the end of a musical era. Drawing more than 50,000 approving fans, “Disco Demolition Night” was an explosive reaction (literally!) to a musical and cultural phenomenon that had brought social, ethnic and musical communities long marginalized or segregated by mass commercial culture together into the very mainstream of that culture.
This Saturday night, the Yakima Symphony Orchestra celebrates the music, camp and glamour of the disco phenomenon with guests Motor Booty Affair, billed as the “ultimate disco tribute band,” in a show titled “Classical Night Fever.”
The key players in the disco craze came from all walks of life, from the gangs of Los Angeles and the pool halls of Harlem to the English pop scene and the cabarets of Paris. Musically speaking, Barry White is often credited with ushering in the disco era with one of the few purely instrumental hits to top the Billboard charts, 1974’s “Love’s Theme,” combining the lush string orchestra of earlier Motown recordings with wah-wah guitar.
However, it was Philly soul music that married these elements to a variant of the classic Motown beat, moving an incessant four-beat pattern from the snare drum down to the kick (bass) drum to create disco’s signature “four-on-the-floor” beat — kick drum alternating with hi-hat cymbal — most associated with the music of that era.
The Bee Gees had already been an active mainstream British pop act for years when they were billed as “the next Beatles” in the late 1960s. By the mid-’70s, they had toured the world, broken up and reformed, and then relocated to Miami, where they looked to soul, R&B and disco to refresh their creativity and revive their popularity.
The title of this week’s symphony show is, of course, a riff on the 1977 film that prolonged the disco wave and propelled the Bee Gees to new heights of international stardom: “Saturday Night Fever.” Though the film itself touched on issues of race and ethnicity in New York City, it soft-pedaled other aspects of the social context within which disco grew and flourished.
More overtly reflective of disco’s cultural roots in the ethnically diverse gay communities of New York was the group Village People, a creation of French promoter Jacque Morali. As a veritable cross-section of gay male stereotypes, Village People captured the imagination of mainstream audiences with their campy costumes and hits such as “Macho Man” and “Y.M.C.A.”
Saturday night’s concert is partly a compendium of the short history of disco; but, above all, “Classical Night Fever” celebrates the over-the-top spirit of 1970s music and fashion, from Chic and Donna Summer to ABBA and “A Fifth of Beethoven.” Don’t leave those leisure suits and platform shoes in your closet at home.
• David Rogers is executive director of the Yakima Symphony Orchestra. Learn more at www.ysomusic.org.