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March 14, 2012

Some sad disco news this morning. Jimmy Ellis, lead singer of the Trammps, has passed away.

The career of the vocalist Jimmy Ellis, who has died aged 74 after suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, was ultimately defined by one song. The band he fronted, the Trammps, had other US and UK hits in the era when the lushly orchestrated soul music released on the Philadelphia International label was gradually mutating into disco, but they were all overshadowed by Disco Inferno. The song had already been a success on the US R&B chart when it was included in a nightclub scene in the film Saturday Night Fever (1977).

Although their drummer Earl Young was credited with “inventing” the rhythm of disco – accentuating the high-hat cymbal in a way that made tracks on which he featured easier for DJs to mix seamlessly together – the Trammps’ career predated the genre with which they came to be inexorably associated. They formed in Philadelphia, the latest in a string of bands put together by Ellis, who had begun singing gospel in church as a child and had been pursuing his musical ambitions for more than a decade – first in his home town of Rock Hill, South Carolina, and then in New Jersey, while he was working as a gardener and a chauffeur.

Written by their keyboard player Ron “Have Mercy” Kersey and Leroy Green, the track, like a lot of disco, was simultaneously a novelty record – alluding to the 1974 disaster movie The Towering Inferno – and a rather more complex song than its glossy, radio-friendly exterior suggested. Depending on whose story you believe, the refrain “burn, baby, burn” was coined either by a 60s soul DJ called Magnificent Montague or in a street-corner speech given by the Maoist agitator William Epton during the Harlem riots of 1964. Either way, it came to national attention in the US during the 1965 Watts riots in Los Angeles.

We’ve all heard Disco Inferno so many times that it’s maybe lost its punch. But it’s a fantastic song. Dave Marsh slots it in at a solid #83 in the top singles of all time. Even a Christgau semi-pan gives credit where credit is due:

In a time when real soul groups, especially of the uptempo persuasion, have become as rare as snail darters, the Trammps fill a gap. On album their tricks have worn thin, and “Seasons for Girls” is one more proof that they should never slowitdownalittle, but this compilation is the best of both their worlds–two extended dance tracks, including the undeniable “Disco Inferno,” and radio-length versions of seven other songs. No meaningful lyrics here unless you count “Soul Searchin’ Time” (I might), and Jimmy Ellis is a narrow singer enslaved by great precedents. But for rough-and-easy black pop, catchy top and bottom, this is it.

Rest in peace, Jimmy Ellis.

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