From The Palm Beach Post News
By Scott Benarde
“That’s it right there,” says singer George McCrae, who unwittingly helped launch disco 25 years ago. The West Palm Beach native is downtown pointing to the building where he and singer Gwen McCrae, then his wife, got their first big break–years before his dance anthem Rock Your Baby catapulted to the top of the charts. Today, the place is a hip-hop club called Chino’s. But in 1968 the building at 114 Narcissus St. was a striptease club called the Kandy Bar– the first white club to hire the duo. The McCrae’s joined the white house band, Apollo Myth, and performed two nightly sets of Motown and R&B hits six nights a week for $500 a week. It was “classy,” McCrae remembers, a room where all the top strip acts tantalized. “They teased, not like now where everything is taken off,” he says. The patrons were polite upper-and middle-class Palm Beachers whose idea of a wild time was dancing–” the police chief on down–beneath the psychedelic lights in the black-walled club.
The sunset Lounge in West Palm and Ebony in Riviera Beach were the hip black clubs back then. Sam Cooke, Sarah Vaughan, Count Basie and Duke Ellington had played there over the years. McCrae and his wife had played the Ebony earlier in 1968, opening for teenage Miami diva Betty Wright. But playing a white club in Palm Beach County, especially one frequented by members of the Kennedy family and other fun-seeking bluebloods from across the Intracostal, was almost unheard of for black entertainers.
McCrae earned extra pay sweeping out the club during the day. He laughs at that now. “I didn’t mind doing it,” he says, “because I’d find a lot of loose money cleaning up, $10 and $20 bills.” He also can laugh at the stardom that almost sank him so long ago. He didn’t handle his fame and money and girls very well. But instead of crashing and burning in a drug-and alcohol-addled haze, when George McCrae well, he simply picked himself up and walked away. Humility, common sense and a wise grandmother’s words saved him– and ultimately steered him back to what he lived for, music. George McCrae, who had worked for years for this, was getting nervous. Sure, he wanted a hit, but not a smash, not an era -defining classic, just a modest hit that would allow him to play small clubs until he grew old.
Still a star in Germany
Today, McCrae settles into a seat near the Centennial Fountain describing his life: He lives in the Netherlands with his third wife, Yvonne, and their son, and also has a home in Aruba. He performs 50 or more concerts a year throughout Europe, mostly clubs and corporate conventions. He still visits family and old friends in the record business in South Florida. And it looks as if life may be taking him full circle.
Later this year, North Miami-based Hot Productions plans to release George McCrae: Rock Your Baby 2000. The CD will feature remixed, updated songs from his Seven albums, 6-minute, 23-second club version of Rock Your Baby that got Europe dancing 25 Years ago. His song-shot to the top of the pop charts in 1974 was absolutely unexpected. “It was a fluke,” says Steve Alaimo, who with Henry Stone, signed the McCrae’s to their Alston Records label in 1969, then founded Hialeah-based T.K Studios/Records in the early 70’s.
McCrae had become a local star with R&B hits, Three Hearts and a Tangle and One of These Days. He, Gwen and Betty Wright, all with ascending solo careers, had also established themselves as the backup group to call when rock acts recording at Criteria Studios in North Miami needed a little bit of soul. By 1971, however, George McCrae was thinking about puffing all his energy into helping groom Gwen for stardom. She was a natural.
One February day in 1974, he was sitting in T.K. waiting to record background vocals for Gwen. He was almost 30 years old and confused about his future. He hadn’t recorded a song of his own in two years and had toyed with retiring to the 9-to- 5 world. He and Gwen had just had a baby. He needed a plan. McCrae decided to give singing one more shot. Fledgling T.K. Studios was humming.
A pair of young wannabe pop star, Harry Wayne Casey (K.C.) and Rick Finch, were among the TK acts making noise on the R&B charts. The infectious, funky pop of what would become KC. & the Sunshine Band was beginning to catch the public’s fancy. And the studio had high hopes for Gwen.
History is hazy on what actually happened the day McCrae thought he’d take one last stab at stardom. Everyone’s story is a little different, Casey and Finch had been trying to come up with tunes for their new group. Out of thin air they composed a track they thought had potential but was too high for KC’s voice. “We were messing around and this incredible track just fell into place,” recalls K.C. “I knew once I started with the melody, it wasn’t a K.C. song.” He searched for someone to sing it, me. Gwen McCrae was too busy, but George McCrae wasn’t.
While most everyone says it was recorded that same day, McCrae remembers having at least a day to learn the song-which didn’t have finished lyrics. McCrae asked girls he knew how they’d like to be song to; he even asked his mother, Annie B. Sing it soft; sing it gently, they said. Sing it like Sam Cooke or Smokey Robinson, they said. “So I sang it naturally,” McCrae says.
The song was recorded in one day. McCrae nailed the lead vocals in one take after K.C. gave him the finished lyrics. Of the lyrics, K. C. says, “I was thinking of the love that comes from your parent when they take you in their arms and rock you, the warmth of that, or if you’re in love with someone and just saying hold me, or someone says ‘I’m having a (bad) day, so hold me’. You know there’s nothing to it, just say you want to do it and rock your baby. Everything just fit perfectly.”
“When we put his voice on it,” he adds, “it was like the sound of an angel.
The song simmered on American radio, but exploded in the dance clubs of France, Germany and Canada. By May it was a hit on the U.S. R&B charts. McCrae, who had worked for years for this was getting nervous. Sure, he wanted a his, but not a smash, not an era-defining classic, just a modest hit that would allow him to play small clubs until he grew old. Outside of Navy service in Pensacola and the Philippines in the mid’ 60s, he had rarely ventured out of South Florida. He doubted he could handle the faster pace, the bigger crowds, the press and the pressure.
But Rock Your Baby crossed over to the pop charts in early June, debuting at No. 93. The song snagged No. 1on July 13 and ruled for two weeks. ”It took off like the biggest rocket in life. It was a monster,” says Alaimo. “It started in the discos in France, then came back to the U.S. “That’s why George is such a big star over there.”
McCrae went from nervous to terrified. When the Palm Beach Post-Times called for an interview, McCrae was stunned. He’d had a Post-Times paper route as a kid. In McCrae’s world, the Post-Times was the paper. The paper he once delivered wanted an interview! Worse than being interviewed, he had to perform in New York.
All his life he had heard how dangerous and rotten the Big Apple was. Now he was scheduled to open for the Jackson 5 at Madison Square Garden. He would survive, he thought, by hiding out in his hotel room before and after the show. (Gwen McCrae was on the bill, too, but would have her moment of glory a year later when her coy delivery sent a tune called Rockin’ Chair No.9. That gave the McCrae’s a place in pop history the only husband and wife with Top 10 songs as solo acts.)
Rock Your Baby remained more than two months on the U.S. charts and reportedly was a hit in 51 countries. Alaimo says at least five million copies of the single were sold worldwide. Why the massive appeal? ”The first time I heard it there was something mesmerizing about it,” KC. says.
“When you put it on, you just wanted to keep listening to it. You can feel something magical about the track, and when we added the words, it became even more magical and mystical. More likely, the simple innocent song with a sweet dance groove came along at a turbulent time when the public craved a hug. The folks at TK provided it: “Take me in your arms and rock your baby.” McCrae says the time was right “It was post-Watergate and post- Vietnam and everyone wanted to party.”
Though others may claim the title, Alaimo adds, “I think it is the first disco song.” First or not, it opened the floodgates for K.C., who had just turned23. “The song definitely helped us define what we were going to be,” he says. After Rock Your Baby, KC. & The Sunshine Band attacked the charts with Get Down Tonight, That’s The Way (I Like It), (Shake Shake, Shake) Shake Your Booty, I’m Your Boogie Man and more. And it propelled mild-mannered George McCrae even further into a world he wasn’t quite ready for.
McCrae, the second of nine children, born at 616 13th St. and grew up at 922 5th. Street in West Palm Beach. His childhood memories are of life segregated by black and white separate water fountains, separate bathrooms, all-black churches and all-black schools. He remembers his first bus ride alone. He was 6 and he was nervous. He sat right behind the driver on the nearly empty bus. A white woman boarded and told him he had no business riding up front But he stayed where he was, hands clutched to the driver’s seat for fear of missing his stop.
McCrae had begun singing in church that year, 1950. His mother was a singer, but he had dreams of studying criminology. He wanted to be a policeman, like his father. At home, however, young George often joined his folks when they tuned in to disc jockey Bucky Johnson’s nightly R&B radio show on WIRK He savored sweet soul music by the likes of Della Reese and Johnny Ace.
At Roosevelt High School he sang in the glee club and also formed a singing group called the Jivin’ Jets. They copied the smooth moves of older local groups such as the Chanteers, sang songs by the Platters, Coasters, Dovells, even Bobby Vinton and competed in area talent shows. George liked school. He enjoyed math, science and History, “hated” English. But he was shy. Music was his way of communicating and making friends. Even with his popularity as a singer, he couldn’t muster the courage to ask anyone to the senior prom. He went dateless. He met and married Gwen while in the Navy in 1964.
As Rock Your Baby soared, McCrae felt overwhelmed. In two weeks he recorded a Rock Your Baby album to go with the single. He suddenly found himself on national tours opening for the Jackson 5 and James Brown. Later, he would tour with the Jackson 5. He was nominated for Grammy for Best R&B Vocalist-Male (He lost to Stevie Wonder).
Life was good. Or was it? The song that gave so much joy to so many listeners almost destroyed the singer. “I was very frightened of the success, McCrae says.” It came so fast. Everybody wanted to be your friend. All of a sudden strangers wanted to do you favors. I felt like I was on my own. “In a way he was. His marriage, already on shaky ground, was crumbling as he became a bigger and bigger star and more and more sexy groupies tempted him.
Gwen was angry — she was supposed to be the star. George didn’t have a savvy manager to anchor and advise him. At the height of his stardom, McCrae says, “I only felt free and happy on stage. For a while, I was wishing I had never recorded Rock Your Baby.” And when he started to fade, he faded fast. The follow-up single, I Get Lifted, barely broke the Top 40 in ‘75. There would be no more huge hits at home.
Europe, however, couldn’t get enough of McCrae. “I Get Lifted” (another Casey-Finch ditty) was a hit in Europe. Follow-ups “You Can Have It All,” “I Can’t Leave You” and “Make It Right” also “charted” around the continent But McCrae’s personal life was a shambles.
He and Gwen divorced in 1976 after the birth of their second child. He remarried — much too quickly, he says — moved to Canada, had another child, hit rock bottom financially, and then watched his second marriage fail. He left music for awhile, working as a hotel doorman and supermarket seafood department manager. But he never grew bitter or lost faith. “If you believe in God, which I do, and believe in yourself and don’t give up, I believe everything is possible,” McCrae says. He also heeded his Grandma Mae’s advice to enjoy what you’re doing and do it well, no matter what it is.
The best he can be
So, McCrae says, “When I worked as a doorman, I was the best doorman in the world. When I was delivering the newspaper, I was one of the best newspaper boys in the world… anything I did I tried to be the best and I was happy doing it.” And he never doubted he’d record and perform again. “I’m a future man,” he says. “The past you can’t do nothing about it You laugh and learn from your mistakes.” He got the chance to record in Canada and in 1984 released One Step Closer, a fairly successful album everywhere but the U.S.
In 1986, to complicate matters, a company that feeds celebrity news to music publications reported George McCrae’s death from cancer. The company had confused him with actor-singer Gordon McRae. So, American promoters didn’t think George was the real McCrae. Work was harder to get (“I’m still dead in some reference
books,”) McCrae says.
Europe beckoned. Friends and family advised him to go. ”Europe was my safety net,” McCrae says, “I was an international artist.” He began touring Europe regularly in 1986 and moved to the Netherlands in 1988. He married again in 1989.
An older, wiser McCrae kept his voice and body fit and became a successful club and convention act. He may be living off his past, but he’s not living in it. McCrae’s got an album’s worth of new tunes he describes as a blend of New Age, jazz and R&B. At 54, he’s shopping for a recording contact for an album tentatively titled “Absolutely Beautiful.” He’s proud of his new songs, including a duet with ex-wife Gwen, with whom he’s repaired relations after more than 20 years. The shy guy who went to his senior prom alone talks confidently about his ability.
“Believe me, I’m good,” he says. “I’m 54 years old, and it’s great to see 18-,19-, 20-, 30-, 40-year-old women enjoying your performance — and the men, too. It’s something special. ”Life’s been good to me,” he says — and so has the song. “Rock Your Baby has taken me around the world about four times.”