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VAN MCCOY MAY 1975 INTERVIEW
THE DISCO MAN
There can be very few self-respecting soul fans around who don't own a record which has featured the name "Van McCoy" somewhere along the way. It may be an old Gladys Knight single, a current Stylistics' album, or one of a host of records ranging from The Marvelettes' "When You're Young And In Love", through "Baby I'm Yours" by Barbara Lewis, Jackie Wilson's "I Get The Sweetest Feeling" or "Finger Pointers" by The Choice Four! Van's career as a multi-talented arranger, producer and songwriter spans nearly fifteen years and although total success seems to have only just arrived for the man, he has been the mastermind behind some of the true epics of black music and his influence is truly phenomenal...


In New York, as he frequently is these days, to work on the one after the next Stylistics' album, Van took some time out of his hectic schedule to sit down and rap with B&S about his career to date: "You want it from the beginning? Well, I started out singing whilst I was at high school — before that I had learned to play piano at the tender age of four! Then I wrote my very first song when I was around 12. On reflection, it was pretty awful, I have to confess! My intention was to major in psychology and to this end, I was at Howard University. Then during my second year, I just felt that I had to get into music. By this time, I'd begun singing with a local group, The Starlighters and we had some records out through George Goldner's Gone label. Nothing happened nationally but the records did fairly well locally. My parents were naturally concerned that I should have given up college but they always had faith in me and I felt that I was doing the right thing."

Next step was to take Van to Philadelphia where his uncle introduced him to a well-known DJ, Jocko Henderson. Van was persuaded to make a record — "Hey Mr DJ" — and before he knew it, everyone was bidding for the side and it ended up with Scepter Records. "The record did well and it brought about the beginning of my relationship with the company. I guess this would have been about 1961 — about the same time, the company signed a young lady who I knew was going to be a big star — Dionne Warwicke. In fact, I can remember first hearing her sing and I knew what would happen! You know, Dionne and I wrote a song together too — a thing called "Gee What A Guy" — a girl called Yvonne Carroll cut it for Laurie Records. Anyway, the first thing I did for Scepter was a side for The Shirelles, who were very hot then — "Stop The Music". At that time, the company consisted basically of Florence Greenberg, Marvin Schlachter and Luther Dixon and it was Luther who really took me under his wing and helped me learn about production. We did some things with Tommy Hunt and Chuck Jackson then."

After some six months with Scepter, Van accepted an offer to work with Leiber-Stoller Productions, then really establishing themselves as one of the first production units to make a big impression, chart-wise. "We did things with The Exciters and The Drifters and of course, it was very important in terms of experience for me. Then, I really was getting into writing and I guess it was around 1963 that I met up with Larry Maxwell, who had his own label, Maxx Records. I had already met Gladys Knight from having worked as a singer at The Apollo (when I had "Mr DJ" out) so we knew each other. I teamed up with the group and we cut an album." Few people who have heard that album will deny that it has to be a true epic in the annals of soul. I personally remember vividly the excitement that that Maxx album caused when just a few copies sneaked into the UK and sent those faithful few into total ecstasies!

It spawned the immortal "Giving Up" but also featured such dynamic sides as "Either Way I Lose" ("one of my all time favourites," states Van emphatically), "Stop & Get A Hold Of Myself" and the turgid "Maybe, Maybe Baby". It was, of course, "Giving Up" which took Gladys & The Pips into the Top 30 in the U.S. and Van comments: "Everyone said the whole album was just too far out. They said the musical chords and changes I was using were just uncommercial. But you know, I didn't want to be restricted to the usual format — I wanted to try something new, something different. And in some ways, we were the forerunners for the Bacharach-David-Dionne thing because songs like "Don't Make Me Over" were considered equally 'uncommercial'. What influences affected me? Well, at that time, I was very much into classical music and I guess you can hear some of that in there."

1964 was very much a turning point in the McCoy career. It was during this year that Van was signed with CBS' publishing wing, Blackwood Music and his writing career began to really take shape. "I was with the company for about three years, until 1967 and during that period I guess I had some 300 songs with them, most of which were recorded by someone or other — of course, they weren't all hits! But one of the first things I had during '64 was with Ruby & The Romantics — the original of "When You're Young And In Love." Then, of course, that was the same year that I teamed up with Dave Kapralik (who went on later to become manager of Sly & Family Stone) and we formed our own production unit. It was whilst I was at a record store in Washington D.C. that I discovered Herb Fame and after we cut some things on him, we decided to team him up with Peaches — Francine of The Sweet Things, another group we were working with." Peaches & Herb proved an immensely popular project for Van and provided him with a successful outlet for much of his material. At the same time, he was still occupied very much in writing for many other artists. Jerry Butler's "I Can't Stand To See You Cry", Nancy Wilson's "Where Does That Leave Me" and Gloria Lynne's "Intimate Moments" are just three of a huge range of songs that Van penned during this period and he was also very much involved with The Spellbinders, at a time when CBS were 'discovering' R&B for the very first time!

Van is definite in stating that his most-recorded and biggest money earning composition is the song that took Barbara Lewis to the very heights of the US charts in 1965. "Baby I'm Yours" was the song and it has become virtually a classic. "I wrote the song specifically with Barbara in mind and a lot of my work was done that way. Writing particularly for one artist or another. I did things for Nina Simone, Nat King Cole, Tom Jones, Walter Jackson and we had two big ones with Jackie Wilson in "I Get The Sweetest Feeling" and "I've Lost You". I have to tell you that most of my songs were based on experiences or vicarious experiences and one lesson I learnt early on was to give songs either melodic 'hook' lines or strong lyrical content. Just make sure that they're not complicated."

1966 was yet another milestone in the gentleman's career. Aside from the fact that he produced Chris Bartley on "The Sweetest Thing This Side Of Heaven" — unquestionably one of Van's biggest successes and the launching pad for Chris' career — Van found himself in the studio singing! "I was doing demos on some of my songs and Dave (Kapralik) told me I should go ahead to cut myself. I was reluctant to do so then and he brought Mitch Miller down to hear me. He insisted that we go ahead and record so I had an album out on Columbia — "Night Time Is Lonely Time". They were really trying to put me in a Johnny Mathis bag I guess and I went along with it because I really wasn't too interested in the whole project. It just didn't figure in my plans to be a singer. But I did things like playing Vegas, the CBS convention etc, until I just realized that it was pointless to allow myself to be pressured into doing something I really didn't want to do. So I just went back to writing and producing. In fact, 1966 also saw one of the really great moments for me. And that was watching Aretha cut one of my songs — "Sweet Bitter Love", which I wrote especially for her. It's the same song Roberta Flack did on one of her albums a few years back. Watching Aretha sing was just like nothing else I'd ever witnessed. I'd seen her perform but hearing what she did with my song was just fantastic!" The Marvelettes were responsible, in 1967, for taking Van's name as a writer right to the top via their version of "When You're Young And In Love" and it was during this year that Van decided to branch out on his own. His first project involved Share Records, where he cut The Ad Libs on several sides, including a re-make on "Giving Up" and shortly after, he formed his own production and publishing companies — White Horse Productions and Blue Ribbon Productions.

Concentrating his energies on specific projects rather than just writing in general, Van found himself working closely with Brenda & The Tabulations and produced a string of hits with the group for Top & Bottom Records, with "Right On The Tip of My Tongue" leading the way. "I worked with the group right through till '72 when we did "A Little Bit Of Love", which was just re-released by CBS here. I guess they felt it was too ahead of its time but I wanted to put Brenda in that Philly uptempo thing whereas everyone seemed to picture her in that 'little girl lost' thing. During this same period, I worked with Faith, Hope & Charity — we had "So Much Love" as a hit with Bob Crewe's label and when that folded I took them over to Sussex Records around 1970, I think. We also had The Presidents there with their first hit, "5-10-15-20" and of course, Zulema branched out of Faith, Hope & Charity as a solo artiste, although I didn't work with her then, she did cut "Giving Up" — I guess she just liked the song!"

Maxine Brown was amongst a few others for whom Van did production chores and his association for the session with her and subsequently with The Softones first brought Van to the attention of Hugo & Luigi at Avco Records. But not before Van had been asked to make another stab at recording himself! "Neil Bogart at Buddah Records had asked me during the time I was with Sussex to cut an album for him. I did "Soul Improvisations" but somehow it just didn't get the exposure or promotion and it just got lost in there somewhere. I guess it wasn't too long after that that I decided to move away from New York, which had more or less been my base and go back to Washington D.C., to concentrate on developing the local talent there."

Van's involvement with various new acts has kept him pretty busy ever since. "I had Anacostia out with "On & Off" on Columbia — they're the Presidents with a name change. And then there was Darren Green on RCA and The State Department for United Artists. My main thing since then has been not to write just for the sake of it — more to write specifically for productions I was doing. I guess it would have been around late 1973 that Hugo & Luigi approached me about working with The Stylistics. Naturally, at the very beginning, it was hard because we all felt new with each other but after a while, we all got along so well it was no problem. In fact, I would have to say that working with The Stylistics is one of the nicest jobs I've ever had — they're so easy to work with, no problem at all. We've just finished working on the "Thank You Baby" album and we have another one which we're completing now."

Avco decided that Van's talents as a writer, arranger and producer could be also employed on doing things on himself: "When we were doing "Love Is The Answer", the track was going along so well that we just continued with it and used it on the album for The Stylistics. Then Hugo & Luigi called me into the office to show me the cover for my album! You see, apparently they had planned an album with Thom Bell but they just never got to do it — they had the album sleeve ready and all. So I went in and did the session — we had a few things that never got released — like a medley of Thom Bell songs, "You Are Everything, "Betcha By Golly Wow" and "Killing Me Softly" which came out on the flipside of "Love Is The Answer" but not on the album."

The success of Van's initial album for the company prompted the release of a new one, "Disco Baby" which is just out and is already taking over where that first one left off, with a single "The Hustle" already hitting the R&B charts in the States. "Because of the obvious influence of the discos on the success of "Love Is The Answer" and because that is what is happening today, it was logical that we should go in and do an ablum entirely centred around that market," states Van. He says that he is now taking his own career seriously and intends to begin doing selected dates very soon. "But what I feel we may aim for is to go out with a major performer, someone like say Roberta Flack, and do the first half of the show ourselves and work with her as string accompaniment on the second half. But I certainly don't intend to be out on the road for any length of time."

Present pre-occupations make that virtually an impossibility for the young man. He is currently working with New Censation, a four-member outfit who seem to be picking up interest with each subsequent release; Choice Four who seem to have equally established an enviable reputation for themselves via their debut RCA album; and The Richmond Extension, whose "Let's Get Into Something" has been receiving strong R&B play throughout the States. Future plans include working with Frankie & The Spindels (a group out of Baltimore who had previously worked with Gamble & Huff), Herb Fame (of Peaches &…fame) and the distinct possibility of doing some production on G. C. Cameron and David Ruffin, yet to be confirmed.

Van has some very definite ideas about his role in the musical field and as far as he's concerned the word 'producer' is something of a misnomer. "I prefer to think of it as being a director. After all, if you make the comparison with the movie industry, it is the director who actually creates. Likewise, it is the producer who creates in as much as records are concerned. It is the record company who is actually the 'producer' in that they are putting up the money etc. I am going to start shortly changing my role as far as records go — you'll see "Directed by Van McCoy" rather than produced by — unless I'm responsible for putting up the money!"

You would have to go a long way to find a guy whose creative talents extend to such a wide area within the musical field. Van McCoy is responsible for having teached many, many people via his compositions, his productions and his arrangements. He is most certainly a unique individual whose capabilities are only just being realized and recognized and not before time!

About the Writer
David Nathan is the founder and CEO of SoulMusic.com and began his writing career in 1965; beginning in 1967, he was a regular contributor to Blues & Soul magazine in London before relocating to the U.S. in 1975 where he served as U.S. editor for the publication for several decades and began being known as 'The British Ambassador Of Soul.' From 1988 to 2004, he wrote prolifically for Billboard, has penned bios, produced and written liner notes for box sets and reissue CDs for over a thousand projects. He returned to London in 2009 where he has helped create SoulMusic.com Records as a leading reissue label.
  
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