October 16, 2018
In the world of one hit wonders this ‘song’ has quite the interesting history. It was written and recorded in the summer of 1976 by a Memphis disc jockey. And it was the impetus for him being fired from his job. Regardless, the satirical novelty piece went on to become the number one song on the Billboard Hot 100 on October 16 of that year. It’s name: Disco Duck.
Rick Dees was working at a Memphis radio station when he conceived the concept for the song. At the time, Disco music was just starting to emerge into the mainstream. Prior to then it had been primarily a sound associated with the Disco clubs popular in the northeast United States. By the time the movie ‘Saturday Night Fever’ was released, it was nearly impossible to not at least have heard the term ‘Disco.’
But back to Disco Duck. Dees was motivated to write it based on another novelty song from the 1960’s. According to the Infallible Wikipedia:
‘Written by Dees, ‘Disco Duck’ was inspired by a 1960s novelty dance song called ‘The Duck,’ recorded by Jackie Lee (Earl Lee Nelson) in 1965. According to Dees, it took one day to write the song, but three months to convince anyone to perform it.
Combining orchestral disco styles with a Donald Duck–esque voice as the main plot point, the story within ‘Disco Duck’ centers around a man at a dance party who is overcome by the urge to get up and ‘get down’ in a duck-like manner. When the music stops, he sits down, but when he decides to get up and dance again, he finds that everyone in the room is now doing his dance.”
Radio being radio, Dees soon found himself unemployed due to management forbidding him to play the song on their station. Also from the Infallible Wikipedia:
” For all its success, ‘Disco Duck’ was shunned by radio stations where Dees was living in Memphis, including WMPS-AM, the station Dees worked for at the time. Station management forbade Dees from playing the song on his own show and rival stations in the city refused to play it for fear of promoting the competition. When Dees talked about (but did not play) the song on his show one morning, his boss fired him citing conflict of interest. After a brief mandatory hiatus, Dees was hired by station WHBQ-AM, WMPS’s primary competition in Memphis.”
Dees went on tour to promote the song, eventually gathered a group to play it live, and the song was featured in the 1977 hit movie ‘Saturday Night Fever.’
My own memory of this song dates to January of 1978 during the peak of the Disco craze. Disco was THE music of the year. Saturday Night Fever had been released in December 1977 and we were all learning how to dance Disco.
But it was during an annual event for the Greek system at the University of Puget Sound when Disco Duck was forever burned into my brain.
Each January the fraternities and sororities would have a weeklong event which culminated in the initiation of new members to their ranks. The sororities called this “Inspiration Week.” For the guys it was “Hell Week.”
I belonged to one of two sororities which, when the Greek system at UPS saw a decrease in numbers a few years earlier, moved into former fraternity houses smack dab in the middle of ALL the remaining frat’s. This turned out to be a mixed blessing. Unlike the other sororities on campus, we had an actual freestanding house rather than having to live in the dorms. The down side was that we had four frat’s which flanked our house and the boys were, one might say, creative.
The frat which impacted us the most were the Phi Delta Theta’s – aka Phi Delt’s (their house pictured above) – whose members included most of the UPS football team as well as a fair number of the wild boys. And during Hell Week they did interesting things.
I cannot say from firsthand experience what exactly went on within their walls that week but we did hear gossip as to the activities. It was reported at the time that the soon to be initiated members all lived downstairs in their basement chapter room, sleeping on mattresses on the floor and being subjected to one particular song played over and over and over, night and day. Kind of a sleep deprivation torture.
That song in January 1978 was… Disco Duck.
This part I know to be true as we could hear it thumping through the walls of our sorority at all hours. We were subjected to Disco Duck for the entire week until, I’m certain, not only were THEY sick of the song, but so were all the women in my sorority.
Now all of you may be wondering, ‘Didn’t anyone have to go to classes?” And the answer is ‘no.’ UPS at the time had a month long program known as ‘Winterim’ where every student on campus did an immersion study of one single subject. When January was over there was a week off before the next semester started. It was during this week when the Greek’s had their activities prior to initiations… so the shenanigans were in high supply.
To the best of my knowledge everyone survived Hell week. As far as Disco Duck is concerned I will forever associate it with that place and time… and I will turn it off as soon as the first chords are played. But for all of you I will sacrifice my finer sensibilities. Because YOU need to hear Disco Duck to understand the song and, sort of, the genre which swept the country for a year and half back in the late 1970’s.
A couple of Wikipedia links:
The original “Duck” song from 1966: