*Forty-eight years ago today (July 6), “Rock the Boat” by The Hues Corporation became the first disco song to top the Hot 100. Or was it?
Written by trumpeter/songwriter Wally Holmes, “Rock the Boat” originally appeared on the trio’s 1973 debut album “Freedom for the Stallion.”
The Santa Monica, California-based group had been formed by Holmes in 1969 with a different name in mind: Children of Howard Hughes, a mocking nod to this eccentric billionaire.
But Holmes was unable to clear the name legally, so he changed the spelling to ‘hues” – now a wink toward shades of color – and came up with The Hues Corporation.
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The group – with members St. Clair Lee, Hubert Ann Kelley and lead vocalist Fleming Williams – spent their early years recording songs for blaxploitation films and performing at Circus Circus in Las Vegas, where they became a hot attraction. They signed a deal with RCA Records, and Holmes recruited a team of studio musicians who turned out to be veteran members of the legendary band Jazz Crusaders, (who would recruit singer Randy Crawford in 1979 to bless their song, “Street Life”).
“Rock the Boat” was the third single from The Hues Corporation’s debut album, following the title track (which only reached No. 63) and “Miracle Maker (Sweet Soul Shaker),” which saw no parts of the Hot 100.
When writing “Rock the Boat,” Holmes reportedly started with the line “Ever since our voyage of love began…” But producer John Florez hated it, not to mention the song’s entire lyrical situation. He called the tune, “trite,” and suggested punching up the opening line with, “So I’d like to know where you got the notion.” Still, it was decided that “Rock the Boat” would be a B-side throwaway when it was released in February 1974.
As expected, it appeared that the rewritten first line was for naught, as weeks went by with zero sales or radio attention for “Rock the Boat.” They were ready to write off the entire first album as all but drowned.
But by mid March, it started showing signs of life. A New York City club DJ took a liking to it, and that dance floor buzz would lead local Top 40 radio stations to drizzle the tune into rotation. Suddenly, the nearly capsized “Boat” began powering upstream. It entered Billboard’s Hot 100, and had sales of 50,000 copies in NYC.
The song’s sudden buoyancy prompted Florez to slightly remix the track, boosting its bass and rhythm instruments. It was rereleased with its new polish…
…and four weeks after entering the Hot 100 (seven weeks after its original release), “Rock the Boat” docked at No. 1.
“Rock the Boat” went on to sell a million copies, and some believe it holds the distinction of being the first disco song ever to hit No. 1.
Others give the credit to “Love’s Theme,” the instrumental tour de force written by Barry White and performed by his Love Unlimited Orchestra. Released in November of 1973, it reached No. 1 on the Hot 100 in early 1974, before “Rock the Boat” topped the chart.
In any case, the reign of “Rock the Boat” was short-lived, as another “Rock” themed ditty, George McCrae’s “Rock Your Baby,” finally tipped the boat over and sent The Hues Corporation back downstream. But it’s cargo full of love and devotion is firmly anchored in music history.
Here’s “Rock the Boat” producer John Florez from April 2022 talking about how much he hated the song when Wally Holmes first sprung it on him, and how bringing in the Jazz Crusaders changed his mind.