Meco Monardo, who is best known for producing Gloria Gaynor's "Never Can Say Goodbye" and his own Star War's Theme, talks to DiscoMusic.com about his Disco years.
Meco Monardo who is usually known simply as Meco, had a hand in creating many early Disco tracks. In this interview Meco Monardo speaks to Bernard Lopez of DiscoMusic.com about those early Disco days and his later space and movie themed works.
Meco Monardo and Star Wars
Since it first was shown in 1977, Star Wars has remained one of the most influential sci-fi movies of all time. Now ask yourself a simple question: Besides the story line and characters, what else stands out in your mind from the movie? The music! Most are familiar with John William's score, but even more who grew up during the era will say Meco Monardo's fabulous Disco interpretation. In fact Meco's Star Wars Theme proved so popular that it outsold the original William's score. It also became the first number one hit for Casablanca / Millennium Records and went platinum.
What's most interesting is that Meco Monardo's interpretation came about by chance. Even though he had been an avid science fiction fan since his youth he really wasn't following it as much when he first saw Star Wars. He explains that his work schedule as a record producer and session musician in New York gave him so much free time that he made it a point to play golf and watch as many movies as he could each week. The routine was to watch whatever was playing at the time and so it was that one morning he caught the first showing of Star Wars on it's opening day without fully knowing what it was about. This ho-hum day in May of 1977 would change his life and career forever.
The movie touched Meco Monardo on all levels and he soon found himself seeing it over and over the following day. Three times in a row even though he readily admits that he finally lost track. He says, "I knew it was going to be a hit." Meco continues to say that he loved the music so much that he did something he never does, he went out and bought the Star Wars soundtrack. He was expecting to hear the music with all the sound effects he had heard in the film, but they weren't there. That's when the gears started turning and Monardo made the decision to come up with his own interpretation based on Disco and began contacting record labels.
Now Meco Monardo was no stranger to the music business and this is where we take a big step back to take a look at the events that helped shape his career.
Meco Monardo's Early Years
Domenico Monardo a. k. a. Meco Monardo, whose parents were of Italian descent, was born on November 29th of 1939 and raised in Johnsonburg, Pennsylvania. As is usually the case, our parents help to guide and point the way towards our goals and dreams. Meco's father, who played the valve trombone, was no exception and encouraged his son to "site read" music before picking up an instrument. Meco at first had wanted to play the drums, but took his father's advice and after one year of learning to "site read" decided to play the slide trombone. He excelled at the trombone even though with his small stature as a young child he had difficulty holding the instrument especially when it was fully extended.
Becoming immersed in music during his childhood didn't stop Meco from enjoying his other passions, namely building model ships, science fiction and movies.
Joining the high school band while still in grammar school, Meco Monardo continued playing trombone and eventually won a scholarship to the renowned Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York in 1957. While there he would link up with fellow classmates Chuck Mangione and Ron Carter and perform in the Eastman School of Music Jazz Band. Meco would eventually join the Army and perform in the West Point Army Band during the early sixties. In the mid-sixties Meco moved to New York City and began working as a session musician.
With his background in classical and jazz Meco was not into pop music, but says that changed when he heard Petula Clark's "Downtown." When asked what was so special about this song he replied, "the song had more than the standard three chords of the typical song of the day."
As a session musician Meco Monardo worked with such artists as Tommy James, Diana Ross and David Barretto. In fact Meco goes on to say:
I played on countless hit records as a trombonist, the most notable being Diana Ross' Diana produced by Nile Rodgers of Chic in 1980. I play the only jazz trombone solo that I am aware of featured on any pop record of the last 50 years. That was me playing on I'm Coming Out. Diana hated the album so much and was so pissed at Nile that she did not give any of the musicians credit.
Anyway, that's getting a little ahead of our story. As we approach the seventies Meco has now started to arrange and produce for countless others.
Meco Monardo and the Disco Sound of the 1970s
Around 1973 Meco Monardo along with Tony Bongiovi and a third associate formed a production company called the Disco Corporation of America or DCA for short. Their first artist was Don Downing with the song Lonely Nights, Lonely Days. It was in 1974 that a relatively unknown singer by the name of Gloria Gaynor was brought to their attention. She was signed and Meco quickly set out to enlist the help of Jay Ellis and Harold Wheeler along with Tony to work on an LP that was to yield the classic Never Can Say Goodbye on MGM Records.
Not only would this LP put Meco on the Disco map, but it also was the first Disco album to feature an entire side of music without any breaks. In other words, the songs were segued together to form a continuous side or suite of music. This innovative concept was the brainchild of Tom Moulton who later became known as the father of the Disco Mix.
How did Tom Moulton enter the picture on Never Can Say Goodbye? Meco Monardo tells DiscoMusic.com that, "Tom Moulton, who had worked with DCA on Dream World by Don Downing and had already gained a good reputation from working with Peoples' Choice, The Trammps, and First Choice, was a natural choice to help put the finishing touches on Gloria's album."
Never Can Say Goodbye:
So what was everyone's initial reaction to Tom Moulton's concept of a continuous side of music? Meco said, "We loved it immediately." In fact Gloria's first album was so successful that Meco produced her next two albums Experience and I've Got You.
With all the work DCA was doing it turns out that one of Meco's business associates failed to handle certain business obligations in proper fashion. This caused unnecessary problems with artists and others and although not serious resulted in Meco being barred from producing for one year. This became evident when Meco produced Carol Douglas' hit Doctor's Order's, but was not allowed to be given credit as producer. The only credit he received was for arranging Baby, Don't Let This Good Love Die.
Meco Monardo and the Making of the Star Wars Theme
Listen to Star Wars
This now brings us back to 1977 and Star Wars. After making the decision to create a Disco version of John William's film score, Meco Monardo approached the late Neil Bogart who was the president of Casablanca Records. He tried to convey his concept, but Bogart wasn't convinced and passed on it. That is until a week later when the movie took off and broke box office records. Bogart came full circle and told Meco to speak with Jimmy Ienner who was the president of their new subsidiary New York label called Millennium.
Now that he had the go ahead Meco again teamed up with Tony Bongiovi and Harold Wheeler to begin work on the project. What is rather interesting is the background of these two people. Bongiovi while appearing to have been firmly entrenched in Disco with his previous work with Meco and acts like Lion's Den was to become a pivotal figure in Punk and alternative rock! Yes, you read that correctly. He produced many of the Ramones classic tracks like Sheena Is A Punk Rocker and Talking Heads tracks like Psycho Killer. Wheeler on the other hand was an arranger and piano player from the Broadway stage. He also had arranged for such artists as Nina Simone. A very eclectic mix indeed.
Hard to believe, but the album titled Star Wars and Other Galactic Funk was completed in three weeks. The "A" side clocking in at 15:47 was based on the William's film score, but there wasn't enough material to fill the "B" side. A solution was quickly found when a group of teens were spotted playing the drums while Meco was walking through New York's Central Park. Meco asked if they wanted to be recorded and after their initial disbelief agreed. They provided the foundation that would later become the Other Galactic Funk portion of the album and it worked quiet well to everyone's surprise. At a time when the mainstream music press was lambasting Disco, Rolling Stone Magazine called the "B" side "creative."
For a little fun one should take a look at the credits on the back of the original vinyl LP. It seems that Meco has a subtle sense of humor and took the liberty of playing around with the musician's names both real and imagined. Some are spelled backwards while others have to be read top to bottom to decipher a hidden message.
Shortly thereafter, Meco also produced tracks for Trini Lopez (Helplessly from the album Transformed by Time), Samantha Sang (From Dance to Love) and Take a Bite for Marlena Shaw a few years later. He even produced on Kenny G's album Kenny G in the 1980s.
Seeing the success he had achieved with Star Wars, Meco applied this technique to other movies right on through the 1980s. Although not sci-fi in nature, in 1978 he created what many of his fans claim as his finest work, The Wizard of Oz. In fact Meco tells me, "it is my best work bar none."
Meco Monardo and the Wizard of Oz
Right before the making of The Wizard of Oz Meco Monardo was having difficulties with his record label not paying him. He decided to "get lost" for two weeks and let his lawyers sort it all out. Once everything was straightened out the label quickly wanted another album as per their contract. Unfortunately there weren't any current or new movies that satisfied Meco and he admits that, "I was stomped." He swears that he woke up one morning singing "We're off to see the wizard, the wonderful Wizard of Oz" and simply thought it was cute. He had seen it at least twenty times over the years and it was somehow buried in his sub-conscience.
Unlike his other movie-based albums where he could only get about fifteen minutes worth of material, he soon realized that he had around eight good songs to begin with. Meco went back to his label and told them about doing The Wizard of Oz to which they laughed and commented, "the old Wizard of Oz at this point in time?" Before long Meco had them humming the old songs and they soon gave him the go-ahead to begin work.
At around the same time Meco's old friend Harold Wheeler had arranged a Broadway musical called The Wiz. The two got together and brainstormed for hours. They came up with about twenty-seven minutes of music, but because it was on two-sided vinyl it had to be cut in half at around the fifteen-minute mark. Now the second side was shorter so they decided to take the themes again and take out the Disco beat and leave just the orchestration. A John Williams style symphony so to speak for the last four minutes of side two helping to bring about a graceful ending. It must be pointed out that had the compact disc been around with its longer uninterrupted 74-minute length instead of the vinyl LP's 15-17 minute restriction that the final ending wouldn't have even come about.
Meco Monardo explains that this was "my best and the only one I did where the whole album was devoted to the one movie." Once the record label heard the complete work they loved it and went after it in a big way. It quickly sold around 400,000 copies. It was for this album that he also gave his only performance as Meco on nationwide TV on NBC's Wednesday night program called Dick Clark Live.
The 1980s and Beyond
Through the late 1970s and early 1980s Meco found plenty of movie material to work from such as Superman, American Werewolf in London, Close Encounters and many others, but he was increasingly becoming disillusioned with the business side of music. This led to his retiring from it altogether in 1985 and leaving New York for Florida where he had a friend whom convinced him to work as a commodity broker. Meco was not used to the structure of 9-5 hours, but managed to embrace his new career change and make a very modest living for himself.
Meco Monardo and the New Star Wars Album
In September of 1998 Meco confirmed that a new Star Wars movie was going to be released in May of 1999. He quickly contacted Sony Music and RCA about possibly doing some work based on the new movie. Sony's president Donny Ienner contacted Meco about doing a dance version of the new Star Wars release since they were also releasing John William's soundtrack to the movie.
Donny wasn't thrilled with the name Meco wanted to title the new material Meco Plays Music Inspired By The Phantom Menace and Other Latino Funk, but work was started and everything was rolling smoothly as the release date started looming near. However John Williams exercised a clause in his contract that allowed him to disallow others from performing an interpretation of his score if they were on the same record label as he. After all the work and commitment put into the project, it was too close to the movie's release date for Meco to go to another label. The release plans were scrapped and the project shelved even though RCA and Universal had expressed serious interest.
It was very disheartening, but Meco latched onto an idea he had even before Williams crushed his plans. That plan was to make an album of all four Star Wars movies. Fans could get all the music on one CD. So in April of 2000 Meco released his first album in more than a decade called Dance Your Asteroids Off to the Complete Star Wars Collection. It contains reworked version of his classics plus new material that encompasses all the Star Wars movies.
When posed the question if he felt as if his original work was undone he said, "In the creative world we have a rush to judgement. We have to get this done not just because we are creative, but commercially creative. We have to get things done with deadlines . . . you can't do all the things you might want to do because the time frame doesn't allow you to create everything."
In order not to lose the "magic" as he said of the original recordings he chose not to redo them from scratch, but to take advantage of today's technology and re-edit as well as over-dub certain dialogue and effects. He goes on to say that he feels that this is even better than his Wizard of Oz work and is extremely happy with the way it came out and wouldn't change a thing. Meco had a chance much the same way George Lucas did to rework some things for his twentieth anniversary release of Star Wars.
Along with the reworked music he also includes two new songs, Cousin Jar Jar and A Jedi Knight which was written by his friend Yamira whom he had worked with before. In fact she was partly responsible for his coming back to music after his self-imposed hiatus when she asked for his help on her album in 1997. Dance Your Asteroids Off to the Complete Star Wars Collection is available at many music outlets. While there one can take a look at his complete discography and more. There is a great CD compilation called "The Best of Meco" which is a must for old and new fans alike.
So what would have Meco done had he not made it in music? His reply, "I would have attempted to be a film director." Well, it certainly seems that Meco and the movies go hand in hand and that there is no separating the two.
It was most enlightening to speak with Meco Monardo and I would like to thank him for his time and willingness to speak frankly about his career and life.
A MECO FAN SPEAKS OUT:
In 1977, while my fellow 13 year olds were listening to hard rock or ordinary Disco, my miserable life was warmed up just by touching the cover and stroking the MECO logo! A bit nuts? Perhaps! But I memorized and/or read every word on the cover, on the vinyl itself, and inner sleeve of Star Wars and every Meco LP that followed! There was something about a full orchestra, electronic sound effects, and the disco beat that mesmerized me no matter how long I listened and how many notes I memorized like one memorizes the words of pop music!
Written by Bernard F. Lopez of DiscoMusic.com (May 25, 2000)
Copyright © 2000 by Bernard F. Lopez
All rights reserved
Other Galactic Funk