I was unexpectedly taken back today to an album I hadn’t heard in over three decades: Central Heating by the funk-disco band Heatwave. I didn’t have this record back when it first came out, but my brother did and as I did with most of his records I liked, I copied it. Onto an 8-track tape, no less. It’s not all that uncommon for me to recall songs from the late 70s that I hadn’t heard since I was in bell bottoms, but I got back to Heatwave’s second album in a sort of peculiar way: from an upcoming Vijay Iyer album.
As I was listening to this young jazz pianist’s latest creation Accelerando, I noticed he and his trio was playing a vaguely familiar melody on one of the tracks. Turns out it was a deep cut from Central Heating. I mean, a real deep cut, called “The Star Of A Story.” It reminded me of what strong and memorable melodies Heatwave’s keyboardist, Rod Temperton, could write. So I hopped into the time transporter and listened to the entire album again, as all but two of the nine cuts are his.
As I opined back when I gave this band a general salute, Temperton might have been the brains, but the rest of the guys did a great job executing his vision. Party bands have gotten so pre-fab these days, relying so much on sampling and studio help. Heatwave, however, was a real band. The musicians who played on stage were the same ones who played it in the studio, with a minimal amount of session players brought in for Central. The musicianship, from the steady drumming of Ernest Berger throughout and the tasteful Spanish guitar on “Star” by Eric Johns, to the spry, thumb-popping bass of Mario Mantese on “Send Out For Sunshine,” and Temperton’s jazzy piano solo in the middle of “Groove Line,” makes this period music hold up so well to the present day.
The vocals, led by brothers Keith and the late Johnnie Wilder, were well above the pack, too. Keith’s harder-edged vocal was perfectly complimented by Johnnie’s velvet-smooth croon. In the studio, they often added layers upon layers of choral vocals that rivaled in richness to contemporaries Earth Wind and Fire; the harmonies just seem to cascade from everywhere on “Put The Word Out” and evoke the O’Jay’s on softer tunes like “Mind Blowing Decisions.”
All of that probably wouldn’t matter that much if the material wasn’t that good, and that’s why Rod Temperton was so key. There’s the requisite good time boogies like “Put The Word Out,” “Send Out For Sunshine,” “Party Poops” and the hokie but fun “Central Heating.” That song Iyer conjured up, “Star of the Story” was marred a bit by bad mixing on the vocals, but as Iyer made me realize, the lonesome melody is up to par with Temperton’s best ballads. Another ballad, the album closer “Leavin’ for A Dream” had potential but maybe coated with a little too much saccharine. Other than that, the English hit-writing machine (he later went on to pen Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” for example) was on his game.
Johnnie Wilder brought forth a couple of songs, too, both of which are credible examples of the Philly soul style pioneered by Thom Bell and Gamble & Huff. “Happiness Togetherness” sounds like a song from The Stylistics’ first album, and deserves to be the next song on this record covered by a jazz musician. “Mind Blowing Decisions” is also another throwback to the smooth, innocent-sounding romantic soul songs of the earlier part of the 70s.
Looking back after all this time passed, the high point of the album remains its hit song, “Groove Line.” It represented the apex of disco and the genre only went downhill from here. It’s kicked off by a chugging rhythm guitar that alone beckons you to the dance floor. Along with the hand-clapping rhythm, a killer chord progression, strategically placed horn blasts and Keith’s hard-charging lead vocal swapping with Johnnie’s smooth backing chorus, it’s the perfectly crafted dance tune. If this doesn’t put you in a good mood, may God bless your sedated soul.
Reassessing a record where the guys dressed funny, used funny sounding synthesizers and hollered “woo! woo!” might normally make me cringe and wonder what the hell I ever liked about the music. Not this time. Central Heating is a lost classic of the disco era.
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