Van McCoy with the Soul City Symphony
an McCoy was a talented writer, producer and arranger, well known and respected in the music industry long before the public became aware of him through his number one hit, "The Hustle." His death at age 35 shocked and saddened his many friends in the record business who knew he had much more to contribute to the music world.
McCoy didn't realize he had composed an international best-seller when he recorded "The Hustle" as one of the tracks on his album Disco Baby. "The album was specifically geared toward the discotheques because of the major role they play in getting a lot of new products started," McCoy told Vernon Gibbs in Essence magazine. "'The Hustle' was the last cut we did on the album, and we almost didn't do it. I was introduced to the hustle by a disc jockey (David Todd) at a New York City nightclub called the Adam's Apple. He'd been after me for a while to come and check out this new dance, but I just never had the chance so I sent one of my friends.
"When he came back, he showed me this very strange dance. It was something completely different from the you-do-your-thing-and-I-do-mine dances; it was people dancing together again. The hustle reminded me of ballroom dancing, and I love graceful dancing.
"The Hustle" was McCoy's only single to make the Top 40. Two years later, he was tired of being typecast as a disco artist. "Disco has played an important role in the development of my career," he stressed in a Billboard interview. "But I am seeking greater versatility. I do not want to be forever locked into the image of the 'disco kid'; I no longer want to be packaged and marketed as a specific product. Rather, I would prefer the opportunity to evolve into the kind of entertainer I believe I am."
Van McCoy was born January 6, 1944, in Washington, D.C. His mother arranged piano lessons for him when he was four. He formed a duo with his older brother Norman, who played the violin. By the time he was 12, Van was writing songs. He gave up music as a teenager, mostly because his friends teased him about playing the piano, and didn't take it up again until he was a psychology major at Howard University.
While attending college, he sang with a local group called the Starlighters. Then he joined the Heartbeats and recorded for Gone/End Records. He moved to Philadelphia and, with an uncle, started a record label, Rockin' Records. He released his own song, "Hey Mr. DJ," which was picked up by Scepter Records. The label hired Van as an A&R man and he wrote "Stop the Music" for the Shirelles. In 1962 he went to work for producers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller as a staff writer, and during the '60s wrote many pop hits, including "Giving Up" for Gladys Knight and the Pips, "Baby, I'm Yours" for Barbara Lewis and "When You're Young and In Love" for Ruby and the Romantics.
He started a production company and recorded his own album for Columbia Records. He continued to write songs for people like Aretha Franklin, Brenda and the Tabulations, Nancy Wilson and Tom Jones., and in 1970 wrote and produced a number 11 hit for the Presidents. "5-10-15-20 (25-30 Years of Love)." A year later he started to work with the Stylistics ("You Are Everything," "Betcha By Golly, Wow"), an association that teamed him up with producers Hugo and Luigi at Avco Records.
After his success with "The Hustle," a Grammy winner for Best Pop Instrumental, McCoy and partner Charles Kipps worked with David Ruffin ("Walk Away from Love") at Motown. Despite all his pop hits, McCoy's true love was classical music. "I like Beethoven, Wagner, Rachmaninoff, Dvorak and Tchaikowsky as much as I like Thom Bell and Gamble and Huff," he said in Essence.
He did compose soundtrack music for Mae West's Sextette and an NBC television movie, A Woman Called Moses. On July 6, 1979, McCoy died of a heart attack in Englewood, New Jersey, exactly six months before his 35th birthday.
- Fred Bronson, The Billboard Book of Number One Hits, Billboard, 1988.
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