“Play That Funky Music” by Wild Cherry
Without beating around the bush, let’s just say that Wild Cherry’s “Play That Funky Music” sounds like it is performed by African-Americans. Or at least one may well get the impression considering that a straight-up “White boy” is being told to “play that funky music”.
In real life, you’d rarely hear a White person refer to himself as a “White boy”.
But such is not the case. In fact Wild Cherry is a group, a rock band in origin, consisting solely of White boys.
Meanwhile, as you probably already know, rock music wasn’t where it was at during the 1970s. That was the decade in which disco rather dominated. So Wild Cherry, being an underground act at the time, were sort of faced with an evolve-or-die type of scenario.
The type of crowds they were performing for, which apparently consisted of an ample amount of Black people, didn’t want to hear no Kiss or Led Zeppelin covers. In fact with this being African-Americans, many of whom aren’t afraid to express their feelings, as the story goes one of these audience members cried out one night during a performance “play some funky music, White boy”.
In fact Rob Parissi recounted that said audience members actually approached Ron Beitle, Wild Cherry’s drummer, directly and demanded “you better play that funky music, White boy”, thus giving the whole tale a true African-American effect.
But either way, it was a phrase with Rob cleaved onto and ended up penning a hit dance song based on.
And in fact Wild Cherry keeps it real by actually featuring the aforementioned narrative in the lyrics.
The first verse centers on the vocalist enjoying a career as “a boogie singer playing in a rock and roll band”. But then ‘everything around him starts to feel low’, which is basically another way of saying that crowds were no longer feeling him.
So he adopts “disco” into his routine, and now everyone is enjoying “the groove”. Indeed the audience gets so enraptured that one of its members turns around and exclaims “play that funky music, White boy”. Or that’s one way of looking at it.
Another is that the audience, even though feeling the artist to some extent, wasn’t completely satisfied, which caused them to express such a sentiment.
Indeed that latter theory is more plausible, despite the first verse reading otherwise. For in the second verse the singer is able to realize that, based on the aforementioned admonishment, he is not actually satisfying the audience.
So he determines to reinvent himself. Or it can be said that he doesn’t let the fact that he may not be funky enough scare him away from such people. Rather he decides to upgrade his music and perform in front of them once again.
And by the third verse it is revealed that he does in fact succeed at his goal of moving the crowd. Now he lets it be known that it “wasn’t easy” for him to transition from one genre into another.
But at the end of the day he’s glad that he accepted the challenge, as it has made him a more versatile musician.
Wrapping it all up…
So oddly enough the lyrics of this hit dance song, like most others that fall into this category, aren’t actually about dancing.
Rather they tell the tale of a more or less traditional White musician trying to appease a “funk”, i.e. African-American dominated audience.
And conclusively, considering that Billboard named this one of the top Hot 100 hits of all time, he definitely achieved said goal, and then some.
Wild Cherry was a 1970s’ rock band formed in a part of Ohio known as Mingo Junction. The founder and frontman of the crew, Rob Parissi, is also the writer and producer of this song.
Wild Cherry lasted for about a decade and are what is commonly referred to in the world of entertainment as a one-hit wonder. What that means in this case for instance is that they only dropped one track which really made noise on the Billboard charts.
And that one hit was in fact “Play That Funky Music”, but boy, what a monumental hit it was, in that it actually topped the Hot 100.
Moreover it scored a number one on Billboard’s R&B chart. This feat was such a monumental accomplishment for a virtually-unknown group of White musicians. And this is considering that R&B tends to be an African-American dominated genre.
Also in regards of the Hot 100, in 2018 Billboard placed this track on its ranking of “The Hot 100’s All-Time Top 100 Songs”.
Concerning the name of this band, it was actually inspired by a flavor of cough drops.
When was “Play That Funky Music” released?
“Play That Funky Music” is from the band’s first album, which is also entitled “Wild Cherry” (1976). It was actually issued as a single from the album in April of 1976.
Besides this song said album did not produce any other hits whatsoever, meaning that this track was pretty much solely responsible for the project going platinum.
The song itself also achieved platinum certification in the United States. In fact by more-modern standards it would actually be double-platinum, considering that it has sold over two million physical copies.
When this song was released the membership of Wild Cherry consisted of the following:
- frontman Robert Parissi
- guitarist Bryan Bassett
- bassist Allen Wentz
- drummer Ronald Beitle (1954-2017)
Even More Achievements
“Play That Funky Music” also scored a number one on the US Cash Box and Record World charts and peaked at number seven on the UK Singles Chart. Additionally it charted in a handful of other countries, such as Australia and Canada.
Moreover this track earned Wild Cherry a 1977 American Music Award in the category of Top R&B Single of the Year. This was an award/distinction it shared with Lou Rawls’ “You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine”.
Furthermore the song as well as the band were respectively nominated for Grammy awards but did not take home any.
The Vanilla Ice Cover/Interpolation
This song, which originally came out in 1976 via Epic Records,earned Rob Parissi another sizeable payday in 1990. This happened when it was covered by Vanilla Ice, who also achieved notable success with his version of “Play That Funky Music“, as it was the follow-up single to his mega-hit, “Ice Ice Baby” (1990).
Well technically what Vanilla Ice did wasn’t a cover but more like an interpolation. And yes, Parissi did score a half-a-million dollar settlement as a result. But that was only after he sued Vanilla Ice, who didn’t credit Rob for using his song in the first place.
Notable Usage of “Play That Funky Music”
And of course a hit of this magnitude is going to enjoy a lasting pop media presence. And it has in fact been featured on major television shows such as the likes of:
- “The Office” (2007)
- “The Big Bang Theory” (2015)
Furthermore, it has also appeared in major motion pictures like “Mystery Men” (1999) and “Undercover Brother” (2002).
Song’s Writer (Rob Parissi)
Although Rob Parissi got lucky this track, as alluded to earlier he wasn’t necessarily what one would refer to as a hit songwriter.
But this was obviously something he was aware of, as he had the habit of altering other artists’ song just enough to pass them off as his own. And in this case the tune it is said he “copied” from is “Fire” (1974), another hit 1970s’ tune though by the Ohio Players.