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Singer recalls what led to ‘Funky Music’

August 5, 2013
By MARK LAW - Staff writer (mlaw@heraldstaronline.com.) , The Herald-Star

MINGO JUNCTION - Rob Parissi saw that disco was hurting the gigs his rock band was getting, so he turned to something funky.

Parissi, who formed Wild Cherry and wrote "Play That Funky Music," will be honored Sunday at a banquet during the Mingo Junction Community Days.

Parissi graduated from Mingo High School in 1968, and formed the band Wild Cherry about two years later.

Article Photos

TO BE HONORED — Mingo High School graduate Rob Parissi, who formed Wild Cherry and wrote “Play That Funky Music,” will be honored Sunday at a banquet during the Mingo Junction Community Days. - Contributed

The band played rock clubs around the area and in Pittsburgh. Parissi said they played at about 30 clubs, playing one a day for a month. Wild Cherry continued for about four years before the rest of the band went on to join other groups.

Parissi went into food restaurant management. "I got tired of that quickly," he said

He was selling some of the band's equipment in Pittsburgh when he met several good musicians who decided to reform Wild Cherry.

At the time, disco was coming on strong and the number of gigs at rock clubs began to dwindle.

All the girls were going to the disco dance clubs, he said. The boys followed and the rock clubs were left empty.

"The rock club crowds were not as good because of all the disco action," he said.

That forced Wild Cherry to play dance rock at disco clubs.

Things began to change when the band played a venue called the 2001 Club on the North Side of Pittsburgh.

"They used to put 2,000 people in there," Parissi remembered.

He said a group of black guys who hung around the stage, kept asking the band, "When are you white boys going to play some funky music?"

A seed was planted.

Meanwhile, it continued to get harder to book the band at rock clubs. Parissi said he had a "come to Jesus meeting" with the band members saying they had to change their song list to more disco music.

"The guys hated doing that disco stuff," Parissi explained.

The band's drummer finally relented and said the band was going to have to play that funky music.

Parissi walked out of the dressing room and wrote the first two lyrics of his famous song on a bar pad that he had borrowed before the band took the stage. He wrote the rest in his car on the way home.

Parissi said he kept thinking of the music to go with the words. When he heard a Commodores song with a drum beat he liked and the music for the song "Play That Funky Music" flowed.

The band played three nights later at a club on the Bethany Pike. He said the club was packed and the band performed "Play That Funky Music." He said the people there got up and headed to the dance floor. "That is the first thing I ever wrote that packed the floor."

Two nights later the band was playing near Pittsburgh in Swissvale when girls there asked if they were the band that plays the song about the funky music and white boys.

"I still didn't realize what we had at that point," Parissi said.

The song was recorded at a studio in Cleveland and a drummer from the James Gang, a Cleveland band formed a couple of years earlier, came in and heard the song. The drummer said his band needed a hit and was willing to buy the song.

"I thought 'If he thinks it is a hit, I'm going to take it myself,'" Parissi said.

Parissi said there was some interest in the recording.

He returned to the Upper Ohio Valley and playing around the region and put the master tape of "Play That Funky Music" up on a shelf in his closet.

Work for Wild Cherry really picked up as fans began wanting to hear the song.

Parissi said CBS Records contacted him about releasing the song as a single. The single became an instant hit and the record company put pressure on Parissi to finish the album.

"Play That Funky Music" peaked at No. 1 on both the Billboard R&B and pop charts in 1976, while the single and Wild Cherry's self-titled debut obtained platinum certification. Wild Cherry was named Best Pop Group of the Year by Billboard, receiving an American Music Award for Top R&B Single of the Year, and even earning a pair of Grammy nominations for Best New Vocal Group and Best R&B Performance by a Group or Duo.

Parissi remembers being interviewed numerous times by Casey Kasem on his radio show, "American Top 40."

"I was interviewed by him so many times I ran out of things to say," he said.

At the time, Parissi said "Play That Funky Music" hadn't even hit the West Coast.

The song ended up being the 73rd on Billboard's Greatest Hits of All Time.

Parissi said "Play That Funky Music" has been used in at least 30 TV shows and movies. It was even used in an commercial for Intel's Pentium chip in 1996 and in a Duracel battery commercial.

The song which Parissi said was recorded for $780 has made him a multimillionaire. The whole album cost only $14,000.

Parissi said the track was recorded on its second take.

"We did it on the first take but we wanted to make sure," he said.

A horn section was added later.

Parissi, 62, said he is "humbled" that he will be honored during the Mingo Community Days.

McLister Avenue will be honorarily named Rob Parissi Boulevard as part of the celebration.

"When I was growing up, I thought I had a better chance getting my name on the post office wall than getting my name on a street. It is an emotional thing for me. I'm the kind of person that doesn't take things for granted. I have never forgotten where I came from."

He said his family never had it easy and had to work for everything. He left Mingo Junction and moved to Steubenville when the song was recorded. He moved from Steubenville to Cleveland and then to Miami in 1978. He lived in New York City for a couple of years and then came home to Mingo Junction in 1981, and remained there until 1996.

He became a snowbird, living part of the year in the Tampa Bay area and the rest in Mingo Junction. In 2000, he permanently moved to Tampa Bay and now owns two houses in the area.

He still has a recording studio in one of his homes and has a smooth jazz song, "Right Beside You" currently on the adult contemporary chart.

 
 

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