12 records crafted by disco architect Randy Muller of Brass Construction
This is the story of how an eighteen-year-old influenced the sound of an era.
by Andrew Mason
This is the story of how an eighteen-year-old influenced the sound of an era. It is the story of how one man’s musical craftsmanship artfully bridged the rough funk of the ’70s and the polished dance-floor grooves of the ’80s. It is the story of Brass Construction’s Randy Muller, a Guyanese-born, Brooklyn-bred intellectual with three college degrees who lives and breathes music.
Randy Muller is a true unsung hero and behind-the-scenes master of the disco era. His compositions have powered a string of anthems, and his trendsetting arrangements continue to be emulated. An incredible talent, he is a fluent flautist and keyboard player as well as a percussionist, and has contributed vocals to numerous recordings.
Born in Guyana, the tiny nation on the southern fringe of the Caribbean whose people represent a wonderful confluence of ethnicities, he was eight when he moved to Brooklyn to live with his grandmother in 1964. There, in the neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant, he found a place he describes as magical. “The first night I arrived, I couldn’t sleep, I was so excited. In those days in Bed-Stuy, guys walked around the streets singing doo-wop. Listening to three-, four-part harmony outside my window, it was just like the movies.”
Possessing a tremendous intellect and a near-photographic memory, he excelled in school but found himself irresistibly drawn to the vibrant local music scene. “Every West Indian mother’s dream is for their kid to be a doctor or scientist, and for me that meant going to Brooklyn Tech. But all my friends were going to Jefferson High School, which is where the music scene was. I had to lie and tell my grandmother that I wasn’t accepted at Tech just so I could get over to Jefferson where the action was!” Here at the famed Brooklyn institute that counted global stars Danny Kaye, Hal David, and Peter Nero as alumni, Muller devoured musical theory with the encouragement of his teachers, who often fed his voracious appetite with extracurricular musical assignments.
Since junior high, Muller had been gigging on the local West Indian dance scene with a group of older men in a group called the Panharmonics. Muller remembers them as being somewhat unusual, because they not only had the traditional steel-drum setup, but members also doubled on instruments like the electric bass and, in Muller’s case, flute, enabling them to play hip versions of popular tunes of the day. At many of the gigs, the Panharmonics would be paired with a horn-led band, and it was then that Muller first became fascinated with the power of good brass arrangements, an obsession he would develop into a formidable expertise. “I used to stand there and fantasize about having a band like that,” he recalls, and it wasn’t long before he did.
At Jefferson he was also playing with a group of friends in an outfit called the Dynamic Souls who had originally assembled after school, let into their junior high building to practice after hours by a sympathetic custodian. Relationships with many of Muller’s future collaborators were solidified at this time, and the group of schoolmates began formulating the sound that would comprise Brass Construction. “The original members were Larry Payton and Wade Williamson [drums and bass], and I played piano.” Muller was a fan of Mongo Santamaria’s big, brassy, soulful charts, and tried to emulate those arrangements with his band.
His obvious talent caught the eye of more than a few, including the organizers of the state Miss Black America Pageant, and the young man was hired as the music director for the show. “It was great training, since I would have to come up with arrangements on the spot when girls would say they wanted to sing this or that show tune,” he remembers.
Around this time Muller was scouted by none other than Detroit powerhouse Motown. “A lot of people don’t know that Brass Construction had an affiliation with Motown,” he reveals. “They wanted to sign us to the Rare Earth label; we actually auditioned with some Motown songs.” Muller eventually decided against the opportunity. “I even had the contract signed but just never sent it back. They wanted us to change up our sound, they had someone who was going to be the front guy; it was just becoming something totally different.”
As Muller’s reputation in Brooklyn grew, the long-distance relationship with Detroit probably didn’t seem as appealing as the things percolating in his own backyard. “I had started working with Jeff Lane, who was much older than me, a sort of Don King–like music impresario.” Muller became Lane’s go-to guy, doing a wide variety of arrangements for him, one of the earliest for singer Nat Kennedy’s “What’s Happening Brother.” A gospel tune with an R&B flavor, Muller remembers it as “kinda corny stuff, but it was helping me get my chops together.”
The first Brass Construction recording came on Lane’s Docc label, so named after a prominent Black doctor, Coolidge Abel-Bey, who bankrolled the operation. “Two-Timin’ Lady,” backed by the frantic “Take It Easy,” was released in 1972. While shopping for a major-label deal with the single, Lane called Muller in to do arrangements for a band that had gone through a few name changes, but was by then known as Brooklyn Trucking Express. For a tough funk band like B.T., as the moniker was abbreviated, strings were unusual, if not unheard of. To make their horn and guitar–led tunes stand out, Lane wanted a different feel and called in his boy genius to write string parts for a few songs. “Before then, I had never really done string parts, but Jeff, not being a musician, thought since I could do horn charts, strings would be no problem. I remember him saying, ‘By tomorrow I want a violin section there!’” Muller shakes his head, laughing. “The parts for ‘Express’ I did in fifteen minutes because Jeff was outside my grandmother’s house in his car waiting for me, beeping the horn while I was furiously writing!” The string motifs the teenager came up with, self-described as “so simple,” got worldwide exposure when the album and “Express” in particular became smash hits. Even James Brown took notice and came up with one of his funkiest tunes in reply (“JB’s Monorail”).
The B.T. Express record was the first time this style of string arrangement was used, a texture that later became de rigueur for “disco,” as the new trend of dance music was being called. As a pioneering example of this global phenomenon, it was only natural that others would pick up on it. Listen to Silver Convention’s “Fly Robin Fly,” and the similarities are striking. “A lot of that fall-off stuff on the strings,” Muller describes the sound, “comes from me as a horn guy basically writing horn parts for strings because I didn’t know any better.” His arrangements fused the horns and the strings but still kept the track lean and funky, not overdone. “It’s about prudence,” Muller explains. “It doesn’t get in the way, and it’s supportive. It brings the track to another level, and that, to me, is what good arranging is.”
With Muller’s star on the rise, he continued to devote himself to broadening his knowledge in music as well as other areas, getting a degree in arranging and social science. His insatiable hunger for musical knowledge and his professional dedication to seeing projects through made him a highly sought-after component of the thriving New York City club music scene, though by his own admission he was a studio fiend, only occasionally venturing into nightclubs themselves. “I knew Larry Levan,” he says of the legendary DJ. “We used to go down to the Paradise Garage and bring our latest acetates to test out. Larry would listen to the track and say something like, ‘Okay, this is three o’clock.’” Muller would be obliged to hang out in Levan’s spacious booth until the temperamental jock was ready to play the song, and he would watch the crowd’s reaction. “We made changes based on that, bringing a part up or down in the mix, say.”
Below is a personal selection of a few of Muller’s classic productions, running the gamut from his early work with Brass Construction and some classic late-’70s rarities, to his essential work with Skyy and Salsoul, up to an overlooked ’90s rarity. Muller contributes comments on each phase of his development.
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