Mythical remix by disco legend Walter Gibbons finally sees light of day
by Al Kent
In a 1979 issue of Billboard magazine, Montreal was described as “the second most important disco market on the continent outside New York,” while one city resident at the time was quoted as saying “Every night in Montreal is like New Year’s Eve in New York.”
And thank God for Canada. Without that love of disco one of the greatest records of the era may never have seen the light of day.
In his “Disco Mix” column, from another 1979 issue of Billboard, Barry Lederer told us to watch out for two albums: Dancing With Melba and Dancing With Gladys. The former, a set of Melba Moore tracks remixed by Firehouse and Flamingo DJ Richie Rivera was released soon after. The latter—what is widely believed to have been a companion album featuring remixes of Gladys Knight tracks by another DJ, Walter Gibbons—never saw the light of day.
Walter Gibbons was a maverick music lover from Queens in New York who’d built a reputation not only as a formidable DJ but as a progressive, bold remixer, having been responsible for a number of pioneering remixes in the preceding years. He was held in high esteem by his peers, who would congregate to hear him play after hours at Galaxy 21 where he was the resident DJ for a period in the mid-1970s. And no one was a bigger fan of Gladys Knight than Walter.
Whether the project’s disappearance was due to an ongoing lawsuit between Gladys Knight and Buddah Records, or whether Walter simply didn’t complete the work, we’ll never know. DJs, and particularly Walter, were notorious for impulsive decisions, so abandoning a project half way through wasn’t unusual. Buddah was, allegedly, notoriously frugal when it came to handing out money, so it’s also possible that Walter didn’t complete the project for financial reasons. On the other hand, Gladys Knight and her label were locked in a legal battle after she signed to CBS while still under contract to Buddah. The case started in 1978 and she didn’t release on CBS until 1980 so it’s clear there was a period of inactivity for the artist.
What we do know is that Walter had recently returned to New York from a stereotypically impulsive couple of years in Seattle. He was ecstatic when he was invited by Art Kass, president of Buddah Records (or vice President Alan Lott, with Kass’s approval), to be involved in a project remixing one of his idols. I guess we’ll never know which songs were commissioned, or even completed. Two remixes were delivered, “Saved By the Grace of Your Love” and the sublime “It’s a Better Than Good Time.”
Originally an album-only track from The One and Only, “It’s a Better Than Good Time” was released as a single in 1978 by Buddah following glowing reviews in the disco press and popularity with DJs. Around this time Walter had become very religious, famously refusing to play, or work on, any music he felt didn’t contain the right message to reflect his beliefs. Thankfully for us, the positive uplifting theme of love in “It’s a Better Than Good Time” was deemed acceptable to Walter who turned in what many would agree is the greatest piece of work of his career.
Walter deconstructed the original six minute track, stretched it out to just over twelve and, in a moment of pure genius, teased with a full three and a half minutes free of bass guitar before introducing it in the second chorus. The key is not the introduction of the bass itself but the time it takes for that introduction. The unsuspecting listener (and dancer) is suddenly presented with a full sonic range, having been unaware of anything having been missing. And the effect of such a simple sounding trick is remarkable. Walter used the same technique in a few of his remixes, most notably on Love Committee’s “Law and Order,” but the effect was rarely as stunning as it is on this mix. The second half of the song is a music lover’s delight and a DJ’s dream. There’s light and shade, calm and intensity, all arranged to sheer perfection by an artist at the top of his game. Each section seems to be better than the last, with dramatic changes in feel that always seem to make perfect sense. It’s a relentless mix, but a mix that never becomes boring or tiresome.
Bob Blank, who engineered the remix for Walter at Blank Tapes (Studio A), recalls the session well. Surprisingly, what sounds like the result of a series of long, drawn out, through the night sessions was actually completed in one afternoon. Buddha was a new client for Blank Tapes and were a little reticent to provide a lot of time for the mix. It’s testament to Walter’s creative skill that such an accomplished mix could be produced in such a short space of time. While other DJs had a habit of sitting back and letting the engineers do the work, Walter was very hands on and was a master at cutting tape. Several passes were recorded to two-track which Walter then spent two hours editing together to create the final mix.
Denise Chatman, who worked at Salsoul and was a close friend of Walter, vividly remembers his joy at completing the “Better Than Good Time” mix. They listened to it over and over, with Walter too excited to even eat the dinner Denise had prepared for him. A surprise visit from WBLS radio DJ Frankie Crocker and esteemed club DJ David Rodriguez confirmed Walter’s accomplishment. “You’ve done it this time Mary” said Rodriguez (who called everyone Mary).
Despite the unequivocal brilliance of Walter’s work, Buddah never got round to completing the album, or releasing Walter’s mix in any form. Except in Canada.
Disco collectors know only too well that records like Candido’s “Thousand Finger Man” or Walter Gibbons’ Fist O’ Funk remix only ever appeared on Canadian twelve-inches. A handful of Canadian record companies had rights to release U.S. material for the Canadian market. In the case of Buddah, the company in question was Quality Records, a label that had been in existence for some thirty years, and had recently moved into the disco market. Rumor has it that U.S. Buddah sent the wrong tapes north, that Quality originally planned to release the regular twelve-inch version of “It’s a Better Than Good Time.” Whether or not that is true is now anyone’s guess, but mistake or not, Quality Records gifted the world with what has become one of the most sought after disco records in existence.
But there was a catch. Walter’s love of long, drawn out mixes didn’t chime with the label’s execs, who decided six minutes was enough and chopped out a large chunk of the track. Not only that though, whoever was responsible for the edit clearly didn’t have Walter’s knack for cutting tape. The cut was crude to say the least, resulting in one of the most brutal edits ever released on a record!
Walter wasn’t happy. Like any artist he hated his work being tampered with. He was a tenacious remixer and had been fortunate to have the likes of Salsoul’s Ken Cayre, as well as the majority of New York’s DJs, behind him when he turned in previous unconventional remixes. He knew what he was doing a lot more than any executive did, and proved it time and again with records that always hit the spot despite often rubbing the original artists the wrong way. Two sources used the word “pissed” to describe Walter’s reaction to the edited version. Spelling his name wrong on the label (“Gibbens”) was probably just adding insult to injury.
For years, the only way to hear Walter’s full mix has been from a handful of acetates that have survived for almost forty years. Walter was a regular customer at Frank Trimarco’s Sunshine Sound: a cutting facility Frank had set up to service the many record companies that shared his Broadway address. In more recent times he’d happened upon a lucrative, if dubious, sideline: cutting custom acetates for the city’s DJs. Creating unique edits had become fashionable, and pressing them on acetate, whether for personal use or to be sold under the counter at Frank’s office or the odd record shop like NY’s Downstairs, had become something of a status symbol. Walter had once owned his own cutting lathe, pressing custom discs on his Melting Pot label, but a fall-out with his then partner led him to Sunshine Sound, where he cut many special edits for his DJ sets.
Walter cut a handful of acetates of Better Than Good Time for himself and a select few DJs. With or without Walter’s blessing, it seems Frank Trimarco also pressed a few copies to sell. There are two separate releases – one with a Sunshine Sounds label, one with a simple hand typed white label. One DJ, who received a signed copy from Walter, received the Sunshine Sound labelled copy, which would lead us to believe that this was Walter’s batch, whereas the white label was Frank’s batch. Sunshine Sound printed lists of what they had for sale, but it seems that this track never made it to a list, with one customer recalling how he only bought a copy after hearing it in the Sunshine Sound office, leading us to assume that Frank Trimarco was selling copies behind Walter’s back (a position he was notorious for). It’s hard to say how many of these acetates left the Sunshine Sound office. By 1979, possibly due to Frank’s unscrupulous ways, Sunshine Sound had started to go off the boil a bit with the higher echelon of NY DJs. Add the fact that Walter’s mix wasn’t advertised for sale and it’s safe to assume that not many copies exist.
The vast majority of Sunshine Sounds acetates were cut in mono, with a stereo option doubling the price of a cut. It may seem odd that Walter would cut such an estimable piece of work in mono rather than stereo, but, despite a rumor (only a rumor!) of a stereo acetate surfacing in recent times, the few known acetates that have survived have all been mono.
Fast forward to 2013 when a tape search at Sony uncovered something that most disco fans could only dream of. Much like Buddah in Canada, nobody at Sony was any the wiser to what this 12-minute version of “It’s a Better Than Good Time” actually was. The error on the Canadian release can at least be traced to these tapes as Walter’s name is spelled Gibbens on the box. But nobody was aware of the importance of the contents of that box. Thankfully, through various conversations, it was eventually ascertained that this was indeed Walter’s legendary lost masterpiece. I still live in hope that somewhere amongst those tapes resides the rest of the mythical Dancing with Gladys album (though Bob Blank doesn’t know of any other sessions). For now I’m simply overjoyed that we can finally enjoy this impeccable piece of work as Walter intended.
Walter Gibbons’ full twelve minute masterpiece is available as part of The Men in the Glass Booth released on BBE Records.
With special thanks to Denise Chatman, Bob Blank, Tom Moulton, Donald Cleveland, Tony Smith, Jay Negron, Robert Ouimet, Joan De Chirico-Ganpat, and Andrea Fiume.
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