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45 at 45: The 137 disco heaven of Amii Stewart’s Knock On Wood

“I’ve never bought a disco record in my life,” Amii Stewart told Paul Sexton in a 1985 interview for Record Mirror. “And I don’t want to buy one. When I go home and close that door I don’t want my brains to be blown out. I go home and listen to Donald Fagen, Nik Kershaw, Phil Collins…”

Not being particularly fond of the same MOR blandness as Stewart, in the corporate Thatcher’s Britain of ’85 I wanted to buy disco records. In fact, in the middle of that year I bought two. My first two, in fact. And it was more than a coincidence that they were both on twelve-inch, both reissues and both double A-side pairings of previous hits. 

Apropos of nothing except being of a rather more limited taste in music in my early teens (anything other than white male-led British bands that had a penchant for slapping on the Boots No. 7 barely got a look in), both 12″ 45s just happened to be the first slabs of music I wanted to own by black artists. They were Prince’s 1999 c/w Little Red Corvette, and, coincidentally, the newly remixed Knock On Wood and Light My Fire by one Amii Stewart. Four corkers for the price of two then.

Sentimentalism may play a (albeit small) part but three decades later both are still among my most favouritist singles ever, and Knock On Wood happened to be another first for me: the first record I bought by a solo female (the only other female-sung records I’d bought at that point being by Eurythmics and only Eurythmics). Fancy.

A gutsy, powerhouse vocalist with a four-octave range, Amii Stewart’s considered a “one hit wonder” in her homeland, but achieved considerably more success in the UK before moving to Italy in the early ‘80s. An actress, great beauty and fabulous dancer, equally adept at belters and ballads, her recordings have been produced by such diverse talents as Italiano supremos Giorgio Moroder and Ennio Morricone.

Amii was born Amy Paulette Stewart in Washington DC, on January 29, 1956, the fifth of six children. Stewart is the stepsister of actress-singer Miquel Brown and aunt to Brown’s So Macho singer daughter Sinitta. Stewart’s father, who worked at the Pentagon and was forbidden from discussing his top secret work with his family, taught Amii to play music.

At Amii she took dance lessons, but her guidance counsellors in junior high school tried to steer her away from a show business career. Her high school principal came to the rescue – he happened to be her uncle – and arranged her class schedule so she could study dance in the afternoons.

There already was an Amy Stewart registered with Actor’s Equity, so she modified the spelling of her first name. She attended Howard University in Washington, but left to work with the D.C. Repertory Dance Company, studying ballet and modern dance. In 1975, she joined the touring company of Bubbling Brown Sugar in Florida, then joined the show on Broadway. A twist of fate brought her to London where she not only appeared in the show, but was also assistant director.

While living in the capital, Amii met Brit record producer Barry Leng. She was suffering from a cold when she auditioned for him, but he liked her singing anyway and produced Knock on Wood for her. Eddie Floyd’s original soul-drenched recording, released on Memphis-based Stax Records in 1966, was famously written with Steve Cropper during an electrical storm at the Tennessee city’s Lorraine Motel, hence the lyrics “It’s like thunder and lightning, The way you love me is frightening.”

Two years later the motel was the site of the ungodly assassination of civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr.

While the sixties soul original only went to No. 19 in the UK (and 28 in the States), a rather ragged in concert cover was a surprise hit several years later, taped at the Tower Theatre in Philadelphia during David Bowie’s cocaine-addled Diamond Dogs tour of ‘74,

The recording opens with the Thin White Dame telling the audience (who presumably know this by now) “we’re going to play a selection tonight … some silly ones.” Produced by Tony Visconti, heavy guitar chords would seem to herald a number from, perhaps, The Man Who Sold The World, but then it lurches into a cabaret-cum-Elton John style number with a groove as subtle as an air brick.

The sniffly one immediately launches into his rendition of Knock On Wood, likely intended to kick off a short ‘soul’ section of the show but which flops around like a fish on a boat dock that even Bowie’s rum chum Mick Jagger made fun of how “lame” a version it was in the press.

Inexplicably issued as a single to promote Bowie’s first concert album, David Live, the 45 made No. 10 in Britain. And, goodness gracious, I think you it may not her such a band thing the first few seconds of this Top Of The Pops airing has been removed, dead perv intro and all. Now then, now then.

But, alas, these were mere support acts for the main event. Amii Stewart’s euphoric high class disco revamp turned a soul standard into a glittering, gleaming rocket ship, entering the Billboard Hot 100 on January 27, 1979, and went to number one 12 weeks later. In the UK, Knock On Wood hammered its way up the charts, peaking at No. 6 in mid May.

Bursting lightning, it did even better in Australia, going all the way to No. 2.

Stewart’s follow-up, a supersonic medley of The Doors‘ Light My Fire and 137 Disco Heaven, stalled at a less than tasty 69, but was a huge top five hit in Britain. Sensual and sassy simultaneously, the remake helped slow-start the Doors revival as it raced off into a 134bpm adaptation that pulls out all stops to pile on poppers-rush surface excitement, and even better if you can access the fully unexpurgated 12″ mix; at a whopping eight minutes and 21 seconds it’s really worth hearing.

Perhaps less alluring, in 1980, Amii recorded a duet with Johnny Bristol (producer of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s Ain’t No Mountain High Enough) that melded together two contradictory gender Motown classics; Mary Wells’ My Guy and the Temptations’ My Girl. The single peaked at 63 in the US and 39 in the UK.

Strangely, Stewart re-recorded the pairing with George Michael’s ace bassist Deon Estus, which also reached No. 63, but this time in Britain.

Amii’s other notable chart success was Friends, which went to number 12 in Blighty in early 1985, and which prompted her old label to rejig her most celebrated hit. “Friends is total different from anything I’ve ever done, thank God,” the reluctant disco diva told Record Mirror.

“You can’t spend your life singing songs like Knock On Wood. There’s more melody now, you can dance as well as sit down…. The disco era was a very good era for me, but it just wasn’t geared for melody.”

Proving you can’t keep a good banger down, the stunning dancefloor update of Knock On Wood managed a similar trajectory to the original, climbing to No.7 the third week of September ’85, the very same semaine I became a student of Bletchley Park college, right next door to the now feted Codebreakers centre.

Sitting not so pretty at the top of the singles chart that week was, hilariously, David Bowie and Mick Jagger‘s Live Aid charity campathon, with that cover of another Motown classic, Dancing In The Street.

Altogether now, OK, Tokyo…

Steve Pafford

Alive in ’85

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