It began nearly 40 years ago with an LP mailed to New York by mistake. On the cover, a skinny guy wearing a deadpan expression, moustache, moptop, and black bathrobe sits near piles of clothing and a woman, limbs strategically placed, wearing nothing. A bit shocking for the day, and not easily tossed aside: Who is that weird guy, and what kind of music would such a guy create?
His name is Cerrone, the record „Love in C Minor“. The record, like its creator, stepped — practically bounded — outside the lines of convention: For one, it’s 16 minutes long; for another, it’s an unorthodox mixture, Cerrone on drums in the foreground laid atop melodious orchestral sounds, a soulful chorus, and, and how’s this for unconvential, orgastically moaning women. The whole thing, from the cover art to final drum beat, is a long, pulsating solicitation, and it marked the beginning of Cerrone’s mad success story, one that ultimately grew to 30-plus million records sold and helping birth a new sound, French disco.
That infamous debut hit stores in 1976. Today, 39 years later, the lean face is a bit plumper, the moptop gone, the hair greyed. Yet this aging drummer and music producer, born near Paris in 1952, is enjoying a renaissance: DJs in Paris, London, and Miami sample his music, and he sees himself celebrated as a pioneer, not unlike Giorgio Moroder. And yet, „My career is really an accident,“ he says. „Love in C Minor“ he’d meant to be his one and only release, his one venture into writing, performing, and publishing music he liked. „I never thought this would be this successful.“
Back in the day, Cerrone’s sound, with its strong base drum in the foreground, while a staple in nearly every danceable song today, ran against the norm. Labels feared it; some producers even doubted his sanity. „They asked, ‚Are you crazy? What the hell is that supposed to be?’“ Cerrone ended up founding his own label, Malligator, then flew from Paris to London, pressed 5000 vinyl records, and arranged the now infamous cover shoot.
Then, the unexpected happened.
A clerk in a record store at the Champs Élysées selling „Love in C Minor“ accidentally packed a copy into a stack of unsold Barry White albums being returned to a New York record company. The American on the receiving end was intrigued by the cover: Who is this weird guy? What kind of music even is this?
Needless to say, he gave it a listen. And liked it. „He gave my song to a New York DJ. And that guy was also thrilled by it and started playing my record in his club,“ Cerrone says. „And so my life changed.“ He laughs.
His sound electrifies New York City!
Disco made Cerrone a star: His sound electrified New York clubs filled with sweaty dancers wearing flare pants and nylon shirts. Not that Cerrone knew at the time about the frenzy, though, nor about American record producers searching for the skinny moptop guy with that great new sound. They were looking in London because the record says, „Produced in the UK.“ Cerrone, though, lived in Paris. „So when asked about me, people in London replied: Who? Cerrone? Never heard of him.“
Then, yet another unexpected thing happened.
„A friend was in a New York club; they played my song. He called me and said: ‚You are a real hit over here!’ I couldn’t believe it. But eventually I took a plane to New York.“ Cerrone says he walked into the first record company he could find and declared, „’Love in C Minor’ is my song.“ They offered him a five-record deal.
„What is that about?“
By the end of the 1970’s, Cerrone had toured all over the USA and recorded two more albums. Giorgio Moroder’s new synthesizer sound began to capture the dance floors, so Cerrone got one. Always the avant-gardist, he was thrilled: „These machines gave way to a completely new sound,“ he gushed. „Immediately, I sat down and composed ‚Supernature’.“ The song became his biggest hit — and yet again initially proved a tough sell to record executives. „When I played it for my producer, he scolded me: what is that about? Why don’t you make music like you used to?’ I replied: ‚I just make music I like. That is my job. I don’t care if it sells. That is your job.’“
The company didn’t cave. Neither did Cerrone: He yet again self-released, and this time sold more than 8 million records. „My old boss calls me and says: ‚I still cannot believe it, but, obviously, you were right.’“