An FAU professor’s dance-music legacy is honored, 40 years later
To label FAU professor Michael Zager’s music career as “eclectic” is to understate the adjective. From being mentored by Stephen Sondheim to sampled by Jay-Z, his more than 50 years of work as a performer, composer, producer and arranger have left few musical idioms uncharted.
A graduate of the University of Miami and the Mannes School of Music in New York’s New School, Zager originally intended to pursue musical theatre. But after co-founding jazz rockers Ten Wheel Drive, he shifted gears (sorry) to the pop/rock world, touring stadiums for the next six years.
In 1978, at the height of the bell-bottomed beat of disco, he composed “Let’s All Chant,” an enduring earworm that would go on to sell 5 million copies. In one of the song’s videos, recorded for Spanish television, Zager plays keyboard and grooves to the rhythm while Spandex-clad dancers jazzercise on a platform; on a recorded track, a singer encourages her listeners to move their bodies.
It’s a fluffy number that evokes the era as well as any other, but the clarinet, harpsichord and trumpet parts Zager inserted into the bridge make it stand out from its synthetic kin. “At first I resisted [recording a disco single],” Zager recalls. “That’s why I wrote that fugue-ish part in the middle, because I was so embarrassed by having those sounds.
“I said to my business partner, ‘if this isn’t a hit, I’m going to kill you.’ But of course, it became a hit all over the world, and I thanked him.”
IT’S A HOOT Zager, FAU’s Dorothy F. Schmidt Eminent Scholar in Performing Arts and director of its Commercial Music program, joined the university in 2002 with the intent of launching a campus record label. Three years later, Hoot/Wisdom Recordings issued its first album and has continued to release projects from FAU’s students, faculty and staff. The music is available worldwide, on CD and streaming, and has twice been nominated for Grammy Awards. “To have a program like this and not to have something where the students can apply what they’re learning is foolish,” Zager says. “[The label is] the capstone of everything.”
Zager would go on to discover the 14-year-old Whitney Houston, who sang backup on another dance track, “Life’s a Party.” Still active, Zager has produced 15 gold or platinum records and earned a Grammy nomination for the Spinners’ “Cupid/I’ve Loved You a Long Time.” He’s composed music for hundreds of commercials, for clients such as Budweiser, Acura and IBM, and he literally wrote the book on how to do it; his third edition of Writing Music for Commercials was released in 2015.
But it’s his disco period that came flooding back to the forefront last fall, on the 40th anniversary of “Let’s All Chant,” when he received an award from the Legends of Vinyl Hall of Fame, “in recognition of his lifelong love and passion for dance music.” When he received the notice of his win, he had to look up the organization: “I didn’t know if it was real or not.”
He flew to New York to accept the award—which was presented to him by a Village Person, in costume—and dedicated it to his four-decade writing partner, Jerry Love, who died in 2016.
Looking back on his contributions to disco, he feels the genre has been unfairly maligned. “I had a lot of disco hits, probably 30 as a producer. You had the best singers, the best orchestras, the best musicians in the world, the best engineers, the best of everything. They were incredible records.”