Behind the Surprisingly Autobiographical Meaning of Wild Cherry’s “Play That Funky Music”

Before 1976, Wild Cherry was trying to make a career out of hard rock music at a time when disco was about the only thing happening.

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The Ohio-formed band got their start performing rock covers. Their early career saw regular gigs at North Philly’s 2001 Club, playing for predominantly black audiences. The demand for disco had grown rapidly during this time and without dance music among their repertoire, Wild Cherry’s minor following was dwindling fast. As bookings became few and far between and with overwhelming requests for disco tunes unfulfilled, the group had to make a change.

As the band brainstormed for song ideas, in desperate need of new music, drummer Ronald Beitle recounted hearing a listener shout, “Are you white boys gonna play some funky music?” during a set break.

Frontman Rob Parissi was inspired by the heckling. So on a drink order pad, with a pen borrowed from a bartender, the singer began writing Wild Cherry’s biggest and only hit song.

Wild Cherry’s debut album (Epic Records)

Meaning Behind The Lyrics

Wild Cherry answered the audience member’s question. These white boys were finally going to “Play That Funky Music.”

The tune is autobiographical, telling an epic tale of that night, that patron’s inspirational, if not pointed, query, and the band’s subsequent sound change. Kicking off with a galloping bass line and guttural Hey, do it now, the band delivered the danceable tune crowds had been begging for.

The opening lines set the stage for the group’s journey.

Hey, once I was a boogie singer
Playin’ in a rock-and-roll band
I never had no problems
Burnin’ down the one-night stands

During the band’s early days of rock covers, they had a small following. They didn’t have trouble getting regular gigs, it was keeping them that was the issue. The song continues:

And everything around me
Got to start to feelin’ so low
And I decided quickly
Yes, I did
To disco down and check out the show

The hard rock sound was out and disco fever was becoming more and more contagious. Now the band was left with two options, to either give up or give in.

Yeah they were dancin’ and singin’
And movin’ to the groovin’
And just when it hit me
Somebody turned around and shouted

The groovy scene that is being laid out in the song intrigues the narrator. Pulling from the question hurled at them that fated night —and poking fun at themselves along the way—Wild Cherry delivers the song’s unforgettable, shake-it-worthy chorus:

“Play that funky music, white boy
Play that funky music right
Play that funky music, white boy
Lay down that boogie
And play that funky music ’til you die.”

The singer admits the change wasn’t an easy one. Wild Cherry themselves resisted becoming a disco band at first. But seeing the power disco had over listeners, it was a musical change that made sense.

Now first it wasn’t easy
Changing rock-and-rolling minds
And things were gettin’ shaky
I thought I’d have to leave it behind

Once the band found their disco sound, success followed. The song closes, explaining the positive effect disco had on the group.

Oh, but now it’s so much better (it’s so much better)
I’m funking out in every way
But I’ll never lose that feelin’ (you know, I won’t)
Of how I learned my lesson that day

When they were dancin’ and singin’
And movin’ to the groovin’
And just when it hit me
Somebody turned around and shouted

One Hit Wonder

“Play That Funky Music” was a huge hit when it was released on Wild Cherry’s self-titled album in 1976.

The song peaked at No.1 on Billboard‘s pop and R&B charts with the band being named Best Pop Group of the Year by the magazine. On top of receiving a multitude of awards, from Top R&B Single of the Year to Best New Vocal Group, the song and the album were both certified platinum.

“Play That Funky Music” would be the only hit on the album and for the band. They saw minor follow-up success in international markets with the song “Hot to Trot,” but nothing as big as their breakthrough single.

The band’s three subsequent albums – Electrified Funk in 1977, I Love My Music in ’78, and Only the Wild Survive from ’79 – were met with very little acclaim and none produced a charting single. Wild Cherry broke up after the flop of their last album, but not before finding their disco footing and bringing down the house.

Take in the tightly-permed, shirt-buttons-are-merely-suggestions, try-hard funkiness that is Wild Cherry, and watch them “Play That Funky Music” below.

(Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

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