Red Light Rocker
The Legend Of Paul Sabu
Disco Music's Phil Spector
by Don Charles Hampton
The actor known as Sabu was born Selar Sabu Dastagir in southern India, circa 1924. In the late 1930s, British documentarian Robert Flaherty saw him riding an elephant, and hired the teenager for motion picture work. Commuting between India and Great Britain, Sabu became a star of exotic 1940s adventure flicks. Among others, he appeared in Elephant Boy (1937), Drums (1938), Thief Of Bagdad (1940), Arabian Nights (1942), Cobra Woman (1943), Black Narcissus (1947) and Rudyard Kipling's Jungle Book (1942) as Mowgli, The Jungle Boy, his most famous role. Most of his films were shot in Technicolor, but Sabu certainly wasn't known for sporting colorful costumes on screen; most of the time, he wore little more than a loincloth! This fact, plus the hypnotic charm of his smouldering brown eyes, made Sabu one of the movies' earliest sex symbols of color. He acquired American citizenship in 1944, and enlisted in the United States Air Force; his service in the cockpit during the waning months of World War II won him the Distinguished Flying Cross. In the 1950s, Sabu moved to Hollywood where most of his acting work was located by then. He split his time between a real estate business and occasional movie roles. Tragically, shortly after completing work on a Walt Disney film called A Tiger Walks, he died of a heart attack in 1963. The 39-year-old artist left behind a wife, actress Marilyn Cooper, and two infant children, Jasmine and Paul. Jasmine Sabu, who also died young, grew up to be a screenwriter and an in-demand animal trainer for films. Paul Sabu would become a singer/songwriter, bandleader and popular West Coast session guitarist. Fortunately, he's still with us.
Some incredibly innovative work Paul Sabu did in the late 1970s and early '80s is still with us, too. In fact, that early production work has grown more prestigious with the passage of time. At the very peak of the Disco era, Paul was one of the hottest producers active in the genre. He was also one of the least experienced. Plucked out of a college pre-med program and placed in a recording studio, he managed to create records that compared more than favorably with those produced by Giorgio Moroder, Jacques Morali, Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards, Freddie Perren and other top Disco producers. His records boasted a big, symphonic sound, solid Spanish and Latin-American rhythm foundations, ear-catching electronic accents and exotic percussion tracks. He married Disco sophistication to Rock 'n' Roll rowdiness; he and his three female vocal stars strutted and posed like Van Halen's David Lee Roth at his cockiest. His often prurient lyrics scandalized and tantalized listeners and dancers alike. His instantly memorable melodies held forth with dramatic flourishes reminiscent of his late father's movie soundtracks. Paul Sabu has been called the Phil Spector of Disco music; however, it should be noted that his productions have less in common with Wall of Sound classics like "He's A Rebel" and "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'" than they have with aborted Spector releases like "Do The Screw" and "He Hit Me (It Felt Like A Kiss)"!
Learning chords on a Sears Silvertone guitar, Paul Sabu was playing his instrument by the tender age of two! Later, he upgraded to a Stratocaster. He learned technique from a flamenco master who gave lessons in Hollywood; this explains his dramatic, rhythmic finger style. Practising constantly, he had mastered the guitar by age fifteen. By then, the desire to perform had possessed him. As soon as he could, this flamboyant teenager with bushy eyebrows, shoulder-length brown hair and "Glam Rock" fashion sense began sneaking into Rock clubs. He'd make his way backstage and beg musicians to let him sit in with them. His raw talent and skill was a convincing argument, so long before he became a pre-med major at the University of Southern California, Paul was playing the club circuit. His idol was Jimi Hendrix, but his way of revving up a crowd with his axe wasn't derivative; it was all his own. The strongly melodic songs he played were often his own, too. Around 1976, he recruited friends Rick Bozzo, Dan Holmes, Steffen Presley and two others into a band he named Sabu, after his late father. The group pulled gigs all over southern California and made a name for itself at Hollywood clubs like the Starwood and the legendary Whisky A'Go-Go. In rough-hewn bar band culture, Sabu's sound stood out. It was highly polished; Paul wrote flamenco-influenced arrangements which gave the music a dramatic flair à la Jeff Lynne's Electric Light Orchestra. Very quickly, local producers and record company executives started expressing interest. Ironically, Sabu's first album, Hot Grooves, was recorded in Canada, not Hollywood, and it was only issued in the United Kingdom.
The following year, the guys cut their American debut LP, a collection of Bee Gees cover tunes. Harry Balk, Del Shannon's longtime collaborator, produced the sessions. The six bandmembers were accompanied in the studio by Carmen Dragon and the Glendale, California Symphony Orchestra (to whom the album was officially credited). Sabu promoted their Bee Gees Music album with a live appearance at the Glendale Symphony, and that may be how music publisher Marc Kreiner heard of them. However, Paul later recalled that he met Kreiner while his band was performing at a club in Hollywood. Approaching him after the show, the publisher communicated how impressed he was by Paul's arrangements, songs and guitar playing. "He said to me, 'Do you do any Disco?'" Surprised but not offended by the question, Paul responded: "No, but I'm great at emulating (styles), so if you play it to me, then I can do it." Kreiner recruited him into his Kreimers Music firm and production company. "For some reason, he just liked me and gave me a break," Paul would later say. "God was looking down on me and gave me a chance." Initially in partnership with Tom Cossie, Kreiner had cut simultaneous album deals with the MCA label and an independent RCA-affiliated imprint named Ocean Records. The next thing the 22-year-old guitar wizard knew, his college days had come to an end; instead of cramming medical texts, he was cutting demos and working A & R for Kreiner and Cossie's Disco-oriented MK Productions. "I was like a sponge for knowledge, and learned anything I could," Sabu told interviewer Brian Rademacher. "I would stay up all night, sweeping and cleaning the studio just to hear others (work), to learn new tricks, (just) anything." Within a very short time, Paul Sabu had developed the studio chops to produce artists on his own. His first act was a bubbly nightclub singer from Baltimore, Maryland named Debbie Jacobs.
A pretty Black girl with loads of singing talent, Debbie had a background in Gospel music and Jazz. Yet her honey-sweet alto voice wasn't immediately identifiable as Black. Paul rehearsed her until she could convincingly deliver a song like a Hard Rock belter. Then he took her into Larabee Sound Recorders with a girl group named Hot Fudge, and proceeded to cut the records that would establish her as a dance music diva. The first was "Undercover Lover." Its ribald lyrics about a woman taken aback by the size of a man's sexual equipment set the stage for Paul's randy songwriting style, but what grabbed everybody's attention was the glass-shattering hook. "Undercover Lover" kicked off with a reverb-drenched, foot-stomping intro that sized the old Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons/Diana Ross and The Supremes backbeat stomp up to mammoth proportions. This decibel-breaking debut single gave the Disco world notice that a brash new talent was in town. Paul wasn't dependent on gimmicks like foot stomps, though; he had the chops to pull Disco hits strictly on musical merit. The next Debbie Jacobs single released to club deejays was "Don't You Want My Love", a song whose music was as majestic as its lyrics were inane: Don't you want my love?/Don't you need, need, need my love?/Don't you want my love/From me? Dancers couldn't have cared less about the lyrics, though. They were completely swept up in the record's whirling pasodoble string arrangement, cha-cha rhythms and flamenco handclappings, not to mention the effect Debbie Jacobs' passionate, pleading vocals had on them. It was an instant classic that took the discotheques by storm and also cracked the R & B charts, topping out at #66. Debbie and Paul dropped one additional bombshell, an ode to masturbation called "Hot, Hot, Give It All You Got." This largely instrumental track was garnished with Paul's blistering rhythm guitar licks and thundercrack handclappings. The one-two-three punch of smash hits knocked Debbie Jacobs' Undercover Lover album into the #6 slot on Billboard's national Disco survey. It was June of 1979; the Paul Sabu chart blitz had begun, and it wouldn't let up for ten months.
Next, Paul turned his attention to another Black singer named Gwen Jonae. She had an electrified vibrato like Ronnie Spector, a rapid-fire delivery like Chuck Berry, and she could belt a song like Aretha Franklin. In the future, Gwen would cut records for Paul under her given name, but for her first outing, Paul paired her with Hot Fudge and created a studio girl group called Sister Power. The Sister Power album features a notorious photo of three underwear-clad women with electrodes attached to their thighs. Supercharged, sexy sounds, that's what the cover promised, and that's what the album delivered. The single was "Gimme Back My Love Affair," a deft combination of Disco and (of all things) Bluegrass music stylings; Paul played his guitar like Grandpa Jones flailing his banjo, while out front, Gwen carried on like a backwoods Pentacostal preacher. Now, listen, baby, she screamed, Gimme back my love affair! That's what I want/That's what I need! No small number of Disco dancers in southern states were no doubt inspired to start clogging Carolina style when they heard this lively number in August of 1979. The album included other souped-up goodies like the wah-wah guitar workout "Love Potion" and the cocksure "Sister Power" theme song, but unfortunately, "Gimme Back My Love Affair" was the only track that got substantial airplay. It was maybe a little too unusual for most club deejays to warm up to, because it rose no higher than #27 on the Disco charts.
It's unclear whether Marc Kreiner brought actress/singer Ann-Margret to Paul, or if he already knew her through his mother Marilyn's Hollywood contacts. Whatever the case, the Ravishing Redhead was looking to revive her long dormant recording career via a singles deal with Ocean Records. She was paired in the studio with Paul, and it turned out to be a match made in Disco/Rock Heaven. Saddled with Country tunes, light Jazz and syrupy orchestra Pop during her stint at RCA Victor fifteen years earlier, A-M was itching to Rock out. Paul loved her snarling, tigress-in-heat vocals, and he crafted an unforgettable song around them. "Love Rush" was a classically influenced merengue with a tornado of a string arrangement and a deadly bongo drum hook. It had discotheque patrons rushing to the dance floor. With such compelling music and lines like Every now and then/A man can make me bend, how could they resist? This song's lusty lyric is one of Paul Sabu's best, and it was tailor-made for a sex symbol like Ann-Margret. I'll have my one-to-one with you, promised Miss Ann right before the chorus, and she surely did have it with everyone who heard "Love Rush" in October of '79. By the time she closed out the song with a snarling coda of Touch me/Hold me/Make my love hush! dancers were completely spent; the tempo, the strings, the handclappings, the rhythm guitar . . . all together, it had an overwhelming effect. "Love Rush" got a huge response whenever and wherever Ann-Margret performed it in concert, and its popularity swept her into Billboard's Top Ten Disco playlist.
Paul Sabu closed out his stellar year 1979 with a double blast of unforgettable Disco/Rock fusion. First, he played lead guitar on and penned two songs for Take All Of Me, an album by Canadian chanteuse Barbara Law (the tunes, "Do It All Night" and "Shake Your Bait", would later turn up on the soundtrack of the 1982 movie Spring Fever). The title track, propelled by Paul's fiery flamenco licks, went Top Forty Disco. Then, he led Sabu (now a foursome featuring Rick Bozzo on bass, Dan Holmes on drums, and Steffen Presley on keyboards) through a rollicking bit of braggadocio titled "(I'm A) Rock And Rollin' Disco King." This funky Latin boogaloo strut was latticed with heavy metal chords courtesy of Paul's Stratocaster. "Take me to the discos!" he commanded halfway through the song, and deejays all over the world gleefully did his bidding once they saw how dancers reacted. Club patrons loved the cockiness and tongue-in-cheek humor of "Disco King"; ditto for "Loose Lucy," a bongo-infested rhumba tune concerning a sexually insatiable woman who reads books while men service her. They also loved Paul's thrashing guitar licks on the extended electronic rhumba workout "We're Gonna Rock," on which Steffen Presley also held forth with some great piano playing. The band's third album was released on Ocean Records under the title(what else?) Sabu. Its jet black sleeve with gold lettering has been coveted by Disco collectors ever since its initial release in December of '79. The Sabu album's broad acceptance among Disco lovers reflected how the music was evolving in the late '70s. Rock-tinged records like Donna Summer's "Bad Girls", Patrick Hernandez's "Born To Be Alive", The Three Degrees' "Jump The Gun" and Rod Stewart's "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy?" pointed the way to the dance music's future. Paul Sabu's fusion records were on the cusp of these edgy new sounds that were pushing traditional Disco off turntables as the '80s dawned.
"The Legend Of Paul Sabu" continues with Part Two.
12 April 2007
Paul Sabu (Part One)
Red Light Rocker