Palm Desert, California (The Hollywood Times) 09/18/2023 – Recently on a beautiful and hot summer day in the desert near Palm Springs I was driving around and flipping through radio stations. Up came the song “Funky Town.” I had heard it a million times since its 1980 release but on this day with no distractions around me I got a chance to listen closely to both the words and music. I realized it holds up great and remains an amazing recording. I decided to call my friend, record producer extraordinaire David Z. and ask him about “Funky Town.”
Jimmy Steinfeldt (J.S.): David, how did the song “Funky Town” come about?
David Z. (D.Z.): The words and melody for “Funky Town” were written by my friend Stevie Greenberg. We were in a group called Lipps Inc. and we had a successful song previously called “Rock It.” “Funky Town” had simple lyrics, sort of like a nursery rhyme and an interesting melody Stevie did on keyboard.
J.S.: What happened next?
D.Z.: We started, like with most Rock songs, creating the beat. We needed to create a continuous and steady beat. Stevie played three instruments to a click track. A kick drum, a snare drum and a Hi-hat. Each on its own track. Then we needed to create a continuous loop of these three tracks. To do this I ran magnetic tape through two machines I placed about 8 feet apart. It looked pretty funny because we had tape strung out all over the room. We even used what was available to hold the tape in place—two grapefruits! You did whatever was necessary back in the days when everything was analog.
J.S.: How or where did you learn to do this kind of magical work. How did you learn record engineering and producing?
D.Z.: Jimmy, it was an accident. I had been a full-time songwriter working primarily out of A&M studios in Hollywood in the 1970s. Eventually I decided to move back to Minneapolis where I grew up and try to get a job in the music business. I called my friend Dick Shapiro who was a booking agent and represented at least twenty bands. I told him we should record a three-song demo of each band and then we could give the recordings to local club owners so they could hear the bands. Dick said “That’s a good idea, go do it.”
J.S.: It’s a small world. Dick Shapiro was my neighbor.
D.Z.: Cool. I brought these bands one at a time to ASI recording studio owned by Dan Holmes in North Minneapolis and he recorded the three-song demos. After a while he got tired of doing this and told me to take over. I said “I’m a songwriter, I don’t know how to record a band.” He said “You’ll figure it out.” He basically locked me in the studio with the bands and I started to learn what to do. I got a copy of the book on studio recording called Modern Recording Techniques by Robert Runstein and took it from there. I made a lot of mistakes. Since I didn’t know what I was doing some of the mistakes turned out to be cool and unique sounds. I always liked doing things that were unique or unusual and I think that is one of the reasons years later I got along so well with Prince. He always wanted to create unique music. He thought it was a sin to sound like any other musician. I worked with him and his cousin Andre Cymone and Morris Day in their band Grand Central. I didn’t hear the creativity then that would reveal itself when Prince went solo. When he went solo and certainly on the first record For You his unique and original sound really came through. The fact that he could play all the instruments was also incredible. Then when we recorded Purple Rain his true genius was revealed in even a bigger way. However, none of us knew at the time the unbelievable success that “Purple Rain” would become.
Getting back to “Funky Town.” By the time I finished recording twenty of Dick Shapiro’s bands and two years of many other bands by then I had a pretty good grip on studio recording. The next thing we needed to do was record the other instruments. Stevie played various electronic keyboards or synthesizers. Then we recorded the bass player Terry Grant, then the guitar player Tom Riopelle and we both played the 9th chord on guitar that you hear throughout the song.
J.S.: The 9th chord is such a crucial sound in the song and certainly helped to give it the funk feel. Being a guitar player myself I love that chord and use it often. I loved how it was used by musicians like James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, and in fact some call it the Hendrix chord. I even remember hearing the 9th in the theme song to the 1960s T.V. show Batman. Later of course Prince played the 9th a lot.
D.Z.: Yes, Jimmy, and it goes back even further to Junior Walker & the All Stars. I loved his song “Shot Gun” which included the 9th chord. I always loved R&B and Blues music and was thrilled to record many legends in these genres over the years such as Etta James, Buddy Guy and John Mayall.
J.S.: What came next?
D.Z.: Then we recorded the saxophone player. We also did some other cool things starting with hiring four string players from the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra. Here’s what I did with them. I arranged four rows of chairs with four chairs in each row. I had the four string players play their part sitting in the first row. Then I repeated this for rows two, three and four. This gave us four tracks of strings which made it sound like we had a 16-piece string section. Another interesting thing we did was there is a break in the middle of the song where we wanted the cowbell to sound and feel like 3D. This might sound technical but to do this in the recording process I shut off the straight signal and used only the echo returns. Finally, at the last-minute Stevie wanted to fill in the song some more using his car horn. I went out to the parking lot, mic’d his BMW, and he honked the horn twice. Then it was time to record Cynthia Johnson for the vocal.
Funky Town was recorded track by track as are many modern records and then constructed as a song in the mixing process. I think if I had to describe my main role in the creation of the song “Funky Town” I’d say I was the builder or architect. The vocal of course was crucial. The line in the song “Gotta make a move to a town that’s right for me” became a challenge for Cynthia. It’s a big run up from the low register at the beginning of that line to the high notes at the end. I decided to run her voice through a machine. The Bode Vocoder. It allowed us to adjust the pitch in her voice which helped a lot at hitting the high notes at the end of the phrase. After several tries we nailed it.
Then we began to mix the song and that was an interesting process. The song was recorded at Sound 80 in Minneapolis. It was built by the composer Herb Pilhofer. It had become a popular studio for recording music but it also was the studio where tons of commercials were recorded for local companies like Dayton’s department store which eventually became the national chain Target. The playback speakers in the control room were not what we needed to properly hear the mix especially when you consider we were mixing a disco song and had to hear and feel the bottom, or thick base sound so important to a disco tune. Believe it or not Stevie and I drove all the way to St. Paul to a disco and we played the mix through the disco’s speakers which had good subwoofers. This was great because a disco is where the song would eventually be heard by the public. We’d go back to the studio and adjust the mix, then return to the disco and listen again. We repeated this several times a day for two to three days. I think it took about seven days to record the song and three or four days to mix. It probably could have been mixed in one to two days if the studio had speakers that sounded like disco club speakers.
J.S.: David, you stood in the St. Paul disco listening to the mix and returned to the studio to make adjustments. How did you remember what to do? Did you take notes, did you just remember in your head what to do?
D.Z.: No. All I needed to do was FEEL the base right here in my chest or stomach. It’s that feeling you get when the bottom comes through in a recording. It’s that thick heavy beat you need in a disco song. It needs to make people want to get out on the dance floor. Eventually we completed mixing the song and then I mastered the record in L.A. with Chris Bellman.
J.S.: Tell me a bit about mastering.
D.Z.: That’s definitely more of an art than a science. It’s the little adjustments that you make to a recording that make the record glisten. Stevie’s nephew John Fields, who has gone on to a celebrated career as a record producer and engineer, recently played me the original 24-track of “Funky Town.” It still sounded great and indeed glistens.
J.S.: If I have a copy of the vinyl record “Funky Town” will I hear the glisten?
D.Z.: Yes, as long as the original song has been recorded, mixed and mastered as an analog recording on tape. Even a CD that was made from the original analog source will sound great. The big problem is most contemporary songs are digital recordings. They have improved greatly since the early days of digital but nothing sounds as good as recording to tape. For most recording artists it’s just too expensive to record to tape. I love however when I get a chance to record on tape using analog equipment.
J.S.: when Funky Town was completed what was the next step to get it heard by the public?
D.Z.: The band Lipps Inc. was signed to Casablanca Records so we needed to deliver it to the record company. The reigning queen of disco, Donna Summer, was on Casablanca records and we loved the sound of her recordings. By the way, how we got signed to Casablanca is an interesting story. They had people whose job it was to contact the DJs at discos around the country and ask them what records they were spinning. What records they and their fans liked. Casablanca learned that our previous song “Rock It” was popular and so they signed us. They released the record nationally and “Rock It” went from a local hit to a successful song nationally. They asked us to do some more songs and that’s how “Funky Town” came about. Around the time we delivered the song to Casablanca Stevie and I flew to L.A. to see how the record would be received by the public. We went to one of the most popular discos in L.A. called Oil Can Harry’s on Ventura Blvd. It was a gay club which was interesting as I had never been to one. The men were all shirtless and wearing cowboy boots. Stevie took the record to the DJ up in the DJ booth and while I was standing there a midget came up to me and said “YOU’RE MINE!” I didn’t know what to do. Stevie then came back and saw my predicament and put his arm around me and said “HE’S WITH ME.” The DJ loved Funky Town as did the public and soon it was heard in discos around the world. Soon after this my wife and I were driving from Minneapolis to Duluth for the weekend and we had a big boombox in the car. That’s the first time I heard “Funky Town” on the radio! It became the number one song on the Billboard charts for four weeks. It was the number one song in 28 countries. It sold 8 million copies. It was successful beyond any of our dreams.
Listen to Funky Town here: