Even before Harry Wayne Casey made his start-and-stop strut through Hialeah Park on February 3 -- kissing cheeks and posing with every friendly face -- enormous ice sculptures of his stage initials, "KC," and his age, "50," caused a bottleneck on the central walkway. Matrons in sequined sweaters paused reverently alongside adolescent girls in prom dresses, mature sirens with tightly lifted chins, boogie-down brothers, spiffy muscle boys, reserved politicians, giddy kids, and glad industry hands, all eager for a photograph in front of these rapidly melting monuments to the original Miami Sound.
To mark the occasion, Boca Raton's smooth-jazz outfit S.E.A. Wind delivered an extrasmooth Seventies set (Roberta Flack, Al Green, Taste of Honey), interrupted only when saxman and flautist Al Shikaly greeted the star's arrival: "Happy birthday, KC, from us to you." Camera hounds sped beside the Boogie Man, snapping every greeting until he arrived at the screened-off area where Bruce Merrin, ranked number-one-grossing publicist in Las Vegas in 1999 ($4.1 million), stood at the ready with a stack of KC & the Sunshine Band press kits. As I staked out the tent, I quickly realized that Merrin, perfectly outfitted for his role in shades, toupee, and gold chain, would keep thanking me for coming for as long as I kept looking at him. KC's fresh-faced manager, Tim, stopped me only by assuring, "You're next" -- a promise he immediately repeated to every reporter elbowing into the tent until he noticed an elderly white-haired man of considerable girth looming impatiently at the entrance. "You're next," Tim told the man, too. "You're the reason we're here, Mr. Stone."
Henry Stone owned Miami's T.K. Productions, the label that released the triple-platinum album KC & the Sunshine Band in 1975 and transformed Casey from Hialeah stock boy to disco great. Recording in the legendary Criteria Studios in North Miami that also laid many of the Bee Gees' tracks, KC contributed to the 1978 Grammy Award-winning Saturday Night Fever. Disco was not the only sound coming out of Miami in the Seventies, however. Criteria, founded in 1958 by Mack Emerman, proved a megahit magnet that drew James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Eric Clapton, Black Sabbath, Bob Dylan, and Crosby, Stills and Nash. The studio had a knack for Grammy winners as well. KC won Best R&B song for "Where Is the Love" (sung by Betty Wright, a Criteria regular). In 1977 awards went to Criteria recordings by the Eagles ("Hotel California," Best Record) and Fleetwood Mac (Rumours, Best Album).
KC retired in 1985. In 1988 Emerman sold Criteria to form the in-house Audio Vision Recording Studios (just this year opening to artists not on the studio's label). Joel Levy bought the studio, attracting big names from R.E.M. to Mariah Carey and generously allowing local acts to record on spec. Criteria contributed to the building of Miami's Latin-music industry by pulling in pop stars from Julio Iglesias to Gloria Estefan. The Latin boom led to the 1999 takeover of Criteria by New York's Grammy-making machine, Hit Factory, and a change in name to Hit Factory, Miami. Although KC claims to have come out of retirement because he was "bored," the presence of the top publicists and managers in the biz (as well as Marilyn Monroe impersonator Bamby, with her case full of candy) at a party for 1500 of KC's closest friends and TV commentators suggests Hialeah's brightest disco ball is hoping for a reboom himself.
Despite all the fanfare, KC was circumspect about his current recording project. "I know how the critics will be," the fit-and-50 singer confessed, curling his ringed fingers into claws and hissing like a cat. "If it's not good, I won't release it." And what will KC sound like in the 21st Century? "It will sound like KC, with lots of horns and lots of percussion." He pauses, then clarifies, "It will sound the same, only different."
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Alas that is the formula for success that rolls off the lips of every well-coached platinum-selling artist, no matter how many or how few years have elapsed since the last hit. Even more moderately successful bands repeat the mantra. The charming Spanish brother act Café Quijano, whose second CD, The Extraordinary Paradox of the Quijano Sound, has been nominated for Best Latin Rock/Alternative Performance, makes the very paradoxical and entirely sincere pledge that its next release will feature "new elements, but it will still be the Quijano sound." The intended paradox of the Quijano sound has to do with the fact that the brothers caught their musician-father's love for Latin-American folklore, making the "Quijano Sound" sound like music from some very exciting but entirely imaginary Latin nation. Think Cuban son and bolero meets Colombian vallenato meets Brazilian samba meets Nancy Sinatra.
Theirs is the kind of story that will sicken long-suffering musicians but may inspire slackers. Elder brother, songwriter, and natural frontman Manuel Quijano lived in Miami from 1992 through 1996, haunting nightspots and traveling to the Dominican Republic and Jamaica not to play music but to listen to it whenever he wasn't busy exporting machinery to Europe. He suggested to younger brothers Oscar and Raul that they form a band. "It was either a band or a circus, and none of us are any good on the trapeze," deadpans Manuel. His siblings nod solemnly as Manuel swears the three put together a demo tape, mailed it out to the majors, and received five offers, with Warner Bros. Spain offering the best deal. "Now it's compose, record, promote," says middle brother Oscar as the trio looks forward to its third go-round. "It's a cycle."