When he filled out career surveys in grade school, Harry Wayne Casey wrote “entertainer”. Now, the founder and namesake of K.C. and the Sunshine Band is reflecting on what 40 years in the music business has meant to him while pondering the entire series of events which led to his stardom.
“There was never a doubt in my mind. I even had a year in my head, and it happened at the age I had in my head. It was just crazy, almost mystical,” he tells Live Rock Journal.
During this interview prior to the band’s concert in Bel Air, Maryland, K.C. expressed pride in his accomplishments, but his humble nature showed through as he described his efforts to always ensure the “last fan in line” to meet him doesn’t miss out on an autograph or picture.
Here you are, it’s 2013, you are in the middle of yet another massive tour, this schedule looks as busy as it might have in the 1970s. How do you do it?
I didn’t tour a lot in the ’70s because I was busy in the studio working on projects, not only for myself but for other artists at the label. So I didn’t tour a whole lot back then. I do mostly weekends, I don’t really go out on 30, 40, or 50 date tours. I think when you enjoy what you’re doing you don’t even think about how you do it.
Now I want to back up a bit because what I find interesting about your early beginnings is how a lot of artists at that point in time were flocking to big music hubs like New York City and London to make it big. And you, being from Miami, stayed in Miami, and essentially created your own bustling music hub. Before you did have success, was it tempting to get up and move?
I never even thought about it. Everything just started happening. I always knew, in the back of my head, this was going to happen for me. I didn’t have any idea how. I remember sending a letter to Motown one time and getting a nice rejection letter back from them. But I never thought “I’ve got to move to New York” or “I’ve got to move to “L.A.” or anything like that because I found this studio right in my backyard and once I was there, they were having some success with R&B artists. I was like “I found my home”. Not knowing what it was going to turn into, but I was happy doing anything for the company. Once I got there, I put my whole heart, mind, body, and soul into that place. I got my fingers into everything going on their from shipping, to promotion, to wholesale, to manufacturing, to retail, to sales. Every part of the business, not knowing where I was going to end up. As a child I loved music. I bought records with every dime I made. So to be in a place where these things were being made, there was no second-guessing that I had to move or leave – I was there.
You said you knew it was going to happen. Was it just because of your passion for music?
I don’t know, I just felt it. I knew it. There was never a doubt in my mind. I even had a year in my head, and it happened at the age I had in my head. It was just crazy, almost mystical. I don’t know how you even explain it. I can remember as far back as grade school, you would have to fill out these cards every year. In the space for occupation, I would put entertainer. How did I know that? How did I know to put this every year when other kids were writing doctor, lawyer, nurse, or whatever. I’m sure they thought “wow, we’ve got a wild one here.”
I found an old New York Times review of a show you played in 1975 and I want to read you a quote. Steve Ditlea says “K.C. has the stage presence and the musical ability to bridge the cultural chasm separating white performers and black listeners as well as between black music and white audiences.” It’s a powerful quote. Were you cognicent of this other impact your music was having at the time?
I hope it was having a positive impact, since I was told because I was white, I would never make it. At the company I was with, there were more black artists than white artists. But I never did think of color. I never grew up that way, I didn’t think of people that way. When I looked at people, I just looked at them as people. So hopefully we were setting some trends, I know we were among the first group of our kind to have a #1 record on the R&B chart. We were moving and shaking a bit. There were some places I wouldn’t go to because I heard they were very prejudiced. I didn’t want to subject my musicians to it. After a while I tried not to read too many of the articles because so many of the critics would just tear us down all the time.
I don’t think any of them would have predicted you would still be here today having so much success.
I think everyone has a certain type of music they listen to, but if you’re a critic or a journalist, you can’t write an article based on your own tastes. Rock critics would tear R&B acts apart for no reason. I never could figure it out because I would go to a show and the crowd would be going crazy, sold out. When we do back to back shows, you can’t always guarantee the voice is going to be as good the first night as it is on the third or fourth night. And sometimes the fifth night is better than the first night. Every show is in a different city, a different climate, there are different acoustics. It was hard to sit there and hear people tear us a part when I knew I had a cold but I was up there performing anyway. Or I saw 20,000 people having the best time of their lives, and this guy is sitting there tearing us down bit by bit for no apparent reason other than he had to be there.
I always felt the 1970s was a special time. The war ended around the same time we went through the oil crisis. When I was starting to write music, most of it was very dark. So I set out to brighten that up a little bit, and bring some energy back to music. But I always believed the ’70s was the culmination of every picket line that went up in the ’50s and ’60s for peace, for love, for understanding, for unity, for all of these things we marched for, and prayed for, and wished for. The ’70s to me was the culmination and the celebration of all that finally coming to pass. Everybody waking up and saying “you’re right”. Unfortunately it’s taken 30 years for us to pick up where we left off, where we should have gone ages ago. There are still places where there is a lot of prejudice, but less and less. More and more people are accepted for who they are, what they are. We’re not all so concerned about what our neighbors are doing all the time.
And people paid more attention to music in the 1970s. There weren’t as many distractions.
We were still in a time where you could pretty much leave your keys in the car, or leave your front doors open. There are a lot of distractions in today’s world, and it’s kind of sad. I try to think of a song I’ve heard recently, and nothing even comes to my head. And that’s kind of sad. I don’t know if it’s because I’m getting older, but I wonder what this next generation is going to be humming. I don’t know if there are any songs now I can hum!
No, and it’s almost unfair to them because the music you wrote is still ringing in people’s heads decades later, and a song written today can’t even seem to get in a person’s head for a week.
Do you think your unique story of rising up through the music industry could happen again today?
I think my story still happens. It’s happening in a different kind of way now, in people’s bedrooms and garages and on their computers. They can throw it on YouTube, or get a chance to audition on American Idol, or the Voice. I worry about some of the people who come through that way, but it’s still an outlet, and it’s an outlet I didn’t have. Who knows, I might have been turned down by them. I still think if you really believe in yourself you can go for your dreams. I think that part of America still exists.
I think the American dream still does exist even though it might be harder than it was before. I still think there are as many opportunities, if not even more of them, with the internet, to get yourself out there. When I was growing up, all you hear is how someone was discovered in a club somewhere. Even back then I thought the only way I’m going to be discovered here is if I have a hit song. So I backed out of this club thing, even though I was right there in front of the record companies that did eventually discover me. I set out to make a record, and let the record do the discovery for me. Once I got that in my head, and headed in that direction, it’s when things happened for me.
Record labels are not what they used to be. When I grew up, you signed a five year contract, and did five albums regardless of whether they sold or didn’t sell because the record company was interested in building your career as an artist. Today it’s all corporate, and not so much about the artistry, and that’s sad. Now someone wins American Idol and they produce a crappy album, and who do they blame? They blame that artist, and they drop them the next year. And dude, if you listen to some of these records, sometimes I am just amazed. Who was paying attention here? Did they leave it up to these kids? I found it myself when I left TK Records and signed with Epic. I did this album and they said it’s great. Then when it came out, it wasn’t so great. And I was very upset they let me go through this whole process, saying it’s great, and then not supporting it.
Your resurgence of course has led you to many pop culture appearances including a rather perfect cameo in the movie ‘The In-Laws’. What was the experience like on the set of that movie?
It took us three or four days to do that one little scene. They film it one way, then they move the cameras and film it another way, to get all the different angles. We would wait several hours while they reset the cameras, then come back again. It’s a pretty tedious process. All the actors, like Michael Douglas, were really nice to us on the set and off the set. We were treated very nicely by the production company and everything. It was a lot of fun. I had done a couple other walk-ons before, which weren’t quite as big of hits as The In-Laws was. Whenever I see any scene played back, I think I could have done that differently, or I could have done that better.
My favorite moment is when the camera cuts to the very uptight Candace Bergen character, and even she can’t resist dancing to ‘Get Down Tonight’!
She was adorable. We sat next to each other in the makeup chairs and just had great conversation. She was just very down to earth. Sometimes some of my colleagues in the entertainment business aren’t so nice, and I’ve never understood that part of it.
I’ll never forget how appreciative and genuine you were when I met you a few years ago
I try to be kind. But then sometimes I get blasted for it because I’m a little tired and I’m trying to appease everyone. Part of my fan club membership allows you to get backstage and meet me, so if I go start taking pictures with everyone, I don’t want to miss getting to those people. I’m just trying to play by the rules and give the fan club members something special. I’m always thinking about the last person in line so I try to keep the line moving. I think I do more photos than any of my contemporaries, but I worry about the last person in line who has to keep waiting.
What can we expect to hear in the show on Saturday
I always try to keep the show current. I’m not putting any of my new stuff in, but you might hear some ’60s classics.