‘Play That Funky Music’: The Story Behind Adam Lambert’s ‘American Idol’ Cover

Wild Cherry had a huge hit with the song during the 1970s disco era.

Leave it to Adam Lambert to take one of the most recognizable and frequently spun hits of the disco era and make it his own. When the front-running “American Idol” musical-theater howler announced his decision to resurrect the 1976 disco funk hit “Play That Funky Music” by [artist id="19029"]Wild Cherry[/artist] on Tuesday night, judge Randy Jackson said he was a bit concerned given the song’s long history and ubiquity.

But, much like he did with Smokey Robinson’s “Tracks of My Tears” the week before and the Johnny Cash classic “Ring of Fire” the week before that, Lambert put his unique spin on the tune by the Pittsburgh band, who hit #1 with the song in 1976 and garnered a pair of Grammy nominations for Best New Vocal Group and Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group.

One-hit wonders Wild Cherry was led by singer-guitarist-songwriter Rob Parissi, who formed the original group in 1970, cribbing the name from a brand of cough drops he was taking while battling illness. The first lineup split in 1975 before releasing any music, and Parissi threw in the towel for a while and began managing a local steak house.

But he soon formed a new lineup with more of a rock edge during the era when disco was blooming, and after legendarily being shouted down by fans at shows to “play that funky music,” he wrote a song inspired by the taunts and was repaid with a massive hit that reached #1 on the Billboard R&B and pop charts. The group never reached those heights again and split up in 1979 after releasing a fourth album.

And much as he did with “Tracks of My Tears” last week, Lambert proved his innate artistry by taking the disco chestnut and making it his own on Tuesday night, adding in a rock edge and inserting some of his signature falsetto howls, much to the delight of the judges and audience.

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