Hamilton Frederick Bohannon, an under-sung but highly influential percussionist whose ’70s solo work set the stage for disco, died on Friday (April 24) at age 78, according to The Newnan Times-Herald. The cause of death was not revealed.
Gifted on the drums at a young age, the Newnan, GA-born talent attended the historically black university Clark Atlanta University on a music scholarship. After graduation, he gigged around Atlanta and crossed paths with a pre-fame Jimi Hendrix and a young Stevie Wonder, the latter of whom took him on tour, eventually inviting him to move up to Detroit to work with him at Motown. Bohannon would go on to take up the role of band leader at Motown Records for some years, playing with everyone from Diana Ross to Marvin Gaye to the Four Tops.
Bohannon declined to move with Motown Records to Los Angeles when Berry Gordy picked up shop in 1972. Instead, he released his debut album, Stop & Go, in 1973 (it featured “Save Their Souls,” which Jay-Z would sample for “Cashmere Thoughts” on his debut 23 years later). Bohannon’s next few releases, including 1974’s Keep On Dancin’ and 1975’s Insides Out, were quietly pioneering classics of inventive syncopation and relentless rhythm that touched upon everything from Sly Stone’s psych-funk stew to lush Motown soul. Insides Out featured the Hot 100 hit “Foot-Stompin’ Music” (his sole entry) and the early genre classic “Disco Stomp,” a No. 62 hit on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart. 1981’s “Let’s Start II Dance Again” would hit No. 5 on the Dance/Club Songs chart.
Limited radio play aside, it was Bohannon’s unique approach to drumming that enshrines him as a percussion pioneer. After a car accident in the ’60s seriously injured his right foot, he was forced to use his left for the bass drum; he developed a singular style that impacted everything from disco to ’80s funk to the Talking Heads’ middle period (“Foot Stompin’ Music” is basically the blueprint for “I Zimbra,” and sure enough, side project Tom Tom Club chanted Bohannon’s name in their iconic, oft-sampled “Genius of Love”). His fealty to four-on-the-floor rhythm put the emphasis not on the song or the singer but the importance of keeping people moving on the dancefloor, which would become a central element of disco and the house music genre it morphed into over the years.
Speaking to the Newnan Times-Herald in 2017 after a stretch of the street grew up near was renamed in his honor, Bohannon said that while he didn’t grow up in a musical household, the rhythm was in his blood from the beginning. Recalling the experience of hearing the radio at a nearby café as a kid, he said, “I would put my ear to the speaker and dance, dance, dance.”