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Uncle Jamís Army: Mobile Disco Dances To A Different Beat

Don Snowden, Los Angeles Times, 30 October 1983

A GROUP OF MODS, coats festooned with badges of their favorite bands and likenesses of the "Two-Tone" man, snake around the perimeter of the dance floor. Some young break dancers have cordoned off a corner to allow one of their number enough room to drop to the flow and run through a dizzyingly acrobatic routine. Another couple bump and grind against each other in the free-form style thatís been appropriately dubbed "The Nasty."
The fashions run from Olivia Newton-Johnian bandanna and shorts to the off shoulder Flashdance look. Thereís a small contingent of Mods and a handful of "rude boys" who ape the sartorial style favored by the controversial funk performer Prince. But much of the crowd has opted for comfortable variations on the teen-age uniform of T-shirt, jeans and sneakers.
A typical night at one of the trendy dance clubs that are the hip rage in Hollywood?
Guess again. The scene is Veteranís Auditorium in Culver City during a dance promoted by Uncle Jamís Army, the most popular of Los Angelesí mobile disco operations. The predominantly teen-age crowd of 800 is overwhelmingly black. While young white-music fans take their pick from a steady stream of concert and club appearances by favorite performers, these rented-hall dances are the only game in town for many of their black counterparts.
"In the big city, L.A., the entertainment capital of the world, there is nowhere to go," charges Roger Clayton, the leader of Uncle Jamís Army. "If the mobile guys didnít give any dances, a lot of people wouldnít go anywhere.
"Itís our job putting on shows, but we feel we do a great service keeping a lot of people off the street. Weíre giving them somewhere to go where they can forget they donít have a job or that their parents arenít working, get away from gangs and those bad elements and come party with us. Weíre entertaining them."
Itís early evening when a truck laden with sound equipment pulls into the Veteranís Auditorium parking lot. Members of a sound crew quickly position a dozen large Cerwin-Vega speakers on the spacious dance floor. Others busy themselves placing smaller speakers and lights on tables flanking the two turntables and amplifiers at center stage.
A group of Uncle Jamís Army members prepares the box office and arranges tables with guest books to channel the flow of customers inside. The guest books are more than a sentimental touch; signees will go on the mailing list and receive post-card notification of future events.
Clayton strides purposefully through the hall to supervise the sound check, shifting speakers and checking the equalization to ensure the sound will be high quality. More members of the 15-to 20-strong crew arrive carrying the synthesizers Uncle Jamís Army uses during its live performance segment, but someone forgot to unload a crucial box of plugs. Without a proper sound check, the live portion will be scrapped.
A few people have lined up anticipating the 9íoíclock starting time but neither Clayton nor Gid Martin, who together handle the promotional work for Uncle Jamís Army, expects the turnout to come close to the usual 1,500 attendance. Itís the first night of a rare two-night stand (the show the next night would draw about 1,100) at Veteranís and World on Wheels, a roller-skating rink popular with the same youthful crowd, is giving away 500 LPs at an RCA Records promotion.
Uncle Jamís Army occasionally stages events at larger venues like the Sports Arena, the Los Angeles Convention Center and the Hollywood Palladium. But the regular dances held at smaller halls like the Hotel Biltmore, Pasadena Civic and Veteranís are the backbone of the operation. Uncle Jam staged its first dance at the Veteranís three years ago, despite being limited to an unattractive holiday weekend slot.
"I didnít think people would come out on the holidays but apparently the young black community will," recalls auditorium manager Ken Goode. "My major problem with Uncle Jam is their following may be getting too large.
"Weíve had close to capacity on a couple of occasions and the air conditioning isnít enough to keep people cool. That rebounds on the promoter because they come to have a good time and, if itís overcrowded, they canít."
Clayton, 24, began spinning records and throwing house parties at 13. He worked as a deejay at several clubs and held a succession of jobs at records stores and in sales for a wholesale record company.
The seed of Uncle Jamís Army was planted when school buddy Gid Martin approached Clayton about deejaying a 1978 dance at Alpine Village in Torrance. The dance drew a good crowd despite minimal, last-minute promotion, and Clayton suggested giving another the next month, but with printed posters and more advance publicity.
That affair drew 500, and subsequent Alpine Village dances early in 1979 made the group a popular attraction in the Carson-Compton-Long Beach area. Along the way, Clayton hit on the idea of adopting the name Uncle Jamís Army, inspired by the Uncle Jam Wants You album by funk master George Clintonís Funkadelic group.
Says Clayton: "We always considered ourselves entertainers. I used to wear my costumes, have fog and fire, jump off the stage, wear weird glasses and glitter Ė a lot of theatrics because I was really into Earth, Wind & Fire at the time. We took that concept and rode with it."
Clayton hasnít toned down his show-biz flair Ė his idea for a photo session was to drape the entire Uncle Jamís Army crew around a tank. But itís the combination of his onstage confidence bordering on cockiness and his business savvy in dealing with the black teen-age market that has made Uncle Jam a major force.
He credits John Carter with inaugurating the mobile disco era, but the acknowledged top dog in Los Angeles during the late Ď70s was a group called LSD. It took more than a year for Uncle Jamís Army to build its following to the point where Clayton and company felt confident enough to challenge the LSD.
"There was a time when nobody would give a dance when they were giving one," he remembers. "LSD got very complacent, and that was their main fault Ė they got to the point where they were just packing people into a room, with no lights or anything, just playing records.
"The ironic thing is I used to deejay for LSD and they still owe me $25," he chuckles. "They wrote me a check and stopped payment, just messing with me. I told them in their face. ĎOne day, Iím going to get my own organization and bump you guys off.í"
The dance is in full swing by 11 oíclock and late arrivals are greeted by a withering blast of hot, fetid air. The lobby floor is already slick from sweat and wadded-up paper towels people have soaked in water in a futile attempt to stay cool.
The scene is reminiscent of other teen-age dances. Knots of young men and women check each other out in the lobby and an aura of adolescent macho pervades the hall. But beating the heat takes priority over making new friends on this night.
Many participants lounge against the railing bordering the open floor or sprawl across the permanent seats in the back of the hall From that vantage point, framed by banks of speakers and incessantly flashing disco lights, the deejays at the turntables resemble high priests of the new electronic age.
And this crowd makes no bones about the fact that its chosen form of worship is the dance. Despite the oppressive conditions, the fast and furious pace slackens only when one of the evenings few ballads sends a stream of people into the lobby for a breather.
"Programming is the key," contends Clayton. "We bring in a basic program of whatís hot now in the streets. We set trends, and one thing weíve always done is break a lot of records before the radio stations have.
"We have all the new stuff and we always have something crazy. Well bring in Richard Pryor and nursery rhymes, the Mickey Mouse Club and TV show themes."
The street slant has made Uncle Jamís Army a viable financial proposition. Even on an off night, like that at the Veteranís Auditorium, the show will make money. Expenses include $400 for hall rental, a like amount for security guards and $450 for the sound equipment supplied by the Music People Company. Promotion costs for an average show run $100 for postcards. $200 for printed posters and about $1,000 for the colorful self-produced ads Uncle Jam places on local black radio stations.
The advertising and promotional savvy accounts for Uncle Jamís ability to stage successful dances at larger venues. A 1982 Convention Center dance reportedly drew 4,000 people, with another 2,000 turned away at the door, and the Sports Arena events pull in crowds in the 5,000 range. The financial gamble is that much greater; expenses shoot up into the $15,000 range and at least five times as much sound equipment is required.
But ticket prices are reasonable Ė $5 for the Veteranís Auditorium show, $6.50 at a Sports Arena event Ė and thatís produced a large, loyal following. When Clayton ticks off the names of various communities during the dance, loud cheers ring out for each one Ė including far-off Pasadena, site of the previous weekís dance. Except for a brief respite during the early months of the year prompted by the post-holiday lack of spending money among its youthful audience. Uncle Jam will basically be on a dance-a-weekend schedule.
"A lot of cities donít want under-21 crowds because they feel that theyíre into drugs or into gangs and they donít want to be bothered with it." Clayton maintains. "They think theyíre out of control."
"A lot of places donít get enough revenue with the younger crowd because theyíre drinking soda. Obviously, youíre not going to be making as much money off soda as you would with alcohol."
The scene at Veteranís would be enough to give heart failure to advocates of a highly visible security presence. The uniformed guards are stationed at the entrances and exits. Various members of the Uncle Jam entourage and audience members nonchalantly sit on the edge of the stage or dance with friends behind the deejays.
But when a surge of bodies on the floor signals the eruption of a rare fistfight, the response is instantaneous. Uniformed personnel and casually attired Uncle Jam members race to the spot and immediately eject the battlers. For the next half-hour, the house lights remain up and security people make high-visibility patrols through the center of the dancing throng to guard against retaliatory attacks.
And everyone gets involved. Clayton pauses only long enough to slap a different dance tune on the turntable and yell "thisíll take their minds off the fight" before dashing offstage to check on the scuffle.
The dance floor is still packed at 1 a.m. but a line of people about 10 deep has formed at the front of the stage to more closely scrutinize the turntable wizardry of Clayton and Greg Broussard, 20. The pairís spiked wristbands and sharp stage costumes are drenched in sweat, but itís far from a predictable, energy-conserving run-through of the current Top 40 theyíre offering.
The brash Clayton hunches over intently, right hand depressing the keys of a voice-distorting instrument that will give his occasionally lewd raps a spacey, futuristic sound. Both men frequently alter the sound of the records themselves through "scratching," a popular method of manual turntable control that lets the deejay emphasize particular beats or vocal phrases.
Broussard, who slightly resembles the late John Belushi and terms himself The Egyptian Lover onstage, worked his way into Uncle Jamís Army because of his "scratching" talent. He had been coming to the groupís dances for years and, through dedicated daily practicing at home, became so good that he was invited to join.
"He was practicing on an old turntable, but making tapes at home and playing to a crowd is different," contends Clayton. "You can wear a part out if you play it too long."
"When he came to us, I taught him how to program and how to talk. He has a crazy personality just like me so we kind of complement each other."
The Egyptian Lover has already made guest appearances at several hip Hollywood dance clubs but Clayton expresses no concern that the sudden proliferation of such venues may cut into the Uncle Jam audience.
"Hollywood is not that much of a hanging-out place for the people who come to our dances. Most of those clubs are 21 and over and theyíre totally different from us. The Egyptian Lover is better than all of the people playing at the Radio (a popular L.A. dance club), and our total show is better.
"We canít do all that rapping they do at the Radio because it would get boring. We can put rappers on no more than two minutes a night because they interfere with the energy level. The music speaks for itself at our dances."
Staging dances is not the only thing on Uncle Jamís agenda these days.
Mindful of the coming Olympics. Clayton is negotiating to find a club for staging dances during the summer months when many larger halls will be tied up with sports events. Uncle Jamís Army is already regularly featured on Wednesday nights at World on Wheels.
Closer to Claytonís heart is making the transition from deejay to recording artist a la Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaata. Uncle Jamís Army has been recording a 12-inch single and Clayton has hopes of a national tour and, ultimately, his own record label. But even those new protects arenít blinding him to the basis of Uncle Jamís support.
A lot of people are our fans and followers and theyíre in Uncle Jamís Army as far as weíre concerned. Weíre nothing without the Army, the people that come to our dances. You have the potential of getting 4,000 to 5,000 people to dance to records here and I donít think itís like that anywhere else.
"I feel weíre kind of at our peak and itís time for us to get these records out. With school starting and the Olympics year, the future is still ours."
© Don Snowden, 1983