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Hamilton Bohannon, Driving Disco Drummer, Dies at 78


Hamilton Bohannon, a drummer whose disco records propelled people onto dance floors in the 1970s and ’80s, and then lived on as popular samples for major hip-hop artists, died on April 24 at his home in Atlanta. He was 78.

His daughter, April Bohannon Binion, said the cause of death had not been determined.

Mr. Bohannon began his career primarily backing Motown acts like Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and Diana Ross and the Supremes, before going off on his own.

Danceable rhythm was the defining characteristic of Mr. Bohannon’s most successful compositions. He was an early devotee of the so-called four-on-the-floor rhythm, which became the backbone of disco and many later forms of dance music, especially house.

Mr. Bohannon became known for long-running tracks like “Foot Stompin’ Music,” “Disco Stomp” and “Bohannon’s Beat,” which often featured straightforward vocals chanted over a driving beat. They were made to keep dancers on the floor, and many of them became staples for disco D.J.s; his highest-charting single, “Let’s Start II Dance Again” (1981), reached No. 5 on Billboard’s dance/club chart.

Some of Mr. Bohannon’s songs, like “South African Man,” skewed funky; others, like “Save Their Souls,” were closer to traditional soul or R&B. But they all shared a propulsive beat, as Mr. Bohannon told The Newnan Times-Herald of Georgia, his hometown newspaper, when the street next to his childhood home was named after him in 2017.

“The foundation is that beat,” Mr. Bohannon said. “Even a deaf man can feel that vibration.”

Mr. Bohannon’s music endured long after disco floors cleared. New generations of producers discovered his work, which was sampled by more than 100 artists, among them Jay-Z (“Cashmere Thoughts”), Craig Mack (“Project: Funk da World”), Justin Timberlake (“Strawberry Bubblegum”) and Digable Planets (“Pacifics”).

His music also inspired contemporaries like Talking Heads, whose drummer, Chris Frantz, wrote in an email, “The thing about Bohannon’s musical style that influenced us were his relentlessly driving rhythms, four to the bar, performed by his entire rhythm section on guitar, bass, drums and percussion.”

“While Bohannon’s approach to music was easy and fun to dance to, his production values were not overly slick and polished like so many disco records,” Mr. Frantz continued. “There was something very visceral about his songs.”

Hamilton Frederick Bohannon was born on March 7, 1942, in Newnan, about 40 miles southwest of Atlanta. His father, Willie, worked in a local warehouse and ran a barbershop; his mother, Sarah (Taylor) Bohannon, was a homemaker. He started learning percussion when he was quite young, banging on books, furniture and anything else at hand.

He told The Newnan Times-Herald that he persuaded his high school band, and his parents, to let him play in its rhythm section when he was still in elementary school. By seventh grade he had formed a group, the Bob Dads, that performed at venues in the area and eventually became regulars at the Royal Peacock in Atlanta, where luminaries like Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, Dinah Washington and Gladys Knight and the Pips performed.

Mr. Bohannon was hired as the house drummer at the Peacock, and while working there he met and played with Jimi Hendrix, then a young, obscure guitarist, shortly before Mr. Hendrix became a sideman for Little Richard.

After graduating from high school in Newnan, Mr. Bohannon studied music at Clark College (now Clark Atlanta University), a historically black institution in Atlanta, earning a bachelor’s degree in music with a minor in education in 1970. He met Andrea Mundy there, and they married a few years after she graduated.

Mr. Bohannon taught high school music in LaGrange, Ga., by day, and kept playing at the Peacock by night. His essentially sleepless lifestyle caught up with him, and he badly injured his foot in a car accident. The injury kept him from being drafted during the Vietnam War.

After he recovered, he became the drummer for Stevie Wonder, then a teenage prodigy, whom he had met in Atlanta. Mr. Bohannon followed Mr. Wonder to Detroit, and in 1967 he became the drummer and band director for touring Motown acts. After Berry Gordy, the label’s founder, moved Motown Records to Los Angeles in 1972, Mr. Bohannon returned to Georgia and resumed teaching for a time before he started recording and producing his own music.

Dakar Records released his first solo album, “Stop & Go,” in 1973. His other albums include “Insides Out” (1975) and “Summertime Groove” (1978).

His wife, Andrea, died in 1996. In addition to his daughter, he is survived by a son, Hamilton Bohannon II; a sister, Annie Lee Cook; two brothers, Levi and Howard; and three grandchildren.

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