When Atlantic Starr kicks off the Del Mar Fair's annual series of grandstand concerts Thursday, fairgoers can see one of the sole--make that "soul"--survivors of the disco jinx.
Like the Ohio Players and Brothers Johnson, other popular black funk groups of the mid-'70s, Atlantic Starr emerged at the height of the disco era with a string of pulsating dance hits.
While most disco groups went down with the trend, Atlantic Starr has yet to release its grip on the pop charts. Today, that grip is tighter than ever.
The group's latest single, "Always," is No. 1 in the nation. And its eighth album, "All in the Name of Love," continues to climb the national charts more than four months after its release.
"The bottom line is having good, strong songs," said keyboardist Jonathan Lewis, who founded Atlantic Starr 12 years ago with his two brothers, singer-guitarist David and keyboardist Wayne.
"As long as the songs are good, people will buy them," he said. "As long as you write something that touches people, they'll be able to relate to your music.
"And that's basically what we've always concentrated on, right from the start."
As important as good songs, Lewis added, are musical dexterity and "an ability to change with the times"--something most disco flash-in-the-pans could not do because they were too one-dimensional.
"You have to decide what you want out of the business," Lewis said. "If you just want to have a quick hit and make money real fast, you can do that very easily.
"But if you want longevity, if you want to survive in this business, then you have to be patient. You have to take the time to develop yourself musically, so you can stretch out your commercial juices over a long period of time."
Three years ago, Lewis said, Atlantic Starr trimmed its membership from nine to five and added more commercially geared pop ballads to its standard menu of funky dance tunes.
"As a result, we started getting more of a crossover audience, whites as well as blacks, than before," Lewis said. "And that's essential to success--reaching as wide an audience as possible.
"When we first started out, we were still searching for a direction, for a marketplace. But now time has played its role, and placed us where we were always supposed to be."
The Lewis brothers grew up in White Plains, N.Y. David and Wayne studied classical piano for seven years; Jonathan learned the jazz trombone when he was 18.
"But even as kids, all three of us listened to every sort of music we could get our hands on--from Chopin and Bach to the Beatles, reggae and gospel," Jonathan Lewis said.
"So by the time we started playing professionally around New York in the early 1970s--I was in a jazz fusion band, and my brothers were with a Top 40 group--we had already been influenced by all types of music. And those influences are still with us today."
In 1975, the Lewis brothers merged their groups into Atlantic Starr and soon found their initial disco audience with such early hits as "Stand Up" and "Give Me Your Lovin'."
After disco faded, the Atlantic Starr hit machine continued to run smoothly with chart-toppers such as the 1982 ballad "When Love Calls," and 1985's "Freak-a-Ristic," a blistering dance tune that became one of the few disco songs to crack the national Top 40 that year.
"Good music is good music, no matter what label you put on it," Lewis said. "And people from all walks of life will always be into good music, regardless of which trend happens to be popular at the time."
Atlantic Starr's opening-day performance at the Del Mar Fair is the first of 26 concerts by 22 acts scheduled for the grandstand between Thursday and July 5, the fair's last day.
In the lineup are country rockers the Charlie Daniels Band, June 20; the Everly Brothers, best known for their string of melodic folk-rock hits of the 1950s and early '60s, June 23; 1960s surf-rock duo Jan and Dean, June 25; soul group the Commodores, June 27; country balladeer Loretta Lynn, June 28; veteran jazz singer Mel Torme, July 2, and former Doobie Brothers vocalist Michael McDonald, July 5.
The Charlie Daniels Band, the Commodores and Loretta Lynn will perform two shows each, at 2 and 7:30 p.m. The others will appear once, at 7:30.