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Van McCoy: Do the Hustle

Getty Images / Redferns / GAB Archive

Van McCoy: Do the Hustle

While the name Van McCoy might not spark immediate recognition, people of a certain age do know the song and dance that made him famous: "The Hustle." Released in 1975 on the album Disco Baby, the single went on to sell 10 million copies, making it the biggest dance hit of the 1970s, according to The Washington Post.

McCoy was only 39 when he died of a heart attack July 6, 1979. But he lives on via "The Hustle" and other songs he wrote and produced for such artists as Gladys Knight and the Pips and Aretha Franklin. marks the anniversary of McCoy's death with 10 questions – and answers – about the musician and the instrumental that remains his most notable achievement.

1. Which came first – the song or the dance? The answer is the dance. As The Washington Post wrote in 2004, "Ironically, 'The Hustle' was already a popular dance that had emerged in the early '70s in Latino circles and was brought to McCoy's attention when a New York DJ took him to a local nightclub to check it out. McCoy loved seeing people dancing together again – he once said it reminded him of ballroom dancing – and he wrote 'The Hustle' in an hour, at the last minute tagging it onto the already finished Disco Baby album. 'The Hustle' catapulted McCoy into the spotlight and helped fuel a pulsating disco frenzy here and abroad."

2. What made "The Hustle" so special? "It was a revolutionary dance, because it was the first time in a long time that partners held each other," The Associated Press noted in 1979. "The hustle was more highly stylized and sophisticated than the more 'hang loose' dances of the decade, such as the bump and the boogaloo."

3. Did he play every instrument and sing, too? Of course not. While McCoy is often the only person mentioned in connection with the "The Hustle," he had a lot of help in the studio. His orchestra, Soul City Symphony, provided the music. The lead piccolo melody was by Philip Bodner.

4. How popular was it? "The Hustle" won the "best pop instrumental performance" Grammy in 1975. It was the biggest hit of McCoy’s career.

5. So he was a one-hit wonder? No, far from it. McCoy held the copyrights to about 700 songs when he died. McCoy was involved in almost every aspect of the music industry. He wrote "Sweet Bitter Love" for Aretha Franklin and "Lean on Me" for Melba Moore. He produced Gladys Knight and the Pips and did arrangements for the Stylistics. He's credited with discovering the original lineup of Peaches & Herb. Other artists who recorded McCoy’s songs: Nat King Cole, Tom Jones, the Shirelles and Jackie Wilson.

6. Did I hear the song during a commercial recently? In the 1970s, Burger King used "The Hustle" to promote its new chicken sandwich. In 2004, Old Navy used the song in a 10th-anniversary commercial featuring '70s stars like Morgan Fairchild, Erik Estrada and Sherman Hemsley grooving to the tune.

7. How about in the recent film American Hustle? Strangely, even though that 2013 film is set in the late '70s and early '80s, "The Hustle" is not included on the soundtrack. But American television shows Ally McBeal and The Simpsons have used it in episodes.

8. Is "The Hustle" the same as "The Shuffle?" No. "The Shuffle" is another McCoy instrumental. Released in 1977, the song did not do well in the U.S. but reached the top five in the U.K. charts. The BBC used "The Shuffle" during its Wimbledon coverage.

9. Did "The Hustle" go the way of the dodo and the Macarena? It seems some media outlets haven't forgotten it. In 2013, a survey by the National Endowment for the Arts and the U.S. Census Bureau sought to estimate adult Americans' involvement in the arts in the last year. An article that originated on the Public Broadcasting Service website and was widely shared noted that anyone who "danced 'the hustle' at a wedding" qualified as someone engaged with the arts.

10. Would a song that's largely instrumental and on the slower side, like "The Hustle," be as successful today? It's hard to tell. The '70s seemed to be more forgiving and accepting when it came to music. To note: In October 1976, the song "Disco Duck" by Rick Dees and His Cast of Idiots hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 music chart. The song featured a voice modeled after Walt Disney's Donald Duck and traditional disco music.

Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Her lifelong love of obituaries raised eyebrows when she was younger, but she's now able to explain that this interest goes beyond morbid curiosity. Says Pompilio, "Obituaries are mini life stories, allowing a glimpse into someone's world that we're often denied. I just wish we could share them with each other when we're alive."