Craig Nielsen: “KC and The Sunshine Band Saved My Life”
If it wasn’t for the Miami Sound, Craig Nielsen might have killed himself as a teenager. Coming from a broken home, moving around all the time, and growing up in Michigan was tough.
But thanks to the phenomenal crossover funk sounds of TK Records, Craig snapped out of his depression, made friends, started playing in bands, and now he’s happy living with his wife and kids in south Oregon.
Here is the true story of how many Americans first experienced the Miami Sound of dance-floor funk and soul as told through the eyes of Craig. Thank you, bro.
HSM: HOW DID KC AND THE SUNSHINE BAND SAVE YOUR LIFE?
CRAIG NIELSEN: Well, basically, I must have been around 13 or 14 years old…my parents got divorced, then my mom remarried and we moved about four times. Even though I sound outgoing, I’m shy, and I had a hard time making friends, to the point where I was like, “Fuck this shit. I’m out.” I was planning my own death. My suicide. And then I was listening to the radio one day, and I heard “Get Down Tonight” blasting out the radio, and I was like, “Man, I ain’t never heard nothin’ like that before.” It was just so happy and uplifting that I was like, “This is what I wanna do.” So I started digging on the music. Back then we had no internet so I had to find the Billboard and Cashbox magazines and over time I kinda figured out where the music was coming from. I asked other kids, I tracked down the artists I liked, and found new ones, and next thing you know, I’m the only white dude in an all black funk band. So I went from a suicidal kid to finding happiness in KC’s music, and by extension the other Henry Stone artists that I then got into. After that, anything that had a horn in it, and a good beat, I was all about it. It just shaped my life.
HSM: WHERE DID YOU GROW UP?
CRAIG NIELSEN: All over Michigan. Back then, even if you moved across town, you lost contact with people. When you’re 13 or 14 that’s a big deal. I kept having to start at new schools. And we didn’t have R&B radio anywhere I lived. Anything I heard had to hit the Top 40. Once I got into the music I started going to record stores and made friends there, and they would tip me off to the good music. When I was 17, we finally got an R&B station and that made things better. They were an AM station, and they were only on the air from sunup to sundown, sometimes longer in the Summer. I ended up DJ’ing for them for a few years before I went off to college.
HSM: DID YOU GET INSPIRED TO PLAY MUSIC?
CRAIG NIELSEN: Yeah, I was in a band called Captain Crunch and The Funky Bunch. And I was in a band called the Dazz Band, before the famous Dazz Band from Cleveland, we just happened to choose that name. Brick had that song “Dazz Right,” and we had horns and thought of our music as Disco Jazz, so we called our self the Dazz Band and next thing you know The Dazz Band has a record out and we were like…
HSM: SO YOU REALLY GOT INTO IT…
CRAIG NIELSEN: Yeah, as a teenager I had a hundred different bands, kind of like having a girlfriend. I was mostly on the percussion end. I started out as a drummer, but I would play drums, sing, play congas…I dug the beat. But one of the coolest things was that back in the mid 70’s there wasn’t too much intermingling of the races. I don’t know what it was like in Miami, but where I lived black folks and white folks kept to themselves. For me, the music eliminated all racism from me, and everybody I played music with were all just regular dudes. It was cool. I had a lot of fun. The music was the bottom line.
HSM: DID YOU HAVE A SENSE OF THE MUSIC COMING FROM MIAMI?
CRAIG NIELSEN: I figured it out cause, like, if KC is making the music, I said, let me find out who else is. Of course there’s like eight million labels, so I’d be in the record stores looking at the backs of albums and kept on seeing “Distributed by T.K. Productions.”And that’s how I found out about all the acts Henry Stone was putting out. That dude in Chicago and the “Disco Sucks” thing messed it all up. But dance music never stopped. Disco didn’t go away. It just changed names. Like, “I Get Lifted,” that is some funky shit, and the break in “Boogie Man,” that is some funky shit. That ain’t disco.
HSM: FIRST THEY BURNED ALL THOSE RECORDS IN A STADIUM, AND NOW YOU HEAR THOSE RECORDS IN EVERY STADIUM…
CRAIG NIELSEN: You hear it all the time. Any big event you go to you’re gonna hear “Boogie Shoes,” or “That’s The Way I Like It.” I know there are detractors, but it’s 2017 and that shit is still being played on the radio and in stadiums…
HSM: WHAT DOES THE MIAMI SOUND MEAN TO YOU?
CRAIG NIELSEN: Happiness. Positive energy. If I have a down day, I throw on some Miami music and get a smile on my face. I’m a territory manager. I drive like three thousand miles a month in my car and I listen to all old music. Nothing new. I remember when my step dad would be listening to Elvis, and I would be like, “That’s old.” And he’d be like, “One day, you’ll be listening to the music you grew up listening to,” and he was right.
HSM: HOW DID THE MUSIC FROM HENRY STONE’S LABELS INFLUENCE YOU OVER TIME?
CRAIG NIELSEN: I went to college and all my roommates were black. I really dug Prince in the 80’s too. And I think this music created a guy that can love all sorts of different people. I was born in 1963. I remember hearing George McCrae and finding out he was really part of the whole KCSB. And Jimmy Bo Horne. I saw him and KC in 1979 on the We Wanna Party tour in Michigan. It was kind of a freak deal, but Charlie Daniels Band was supposed to play, but his keyboardist broke his arm and they announced KCSB on the day-of. I called a friend and we got our tickets for $7.50 each and after the show we just walked backstage. The concert was outside and there was no security so it was easy. I remember Jerome and Shotgun were high as a kite. They came in stoned out of their minds like, “Hey, man, where can we get some food at?”