Say “Meco” to a fan of mid-1970’s disco and it will raise a smile.  Pop trivia obsessives remember him mainly for his hit single “Star Wars/Cantina Band,” an orchestral-disco reimagining of cues from the Star Wars soundtrack.  However, that only scratches the surface of what Meco Monardo contributed to 1970’s pop and disco.  As an arranger, he worked with everyone from Tommy James to Neil Diamond and played a vital role in inventing the classic disco style with his lush yet propulsive arrangements on early Gloria Gaynor hits like “Never Can Say Goodbye” and “Casanova Brown.”

Meco quickly moved into production, helming his famous soundtrack-disco albums and a host of productions for other disco up-and-comers.  He even briefly had a label, Honey Bee Records, that he ran with manager Jay Ellis and studio owner Tony Bongiovi… which brings us to Meco Presents Camouflage & Showdown.  This CD contains the full contents of the two albums released by this label during its short history – A Disco Symphony by Camouflage and Showdown Featuring Sampson by Showdown.  Taken together, the two albums offer an interesting glimpse into the disco era before its production formulas became set in stone.

The title track of A Disco Symphony is a side-length affair that uses the classic disco-song theme of a fantasizing about a visit to the ultimate discotheque as the springboard for a grandiose epic that quotes everything from “Rhapsody In Blue” to “I Hear A Symphony.”  As Stephen L. Freeman’s liner notes astutely point out, it also breaks disco b.p.m. rules by segueing into a downtempo cover of “MacArthur Park” near the end.  Harold Wheeler’s arrangement is dazzling, hitting the ideal blend of churning rhythms and lavish orchestrations (instrumental and choral).  The way he weaves the title track’s main theme into the finale of “MacArthur Park” is nothing short of breathtaking.  Sondra Simon anchors the track with sweet yet authoritative vocals.

The second side’s no slouch, either.  “Take A Ride” is a midtempo gem: a femme chorus coos a two-bar snippet of vocal melody over an ever-shifting musical bed that weds gracefully gliding strings and percussive horns to a slinky rhythm section groove.  Meco also contributes a stunning trumpet solo that jazzes up the proceedings.  “Bee Sting” closes out things on an endearingly kitschy note by pairing up “love-as-sting” lyrics with a delirious arrangement that goes heavy on the swirling strings and burbling synth effects.  The production, handled by Meco with Wheeler, Bongiovi and Ellis, lends clarity and punch to the song’s rich arrangements.

Showdown Featuring Sampson is more of a mixed bag.  The overall approach is less focused, utilizing a number of shorter tracks that aren’t as lavish or distinctly disco-oriented.  There are no epics are obvious single-type material, leaving the listener feeling like it is a batch of second-tier material assembled to create a quick album.  It also features one notable dud in an early version of “What’s Your Name,” better known to disco fans in its superior later version “What’s Your Name, What’s Your Number” by the Andrea True Connection.  The Showdown version suffers from a sluggish tempo and kitschy instrumental hook at chorus time that gets run into the ground.

That said, the rest of the album merits a listen thanks to the solid craftsmanship of Meco and crew at the production console.  “Walkin’ In Music” makes great use of hard-hitting vocals by Eugene Pitt (the “Sampson” of the title) and the Jive Five while the “Gotta Get Into You/Lay, Lady, Lay” medley blends a catchy soul-disco original with an infectious vocal hook into an effective reclaiming of the Isley Brothers’ arrangement for the Dylan classic.  Also worthy of note is “Keep Doin’ It,” which boasts a light, engaging Meco arrangement built on staccato piano fills and “Come Down In Time,” which rearranges an obscure Elton John tune into an effective midtempo soul ballad.

The disc also adds a pair of single-only tracks: “Take A Ride” is presented in a different, shorter mix prepared for single release and “The Impulse” is a non-album Showdown b-side instrumental with a down-home soul sound reminiscent of a Willie Mitchell production(!).  Everything on the disc included boasts nice sonics free of artificial volume-boosting and Stephen L. Freeman’s liner notes do a great job of placing the two album in the context of Meco’s career.  All in all, a great little package from Funky Town Grooves and a nice, value-conscious way for disco fans to enhance their lesser-known 70’s disco repertoire.