Loleatta Holloway: Much-sampled disco diva who sued Black Box over their worldwide hit ‘Ride on Time’

In 1980, the American disco diva Loleatta Holloway topped the US dance charts with two Dan Hartman compositions, "Relight My Fire", latercovered by Take That with Lulu reprising her part, and most famously "Love Sensation", an infectious track which made the most of her formidable, gospel-flavoured vocals and has become one of the most sampled records of the last 30 years.

The Italian DJ-turned-producer Daniele Davoli certainly remembered it when, with Black Box, he used segments of "Love Sensation" to help create "Ride On Time", a UK No 1 and the best-selling single of 1989. "At the time, I thought Loleatta Holloway was dead," he later claimed about a subterfuge that saw Catherine Quinol, a model from Guadeloupe, lip-synching to Holloway's vocals when Black Box appeared on Top Of The Pops and numerous TV shows across Europe. However, Hartman and Holloway sued successfully and the singer received an undisclosed sum in damages.

When Marky Mark – Mark Wahlberg, before he launched his film career – and the Funky Bunch based the US chart-topper "Good Vibrations" on another of Holloway's memorable vocal hooks from "Love Sensation" in 1991, she duly received a credit and a share of the royalties, though her appearance in the video clip was more blink-and-miss-it.

Holloway's was undoubtedly the most sampled female voice in popular music. Her trademark "Love Sensation" whoops and hollers continue to be touchstones of dance and house music, and have been used by Cappella in 1992 and Chase & Status in 2008 – both their tracks are called "Take Me Away" – as well as Cevin Fisher, for "(You Got Me) Burnin' Up", in 1999. She also returned to the British charts in her own right with "Stand Up" in 1994, and "Keep The Fire Burnin'", in partnership with Hartman in 1995, a cover of the Style Council's "Shout To The Top", with Fire Island in 1998, and "What Goes Around Comes Around", with GTS in 2000, as well as revivals of "Relight My Fire", with Martin in 2003, and "Love Sensation 06" in 2006.

Born in Chicago in 1946, she first sang in her mother's choir, the Holloway Community Singers. She made her debut at the age of four on a church recording she disliked so much she broke every copy that came her way. "To me, I sounded like an old woman and I was just a little girl," she told the disco-disco.com website. "I had a loud voice, I'd say that!"

In her late teens she joined the Caravans, the female gospel group led by Albertina Walker, and had fond memories of supporting Aretha Franklin with them in Las Vegas. In 1971 she met the jazz guitarist Floyd Smith, who would become her husband, manager and producer, and suggested she record Curtis Mayfield's "Rainbow '71". Originally issued on Smith's own Apache label, the single was picked up for national distribution by Galaxy Records.

The same year, she joined the cast of Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope, a musical about the African-American experience written by fellow Chicagoan Micki Grant. Her performance caught the attention of Michael Thevis, who signed her to Aware, his Atlanta-based company. With Smith, she recorded two soulful albums, Loleatta (1973) and Cry To Me (1975), whose tearjerker of a title track, written by Sam Dees, made the R&B Top 10 and crossed over into the lower reaches of the US pop charts. Unfortunately, Aware couldn't cope with the demand for the single and promptly went out of business.

In April 1976 she signed to Gold Mind, a subsidiary of Salsoul, the New York label owned by the Cayre brothers that became a powerhouse of disco. Working at Sigma Sound Studios in Philadelphia with the producer, songwriter and guitarist Norman Harris, and several of the session musicians associated with Philly Soul, she was at the forefront of the '70s phenomenon when she cut the epic "Hit And Run", whose Walter Gibbons 12in disco mix clocked in at 11 minutes.

"I wondered how on earth I was going to sing that fast and that long," she recalled. Yet, as the track evolved, she began putting her unique vocal stamp on it, adlibbing and occasionally letting rip. "That's when the vamp started," she said. "I took off. And the vamp was always the part that made the song."

Known as "The Queen of Salsoul", Holloway made four albums for the label and regularly performed atthe leading New York clubs of the day, in particular the famed Paradise Garage. She lent her distinctive voice to "Runaway" and "Seconds" by the Salsoul Orchestra, and recorded such floorfillers as "Dreamin'" and "Catch Me On The Rebound", as well as the disco classics "Relight My Fire" and "Love Sensation".

"That was the hardest song I've ever worked on in my life," she remembered of the track she cut at Hartman's home after adding some Vicks VapoRub to her coffee cup. "That's how I was able to hold that note so long. Dan had me sing that song about 30 times! He was like: 'Oh no, girl, you're too clear. I want you to have some hush in your voice.' When it got to the vamp, he let me go. The vamp was mine. But when I was finished with that song I couldn't talk. It wore me out."

For all the gospel fervour and gritty power she exuded, she also excelled as a subtle, supple interpreter of "quiet storm" ballads, like "Worn Out Broken Heart", her first Salsoul A-side and her personal favourite, and "Only You", a 1978 duet with Bunny Sigler. "I'm a ballad singer but I got caught up in the disco thing," she reflected. "To me, that was the best time. People were more free and they just had one thing in mind, and that was just to have a good time."

Holloway survived the disco backlash of the early '80s and had minor hits with "Crash Goes Love" in 1984 and the house track "So Sweet" in 1987, before the Black Box imbroglio introduced her to a new generation of club-goers. "When sampling first came out, it was OK," she said. "What I didn't understand was they never wanted to pay me. What really filled up the box was when Black Box put somebody else up there saying it was them. That took away from my livelihood."

While the legal matter was nearing settlement, there was talk of Holloway contributing to other Black Box tracks but she held out for a bigger fee and was undercut by Martha Wash of The Weather Girls. Nevertheless, she made the most of the opportunity her heightened profile afforded, only taking a break in 1996 when she had a quadruple by-pass operation.

In 1999, she contributed a version of "Like A Prayer" to the Virgin Voices: A Tribute to Madonna album. Two years ago, Swizz Beatz and Alicia Keys sampled "We're Getting Stronger (The Longer We Stay Together)", from Holloway's first Gold Mind album, to create the disco-flavoured hit "Million Dollar Bill" for Whitney Houston.

"I have always loved to listen to people sing and never thought of myself as a good singer," said Holloway, who had the range and the physique but none of the grand airs of a diva. "That's why I don't have that jealousy issue that a lot of artists have."

Pierre Perrone

Loleatta Holloway, singer and songwriter: born Chicago 5 November 1946; married Floyd Smith (died 1984; three sons, one daughter); died Chicago 21 March 2011.

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