Mates’ Crates: Janice McClain – Smack Dab In The Middle

Mates’ Crates, a series headed up by our friend Andrei Sandu, dives into the tales behind records and digs deeper into our connections to music. This time, a new disco discovery – Janice McClain’s “Smack Dab In The Middle”.

Label: Warner Bros | Year: 1979 | Discogs: Janice McClain – Smack Dab In The Middle

A few weeks ago I headed down to Soho’s Phonica Records for the launch of Leon Vynehall’s “Rosebud / Black Dove” EP. As well as a surprise appearance from Midland (and an even bigger surprise play of Rosie Gaines’ “Closer Than Close”), my highlight was definitely hearing Janice McClain’s “Smack Dab In The Middle” for the first time.

Born and raised in Philadelphia, both her parents had released records as teenagers and she soon began singing in church. Channeling early idols like Freda Payne and Diana Ross, McClain debuted with local jazz ensemble Pieces of a Dream at the age of 14, and recorded “Smack Dab in the Middle” – written and produced by two of her uncles – shortly after her fifteenth birthday. 

Perhaps most notably, though, “Smack Dab In The Middle” was mixed by Paradise Garage legend Larry Levan. Born in 1954, Levan inherited his love of music from his mother, and allegedly knew how to use a turntable at the age of three. Levan excelled at maths and physics, leaving his teachers thinking he would become an inventor one day. As an early experimenter with drum machines and synths, they weren’t entirely wrong.

Levan dropped out of high school and became involved in Harlem’s ballroom culture, where he first met his lifelong best friend (and godfather of house music) Frankie Knuckles. But it was David Mancuso of The Loft who introduced him to Manhattan’s underground dance culture. Levan and Knuckles started DJing together at the Continental Baths, filling in for The Gallery’s Nicky Siano.

After securing his residency at the Garage, Levan also became a prolific producer, best known for his remixes of Inner Life’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and Gwen Guthrie’s “Ain’t Nothin’ Goin’ On But The Rent”. 

“Smack Dab In The Middle” also became a Garage staple. Whilst the record was amongst the most played in discotheques in early 1980, it did not perform in the mainstream charts. Immediately after graduating high school, McClain was frequently performing alongside local stars McFadden & Whitehead, Harold Melvin, and Billy Paul, and warming up for the likes of James Brown, The Commodores and The O’Jays. It was another Philadelphia icon – “godmother of soul” Patti LaBelle – that pointed MCA Records towards McClain, where she signed for an album.