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Patrick Adams, Master of New York’s Underground Disco Scene, Dies at 72

Patrick Adams, a producer, arranger and engineer who brought experimentation, sophistication and infectious grooves to countless soul and disco singles — his fellow producer Nile Rodgers called him “a master at keeping butts on the dance floor” — died on Wednesday at his home in Manhattan. He was 72.

His daughter, Joi Sanchez, said the cause was cancer.

If you’ve boogied the night away at a disco or circled a roller rink in the last 50 years, chances are you’ve done it to music that Mr. Adams helped shepherd into existence, even if his name doesn’t ring a bell. Despite his low profile, he left his fingerprints everywhere, often as an engineer or arranger, sitting behind the mixing board for acts like Gladys Knight, Rick James and Salt-N-Pepa.

His greatest legacy, though, was the scores of tracks he produced in the 1970s for New York’s underground disco scene, the energetic, transgressive and insanely creative corner of a genre often written off as cheesy and uncreative. If radio stations in Cleveland and Topeka weren’t playing music he had produced, you could be sure that New York clubs like Gallery and Paradise Garage were.

“He was very underground,” Vince Aletti, who covered disco for Record World magazine, said in a phone interview. “He was really popular on a club level. He rarely broke through above that, but that kind of made him even more like he was ours.”

Mr. Adams’s style varied from album to album, but each release was expertly crafted and irresistibly catchy, at once lofty and raunchy — like Musique’s “In the Bush,” a summer-defining club hit of 1978 that one critic said was among “the horniest records ever made.”

As with many of Mr. Adams’s studio acts, Musique was in a way just a front for his own musical prowess. After a record executive hired him to create a disco hit, he wrote the music and lyrics, arranged the instruments (many of which he played himself) and hired the singers.

He did much the same with acts like Inner Life, Phreek, Cloud One, Bumblebee Unlimited and the Universal Robot Band — a stable of groups, often drawing from the same pool of personnel, that allowed him to spread his creative wings in different directions.

But if Mr. Adams was in control, he was never dictatorial; his studio was always a collaborative space.

“He gave you room to develop, as long as he thought it was creative,” Christine Wiltshire, who sang lead vocals for Musique, said in a phone interview. “He was never ‘This is the way it’s supposed to go.’”

Unlike many disco producers then and many dance producers since, Mr. Adams had little regard for beats and loops. Those came later. He emphasized the melody, the lyrics and above all the story his songs were trying to tell.

“If you start with a great song that has an attractive melody, a lyric that tells a story people can relate to, you’re way ahead of the game,” he told The New York Observer in 2017. “If you start with a beat, which in reality is not much different than anything anybody else could contrive with Fruity Loops or other computer software, you’re just one of a million people making noise.”

Mr. Adams was best known for his disco work, but he got his start with soul bands in the early 1970s, and in the ’80s, after disco faded, he was an engineer for some of the leading acts in New York’s emerging hip-hop scene, like Salt-N-Pepa and Erik B. & Rakim.

“I always look at music as music, not necessarily having a genre,” he told The Guardian in 2017. “I was not trying to make a disco record. I was trying to make just a great record.”

Mr. Adams was born on March 17, 1950, in Harlem, where he grew up four blocks from the Apollo Theater. His father, Fince, was a merchant seaman, and his mother, Rose, was a homemaker.

Patrick was musically inclined at an early age: His father bought him a trumpet when he was 10 and gave him an acoustic guitar when he was 12. He sang in choir and played guitar in a band, the Sparks, when he was 16.

But his real interest was production. He experimented with his father’s reel-to-reel tape deck to master skills like overdubbing. He hung out at studios, learning about mixing boards. He would dissect songs he heard on the radio, trying to understand their arrangements and structure.

“I always shopped for records by producer, arranger and songwriter,” he was quoted as saying in a profile by the journalist Jason King for the Red Bull Music Academy website. “The way D.J.s shop for records now is how I used to shop for records when I was a kid.”

Later he would hang around the back door of the Apollo, so often that Reuben L. Phillips, who conducted the in-house orchestra, let him distribute sheet music.

In the late 1960s he began working for Perception Records as an entry-level jingle writer; by 1970, he was executive vice president. A year later he discovered his first big act, the group Black Ivory, which sang slow-soul hits like “Don’t Turn Around” and “Time Is Love.”

Mr. Adams became known around New York for his lush, energetic string arrangements, and in 1974 he left Perception to start his own arranging and engineering company. A year later he and the music promoter Peter Brown founded a label, P&P Records, to release his underground music.

Mr. Adams never married, but he was in a longtime relationship with Ms. Wiltshire, the mother of Ms. Sanchez. They later separated, but the two remained close. Along with his daughter, he is survived by a brother, Gus; another daughter, Tira Adams; a son, Malcolm Holmes; and six grandchildren. His brother Terry died in 2020.

While Mr. Adams never won the sort of public acclaim given to fellow producers like Mr. Rodgers or Quincy Jones, he did enjoy a renaissance in the 1990s among D.J.s who fell in love with his innovative productions. He found a similar following among hip-hop artists like Mac Miller, Raekwon and Kanye West, all of whom sampled his music.

Still, he seemed at ease with his relative anonymity.

“You can tell a Nile Rodgers record a million miles away because it has an imprint that emanates from his guitar,” Mr. Adams said in a 2017 interview for the Red Bull Music Academy. “In my case I tried to avoid that. I didn’t want my records to sound the same.

“Whether that was a positive thing or a negative thing, I don’t know. But at the same time there is a signature in my music — sometimes it’s harmonic, and sometimes it’s just in the quirkiness of things. And sometimes you just don’t hear it until somebody points it out to you and asks, ‘Oh, he did that record too?’”

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