It was 1996 and most of the popular “dance” songs to play at the time were predominantly Euro and dance-pop records of the day, but every now and again a house record would come along that slowed things down just a little bit and gave a dancefloor the chance to appreciate the groove once again. I was working with a mobile company at the time and shortly after meeting the owner, I asked what were the big records he was playing at the time. He rattled of a list of names, but one that stuck out was “Happy Days” – PJ.
The record started of as a project of Paul Jacobs, who was a university student in Toronto at the time and also DJed and produced on the side. The bulk of his better known work including “Spanish Fly” and the “Soul Grabber” series, was released on the now-defunct Aquarius Recordings label, also based out of Toronto. The label had taken an unique approach to their marketing: vinyl only with very vague black-and-white labels containing only the Aquarius logo (a variation of the zodiac symbol), the producer’s name and the name of the E.P. and a release date from 1970-1979. The flip side of the vinyl label would contain a photo of the artist whose music had been sampled for the tracks, and on other occasions a random picture of the producer from some point in their childhood years. Aquarius was seeking to bring back the essence and spirit of the disco 12-inch single with their designs and their releases which prominently featured disco samples, and their minimalistic approach probably helped with any sample clearance issues the label might have. A number of Toronto producers released their early material on the label including The Stickmen, Nick Holder, Mitch Winthrop, and Miguel Migs and Aquarius continued releasing productions until 2003.
“Happy Days” began life way back in 1981 with the release of a track also called “Happy Days” by North End feat. Michelle Wallace. North End was a project of disco producer Arthur Baker and “Happy Days” was their biggest success. The success, though, came only after a the track was remixed and re-named “Tee’s Happy” on the b-side of 12″ releases. This version saw most of the vocals stripped away and the groove was brought to the forefront. The b-side was played regularly at the legendary Paradise Garage by the equally legendary DJ Larry Levan and quickly became an anthemic track at the club. Listen above and you’ll hear all of the chunks sampled in the original and remixes over the years.
PJ’s release is not a complicated arrangement; the original (and IMHO best) version simply lifts a section of the guitar solo from “Tee’s Happy” and loops it for about four minutes with a little bit of filtering over a house groove that progresses along with the sample. The track basic elements filter out, only to have a loop of the chorus (“Happy days, and thing are still okay, we’re going…”) come slamming back in to carry the track to the end. A lovely little horn loop is added in two sections and is actually one of my favourite elements of the tune.
From my first listen, I knew this was a hot track and the simplicity of the arrangement and the vocal hook would make it appealing to a much broader audience than just the underground disco scene. It took a minute to catch on, but eventually I would see dozens of people making their way to the dancefloor every time that funky guitar loop started inching its way out of the speakers. The 12″ release actually contains three cuts, the original and two remixes also from Jacobs that expand on the original concept by extending and adding new samples from the North End track offering several good quality mixes on one release. The track would go one to be remixed and re-released dozens of times over the years, as recently as 2011, in fact, but I’ve never found a remix that truly matches the pure brilliance of the original.
The tune also received massive support on Canadian dance music radio and was eventually the first Aquarius track to be released on CD single. Acclaimed house label Defected even snapped it up for overseas release and it quickly became an anthem the world over. “Happy Days” truly was one of the first tunes to put Canada on the map as far as house music was concerned, and it really hasn’t lost its luster over the years. A lot of tracks are given the label “timeless”, but this one almost defines it.