Van Allen Clinton McCoy, composer, conductor, and lyricist, was born on January 6, 1940, in Washington, D.C., to Norman S. McCoy Sr. and Lillian Ray. Van was the son of Norman S. McCoy Jr. and Mattie McCoy Taylor. Van began piano lessons at the age of four and attended Monroe Elementary School in the District of Columbia. From 1952 to 1953, while attending Benjamin Banneker Jr. High School, he attended a Saturday music class for children at Howard University in Washington, D.C. In the city, he sang with the Metropolitan Baptist Church Choir.
During his sophomore year at all-Black Dunbar High School in 1954, he and his brother, Norman, and two classmates were murdered. The Starlighters were founded by Freddy Smith and Paul Comedy. In 1955, he transferred to the predominantly white Roosevelt High School in Washington, D.C. In 1956, he released the novelty dance record “The Birdland.” McCoy graduated from Roosevelt High School in 1957. After that, he worked for a year before enrolling at Howard University in 1958 to major in psychology.
The Starlighters released the single “I Cried” on the End Records label in 1959, then relocated to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and established the Rockin’ Records label. In 1959, he released the single “Hey Mr. DJ” there.
From 1961 to 1973, McCoy wrote hit songs for others, including Gladys Knight & The Pips’ “Giving Up,” which peaked at no. 6 on the Billboard R&B singles chart and no. 38 on the Billboard Hot 100; The Shirelles’ “Stop the Music,” which peaked at no. 36 in the United States; and Betty Everett’s “Getting Mighty Crowded,” which peaked at no. 28 and remained charted for He also released 24 singles that failed to chart.
Van McCoy finally released a successful studio album, Disco Baby, on the Avco label in 1975. The album peaked at number one on the R&B album chart, number 11 in Canada, number 12 on the Billboard Hot 200 Album chart, number 16 in Germany, and number 32 in the United Kingdom. More than 500,000 copies of the album were sold. “The Hustle,” his album’s hit single, peaked at number one on the US R&B chart, number one in Canada, and number two on the US Adult Contemporary chart. More than a million copies of the single were sold.
McCoy once conducted the large Soul City Symphony, which included violins, cellos, vocalists, and dancers, at New York City’s Avery Fisher Hall to highlight his celebrated composition, “The Hustle.” McCoy also won “Best Pop Instrumental Performance” for “The Hustle” at the 18th Annual Grammy Awards in 1976.
McCoy wrote the television film theme song “A Woman Called Moses” about African American abolitionist Harriet Tubman in 1978.
Van Allen Clinton McCoy died of a heart attack on July 6, 1979, in Englewood, New Jersey. He was 39.