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Donna Summer (1948 - 2012)
A Tribute To The First Lady Of Love
Queen Of Disco
Recommended Recordings By Claude Lemaire
Part Two
Review By Claude Lemaire

 

  In part one of our tribute to the late Donna Summer we followed the beginnings of The Lady of Love along with the emerging Eurodisco movement. In part two we continue our journey and conclude with the rated discography.

"Once upon a time, there was a girl"... and once upon a time there was a singer named Donna Summer and a writer-producer duo by the name of Giorgio-Bellotte who pursued to push even further the boundaries of disco music and Once Upon a Time [Atlantic ATL 60 132 or Casablanca NBLP 7078] would be the album summing up best the pinnacle of the art genre. Released for Halloween 1977, the fairy tail concept is divided into four acts. As we have seen in part one, the disco concept album was by now nothing new. With her three previous albums along with Philadelphia-based The Ritchie Family already mastering this formula, what makes this particular release specially important is that it is the first of only a handful of double-LPs in the disco genre and only one of two featuring strictly new material by the same artist, the other remaining one being another Summer album released in 1979. Obviously this was nothing new in rock territory, the format harking back to June 1966 with the twin releases of Bob Dylan's Blonde on Blonde and The Mothers of Invention's debut Freak Out; but for disco it was a special event. Surprisingly it even preceded the blockbuster soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever [RSO RS-2-4001] by two weeks. The LP cover presents another first (for disco), with a gatefold comprising the lyrics and credits printed on the paper inner sleeves.

Make no mistake when Once Upon a Time first hit the airwaves and the dance floor, it left the Gaynor's, Douglas' and Barry's of the era quite far in the dust and I for one, remember being totally impressed - though a bit shaken - at the time. Act One opens with a slow, sweeping, majestic, stringed intro to the title track before unleashing into high octane progressive disco. It segues into darker themes with "Faster and Faster To Nowhere" pushing the frenzy adrenaline to the limit before "Fairy Tale High" relieves some of the pressure bringing 'happier' melodies to the rescue. The mixed side culminates with "Say Something Nice". Act Two changes style radically with three songs that fit firmly in the electro-disco subcategory first expounded in "I Feel Love" and followed close by, with Giorgio's own groundbreaking masterpiece: "From Here to Eternity" [Oasis 25 087 OT or Casablanca NBLP 7065] released in July. "Now I Need You" is a colossal tour de force fusing 'heavy' electronic keyboards with cathedralesque organ and choir sonorities plus Donna's angelic voice; the combination of which aspiring to near Wagnerian proportions. Because of the latter, it gives the impression of being slower paced than the two cited 'music ancestors' as well as more majestic and cerebral and less dance oriented.

Opening with a 'typewriter-sounding' crescendo, followed by the pulsating metronomic moog, it originally ends by a 'mirrored' decrescendo leaving solely the lone 'typewriter track' serving as bridge to "Working the Midnight Shift"; another impressive work of Moroder stature. Strangely and unfortunately, "Queen for a Day" - the third track - is not mixed with the previous two, breaking somewhat the special ambiance that was so carefully crafted as well as the winning formula found in Acts One and Four and that existed in prior Summer and Giorgio productions. Act Three is quite literally the slow or ballad side comprising no memorable hits. In all probability this must have been a way to satisfy Donna's quest for exploring other genres and -- for Giorgio and Bellotte -- double serving as 'filler-up' material; as such the listener can simply skip to the last side. Act Four makes up plenty for the latter with a mixed trio of brilliant disco songwriting. First up is the very original "Rumor Has It". Coming off as nervous, heavy and mysterious, its energetic pace and minor key synths add vigor and tension to the fore; creating in the process one highly unique sounding track. The musical transition to the following track -- "I Love You" -- is perfectly accomplished via an abrupt piano chord that lifts the spirit displaying subtle but refined arrangements that you just do not find in most of todays 'dance-oriented' tracks. It is written and sung with lots of dynamic interplay juxtaposing the strong chorus with the softer verses. Closing the set is "Happily Ever After", another fine song that did not get as much airplay as the above two.

Finally "(Theme) Once Upon A Time" as in typical concept album fashion ends the 'Cinderella' fairy tale. Amazingly the whole project from idea to 'putting down the tracks' was completed in three days. For its originality, strong compositions and arrangements, it is probably the most important Donna Summer/Giorgio/Bellotte album to own. Unfortunately on a purely audiophile criterion, it is situated under par in relation with her other beloved albums; lacking bottom weight, warmth and tending more towards a 'middy' compressed sound. In other words, there are many better sounding and balanced disco releases from the 1970s out there but we are not talking typical mid-1980s or MP3 aberrations neither. Perhaps the German Atlantic pressing may prove better or at least closer to the original Munich MusicLand recording studio than the U.S. Casablanca but having only the latter, I am not in position to confirm or deny such. As per her previous albums, the recording and -- in this case -- mixdown engineer was Juergen Koppers while Allan Zentz did the mastering.

After seeing the potential of Saturday Night Fever's tremendous success in record sales and at the box office, Casablanca Records and Filmworks - in collaboration with Motown - placed their bets on Thank God It's Friday. Released in April 1978, the original motion picture soundtrack [Casablanca NBLP 7099] was presented as a 'Two-Record Set with Bonus 12-inch Single' (side). Though the film was a disastrous flop, the music from the - at the time's - 'Who's Who' of Disco is more worthy; at least regarding side A, for the rest cannot be considered 'A-list' material. Apart from the title track performed by French-based Love And Kisses, two other tracks really stand out - both of them by Summer. "With Your Love" [Casablanca NBD 20117 DJ] was a minor hit with electro-disco influences that is worth seeking out especially on this 'Collectors Gift Series'12-inch promo single for its alternate longer version and vastly superior sound to the regular soundtrack LP, which rates only fair. The second single, the major hit "Last Dance" [Casablanca NBD 20122 DJ] was a departure of some sorts by the fact that it marked the first original song written by Paul Jabara instead of Bellotte and Giorgio as well as production credits shared with songwriter-producer Bob Esty. Sporting a ballad intro and break, while cruising on at 120 BPM after the initial kick drum fades in, it served well as a disco template for others as well as future Summer hits and became a signature song for the Disco Diva, not discounting the closing track for many DJs 'set lists' since. Though in this instance, the 8 minute version appears nearly identical to the regular LP soundtrack, again the balanced superior sound and 'full-spread' grooves make it really worth finding this 'Collectors Gift Series' single edition.

In late August, another first for disco was the release of Live and More [Casablanca NBLP 7119-2], one of only two live disco albums ever to be produced; the other being - King of Disco - French drummer Cerrone and his 1979 double-LP In Concert [Malligator 773 809]. Recorded live at the Universal Amphitheatre in Los Angeles, California, this double-LP - issued in a triple di-cut gatefold sleeve - comprises three live sides plus a fourth studio side. Sides A and C are the stronger live tracks while side B covers more 'classic songbook fare' and newer ballads; presumably this must have stem from Donna's wish to be recognized as a real singer as opposed to an overt 'sexual' one - which to me is sadly ironic when she was already 'on top of her game' with her unique sensual style. The live sets are for the most part interesting and fully energized with a good mix of acoustic, electric and electronic instruments but naturally do not expect to hear the sophistication and perfection of the studio versions, nor the detailed balanced sound but the latter is fair nonetheless. The crown jewel of course is the lone studio side that carries a cover of the 1968 Jimmy Webb penned "MacArthur Park", sung originally by Irish actor Richard Harris from the LP A Tramp Shining [RCA Victor RD-7947]. When artists decide to cover someone else's song, my view is that you have to bring something significant to the table or else just don't even think of going there - even more so if the original is a 'classic'. In this case Summer shines through with her 'recipe' and makes "the cake out in the rain" all her own. It is the rare case that I prefer the cover to the original, but though the latter is excellent and admittedly highly original in musical composition and structure, I lift my hat to the usual Munich trio for transforming an idiosyncratic song into a monumental 'classic' disco track.

Like "Once Upon A Time", the 17 minute and a half "MacArthur Park Suite" opens with a slow intro, this time mainly with cello and a few solemn verses and in tandem with the former, I clearly remember being transfixed by the majesty and propulsive power of the production and her vocal delivery. After establishing her stylistic imprint, the main theme segues into "One of a Kind" followed by a duet between Donna and Brooklyn' Dreams singer Joe "Bean" Exposito exchanging verses on "Heaven Knows" - which became a hit in itself and was later released as a 7-inch single. Finally, "MacArthur Park (Reprise) recalls the main theme and beautifully ends with the recurring staccato riff playing one last time and the end note cut out with short reverb. A twelve-inch single [Casablanca NBD 20148] also exist; both this version and the LP are very similar save for "One of a Kind" which has been edited shorter by a minute and "Heaven Knows" which is extended approximately by 45 seconds on the 12-inch and includes the bridge horn solo, keeping the total 'suite' time roughly identical. Both versions have fairly good sound throughout but not surprisingly at over 17 minutes long, start to show some mild restrictions in the top end due to typical inner groove distortion. This disco masterpiece would in some way mark the end of an era; an end to the 'side-long' suites and an end to the progressive Euro disco writing style for Pete Bellote, Giorgio Moroder and Donna Summer.

Coming out at the end of April 1979, Bad Girls [Casablanca NBLP-2-7150] is without doubt Donna's final truly great album. It is also her last double-LP of original material, last concept album and the trio's last creative chemistry flowing from within and counts musicians Harold Faltermeyer and Keith Forsey as co-writers. Like previous albums, three out of the four sides run uninterrupted while side C is the de facto ballad side mostly credited in her name and as usual is best skipped. But in contrast to previous productions, the songs are not part of a suite; rather they are entirely self-contained and thus a 'better fit' for single release. Always eager to innovate, the album opens with the crossover hit "Hot Stuff", making her the first of only two disco artist to embrace some strong rock influences into their repertoire; the other being once again Cerrone with his heavily influenced or dare I say 'rip-off' of the latter with his 1979 single "Rock Me" [Malligator 772 814]. Of course the reverse situation - that is, rock artists embracing disco influences - had already transpired nearly a year before, first with The Rolling Stones' "Miss You" [Rolling Stones Records 12 EMI 2802 or Atlantic DSKO 119 (promo) or DK 4609] in May, followed by Blondie's New Wave/electro-disco hybrid "Heart of Glass" from Parallel Lines [ChrisalisCHE 1192] in September or the extended 12-inch single [Chrisalis CDS-2275] later in the year as well as Rod Stewart's "Da Ya Think I'm Sexy?" [Riva SAM 92 or the U.S. (Jim Burgess) remix on Warner Bros. WBSD 8727] in November while Casablanca stalwarts Kiss, countered right after Summer with "I Was Made for Lovin' You" [Casablanca NBD 20169] in May and not to be outdone, Sparks came out with the Giorgio-produced "Beat the Clock" pressed on the B side of the 12-inch single [Elektra AS-11412] in July. The heavyish"Hot Stuff" segues into the lighter title track and together form the two biggest hits of the album and of her career even surpassing the number one "Last Dance"; not really surprising given that all three were the closest to accessible 'disco-pop' and the farthest from her prior more complex Euro disco material.

The mixed pairing was released also in extended form on the "Hot Stuff"+"Bad Girls" 12-inch single [Casablanca NBD 20167] with added sax solo reminiscent of those found in "Miss You" and even more so in "Da Ya Think I'm Sexy?". Sax riffs also find their place on the fairly good but totally ignored "Love Will Always Find You", which is a shame considering that the lesser interesting - but nonetheless top 40 - hit "Walk Away" is the one that got 'pushed' as a fourth single only in her post-Casablanca period. A seven minute extended promo 12-inch single [Casablanca NBD 20226 DJ] came out in October 1980. Side B opens with the slow intro to the top 5 "Dim All the Lights", also extended to 7 minutes on the promo 12-inch single [Casablanca NBD 20193 DJ]. It is followed by the well energized synth driven "Journey to the Center of Your Heart". "One Night in a Lifetime" and "Can't Get to Sleep at Night" follow, starting to show the first signs of waning disco creativity as well as popularity; perhaps presaging the famous Disco Demolition Night of July 12. Last but certainly not least is the electro-disco side placing Giorgio at the forefront of what he does best and what I would consider the best side of the album. Starting with "Our Love", which is quite different from past Summer or Giorgio electronic tracks. Less majestic and grandiose than "Now I Need You", it nevertheless was rhythmically well ahead of its time serving as main rhythmic inspiration for the biggest 12-inch seller of all time: New Order's 1983 electro-pop bombshell "Blue Monday"/"The Beach" [Factory FAC 73] as well as countless others in the 1980s. Without skipping a beat, this great track passes the torch to another equally if not superiorly great composition in "Lucky". Donna's delicate voice continues to enhance the many beautiful, and subtle, panned electronic arrangements throughout the track.

Finally the metronomic tempo is shifted into higher gear with what is Summer's fastest clocking BPM track, the proto-techno "Sunset People". While the majority of her songs - and of disco for that matter - gravitated around the 100 to 132 BPM range, this last track was 'reaching for the gold' to come in at 140 BPM - this in 1979 no less! This is at quite the opposite of her very first disco track at the other end of the spectrum with a mere 96 BPM. The only other disco tracks giving it a run for its money at the time were Rosebud's cover of Pink Floyd's "Have a Cigar" [Flarenasch 721.602] in 1977 or the 1979 U.S. extended version [Warner Bros WBSD 8784] and Amii Stewart's cover of - Eddie Floyd's 1966 soul hit - "Knock on Wood" [AriolaHansa AR 9000 or PRO 7736] in late 1978-early 1979. Even to this day the track remains highly original in composition and style. What is somewhat surprising is the fact that Bellote, Faltermeyer and Forsey are credited as writers and not Giorgio as one would expect given the heavy electronic nature of the song, that said he is still credited as producer. It was released also on a 12-inch single with "Our Love" on the B-side [Phonogram 6198 359].

Regarding sound matters, recording and mixing engineers Juergen Koppers and Steven D. Smith at Rusk Sound Studios in Los Angeles along with Brian Gardner at Allen Zentz got things pretty much right: Bad Girls is lightly compressed, very well mixed and tonally balanced, but is a bit shy in bottom weight in ultimate terms; it should of course be considered a must if not for sheer music matters. The 12-inch single of "Hot Stuff"+"Bad Girls" mentioned earlier is both a bit punchier in the upper bass and low end and is well worth adding to the collection; as must I assume, be the case for the other three 12-inch singles that I have not had the chance to confirm.

In October, Casablanca and Columbia each paired their all time, top selling female singers in a disco duet uniting for the very first time, Summer and Streisand respectively. Written by Paul Jabara and Bruce Roberts, the double-diva collaboration titled "No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)" was released as a 12-inch single [Casablanca NBD 20199] as well as featured in the compilation double-LP On the Radio: Greatest Hits Volumes I & II [Casablanca NBLP-2-7191]; it was the first of only two new songs - the other being the title-track. The single "On the Radio" came out in an extended re-mix version lasting over 7 minutes [Casablanca, Pye NBL 2236] as can be heard in the 1980 Giorgio-produced Foxes (soundtrack) [Casablanca NBLP-2-7206] versus the LP's 4 minute opening track and the near 6 minute 'long version' closing track; the short version, the only one ending with the vocal 'Radio' echo. Recording and mixing engineers Juergen Koppers and John Arrias did a fairly good job sonic wise up until the last bars when the energy levels especially of the vocals compounded by the inner groove distortion converge into frustrating saturation. Both tracks share the same production 'profile': smooth intro followed by typical Hi-NRG disco, instrumental breaks - harder-edge for the duet and more melodious for the other - culminating in 'delay effect' finale. In that sense, for the first time there is no major musical advancement as was the norm before with Summer, Giorgio and Bellotte; in effect foreshadowing the demise of disco just on the horizon as the decade came to a close. These two, account as the last disco songs that Donna Summer - with or without her fab duo -- released and the last originals for Casablanca; from now on she would move on to a brand new record label and a very different music genre in a completely different decade -- the 1980s.

 

Final Thoughts
In this tribute, I have underlined all along the importance of the writer-producer team behind Donna, without which there would be no Queen of Disco such as we know. Just like Shatner, Nimoy and Kelley a.k.a. Kirk, Spock and Bones created the perfect chemistry on Star Trek; so did Bellotte, Moroder and Summer. One could even compare the last episode of the first and best season - "Operation: Annihilate!" - with "On the Radio" representing the last song of its era. Extrapolating just a little further: even though Kirk, Spock and Bones continued 'to explore strange new worlds' in following episodes, "Catspaw" would never attain the quality of past 'voyages' while Summer, Moroder and Bellotte could never make The Wanderer [Geffen GHS 2000] anything remotely close to those glorious mirror ball years. Trying to borrow a page from rock and the already declining popularity of New Wave a year to late, it is a pitiful reminder that most artists like politicians or gamblers just don't know when to walk away. This LP was the final release of the trio at the time and Summer was the first to sign on board to David Geffen's nascent enterprise. Nearly two years later, Donna Summer [Geffen GHS 2005] produced by the then 'hot' Quincy Jones would follow, reuniting a veritable who's who of studio and chart musicians and artists participating on the 12-inch single "Love Is in Control (Finger on the Trigger)" [Geffen 0-29938] and Jon Anderson and Vangelis' "State of Independence" [Geffen PRO-A-1048]; confirming once again that quantity does not necessarily equate with quality. Ironically her self-titled LP sounded more like a Quincy Jones-Michael Jackson production than the real deal. Lastly, in June 1983, She Works Hard for the Money [Mercury 812 265-1] produced by Michael Omartian and considered by many to be her comeback album would turn out instead to be her last huge hit.

'Queen for a day, Queen for a night', Queen for all time... Donna Summer.

 

 

Discography Ratings (Based On Vinyl Editions)

Once Upon A Time [Atlantic ATL 60 132 or Casablanca NBLP 7078] - (1977)

Enjoyment: ;Sound Quality:

 

"With Your Love" [Casablanca NBD 20117 DJ] - (1978)

Enjoyment:

 

"Last Dance" [Casablanca NBD 20122 DJ] - (1978)

Enjoyment:

 

Live and More[Casablanca NBLP 7119-2] - (1978)

Live sides A and C:

Enjoyment:

 

Studio side D and/or:

"MacArthur Park Suite" 12-inch single [Casablanca NBD 20148] - (1978)

Enjoyment: 5

 

Bad Girls[Casablanca NBLP-2-7150] - (1979)

Enjoyment:

 

"Hot Stuff"+"Bad Girls" 12-inch single [Casablanca NBD 20167] - (1979)

Enjoyment:

 

On the Radio:Greatest Hits Volumes I & II [Casablanca NBLP-2-7191] - (1979)

Enjoyment:

 

"No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)" 12-inch single [Casablanca NBD 20199] (1979)

Enjoyment:

 

The Wanderer [Geffen GHS 2000] - (1980)

Enjoyment:

 

Donna Summer[Geffen GHS 2005] - (1982)

Enjoyment:

 

"Love Is in Control (Finger on the Trigger)" 12-inch single [Geffen 0-29938] - (1982)

Enjoyment:

 

"State of Independence" 12-inch single [Geffen PRO-A-1048 or U.K.: Warner Bros. K 79344 T]

Enjoyment:

 

She Works Hard for the Money [Mercury 812 265-1] - (1983)

Enjoyment:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
 

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