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Summer Fever

Donna Summer

Donna Summer


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Summer Fever


Parallel to the spike in popularity of Parliament and KISS was the growing currency of a new style of music that was born from the rhythms of Latin and R&B. It was the soundtrack to gay, black, and Hispanic nightclubs. It created a new DJ art form of slip-cueing records in one uninterrupted sequence. It was called “disco”.


Ironically, the man who was about to stoke the flames of the disco inferno initially had reservations about its commercial viability. Tom Moulton, who originated the 12” mix and would later sign with Casablanca as a producer, first met Neil Bogart at Buddah during the early days of disco. “I was trying to get records to play because I was making tapes at a place called the Sandpiper (Fire Island)”, he explains. “Neil said, ‘That disco crap is never going to happen’. It’s so funny now when I think about it. He was not a believer in it”, Moulton laughs.  In less than two years, Neil Bogart was not only converted, he became the genre’s leading proselytizer. While KISS and Parliament set precedents in the concert arena, Munich-based producers Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte were about to catapult disco from the underground to the mainstream with a former rock band vocalist and stage star of Germany and Austria—Donna Summer.


Leroy Gomez (Santa Esmeralda: I remember in ‘68 was the first time I heard about disco. I was working with Tavares in Boston and I was dating a Jamaican girl that was from a rather wealthy family that was going to school in Switzerland. In those days, the band would play and everybody would dance. Then when the disc jockey would get up, everybody would sit down, and then they would serve drinks. This girl told me that in Europe, there are no bands. The disc jockey plays the records and everybody dances to the records. We all chuckled and said, “Are you kidding me?”


Eddie Drennon: I was playing in clubs in New York with Orquesta Novel. We played in discos really before they were known as discos. “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” (1972) was sort of the beginning of disco. That’s where I got my background in it. I was trying to an album with TR (Tito Rodriguez) Records but I wanted to do a Latin-jazz album. I brought some tapes up to Phil DeCarlo, who was the president of TR. Phil DeCarlo was Tito Rodriguez’s son in law. Just about that time, it must have been ‘74 or ‘75, he read an article about hustle music in the clubs in New York. People were doing this new dance called the hustle. He said, “You think you could do something addressed to the Latin hustle?” To make it a Latin hustle, I just sort of combined some of the Afro-Cuban beats with the disco beat, which was pretty simple to do because the music fell into a Latin flow anyway. I just added the little extra Latin percussion and the handclapping, but the rest of it was just straight R&B of that time. That’s how “Let’s Do The Latin Hustle” came about. Tom Moulton did a mix and that made the record even bigger because it came out on a 12”, which was new. The grooves were so far apart so you could put more bass on a 12”. You could make it longer. A 45 could only go maybe four minutes and then you were squeezing it and you couldn’t get any bottom.


Holmes: We were still on Sherbourne Drive. Neil had received some records from Giorgio Moroder for distribution. There were three different records. I remember Neil playing the records for me. The only one that really stuck out was Donna Summer.


Worrell: We like to say we raised Donna Summer because she used to come to the shows at the Sugar Shack in Boston. It’s deep, man. Donna, she was a young thing. She’s a Capricorn. I remember people’s signs.


Marc Nathan (National and Regional Promotion): I remember this very vividly. Neil and Buck Reingold (Vice President, Promotion) had the promotion staff on a conference call. They said, “You’re getting three albums from this label called Oasis. Your number one priority is Schloss. Your number two priority is Einzelganger, which was kind of like Kraftwerk but not as good. Then there’s this third record that’s coming out and it’s by a woman named Donna Summer. It’s called ‘Love to Love You Baby’. All we want you to do is take it to the discotheques and get it played because there’s a 17-minute song on one side of the record”.


Holmes: We put out “Love to Love You Baby” and we started to get some response to it. At that time, the gay community was really starting to show their muscle. They were getting into it. The gay clubs were playing it.


Moulton: When I first heard it, I thought, how interesting, they’ve taken the bassline to (The O’Jays’) “For the Love of Money” and created a whole song.


Gomez: “Love to Love You Baby” was 16 minutes, which was unheard of. It brought a whole new aspect to the dance scene. Even my track (with Santa Esmeralda), “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”, was 17 or 18 minutes and that was done because of what Giorgio and Donna did.


Holmes: The R&B stations started to play it. In those days, you’d have to go out and do promotion. We’d go to the radio stations and hang out with the guys all around the country. I’ll never forget it. I was in Baltimore at this radio station. This guy’s name was Keith “Chop-Chop” Fisher. He’d say that at night that he had to go to the bathroom. I said, “Hey Keith, when you’re getting ready to go to the bathroom” – because in those days it was only him all night – “why don’t you take one of these long cuts to play? Why don’t you play Donna Summer’s cut?” I would tell that to all the night disc jockeys around the country, about playing it while they go to the bathroom! That’s how they were able to play the extended version. Of course, we had the regular version.


Nathan: I was on the road and I was in Roswell, New Mexico. I was at a radio station called KBCQ and the program director was a guy named Bill St. James. Bill and I were friends on the phone for years and this was my first trip to Roswell. We were going to go out to dinner so it was maybe 4:00 p.m. and I played him some records. I played him this Donna Summer song and he took the record and gave it to the disc jockey who was going on the air at 6:00 p.m. He said, “I want you to put this one while we go out to dinner”. Bill and I went out to dinner and we came back to the station at about 7:30 p.m., quarter to eight. The disc jockey said, “You’re not going to believe this but we’ve gotten 100 phone calls about this song, 96 of them telling us to take it off the air and never play it again”. Bill put it into rotation and played it every three or four hours because, as he explained to me, he’d been working at that radio station for two years and in two years he had never gotten 100 phone calls. Period. In one hour, one record had eclipsed all of the reaction he gotten to any record over the entire time he was at the station. I remember the record went hit-bound to 17 to four to one on his survey. Of course, by the time it was number one, even though it was just Roswell New Mexico, we were able to get the word out and the record started to spread and obviously we had a very big hit record with it, one that was not without that same kind of reaction in a number of markets.


Holmes: Eventually, Frankie Crocker in New York started playing the extended version at prime time. The record was so big he would say, “We’re going to play the Donna Summer record at 6:00 p.m.”. The record just became huge.


Dennis Wheeler (Promotions Manager, Special Projects): The song was Bogart’s love. It was something he had to do. He wanted this to happen and he wanted to be part of this new movement. It was a conscious decision to have someone like a Donna Summer.


Donna Summer: Neil and Joyce (Bogart-Trabulus) came to Europe to meet me at Thanksgiving. That’s when I think I first met them. I was doing a show in Holland at a hotel for some people. I had already signed on for it and I couldn’t get out of it. Roberta Kelly and I were doing that. They came to see me and work with me. I had that show to do and when we got there, the people didn’t have anybody to do the lighting or work on the sound. Joyce and Neil jumped right in. We had a family Thanksgiving dinner in my suite. It was a great moment for me. My daughter Mimi was there. Joyce was running back and forth doing lights. Neil was working on the sound. I got through it and I think they got a chance to see that I was actually able to sing more than they thought! “Love to Love You Baby” was sort of a fluke but I came out of musical theater and I was used to belting. Before that, I was really in a rock and roll band. I didn’t really come so much out of R&B music. They didn’t really know who I was until they met me. Then they were like, “I think this is going to be better than we thought!” They flipped out because they realized that I was actually much more savvy in music than they had thought. They didn’t know what to expect.


Randee Goldman (Executive Assistant): I remember being in the office with Neil and him saying, “Oh my God! She can really sing!” It was like he was shocked.


Summer: I flew into New York to do the press junket that they had put together for me. I went to all the major cities across the United States, which was a rapid thing. I had never done anything like that, which was get on the plane, go to these discotheques, pump up everything, have parties. Then we were on a plane going to the next stop.


Arnie Smith (National Director of Disco Promotion): We called some DJs around the country and had Donna say hello to them and they flipped out. It was a hard song to play because it was not something you’d play at the height of the evening and it was so long. It was just a joy for these DJs to even talk to her. Some men refused to believe it was her.


Summer: Sometimes, there was no time to sleep so we would sleep on the plane. One of my biggest beefs with them was that they had to plan sleep and food and bathroom time into anything they planned. At one point, we were in L.A., they had booked 14 personal interviews in one day. Each one was a half an hour, forty-five minutes, and an hour, different lengths. By the time I got done, I had no voice. I started in the morning and ended over twelve hours later. I was exhausted. That was it. I told them I would never do that again!


Holmes: She came out to Beverly Hills. She had a bungalow. She had a limousine service 24 hours a day. She had a mink coat that they rented for her. We would travel around the country doing promotion. It was my and Susan Munao’s (Director of Publicity who became Summer’s manager) responsibility to be with Donna, to make sure that all the disc jockeys met her. The whole gamut of promotion was done. Neil was the primary owner of the company and that’s what he wanted. One time when we were in New York at this party, and we were going to go out together that night after the show. I didn’t necessarily want to hang out all night but Neil said, “Hey man, you’re going to do this because I want everybody to see us with Donna and let them know that we’re behind her 100%”. Neil did things with Donna that the average record person wouldn’t do. Whatever it took for Donna to be successful, he would do. She was our superstar.


Donna Summer - “Love to Love You Baby” (1976)

Christian John Wikane is a NYC-based journalist and music essayist. He's a Contributing Editor for PopMatters, where he's interviewed artists ranging from Paul McCartney to Janelle Monae. For the past three years, he's penned liner notes for more than 100 CD re-issues by legends of R&B, rock, pop, dance, and jazz. Since 2008, he's produced and hosted Three of Hearts: A Benefit for The Family Center at Joe's Pub. He is the author of the five-part oral history Casablanca Records: Play It Again (PopMatters, 2009). Follow him on Twitter @CJWikaneNYC. 


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