Part 3: Cinderella and the Last Dance
1977 ushered in a year of milestones, not only for Donna Summer but also for her record company. Casablanca sold half its interests to German conglomerate PolyGram and established a film division. In fact, I Remember Yesterday was among the first releases to carry the “Casablanca Record & Filmworks” logo. Based on a novel by Peter Benchley, The Deep (1977) inaugurated the company’s bid for the silver screen. Renowned film composer John Barry wrote the score for the action-packed thriller and collaborated with Donna Summer on the theme song. “Theme from The Deep (Down, Deep Inside)” won the singer a Top 5 hit in the U.K. and a Golden Globe nomination for “Best Original Song”.
Pre-production for Thank God It’s Friday (1978) began shortly after The Deep hit theaters in June 1977. The film would star one of Casablanca’s newest signings, Paul Jabara. He’d known Summer since the two first met in the cast of Hair. “Paul was like a brother to me,” Summer said in 2010. “He was an incredibly creative guy. He saw me in Hair and he was like, ‘This girl can really belt these songs out. I gotta write for her!’ He was in love with my voice from that point on. The minute he came to Casablanca, we reunited. That was the beginning of our long relationship with one another. I don’t know if there were many times when I saw Paul and he didn’t sing to me. He would just break into song by looking at me.”
Prior to Thank God It’s Friday, Jabara had invited Summer to sing on the title track to his Casablanca debut Shut Out (1977). Bob Esty, who knew Jabara from New York’s Broadway and cabaret scene, had recently relocated to Los Angeles and lent his songwriting and arranging talents to the album. Esty recalls, “We wrote a song called ‘Shut Out’. Paul wanted to make it a medley with ‘Heaven Is A Disco’. Donna came over to Paul’s house. She was very nice and wonderful to meet. I knew her because of ‘I Feel Love’ and ‘Love to Love You Baby’. At that time, I thought she had a wispy soprano voice so I was so shocked to hear her.”
Upon the release of Shut Out, Jabara fulfilled his promise to write a song that would reveal the power of Summer’s voice: “Last Dance”. He asked Esty to craft an arrangement for the song. “I did the arrangement on piano,” Esty begins. “My favorite track was (Diana Ross’) ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’, which was slow in the beginning. I thought that Ashford & Simpson were a great team to think of that. Taking that idea, I started ‘Last Dance’ slow, because Paul wrote it slow, and then increased the tempo. It had to come to life! I wrote the bridge that begins with ‘Will you be my Mr. Right’ and ends with ‘all that I ask is that you dance with me’. Then I thought to myself, maybe I could go back to the ballad halfway through, even though the DJs would kill me! When Donna heard the idea, she thought it was great. We had to make a demo of the whole eight minutes. I was on piano. Donna was singing. It was done in one take. At the end of the take, Donna said, ‘Thank you very much!’” Casablanca president Neil Bogart heard the demo and instantly green-lighted “Last Dance” for the film.
“Could It Be Magic”, “Love to Love You Baby”, and some of Summer’s other early songs provided inspiration for Esty as he prepared “Last Dance” for the studio. “I stole some licks and some string lines but made them my own,” he says. “I wrote all the parts. Juergen Koppers was there, thank God! He was marvelous and very helpful. David Foster played the synthesizer. I mixed it with Bob Stone. We did the whole song in one day.” Esty’s production furnished all the qualities that “Last Dance” needed: romance, anticipation, excitement, longing, and joy. Giorgio Moroder then stepped in to produce Summer’s vocals. In just two takes, Summer recorded a vocal that literally and figuratively stopped time.
Casablanca held “Last Dance” for the better part of a year until Thank God It’s Friday premiered in May 1978. In the mean time, Summer conceived the concept for her most ambitious solo effort yet, Once Upon a Time (1977). The Cinderella-inspired fairy tale told the story of a young woman who dreams of finding true love and escaping her claustrophobic existence. Impressed by Esty’s work on “Last Dance”, Moroder commissioned him to arrange three of the album’s four sides. Esty recalls, “Giorgio introduced me to Sound Arts Studio in Silver Lake, the big moog studio. I had to make a demo of Giorgio’s songs for Once Upon a Time. I made the tracks from synthesizers. I had no idea that it was going to be a Cinderella story. I found that out when I got to Munich.”
Working with Juergen Koppers, Esty cut the instrumental tracks with Munich Machine at Musicland Studios. His style was markedly different from Thor Baldursson, who’d done arrangements on Summer’s previous three albums. Les Hurdle explains, “Bob Esty used a totally different approach than what we did in Europe because he was American. The way Americans deal with music is different from Europeans. Never the twain shall meet and there’s the difference that makes both of them successful. There has never been a band in America like the Beatles or the Rolling Stones and there’s never been a band in England like the Beach Boys.” Indeed, the contrast between music cultures added interesting nuances to Once Upon a Time.
When Summer arrived in Munich after a tour stop in Italy, she and Pete Bellotte wrote the lyrics to all four sides of Once Upon a Time. “She sang a side a night,” says Esty, who was not present for Summer’s vocal session with Moroder. “Since I had the key to the studio, I went down and opened the studio at two in the morning to find out what happened the first day. I put the tape on and heard ‘Once upon a time…’ I thought, Is she imitating Billie Burke? I went up to the office the next morning and I knocked on Giorgio’s door. ‘Is that the guide vocal? Is she just having fun?’ In her mind, she was playing the little princess.” What Esty soon realized was that Summer’s voice mirrored the emotional arc of the storyline. On the title track, she’s the frightened girl who lives in a land of “dreams unreal”.
Side two of Once Upon a Time served up a chilling soundscape designed by Moroder. The producer’s mastery of new synthesizer technology fueled the drama on “Now I Need You” and “Working the Midnight Shift”. In his review for Rolling Stone, Stephen Holden observed how “a softer variant of the jittery synthesizer on ‘I Feel Love’ punctuates an echoed chorus that responds to Summer’s obsessive interior monologue” (12 January 1978). A commanding whirl of sound accentuated the loneliness Summer’s character faces until she drifts into a daydream on “Queen for a Day”. Side three continued Summer’s quest for true love while the hit-filled side four (“Rumour Has It”, “I Love You”) finally brought her dream to fruition.
In every sense, Once Upon a Time was a lavish package. Acclaimed fashion photographer Francesco Scavullo captured breathtaking images of Donna Summer for the album’s artwork. The gatefold sleeve depicted the singer towering over a city skyline, stars spilling from her hands. It was the perfect complement to the music. Those entrenched in the creative side of disco took notice. “Once Upon a Time was great,” enthuses Tom Moulton. “I loved it. It was an amazing piece of work.” Rolling Stone even published a second glowing review of the album. “Perhaps the genre’s finest hour, certainly its most complex”, the magazine wrote, noting how the sprawling four-sided LP set a new precedent in disco (26 January 1978).
While Donna Summer and her producers collected their latest batch of gold albums for Once Upon a Time, Casablanca prepared Thank God It’s Friday, which included music by recent signings like Village People, D.C. LaRue, Pattie Brooks, and producer Alec R. Costandinos. Motown also had a stake in the film and brought marquee acts like Diana Ross and Thelma Houston to the soundtrack. The story followed more than a dozen characters on the night of a dance contest at the fictional Zoo Disco. Featuring early screen turns by Debra Winger and Jeff Goldblum, the film starred the Commodores as themselves while Donna Summer portrayed Nicole Sims, a singer determined to land a big break in the big city. The climax of the movie belonged to Summer when her character took center stage at midnight and sang “Last Dance” to roars of approval. Art was about to imitate Summer’s life in a career-defining way ..