To the Queen, With Love

Donna Summer Revisited, Day 1

by Christian John Wikane

21 October 2013


Part 4: Perfecting the "Recipe"

Both on and off screen, “Last Dance” was a sensation. ‘‘Last Dance” meant something,” says Tom Moulton. “Donna Summer is all about emotion. You think of her as someone who can interpret a song about love and be very expressive with what the meaning of the song is. When you think of the way ‘Last Dance’ starts ... the record has ups and downs. Then it stops so you’re kind of looking around again to see if there’s someone there for you. Then you get the feeling of hope and it builds up and builds up.” Adds Bob Esty, “Donna took the lyrics and made them into a story. She had a wide range, she had such power and such flavor in her voice. It was her actual singing voice that she loved.” Alec Costandinos, who composed and produced the title theme to Thank God It’s Friday, also recognized Summer’s considerable vocal gifts. “She was an exceptional artist,” he says. “She was undeniably the only true Diva of Disco.”

Spending five months on the Hot 100, “Last Dance” gave Summer a #3 pop hit and her third gold single. The song was showered by the film and music industry’s most prestigious awards. Summer performed the song on the Oscar telecast while Jabara won an Academy Award and Golden Globe for “Best Original Song”. At the 21st Annual Grammy Awards, Jabara won “Best R&B Song” while the singer won “Best R&B Vocal Performance, Female”. Two music legends handed Summer her very first Grammy. “Being able to present Donna with her Grammy along side Quincy Jones was thrilling,” recalls Dionne Warwick, who read Summer’s name from the winning envelope.

Though Summer prevailed in a category that included formidable nominees like Natalie Cole, Aretha Franklin, and Chaka Khan, she acknowledged that R&B didn’t necessarily govern her style. “I wasn’t really an R&B singer,” she later mused. “Not that I can’t sing R&B, but it’s not where I naturally go. I’m more of a rock and roll/pop singer. I kind of grew up musically in Europe. There are no boundaries over there in that sense. You just make music and people like it if they like it. That’s kind of my whole mindset in general.” Summer’s next album would display her vocal versatility in a live setting and also include her peerless reworking of a pop evergreen.

There was something for every appetite on Live & More (1978). Recorded at LA’s Universal Amphitheater, three sides of the double album brought listeners to the front row of a Donna Summer concert. She emerged as the consummate performer, navigating a set sprinkled with jazz standards (“The Man I Love”, “I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good”), Streisand (“The Way We Were”), and a couple of new tunes (“Only One Man”, “Mimi’s Song”). In transporting her hits to a live setting, she replaced the breathy vocal style of her earlier studio recordings with a sonorous, bell-clear sound. The material from Once Upon a Time, in particular, had a spirited urgency. However, it was the “More” side of the album that piqued the most interest. Side four contained “MacArthur Park Suite”, an 18-minute opus that stationed Jimmy Webb’s tale of unrequited love in a sparkling disco wonderland.

Giorgio Moroder selected Greg Mathieson to write the arrangement for “MacArthur Park Suite”. Mathieson first met the producer when LA session contractor Trevor Veitch recruited him for some work on Moroder’s Oscar-winning Midnight Express (1978) soundtrack. Moroder then handed Mathieson a gig to arrange tracks on the Three Degrees’ New Dimensions (1978) album, which revived the trio’s career in the U.K. Expanding “MacArthur Park” to fill one side of an album would put Mathieson’s arranging abilities to the test. 

“I came up with the idea that we should start it small with a string quartet and let the thing build,” Mathieson begins. “Giorgio and Donna and I sat down at the piano and came up with an initial kind of arrangement. It was a Saturday or a Sunday. We mocked up the whole 18 minutes. Giorgio says, ‘Okay, we’re going to cut it on Thursday’. I said, ‘Giorgio this is 18 minutes of music. There’s no way I can write that much music over the next three days.’ Giorgio said something like ‘if you can’t do it I’ll hire somebody else’. I had done all the work and I was not going to let somebody else voice it out. I pretty much didn’t sleep for two or three days. Just imagine me by myself and my arrangement playing all 18 minutes to a click track and piano. Then we added a bass, then we got Keith Forsey in and added real drums and built the whole thing up in one day. The next day the orchestra came in. The whole thing was almost done in two days. It was a whirlwind week.”

“MacArthur Park” might have challenged Mathieson’s prodigious skills, but it ultimately provided a vehicle for Summer to exhibit the her vocal might. “‘Last Dance’ showed off her vocal virtuosity,” says Mathieson, “but when she got to ‘MacArthur Park’ ... wow! When she hits those high notes, they are not squeaking out. In that intro, when she finally makes that last note ... there are people that can hit that note but it wouldn’t be as big or as round.” The suite was rounded out by two new songs, “One of a Kind” and “Heaven Knows”. The latter featured a duet with Joe “Bean” Esposito of Brooklyn Dreams, who later recorded a “reverse duet” with Summer on the group’s Sleepless Nights (1979) album.

Moroder also brought some of Mathieson’s other talents to the fore. “Giorgio knew that I was an instrumentalist,” he says. “There’s a point where you hear a synthesizer just soloing over the top. Giorgio had said, ‘Just play a solo’. I took one pass and that was it.” The sequence occurs a couple of times in the suite, most memorably during the final 40 seconds of “MacArthur Park (Reprise)”. The single version of “Heaven Knows” drew from Mathieson’s jazz background. For about six seconds, there’s an intricate horn line that bridges the instrumental break with the last chorus. “I snuck that in there and nobody said anything,” he says. “I thought for sure someone was going to say, ‘You got to straighten that out. That’s way too jazzy for this song.’ No one said anything. I kept my mouth shut and it ended up on the record.”

Both the original suite and the four-minute single version of “MacArthur Park” were a tour de force. “Donna’s interpretation still retained the essence of what the song meant,” says Tom Moulton. “She’s the drama queen. There’s nobody better than that.” Keith Forsey agrees, adding, “I think ‘MacArthur Park’ is one of her best performances. That was fantastic! That was a wonderful session to play on. Greg Mathieson was an absolutely amazing keyboard player and a wonderful chap.” Trevor Veitch, who contracted the musicians for the session, was duly impressed by Mathieson. “I don’t know where Greg pulled that arrangement from but he just nailed it! That was really excellent.”

1978 had already been going well for Donna Summer but “MacArthur Park” made it her most successful year yet. “MacArthur Park Suite” spent five weeks at the summit of the disco charts. She earned her first number one one pop hit when the single version of “MacArthur Park” held the top spot for three weeks. Live & More supplanted Linda Ronstadt’s chart-topping Living in the U.S.A. (1978) on the Billboard 200 and rewarded Summer with her first platinum album. Released in January 1979, “Heaven Knows” climbed to #4 and stayed on the Hot 100 through June. In between, “MacArthur Park” scored Summer a Grammy nomination for “Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female”.

Donna Summer had transcended the multi-billion dollar business of disco and was now one of pop music’s biggest solo artists. Analyzing this particular juncture in her career, the singer later explained, “Giorgio was very clever in that he decided, ‘Donna, you’re going to be marketed just as a singer and we’re going to promote you in a way that people will play your records on all kinds of radio stations.’  He worked very hard at getting me to crossover. I just had to show up.” For Summer’s next album, “showing up” would mean making music history. 


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