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Part 5: Rockin' the Casbah

* To the Queen, With Love: Donna Summer Revisited, Day 1


Decades after Bad Girls (1979) became the most commercially successful album of her career, Donna Summer explained how the project’s musical orientation corresponded to her own self-perception as an artist. “Bad Girls was kind of a fusion of rock and a little bit of R&B, and a little bit of pop and a little dance,” she said. “It was a fusion of everything. I mean, that’s what I am—I’m a fusion.” Harold Faltermeyer was an integral part of facilitating that fusion. He’d worked with Moroder on Midnight Express and was tapped to arrange Bad Girls. “This album was a transition in Donna’s career,” he says. “Coming from pure disco and from electronic disco, this initiated the rock and roll aspect of disco. Rod Stewart’s ‘Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?’ and ‘Miss You’ by the Stones all led to the way we did this album. Donna had to change her performance slightly as well. She got edgier. She got tougher. That’s actually the difference between this and her earlier albums.”


With sessions based in Los Angeles, Trevor Veitch hired first-call players like Paul Jackson, Jr., Jay Graydon, Jai Winding, and the Seawind horns. “You’re simply drawing from the very best players in LA and believe me, all the best players are here,” he says. “Big pond but the same fish.” Summer was backed by three of LA’s most in-demand session vocalists, Stephanie Spruill, Julia Waters, and Maxine Waters. Ever the stalwart, Juergen Koppers retained his position behind the board.


Bad Girls was recorded during a flurry of activity from January through March 1979. “It was supposed to be a single album,” says Faltermeyer. “Giorgio and Pete had twelve or thirteen songs. Once we started to arrange and get the keys from Donna, then we had a meeting with Neil Bogart. He said to Giorgio, ‘I might as well put out a double album because Live and More did so well. I think I’ll take the risk of putting out another double album’. Giorgio said, ‘Okay, but we don’t have the songs’. Then I recall Neil saying to Giorgio, ‘Well, Giorgio that’s not really my problem’. Giorgio was frantic. He said to me, ‘Go to a studio and write songs because we need songs’. I was put into a studio with Keith and Pete. We ended up in Rusk Studios on La Brea Ave. in Hollywood. We had ‘Hot Stuff’ two days later.”


The coarse, rock-infused textures of “Hot Stuff” weren’t necessarily a new foil for Summer. “I grew up with rock and roll music,” she said. “It wasn’t foreign to me. There was no separation back in my day. I mean everybody listened to Ray Charles and everybody listened to Connie Francis. I didn’t know that you couldn’t do both.” As a teenager in Boston, Summer even fronted the Crow, a rock band that nearly signed with RCA before the singer moved to New York. She melded both her rock and theater roots on “Hot Stuff” and submitted the most searing vocal of her career.


Augmenting the rock quotient, Trevor Veitch enlisted a guitar ace to play on the track. “My really good friend is Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter who used to be with Steely Dan and then was with the Doobie Brothers,” he says. “We both did a lot of sessions playing guitar. I got him for the solo on ‘Hot Stuff’. He killed on that thing. That really elevated a real disco song into rock and roll.”


It was hard to top “Hot Stuff”, which was slated to open Bad Girls. Summer and her producers had to sustain its momentum while not dwarfing the track that followed it. Fortunately, Summer re-worked a demo of hers that engineer Steve Smith discovered in a pile of tapes. Written by Summer with Brooklyn Dreams (Bruce Sudano, Joe “Bean” Esposito, Eddie Hokenson), “Bad Girls” was a vivid snapshot of the streetwalkers who trotted along Sunset Boulevard. The storyline triggered the song’s signature hook: “toot toot, beep beep”. Julia Waters explains, “Great hooks—that’s what made the disco era. I always felt like background singing was the sweetening, the icing on the cake. We’d get on that hook and just stay there. You actually got in the groove of the music. ‘Toot toot, beep beep’ represented the cars driving by while these ladies were streetwalking.” Keith Forsey’s crisp drum beat simulated a strutting cadence. “I wonder how many miles I’ve walked on record at 120 BPM footsteps,” he laughs. “‘Bad Girls’ was a fun track to play on. That was just a hoot to do.”


The gatefold artwork of Bad Girls was like a storyboard for the title track. Elements of the cover’s tableaux also correlated to “Sunset People”, a song that detailed the sights and sounds of the Sunset Strip. Forsey, who wrote the track with Pete Bellotte and Harold Faltermeyer, recalls “We liked the vibe and the groove of Bob Seger’s ‘Hollywood Nights’. We got the tempo and the actual feel of the track from that.” Faltermeyer adds, “It was always a give and take thing. Keith was playing drums and I was playing piano or some related keyboard. We just sat there and created something. We recorded everything on a little cassette. The next day we evaluated what we did. Then we picked the good pieces and made a song out of them.” The Bellotte-Faltermeyer-Forsey team also hatched two more standout tracks for Bad Girls, “Walk Away” and “One Night in a Lifetime”.


No less than eight cuts on the album featured Summer’s songwriting, including the club favorite “Our Love”. However, “Dim All the Lights” was notable since it marked the first time that Summer recorded a totally self-penned composition. After a writing session with Kenny Loggins was cut short, Summer stayed behind and worked alone at the piano. She used Rod Stewart as a muse, writing lyrics that she imagined him singing to seduce a woman. Once in the studio, “Dim All the Lights” followed the foolproof formula of building from a slow sequence to a joyous, uptempo rhythm. “I always liked that song,” says Tom Moulton. “That’s a record. When they used to play that in the clubs they really would dim the lights.” Capped by a strident vocal, “Dim All the Lights” was a revelation of Summer’s gift for writing lyrics, melody, and music.


When Bad Girls dropped in May 1979, critics unanimously praised the album’s manifold strengths, from singing to songwriting to production. Writing for The New York Times, John Rockwell called it “an exhilarating set, her best yet ... Bad Girls represents a breakthrough for Miss Summer as a singer” (18 May 1979). Within a month, Summer made pop music history. She became the first female artist to hold a number one single and a number one album simultaneously on two different occasions. The first coup traced back to November 1978 when Live & More and “MacArthur Park” occupied the top spot on the album and single charts. Summer was victorious a second time when “Hot Stuff” and Bad Girls both reached number one in June 1979.


While “Hot Stuff” spent three weeks at the top, the title track followed into the Top 10. When “Bad Girls” crowned the Hot 100, “Hot Stuff” still hovered at #3 and Summer became the first female artist to lodge two chart-topping singles in the Top 5 at the same time. Both singles went platinum while “Bad Girls” resided at number one for five weeks and crossed over to the top of the R&B singles chart—Summer’s first chart-topping R&B hit. After six weeks atop the Billboard 200, Bad Girls went double platinum. Spending two weeks at number two, “Dim All the Lights” nearly earned Summer a third consecutive number one solo hit but was shielded from the top by her duet with Barbra Streisand, “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)”.


To say Bad Girls was popular is an understatement. “That album was phenomenal,” says Julia Waters. “It still is.” The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) agreed. Donna Summer earned five Grammy nominations, including “Album of the Year”, “Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female” (Bad Girls), “Best Rock Vocal Performance, Female” (“Hot Stuff”), “Best R&B Vocal Performance, Female” (“Dim All the Lights”), and “Best Disco Recording” (Bad Girls). She took home the award for “Hot Stuff” and became the first female artist to win a Grammy in the rock category.


By the end of the ‘70s, Donna Summer had evolved into a multi-dimensional artist with fans of all musical persuasions. She had the admiration from peers who’d also risen to the top. “Donna was a beautiful, uniquely talented and powerful singer who had incredible energy and charisma,” says Olivia Newton-John. “Yes, she was indeed the ‘Disco Queen’, but she was much more than that—she was a great songwriter and performer whom I was lucky to know.” As the ‘70s yielded to the ‘80s, Donna Summer had one more victory for the history books.


 


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. 


Tagged as: disco | donna summer | pop | r&b | soul
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