Part 6: From Casablanca to "Q"
To a degree, the success of Casablanca Records shadowed the success of Donna Summer’s career. It swelled from a boutique label at Warner Bros. to a maverick independent record label to an international company that branched out into films and housed some of the industry’s most successful groups in rock (KISS), funk (Parliament), and disco (Village People). Donna Summer turned the walls of the label’s headquarters on Sunset Boulevard into glimmering panels of gold and platinum. “Donna made Casablanca into a major thing for disco,” says Vince Aletti. “Casablanca was able to really invest in her. She may not have had the same kind of attention had she been at a much larger label. I think they were very conscious of pushing her well beyond disco without alienating her first audience. She brought people along.”
To capitalize on Summer’s recent hit streak, Casablanca issued On the Radio: Greatest Hits Vols. I & II (1979) just in time for the 1979 holiday season. While it wasn’t the singer’s first career retrospective—GTO Records had issued The Greatest Hits of Donna Summer (1977) for the UK market—it was Summer’s first domestic compilation. It was also something of a Bad Girls primer, since one-third of On the Radio featured tracks from the still-current blockbuster. The set was rounded out by all of Summer’s Top 10 pop hits plus “Try Me, I Know We Can Make It”, “I Remember Yesterday”, and “I Love You”. Aside from the 12” version of “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)”, most of the hits were truncated and mixed with newly engineered segues.
For record buyers, the main attraction on the album was the title track, which bookended the set in single and extended versions. The song originally appeared in Foxes (1979), another one of Casablanca’s film projects. Giorgio Moroder wrote the score while the soundtrack included music by Casablanca acts like Cher, Angel, and Brooklyn Dreams. Long before the film, Moroder had worked on the music to “On the Radio” and approached Summer about writing lyrics. Once Foxes was underway, the two revisited the song. Summer struggled with the lyrics until she saw a Stephen Bishop album cover and wondered how he might approach the song. “It must have fallen out of a hole in your old brown overcoat” opened the floodgates and Summer penned one of her most evocative sets of lyrics.
Arranged by Harold Faltermeyer, the song once again employed the ballad-dance template heard on so many of Summer’s biggest hits. Like “Last Dance”, it even returned to the ballad section midway through the song. Everyone from club kids to future Oscar-nominated songwriters were moved by Summer’s lyrics and performance. “I don’t think Donna Summer gets enough credit for her songs and the fact that she wrote or co-wrote almost all of them,” says Diane Warren, who names “On the Radio” as one of her personal favorites. “They still stand up today as great songs.” Maurice White shares a similar sentiment. He adds, “Donna was the undisputed Queen of Disco, which unfortunately prevented people from being exposed to her other talents as much as she deserved.” Fortunately, the man who helped inspire Summer’s lyrics to “On the Radio” knew the depth of her talent. “I loved Donna,” says Stephen Bishop. “We tried to write a song one night and she just got sleepy and went to bed. She sang background on a version of ‘Your Precious Love’ (Roadie soundtrack, 1980). I sang it with Yvonne Elliman as a duet and Donna and I got into a play fight on the floor. It was pretty silly. She was fun. She was a powerhouse of a singer, very unique and soulful.”
Debuting on the chart in January 1980, “On the Radio” delivered another gold smash for the singer. It climbed to #5 and later earned Summer her third Grammy nomination for “Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female”. The single also coincided with the broadcast of Summer’s one-hour special for ABC, The Donna Summer Special (1980). Between live footage and filmed vignettes, Summer donned the outfit from the On the Radio album cover and sang her latest hit.
On the Radio stunned the industry when it brought Donna Summer back to the top of the Billboard 200. In a time before CD technology, when filling an album with anything more than 35 minutes of music constituted a major event, Summer broke new ground. She was the first artist in history to score three consecutive number one double albums. Each of those albums—Live & More, Bad Girls, On the Radio—went platinum. From the outside looking in, the 1980s were certainly off to a good start.
The “Q” Factor
If the late ‘70s represented Donna Summer’s ascent towards worldwide fame, then the early ‘80s challenged Summer to find her voice at a new label home amidst changing musical tastes. By 1980, Casablanca had sold the remaining 50% of its interests to PolyGram. Summer’s relationship with the label withered after she discovered some inconsistencies in royalty accounting. She signed with David Geffen and launched his eponymous label in fall 1980 with The Wanderer (1980) album.
On The Wanderer, Summer, Moroder, and Bellotte took the rock cues from Bad Girls and juxtaposed them with dance and new wave. More than ever before, the singer experimented with different vocal guises. “Donna stylized herself in a different manner,” says Keith Forsey. “She wasn’t just a singer. She characterized her voice as well. She was an actress behind the voice.” Critics greeted The Wanderer with as much fervor as Bad Girls, though the album attained only a fraction of its predecessor’s sales. Nonetheless, The Wanderer earned Summer a gold album while the gold-selling title track did very well at #3. Interestingly, a week before “The Wanderer” bowed on the Hot 100, the year-old “Walk Away” premiered on the same chart. Whether or not Casablanca intended to derail Summer’s Geffen debut, “Walk Away” interrupted Summer’s string of Top 5 hits when it peaked at #36.
The relatively low-charting “Walk Away” actually presaged the fate of Summer’s follow-up Geffen singles, “Cold Love” and “Who Do You Think You’re Foolin’”. Radio resisted playing anything rock-oriented by black female artists, especially singers associated with disco. Despite the fact that Summer rocked just as hard on “Cold Love” as she had on “Hot Stuff”, and both songs featured the same songwriters and producers, “Cold Love” only scraped the bottom of the Top 40. “People might not get it but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t do it,” Summer stated years later when reflecting on “Cold Love” and the overall rock direction of The Wanderer. “I don’t limit myself. I just want to make music.”
When Summer submitted her second album for Geffen Records, I’m a Rainbow (1981), the source of resistance was David Geffen himself. “He wanted me to do a more dance-oriented record and I wanted to do a more thought-provoking record,” Summer recalled. “I’m a Rainbow wasn’t the album he wanted, so he hired Q to come in and work with me.” The combination of Donna Summer and Quincy Jones had endless possibilities.
At the time, Quincy Jones had a major foothold in R&B. His productions for Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall (1979), Give Me the Night (1980) by George Benson, Light Up the Night (1980) by the Brothers Johnson, and his own The Dude (1981) defined a blend of dance, jazz, and R&B that crossed over to pop audiences and sold millions of records. One of the key figures in Jones’ success was songwriter Rod Temperton. The former Heatwave member had co-written Jackson’s “Rock With You”, Benson’s “Give Me the Night”, and dozens of other hits. Temperton co-wrote and arranged a surefire winner for Donna Summer on “Love Is In Control (Finger on the Trigger)”. The song immersed Summer in a modern R&B milieu. She also had star support on backing vocals. “My brother James was the contractor on that song and he’s also playing keyboards,” says Phillip Ingram. “James and I had sung background on quite a few records together prior to this session. Howard Hewett was also called. We all grew up together in Akron, Ohio. All of the ‘homeboys’ were together, which made it that much more special. It was also nice because I had success with Switch, Howard had success with Shalamar, and James was enjoying success as a solo artist.
“‘Love Is In Control’ is one of the highest songs that I’ve sung backgrounds on. We really pushed our falsettos on that session. I have another singer friend that I’ve worked with quite a bit over the years, Randy Crenshaw. We’ve sung on quite a few commercials and other projects. He mentioned to me how much he liked that song and thought that the women sounded great ... until he found out that it was James, Howard and myself. He still teases me about that!”
After slotting “Love Is in Control” as the album opener, Jones showcased Summer’s versatility on the rest of Donna Summer (1982). The set went from Bruce Springsteen (“Protection”) to Billy Strayhorn (“Lush Life”), to Summer’s writing contributions on “Livin’ in America” and “Love Is Just a Breath Away”. Her recording of “The Woman in Me” also sparked a version by Heart. “Donna had a great, sensual voice,” says Ann Wilson. “She had the ability to slide her voice inside several different personas—the sex-kitten, the disco queen—but my favorite one was the spiritualist who nailed ‘State of Independence’. That was an unforgettable moment!” Indeed, “State of Independence” was one of the most majestic entries in Summer’s catalog. The all-star choir that backed Summer on the track included some of the biggest names in music: Michael Jackson, Dionne Warwick, Lionel Richie, Michael McDonald, Kenny Loggins, and Steve Wonder. Closing a three-year gap, “State of Independence” brought Summer back to the UK Top 20 where the song peaked at #14.
In the U.S., “Love Is in Control” shot to the Top 10 and made the R&B Top 5 during summer 1982. Jones had successfully remodeled Summer’s sound. “I really appreciated what Q brought to the table,” says Phillip Ingram. “I love all of Donna’s hits, because I enjoy her singing, but I felt she stretched herself as a vocalist on ‘Finger on the Trigger’. You knew it was Donna, but you also knew that you were hearing something special.” NARAS paid attention and included Summer among the nominees for “Best R&B Vocal Performance, Female” (in addition to her nomination in the rock category for “Protection”). Donna Summer also held another distinction. It was the last album Jones produced before recording the biggest-selling album of all time: Michael Jackson’s Thriller (1982).
Though it was the shelved I’m a Rainbow album that precipitated her collaboration with Jones, Donna Summer valued their partnership. “That was a great experience in terms of musicianship and just working with one of the great people of music,” she said. However, a byproduct of Donna Summer was the dissolution of her eight-year alliance with Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte. Ultimately, that bond prepared Donna Summer for three more decades of recording. Many colors of the rainbow had yet to shine ...