* To the Queen, With Love: Donna Summer Revisited, Day 2
It’s January 2003. Donna Summer is pondering the evolution of her career. I listen intently as she remembers the late ’70s and early ’80s, a time marked by platinum records and number one hits. Amidst all her success, the one constant was change. “I’m probably not any different than any other musical artist in that your music is a testimony to your life,” she says. “If you’re a songwriter, whatever is going on in your life is becoming part of your art — it has to. If it doesn’t then I don’t think you’re being true to yourself.”
Ten years later, Verve Records is revisiting a period wherein Donna Summer channeled her singing and songwriting into different musical personas. Between 1975-1982, she embodied the First Lady of Love, a glamourous disco Cinderella, a regal pop diva, a streetwise rocker, and a stylish R&B chanteuse. Each role was shaped by a vibrant creative world that lived within Summer. The albums she recorded with producers Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte moved dance music forward while her work with Quincy Jones proved that she could adapt her inimitable voice to any setting.
While Summer mastered many musical styles, evidenced by her five Grammy Awards in four different categories, Verve’s Love to Love You Donna (2013) celebrates her undeniable impact on dance music. It’s a significant project, marking the first official Donna Summer release since the singer’s passing in May 2012. Current architects of EDM have recast many of Summer’s hits, from “Love to Love You Baby” through “Love Is In Control (Finger on the Trigger)”. Filtering classic Summer songs through different strains of contemporary dance music, Love to Love You Donna underscores why Summer remains a vital musical force in the 21st century.
As a companion to Love to Love You Donna, PopMatters explores the original versions of Summer’s freshly re-imagined hits. Many of Summer’s peers, including musicians behind the Summer-Moroder-Bellotte triumvirate, join the conversation and offer new comments about the singer’s legacy. Previously unpublished excerpts from my interviews with Donna Summer also lend insight to her artistry and complete a portrait of a fascinating artist whose work encompasses some of the most innovative music of the last four decades.
Part 1: Famous in 17 Minutes
“The pinnacle of her sensuality!” That’s how producer Marc Cerrone describes “Love to Love You Baby”, his favorite Donna Summer recording. A year before Cerrone debuted with his own dance floor triumph (“Love in C Minor”), side one of Love to Love You Baby (1975) featured 17 minutes of non-stop disco bliss that forever changed the landscape of pop music.
However, Love to Love You Baby was far from Summer’s first recording. She’d moved to Munich in 1968 to join the German cast of Hair. Five years later, she met Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte and began recording demos for the producers. “She was one of the back-up singers in Munich at the time I met her,” recalls Thor Baldursson, who did arrangements for Moroder and Bellotte. “There were three girls singing and Donna was one of them. Oh man, she was such a sweet kid and so easy to get along with.” Keith Forsey, who moved from London to Munich in the early-’70s, also knew Summer before her solo career took off. “There are lots of people you meet on a studio date but Donna was one of those people that was very easy to instantly like,” he says. “She had a way of making you feel really comfortable. You knew it was not insincere. She’s very gregarious. She pulled you in and you felt like you’d known this woman for years.”
Summer’s earliest recordings with Moroder and Bellotte combined elements of rock, pop, and folk. She sang Bellotte’s “Denver Dream” (1974), a single released in Holland by Lark Records, before recording her maiden release Lady of the Night (1974). Though “The Hostage” became a major hit in the Netherlands, it hardly foreshadowed the level of fame that would greet Summer within a year’s time.
Just as Summer’s star rose throughout Europe, former Buddah Records president Neil Bogart partnered with Warner Bros. to create his own label, Casablanca Records. Acts like KISS and Parliament had cultivated a dedicated fanbase yet the label struggled to shift units. In its first year, Casablanca scored only one Top 40 single, “So You Are A Star” by the Hudson Brothers. Frustrated by the corporate pace of Warner Bros., Bogart went independent in 1975. One of his earliest strokes of genius was distributing Moroder’s Oasis label. Three albums were part of the initial deal: the Bellotte-produced Schloss (1975), Moroder’s Einzelgänger (1975) project, and Love to Love You Baby.
“Love to Love You Baby” had been released as a single across Europe shortly following the February 1975 MIDEM conference in Cannes. Summer even performed an early version of the song in April 1975 on Van Oekel’s Discohoek, a Dutch music program that had championed both “The Hostage” and “Lady of the Night”. When Neil Bogart heard the song’s throbbing beat and Summer’s provocative vocal, he called Moroder and implored him to extend the track to a whole side. Six times its original length, “Love to Love You Baby” helped kindle the disco phenomenon.
Vince Aletti understood the impact of “Love to Love You Baby” better than most industry tastemakers. With “Discotheque rock ’72”, he was the first journalist to profile the nascent disco movement in the pages of Rolling Stone. In his article, he spotlighted the popularity of international acts like Manu Dibango, Barrabas, and Osibisa and also noted how R&B hits like “Love Train” and “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” had broken in the discotheques. Aletti recalls, “The first time I heard ‘Love to Love You Baby’ was at a meeting for the record pool, which was, at that point, in David Mancuso’s Loft space on Prince Street. A DJ who had gotten an advance copy brought it into play and everybody freaked out. This kind of heightened, very intense music kept driving and building and really had a shape to it. There were almost no moments where you were let down. Everybody who heard it wanted to get a copy. It was very quickly the record in New York.” Aletti’s weekly column in Record World mapped the record’s lightning speed ascent in the clubs. “When I reviewed ‘Love to Love You Baby’, it was 20 September 1975. I wrote later that it was the fastest record to become a number one on the chart I was compiling. It hit number one in four weeks.”
In a year marked by major strides in club music, “Love to Love You Baby” certainly stood out. The mixing genius of Tom Moulton fortified South Shore Commission’s “Free Man” (1975), which was the first promotional 12″ single ever released to clubs. Moulton, who’d introduced the concept of the “disco break” on Don Downing’s “Dream World” (1973) two years earlier, also turned side one of Gloria Gaynor’s Never Can Say Goodbye (1975) into a suite of songs that predated Moroder and Bellotte’s future side-long excursions with Summer. Moulton was immediately struck by “Love to Love You Baby”. He recalls, “Neil Bogart sent me a copy of it. I thought it was such a unique record. I thought, Isn’t that interesting? They lifted the feel of the bass riff from (the O’Jays’) ‘For the Love of Money’ and made it totally sensual. It had a beautiful melody.”
Thematically, the most obvious forebears to the kind of sensuality Summer expressed on “Love to Love You Baby” were songs like “Pillow Talk” (1973) by Sylvia and “Je T’Aime … Moi Non Plus” (1969) by Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg. “It was such an aggressively sexy record,” says Aletti. “I think for many people at the club level, the other exciting thing about ‘Love to Love You Baby’ was that it became a huge radio record. At least in New York, DJs played the whole 17 minutes. It really opened the way for radio to play the kind of extended disco mixes that were popular in the clubs.” U.S. radio couldn’t get enough of the record, simulated orgasms and all. By February 1976, “Love to Love You Baby” shot to #2 on the Hot 100.
The massive, mainstream success of “Love to Love You Baby” followed closely in the wake of “Fly Robin Fly”, a hit by Munich-based Silver Convention that topped the Hot 100 in November 1975. Aletti continues, “I don’t think American audiences would have been quite so ready for ‘Love to Love You Baby’ had it not been for the success of ‘Fly Robin Fly’. It was the most successful Eurodisco record up until that point. It had a similar kind of openness and sweeping feeling.” Whereas Silver Convention featured an interchangeable line-up of studio singers and stage performers, Donna Summer was a wholly defined solo artist. As record shops filed stacks of Love to Love You Baby onto the shelves, audiences finally matched the singer’s striking visage with the most alluring voice on Top 40 radio.
Part 2: Inside the Munich Machine
Building on the success of “Love to Love You Baby”, Summer was whisked back to Moroder’s Musicland Studios to record A Love Trilogy (1976). While side two of Love to Love You Baby contained a variety of pop/rock numbers, A Love Trilogy provided a two-sided disco experience. All 18 minutes of “Try Me, I Know We Can Make It” filled side one while Summer’s exquisite rendition of Barry Manilow’s “Could It Be Magic” led a trio of songs on side two. The album officially introduced Munich Machine, the in-house studio band that played on Moroder and Bellotte’s Musicland productions. “Giorgio looked for catchy melodies,” says Baldursson. “That was his forte. He basically wanted things to be danceable. That was his main goal: get people on the floor.” Keith Forsey’s pounding four-on-the-floor and Baldursson’s string arrangements powered “Try Me, I Know We Can Make It” onto the disco chart where it unseated Diana Ross’ “Love Hangover” from the number one spot.
Four Seasons of Love (1976) followed A Love Trilogy in quick succession. It was the first of several concept albums that Summer recorded. “Pete Bellotte came up with Four Seasons of Love,” says Forsey. “He’s quite an intellectual chap. He was kind of an ideas guy: ‘how can we do this to make it slightly different?'” Summer was a beguiling presence on songs like “Spring Affair” and “Summer Fever”. Baldursson recalls, “She was just so good. Her musicality was very high. Her pitch was perfect. Her timing and everything … she just had it. She knew exactly what she was doing.” With his arrangements and keyboard flourishes, Baldursson also figured prominently on the album. “Thor is probably the blackest white keyboard player you’re ever going to find,” says bassist Les Hurdle, who joined Munich Machine on Four Seasons of Love. “He has an amazing feel. I learned of course the reason he had this feel for American music was because there was an American air force base in Iceland (Baldursson’s home country). The radio station would broadcast a lot of R&B. As a musician, Thor picked up a lot of the grooves.” Forsey concurs, “Les is right. Thor was as funky as hell. He was fantastic! An absolutely wonderful person to work with.”
Engineer Juergen Koppers crystallized all the sonic ingredients in a way that translated to discotheques and transistor radios alike. “Juergen was very inventive,” says Hurdle. “He was always trying things that other engineers would not do because it was not safe. I think he was one of the first people to turn things to number eleven! One day at Musicland, the little LEDs that told the engineer whether the signal was in bounds or not ceased to work. Giorgio said, ‘We better cancel’ and Juergen said, ‘No we’ll just go ahead and record anyway.’ We recorded. When the LEDs got fixed and the tracks were played back, all the LEDs were in solid red everywhere. Giorgio said, ‘This is terrible.’ Juergen’s comment, which was always his comment, was ‘Do you hear distortion? No? Then it’s fine.'”
By December 1976, the combination of Koppers’ technical prowess, Munich Machine’s infectious grooves, Moroder and Bellotte’s musical vision, and Summer’s rich, animated vocals had generated gold certifications for Love to Love You Baby, A Love Trilogy, and Four Seasons of Love, a gold single for “Love to Love You Baby”, and number one disco hits from all three albums. The singer guested on top music programs like American Bandstand, Soul Train, The Midnight Special, and Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert. Casablanca’s first breakout star was rocketing towards a whole new stratosphere.
“It’s so good … it’s so good … it’s so good”
During the pre-Studio 54 era of New York, the nerve center of New York’s punk scene intersected with the burgeoning club scene in lower Manhattan. Cross-pollination was inevitable and downtown groups like Blondie incorporated elements of danceable R&B into their music. Group co-founders Debbie Harry and Chris Stein were often hip to trends well before the public caught on. At some point in 1977, Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” landed on the group’s radar. Debbie Harry recalls, “Chris and I loved Donna and Giorgio’s ‘I Feel Love’. At the time it was quite ground breaking and commercial and sexy.” Blondie subsequently added “I Feel Love” to their sets and distilled the track’s electronic essence on “Heart of Glass” (1978).
“I Feel Love” might have foretold the future of music but it was introduced on an album that largely quoted the past. I Remember Yesterday (1977) expanded the breadth of Donna Summer’s work with Moroder and Bellotte. Side one featured three tracks that referenced bygone musical eras. “‘I Remember Yesterday’ had a kind of a ’20s big-band sound,” says Thor Baldursson. “I took that style and decided to use that. It was almost like a Dixieland style in disco … disco Dixieland!” Touches of ’60s Motown and Phil Spector’s wall-of-sound fashioned “Back in Love Again” and “Love’s Unkind”, which hit the U.K. Top 5. Side two toured funk (“Black Lady”), ballads (“Can’t We Just Sit Down”), and variations of the disco style Summer popularized on earlier albums (“Take Me”).
However, nothing on I Remember Yesterday could have prepared listeners for the album’s last track. “I Feel Love” seemed beamed from another planet. “The technical feel of it was pretty outrageous and exciting,” says Keith Forsey. “It was quite avant garde.” Thor Baldursson witnessed the construction of the track. “That was Moroder all the way,” he says. “It was his child. We didn’t know what Giorgio was doing, really. He got a synthesizer guy (Robbie Wedel) that had a moog modular at the time. He helped them sequence the whole thing. It was Giorgio and Juergen who worked this together, more or less. It took a long time because it was so tedious to go through all the synthesizers.”
The effort paid off. Like a mannequin coming to life, Summer intoned the lyrics over a hypnotic beat. “It put you in a trance,” says Tom Moulton. “Even though it’s the beat that attracted, you still had Donna Summer’s name on it. She made it work.” The song also had fans among Moroder’s fellow producers. “At the time, I was really impressed by Giorgio Moroder’s production,” says Cerrone. “I liked Donna’s style and sensuality, which is really of her own. One can immediately recognize it.” Vince Aletti adds, “‘I Feel Love’ was really a new thing for Donna. It was also a way for people to appreciate what exactly it was that Giorgio did because it was not long after ‘I Feel Love’ that he did From Here to Eternity (1977), which was a great electronic record.” Certainly, “I Feel Love” surveyed uncharted territory on the FM dial but some club audiences had already glimpsed this brave new electronic world. Aletti continues, “I don’t think ‘I Feel Love’ would have been received at the club level quite so readily had it not been for Kraftwerk’s ‘Trans-Europe Express’ (1977). Kraftwerk kind of opened the way but to a more limited audience. Donna and Giorgio really pushed that to a larger audience, with a much more pop kind of sound. Of course ‘I Feel Love’ was imitated to death — and not very well — but it did really allow disco to take on a new form and grow in a really exciting way.”
Pop critics embraced the entire scope of Summer’s fourth Casablanca release. Rolling Stone observed, “I Remember Yesterday is clearly meant to be the album to move Summer as both singer and songwriter beyond disco classification. It succeeds with ease” (11 August 1977). The album earned Summer another gold award and became her highest charting album in the U.K. where it peaked in the Top 5. Originally issued as the B-side to “Can’t We Just Sit Down (And Talk It Over)”, the gold-selling “I Feel Love” gave the singer her second Top 10 pop hit in the U.S. and crowned the pop charts in the UK. Technological innovation had never sounded so sexy.
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 ..
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.