Donna Summer – The Making of a Hit

The following is an excerpt from And Party Every Day: The Inside Story of Casablanca Records by Larry Harris, with Curt Gooch and Jeff Suhs (Backbeat Books).

The other project was an album by one of Moroder’s German artists, American-born singer Donna Summer. It had its origins in a party Neil had thrown earlier in 1975. One night, Neil [Bogart] had one of our big blowouts at a house he was renting on Sunset Boulevard, not far from our offices. I don’t remember the occasion—although we never really needed an excuse to party—but, as usual, there was no shortage of drink, weed, coke, and the like. At some point, someone bumped into a turntable, bouncing the needle back to the beginning of the track and turning a four-minute song into an eight-minute song. Everyone loved the experience. I don’t know why, by they clearly did. The record was “Love to Love You Baby,” a demo that Giorgio Moroder had given to Neil. It featured Donna Summer on vocals.

I doubt that Neil understood the crowd’s reaction any more than I did, but he didn’t care about the why. He focused on the what, and the what was that people liked it, and that’s all that mattered. Making a creative (and crazy) leap, he insisted that increasing the length of this song by two or three times was the key to its success. He dialed Giorgio to share his thoughts. After some convincing, Giorgio agreed to redo the single to Neil’s specifications, though I’m not sure the idea ever made sense to him. I’m not sure the idea ever made sense to me, either, but I’d long since learned to trust Neil’s instincts.

Giorgio told Neil that he needed time to find the right vocalist and record the track again. He had used Donna Summer for the demo because they had a good working relationship (she’d done an album for his German Oasis label in 1974), but he wanted another singer to do the final version. Neil insisted that the song wouldn’t work unless Donna sang it. Giorgio and a befuddled Donna (she didn’t understand the need to extend the song any more than Giorgio or I did) rerecorded the song, and then Giorgio looped it several times to create an epic version—it was nearly seventeen minutes long. We released it as the A side of an album with the same title, Love to Love You Baby, on the Oasis label on August 27, 1975.

I would have given any takers hundred-to-one odds against what happened next, but it happened just the same. “Love to Love You Baby” began to break. Yes, a seventeen-minute song was getting some buzz. But it wasn’t radio that broke the song. Discotheques, first in Florida and then in the Northeast, gradually began to play it. Club people were having the same reaction to it as the guests at Neil’s party. There was something infectious about Donna’s airy, sexy cooing layered over Giorgio’s incessant, driving music. Neil could sense the impending breakout and pestered Giorgio to fly Donna from Munich, where she was living, to the US for some promotional appearances, which he felt would push the buzz to the critical level where we’d have a major hit on our hands. It took him the better part of a month to convince Giorgio, partly because Donna was recovering from a relatively severe heart infection, but in early November, she traveled to New York to start a six-week promotional tour.

While we were coordinating the details of her tour, Cecil, Buck, and I worked to get the song on Top 40 and R&B radio. Cecil quickly took care of the R&B side of things, Buck worked on the Top 40 stations, and I helped out where I could. Frankie Crocker, a DJ at WVLS in New York who would release a couple of disco albums through us, was one of the first to give the record some airplay, spinning the song in its entirety every night after midnight. Like most hit songs, it grew exponentially once the hype had begun. The momentum carried it forward. Shortly after Donna’s arrival in New York, the record hit the charts.

And Party Every Day by Larry Harris is available from Backbeat Books, Amazon, B&N, and bookstores nationwide.

Now it can be told! The true, behind-the-scenes story of Casablanca Records, from an eyewitness to the excess and insanity. Casablanca was not a product of the 1970s, it was the 1970s.

From 1974 to 1980, the landscape of American culture was a banquet of hedonism and self-indulgence, and no person or company in that era was more emblematic of the times than Casablanca Records and its magnetic founder, Neil Bogart. From his daring first signing of KISS, through the discovery and superstardom of Donna Summer, the Village People, and funk master George Clinton and his circus of freaks, Parliament Funkadelic, to the descent into the manic world of disco, this book charts Bogart’s meteoric success and eventual collapse under the weight of uncontrolled ego and hype. It is a compelling tale of ambition, greed, excess, and some of the era’s biggest music acts.

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