Monday, September 10, 2012

A revolution so secret, even its participants were unaware of it..


A friend had recently told me about a new disco documentary premiering at this year's Toronto International Film Festival this past Saturday (thanks Oliver!). While he wasn't entirely convinced, and despite the decidedly mixed reviews, I decided that if it was a documentary and it was about disco (and in my own backyard, no less), I had to go see it.

Toronto filmmaker Jamie Kastner's current film (Kastner was previously behind the docs Kike Like Me and Recessionize! For Fun and For Profit!) The Secret Disco Revolution is largely based around some of the key premises around two of the more recent revisionist histories about disco, Peter Shapiro's "Turn The Beat Around: The Secret History of Disco" and more pointedly, Alice Echols' "Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture" (she not only gets a lot of screen time, the poster art also matches her book) that Disco was not a throwaway fad, but really the soundtrack to a cultural revolution and the liberation of blacks, gays and women. While it seems fitting to have a documentarian use Echols and Shapiro's books, which are some of the most compelling works of disco scholarship in recent years; Kastner doesn't quite seem to agree entirely with their conclusions, spending approximately half of the film presenting them, and the other half sending them up. While that may seem like a cold splash in the face to some disco enthusiasts (myself included), and something of a Jamie Kastner signature judging from his earlier films, it actually becomes one of the film's stronger points. The way, however, in which he often presented many of those points, was not.
Disco Mod Squad
  The "Revolutionaries"

Using three Mod Squad style "disco revolutionaries", clad in nearly every single retro disco party costume cliché you can think of (dollar store afro, check! moustache and open-chest with heavy medallions, check!, glitter and blue eye-shadow, check!) to satirically tie together the history of disco, (their adventures narrated by actor Peter Keleghan), the film's main framing device was a total dud. While one can appreciate wanting to bring a sense of fun and levity to a documentary about disco; it not only seemed to generate more eye-rolls than laughs, but detracted, more than anything, from the otherwise serious exploration of the subject and the legitimate questions the film raises.

Henri Belolo
Henri Belolo 
On the positive side, the best parts of the film lie largely in the deftly employed goldmine of archive footage and the interviews which cover a broad spectrum of disco personalities, from mix masters Tom Moulton and Nicky Siano, to Gloria Gaynor and Thelma Houston repping the divas, to industry figures like Vince Aletti and Larry Harris to name only a few. Kastner's interview with Village People producer Jacques Morali's business partner and co-producer Henri Belolo is especially illuminating, coming across as the most articulate and insightful of all the interview subjects. The way the film presented the absurd gulf of contradictions between Belolo's take on the Village People's subversive gayness and that of the present group members' is undoubtedly one of the highlights (or lowlights, depending on your perspective). Another one of the film's more clever and pointed moments comes when Kastner brings Echols' and Shapiro's conclusions, namely the question of the political and revolutionary aspects of disco directly to the interview subjects whose answers seem to range from outright bewilderment (Thelma Houston and Martha Wash) to hostility (Harry Wayne Casey and the Village People). (For the record, Belolo, once again, came through with the most perceptive answer here).



The Village People
  The Village People
Kastner also gets points for not only bringing forth and giving ample time to Shapiro's and Echols' theories, but in also bringing up some of the contradictions that exist between their ideas and the reality of disco. For example, while disco was a genre that represented a new freedom for blacks, gays and women; as a largely producer driven genre, how come it seemed to represent the very opposite for many of its artists? Also, for a genre that represented liberation and inclusion, how does one explain why and how did Studio 54, one of its ultimate cultural representations, symbolize such a crass and superficial exclusivity? All valid questions, which the film doesn't necessarily answer; Kastner seems to content to leave that for the viewer (although I suppose you could reply to the former with a treatise on rockism, but that's another documentary).

Open questions aside, one problematic aspect of the film were some of its rather stark omissions. Perhaps a reflection of the filmmakers' outsider perspective (Kastner admitted he wasn't really a disco fan going into the project) though not, in this case, to the film's benefit. Can one really bring up black and gay liberation in disco and not even briefly touch on Sylvester? (An omission which an audience member pointed out in the Q&A). As well, can one bring up Studio 54 these days, but not, say, Larry Levan and the Paradise Garage as a counterpoint? While oft-referenced in its own way, Levan and the Garage are arguably more influential as a touchstone of the disco movement among current generations of listeners, than 54 ever was. Perhaps they felt they had sufficiently covered a 54 counterpoint with the inclusion of Siano and the accompanying Gallery footage. Though whatever the rationalization, it still felt like a missed opportunity in highlighting one of the more compelling cases of disco's enduring presence.
Thelma Houston
Thelma Houston 


Imperfect as it is, Secret Disco Revolution at the very least does an adequate job of bringing together some different perspectives and some new ideas about disco to a general (read: non-fan) audience. The more discerning of disco denizens will likely be disappointed that the film, despite heavily referencing Shapiro and Echols' works, doesn't quite live up to either of them (less Disco Mod Squad and more footage and conversation, perhaps?). While not necessarily making up for its shortcomings, the interviews and often times incredible archive footage will probably be just enough for more disco-inclined viewers to chew on.

A note about the premiere: One of the film's main interview subjects, Thelma Houston was in attendance and dutifully delivered a rousing rendition of "Don't Leave Me This Way" at the end of the Q&A. Houston had the audience on their feet, waving their hands and (like the two ladies beside me) marveling at how strong and clear she still sounds (and that was singing to a track, hardly the best showcase for even the greatest of singers). Dare I say, the lady sounded so impressive; if one didn't know better, you would have thought she had recorded that song yesterday. The full Q&A and performance was recorded on video, so hopefully that will show up on the TIFF site in the near future. In the meantime, here's some amateur audience video (not mine) of Thelma's performance (thanks for the tip-off, Javier!)


Thelma Houston Sings at TIFF 2012
Uploaded by nice1dave


For those in the Toronto area who wish to see it, The Secret Disco Revolution will be screening a second time on Thursday, September 13th at 3 pm, at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema.


PREVIOUS RELATED ENTRIES:
AND PARTY EVERY DAY.. (TUESDAY OCTOBER 6, 2009)
VINCE ALETTI'S DISCO FILES (WEDNESDAY FEBRUARY 4, 2009)
THE GODFATHER OF DISCO (FRIDAY JUNE 15, 2007)
THE QUEENS OF DISCO WITH GRAHAM NORTON ON BBC ONE (WEDNESDAY MARCH 8, 2006)

LINKS:
THE SECRET DISCO REVOLUTION - A JAMIE KASTNER FILM (OFFICIAL WEBSITE)
FACEBOOK: THE SECRET DISCO REVOLUTION
680 NEWS: INTERVIEW WITH JAMIE KASTNER, "THE SECRET DISCO REVOLUTION"
 TRIBUTE.CA: JAMIE KASTNER & THELMA HOUSTON INTERVIEW - THE SECRET DISCO REVOLUTION (SEPTEMBER 7, 2012)
 NOW TORONTO - TIFF GUIDE: THE SECRET DISCO REVOLUTION - REVIEW (BY RADHEYAN SIMONPILLAI)
EXCLAIM.CA - TIFF REVIEWS: THE SECRET DISCO REVOLUTION (BY DANIEL PRATT) (SEPTEMBER 6, 2012)
CULTURALMINING.COM - DANIEL GARBER INTERVIEWS JAMIE KASTNER ABOUT HIS NEW TONGUE-IN-CHEEK DOCUMENTARY (SEPTEMBER 7, 2012)
CANADIAN DISCO DOCUMENTARY THE SECRET DISCO REVOLUTION DEBUTS AT TIFF (BY CASSANDRA SZKLARSKI) (SEPTEMBER 7, 2012)
CTV NEWS - NEW TIFF DOC ASKS: DID DISCO TOUCH OFF A CULTURAL REVOLUTION? (SEPTEMBER 8, 2012)
 CBC MUSIC - TIFF 2012: BEHIND THE SECRET DISCO REVOLUTION (BY VISH KHANNA) (SEPTEMBER 7, 2012)
MSN CANADA - ENTERTAINMENT: FILMMAKER KASTNER OUTLINES DISCO'S SECRET HISTORY (BY SEÁN FRANCIS CONDON) (SEPTEMBER 6, 2012)
 XTRA: TIFF PREVIEW - THE SECRET DISCO REVOLUTION (INTERVIEW WITH JAMIE KASTNER) (SEPTEMBER 4, 2012)

CATEGORIES: VISUAL DISCO, ARTICLES & RAMBLINGS

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Don't say goodnight..




Haven't done a great deal of record shopping in the last little while, but while plumbing the depths of my hard drive(s), found something that I had ripped at the beginning of 2011 that I thought was well worth a little blog post.

Produced by Chicago's ever reliable Donald Burnside, who had also produced and/or arranged Air Power (previously featured here), Elaine & Ellen, and two of Captain Sky's albums, Burnside is one of those names that I haven't missed with yet.

A female quartet comprised of Denise Austin, Demetrice Henrae, Martha Jackson & Lisa Hudson (although there's some question as to whether this was the actual lineup for this release), First Love later released an album on Chycago International Records, also helmed by Burnside which featured the stunning "Party Lights" (featured on Beat Electric a while back). However, as as far as I can tell, this looks like their first single and lone release on Brunswick's Dakar imprint in the US.

Listen: First Love - Don't Say Goodnight (1980, Dakar/Brunswick)
Listen: First Love - Love Me Today (1980, Dakar/Brunswick)


The A-side, "Don't Say Goodnight," (which was included on on Strut's Horse Meat Disco II compilation) was also their lone chart entry on the Billboard Disco/Dance chart. Peaking at a modest #68 in early '81, this one nonetheless packs a nice swinging punch with its infectious staccato horns (reminiscent of yet another Burnside production from the same year, Elaine & Ellen's "Fill Me Up") and chirpy girlie vocals (which I love) and that intro, centred on a signature Donald Burnside percussion-hinged build-up.

And just when I thought I'd never find video, I come across some long-buried live lipsync, with the ladies surrounded (in true early 80's style) by dancers, neon and copious amounts of dry ice. Apparently this is from a TV show called Star Club (anyone have any idea which country this was from?).




First Love - Don't Say Goodnight

Uploaded by funkyvincent


Flipping things over, "Love Me Today" on the B-side doesn't disappoint either. While it doesn't have anything that quite stands up to the A-side's big brass hook; with some chucking guitar and string touches, it's one of those great breezy, sunny day, lovers holiday type of songs (and yes, that phrase is straight from the lyrics).

As far as this 12" goes, mark both sides down as another quality entry in Burnside's discography.

For a little change of pace, the blog Mellow Soul & Sensual Grooves posted one of First Love's final singles from 1984 "Things Are Not The Same."


PURCHASE:

VA - HORSE MEAT DISCO CD
AMAZON.CO.UK

FIRST LOVE - DON'T SAY GOODNIGHT/LOVE ME TODAY (DIGITAL SINGLE)
iTUNES UK

PREVIOUS RELATED ENTRIES:
FREE YOUR MIND AND YOUR HEART WILL FOLLOW.. (SUNDAY DECEMBER 2, 2007)

LINKS:
DISCOGS: FIRST LOVE - DON'T SAY GOODNIGHT/LOVE ME TODAY 12"
DISCOGS: DONALD BURNSIDE
SOULFUL DETROIT FORUM: FIRST LOVE
SOULFUL DETROIT FORUM: PHOTOS BY DVDMIKE (PICTURE OF DEMETRICE HENRAE c. 1985)
TOODARNSOULFUL.COM - DAKAR - PT. 2 (PDF DOCUMENT)

CATEGORIES: MINI DELIVERIES

Saturday, August 18, 2012

I've got love on my mind..





Held down by the most basic of disco basslines, this little number from 1979 comes courtesy of Marilyn McLeod, sister of the late Alice Coltrane, grandmother of Flying Lotus (who records for the über-hip Stones Throw and Warp labels), and also more importantly, one of Motown's most prolific staff songwriters of the 1970s. Alongside Pam Sawyer (with whom she also co-wrote this song), she had written classics like Diana Ross' "Love Hangover," and High Inergy's "You Can't Turn Me Off (In The Middle of Turning Me On) " (said to be originally intended for Ross). Outside of Motown, McLeod would also co-write one of Anita Baker's hits, "Same Ole Love" from her breakthrough "Rapture" (1986, Elektra) album, just to name a few.

Listen: (I Don't Wanna Dance Tonight) I Got Love On My Mind (1979, Fantasy)
Listen: (I Don't Wanna Dance Tonight) I Got Love On My Mind (Instrumental) (1979, Fantasy)

Produced by McLeod, Sawyer and Mel Bolton (also a Motown alumni and frequent collaborator), this song seems to recall elements of both of those earlier Diana Ross and High Inergy songs, (albeit with some added late disco tempo and thrust), with its sexy string-laden groove and tender vocal touch. Combining that unstoppable bassline, a delicate string arrangement and Marilyn's engaging, unaffected vocal style; this is possibly one of the most danceable songs about not wanting to dance that had ever been released. Call it a bit of before-the-bedroom boogie, if you will.

On a disco related tip; around this time, McLeod and Sawyer would contribute heavily to co-writer/producer Mel Bolton's group Flakes, who are probably best known for their disco singles "Miss Fine Lover" and "Sugar Frosted Lover" from 1979 and 1980, respectively. Both Bolton and McLeod would produce both of the Flakes albums, the last of which was released on the Salsoul label in 1981.

Despite McLeod being one of the more high profile Motown staff writers of the 70s, this single would remain one of McLeod's few releases under her own name. Among those few releases though was a notable 1978 promo album, borne out of a Motown campaign aimed at promoting some of their staff songwriters, for which McLeod and Sawyer were the first to be chosen, entitled "Pure Magic: The Songs of Pam Sawyer and Marilyn McLeod" with McLeod providing vocals on the bulk of the record. In a Billboard article promoting the Pure Magic release, it was mentioned that McLeod would be doing more recording of her own for Motown, under the name Supercloud, which apparently never materialized. More recently however, McLeod has been getting some attention for her work again, having released an album of her own in 2010, and with one of her earliest efforts at Motown - "A Heart is a House" with The Nu Page (a group which also included Mel Bolton) getting some positive notices via the recently released compilation "Our Lives Are Shaped By What We Love: Motown's MoWest Story 1971-1973" released last year on noted reissue label Light In The Attic, chronicling some of the long-forgotten singles from Motown's short-lived west coast imprint.

This particular song has also been gaining some notice on its own, too; with the vocal version having been included on one of the most recent installments of Harmless' Disco Discharge series, on their "American Hot" compilation (released this past March). In 2010, primo disco editor/producer Jacques Renault also got his hands on it, releasing a crafty edit/mashup entitled "Marilyn's Gold," combining this song's instrumental track with a break which (i believe) comes from First Choice's "The Player."



While on the subject, given the similar song titles, one can't help but draw a possible connection to one of Natalie Cole's greatest hits of the 70's, "I've Got Love On My Mind." Two very different songs to be sure, but both close enough in both title and essential feeling, that even if this wasn't inspired by it, it sure makes a nice disco response to it (at least in my mind, anyway).. Whatever the case is, if you're not going out and don't wanna get lost in a crowd, here's one way to enjoy some disco love tonight..

PURCHASE:
VA - DISCO DISCHARGE: AMERICAN HOT (2 CD)
AMAZON.CO.UK

PREVIOUS RELATED ENTRIES:
DISCO DISCHARGE AND OTHER RECENT/UPCOMING DISCO RELEASES & REISSUES (FRIDAY SEPTEMBER 18, 2009)
COME PUT OUT THE FIRE.. (TUESDAY JULY 24, 2007)
DISCO DELIVERY #6: FIRST CHOICE - THE PLAYER (1984, PHILLY GROOVE/BELL) (FRIDAY FEBRUARY 10, 2006)

LINKS:
DISCOGS: MARILYN MCLEOD - (I DON'T WANNA DANCE TONIGHT) I GOT LOVE ON MY MIND 12"
DISCOGS: VARIOUS - DISCO DISCHARGE: AMERICAN HOT (2 CD)
DISCOGS: PAM SAWYER
DISCOGS: MEL BOLTON
GOOGLE BOOKS: BILLBOARD MAGAZINE (SEPTEMBER 2, 1978) - JOBETE WRITERS SING ON LPS (BY JEAN WILLIAMS)
MOTOWN 50 PODCAST - THE ANATOMY OF A HIT: LOVE HANGOVER (PART 1)
PHOENIX NEW TIMES: MARILYN MCLEOD OF THE NU PAGE ON MOTOWN, MOWEST, ALICE COLTRANE AND FLYING LOTUS (BY JASON WOODBURY) (TUESDAY JULY 19, 2011)
JAZZ CORNER: MARILYN MCLEOD: A HIT MOTOWN SONGWRITER WITH A COLTRANE CONNECTION
JAZZ CORNER: NEW CD FROM MARILYN MCLEOD, AN ARTIST WITH A MOTOWN LEGACY AND COLTRANE CONNECTION
TWINN RECORDS

CATEGORIES: MINI DELIVERIES, NUDISCO

Friday, May 18, 2012

Donna Summer (1948-2012)

Photobucket

This year has already seen so many high-profile losses in the music world: Whitney Houston, Etta James, Don Cornelius and Dick Clark. More recently, Adam "MCA" Yauch. Stax Records' bassist Donald "Duck" Dunn, in the disco realm, singer Belita Woods of the group Brainstorm earlier in the week; as recently as this Wednesday, Chuck Brown, Washington DC's Godfather of Go-Go. And now, Donna Summer.

Feeling emotional over the loss of a celebrity, in the way one would over a death in the family is always slightly uneasy for me. However, truthfully, out of all of them, this is the one which hurts the most. It's hard to fathom the loss of someone like Donna, someone who was so central to disco so much a symbol of it's success, of the times themselves.

I still recall as a ten year old, going to garage sales in our neighbourhood at the time, usually with my cousin in tow, she was a young 20 something girl who had recently immigrated to Canada at the time and had been living with us. She may have been my cousin and not an immediate one, even, but became like the sister I never had. She was so fascinated with these garage sales, these people giving away their possessions for practically pennies, that we would take them in whenever we got a chance. Thanks to these garage sales, she ended up taking an interest in vinyl for a brief moment and came back from one of these expeditions with a copy of Donna Summer's "On The Radio - Greatest Hits, Vol.2." From the groove of "Hot Stuff" and " Bad Girls" to the vocal showcases of "MacArthur Park" and "On The Radio," I would ponder the album cover as I listened (something only really possible with vinyl), wondering who was this woman? This woman with this voice soaring with feeling and clarity. I'm sure that I listened to that album more than my cousin ever did. In fact, I'm certain she barely even got to touch it once I got a hold of it. When I got around to the flipping the record over and hearing the relentless, throbbing pulse of "Sunset People," there was no turning back. I don't think any song had captured and transported my ten year old imagination more than that song did. People made records this forward thinking then? How was that possible!? A few years later, when I started taking a more serious interest in disco and in music generally, Donna Summer was naturally one of the first artists I had sought to explore.

Having fought a private battle with cancer that few knew about until now, her death seemed to come almost completely out of nowhere. She had announced, at the end of 2010, after touring for much of that year, that she was planning to take time off to record and release two albums, an album of standards and a dance record. Reportedly she had been working on one or both of them before she passed. It had been circulating among fans that she was working on her standards record with famed producer, the modern master of MOR, David Foster. Her last major public appearance had been on his David Foster & Friends concert in October of last year, so it seems entirely probable. Her final single, "To Paris With Love," originally recorded for Louis Vuitton, released in 2010, would be her 14th #1 on the Billboard Dance charts.

Since then, there had been precious little news of note. No tour dates on the horizon, no real updates on recording. Viewing one of the Donna Summer fan forums off and on, the relative silence of the past year had left some fans almost apoplectic. It's even more silly to read some of those posts now, fans will be fans, after all (especially on internet forums), however it only reinforces the absolute shock of it all. It's entirely understandable now, the woman probably wanted to avoid the media deathwatch that inevitably preceeds most high-profile deaths today. After all she had given, she was and is entitled to her dignity. It seems she was in control of her circumstances, up until the end. The loyalty of those close to her speaks volumes about her strength of character.

With the torrent of obituaries and celebrity tweets and statements flowing, New Yorker pop critic Sasha Frere-Jones had tweeted in response: "2012, and people feel like they need to save Donna Summer from disco to celebrate her. She WAS disco and disco won the war." He's absolutely right, and it's absolutely true. With Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte, she crystalized the sexual revolution and the hedonism and liberation of disco with "Love To Love You, Baby." Together, they would set one of the most important benchmarks of the genre. In 1977 Summer, Moroder and Bellotte had, to steal a phrase I read years ago, split digital skies with "I Feel Love." Today, those steely synth pulses and sensual vocals are still reverberating across the popular music landscape. Like Disco at large, she defied old boundaries around "black" and "white" music. She had never been R&B, nor strictly pop. A church rooted black girl from Boston, influenced by both Mahalia Jackson and Janis Joplin, she began her career fronting a rock band and later on the German stage and studio, backed by European producers. The varied influences and styles she incorporated, not just in her disco material, but throughout her career embodied the synthesis of influences that lay at the true heart of disco.


Donna Summer - Love to Love You Baby (Live, German TV)
Uploaded by shaymcn3

There were many, who in the quest for a popular reappraisal of disco, felt the need to separate disco into two classes. In a refrain that still gets played today, many were often quick to pooh-pooh the popular disco hits of the time in favour of the disco underground. The former was, like everyone had said, the fake, cheesy pop shit that was rightfully disdained; the latter - that was the real deal. In an effort to try and fit disco into some clichéd rockist narrative of authenticity, many seemed to think the only way to do that was to separate disco from itself. However wrong-headed it often was, that dishonour never extended to Donna Summer. It may have extended to Anita Ward, to the Village People, to the Bee Gees, but not Donna. To do so would have likely run the risk of revealing oneself as someone who didn't understand the real weight of her presence and her impact on disco, on popular music, as someone who just missed the point altogether. You didn't touch the Queen. Like the music of Chic, Donna was someone whose records crossed all of those boundaries, someone who was beloved among all walks of the disco faithful. As Alex Needham wrote in The Guardian, Donna Summer's disco was, indeed, as radical as punk.

Certainly, Disco was never short of great singers; auteurs, even. However, aside from her talent and success, what separated Donna Summer from her peers was that Summer was ambitious in ways that few of them were. There weren't many singers at the time inside or outside of disco who could move from one benchmark to another, pulling off expansive concept double-albums like "Once Upon A Time" and "Bad Girls," pursuing these grand artistic ambitions with unprecedented quality and frequency. And yet, she did. And it wasn't just because she had Giorgio Moroder in her corner, either. Surely he deserves a lot of credit, however it's often forgotten that many of Donna Summer's finest moments credited Summer, Moroder and Pete Bellotte equally. Donna was a singer who held artistic ambitions that, for a time, seemed to blossom further with each successive release.

In fact, Donna herself continued to make some good (even sometimes great) records in the 80's after the peak of disco, apart from Moroder and Bellotte. One of her biggest hits (and her most coherent contribution to the MTV age), "She Works Hard For The Money" was made without Moroder or Bellotte. Her final record for the Geffen label, "All Systems Go" (1987) is possibly one of her best from the time and certainly one of her most overlooked. Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte would also make great records apart from Summer and from each other. Moroder's own influential work, especially, needs little introduction here. However, nothing that either of them did apart from each other would ever quite reach that elusive apex of enduring popularity and influence the way their work together with Donna Summer would.

She wasn't just the First Lady of Love, one of the first titles bestowed upon her, the black Marilyn Monroe, cooing breathlessly to the throbbing disco beat; she could belt as soulfully as the best of them, she could tackle rock and country, even (she made her home in Nashville for many years, after all). Creatively, she seemed to chafe at stylistic boundaries, especially later in her career. She attempted to cross them the best way she knew how, without alienating her audience. Her now final album "Crayons" (2008, Burgundy) was proof of that. Her work often displayed an underplayed eclecticism, an eccentricity, even, that belied her 'Queen of Disco' title. Yes, she was that, but she also held a desire to reach beyond it whenever possible.

In the midst of the relative silence of the past year, released barely a month ago, Donna collaborated on a hip-hop track with her nephew, up and coming rapper O'Mega Red, on a track entitled "Angel." A song about lost loved ones watching over the living, with Donna singing the hook and melody, it was to be the very last release she would be part of in her lifetime. As the angel in the background, she had never sounded more comforting, more peaceful. It was to be her first and last hip-hop collaboration, one that was strangely prophetic and all the more poignant now that the voice is no longer with us. Rest in Peace, Donna Summer.

Further reading: Excellent pieces from Eric Henderson at Slant Magazine, Michaelangelo Matos in The Atlantic and Christian John Wikane at PopMatters (reprinted from 2008) on the life and legacy of Donna Summer..


PREVIOUS RELATED ENTRIES:
I LEFT MY HEART IN LOTUSLAND.. (UPDATES AND RE-UPLOADS) (SUNDAY OCTOBER 26, 2008)
COLOUR IT A COMEBACK? (WEDNESDAY MAY 28, 2008)
DONNA SUMMER/CYNDI LAUPER ALBUM UPDATES (THURSDAY MAY 15, 2008)
NEW DONNA SUMMER ALBUM COMING IN MAY.. (WEDNESDAY FEBRUARY 20, 2008)
BBC RADIO 2: CLASSIC SINGLES - I FEEL LOVE (SUNDAY DECEMBER 30, 2007)
TWIGGY DOES DISCO.. (WITH A LITTLE HELP FROM DONNA) (TUESDAY SEPTEMBER 18, 2007)
NEW DEAL FOR DONNA (THURSDAY AUGUST 3, 2006)
DONNA SUMMER - I GOT YOUR LOVE (MONDAY JANUARY 16, 2006)


DISCO DELIVERY #64: MELBA MOORE - BURN (1979, EPIC) (SATURDAY APRIL 14, 2012)
DISCO DELIVERY #52: STAINLESS STEAL - CAN-CAN (1978, WARNER BROS.) (TUESDAY FEBRUARY 5, 2008)
DISCO DELIVERY #40: MUNICH MACHINE - A WHITER SHADE OF PALE (1978, CASABLANCA) (SUNDAY APRIL 29, 2007)
DISCO DELIVERY #14: SUZI LANE - OOH LA LA (1979, ELEKTRA) (SATURDAY APRIL 8, 2006)
DISCO DELIVERY #5: GIORGIO MORODER - FROM HERE TO ETERNITY (1977, OASIS/CASABLANCA) (FRIDAY FEBRUARY 3, 2006)

LINKS:
NEW YORK TIMES - DONNA SUMMER, 1948-2012: THE QUEEN OF DISCO, WHO TRANSCENDED THE ERA (BY JON PARELES) (THURSDAY MAY 17, 2012)
NEW YORK TIMES - MEMORIES OF DONNA'S DISCO NIGHTS (BY JACOB BERNSTEIN) (FRIDAY MAY 18, 2012)
THE TELEGRAPH - DONNA SUMMER, 'QUEEN OF DISCO', DIES AGE 63 AFTER CANCER BATTLE (BY ANDREW HOUGH) (THURSDAY MAY 17, 2012)
THE GUARDIAN - DONNA SUMMER'S DISCO WAS AS RADICAL AS PUNK (BY ALEX NEEDHAM) (THURSDAY MAY 17, 2012)
SLATE - DONNA SUMMER, 1948-2012 (BY JODY ROSEN) (THURSDAY MAY 17, 2012)
THE GUARDIAN - DONNA SUMMER'S DEATH: POP MOURNS SINGER WHO TRANSFORMED DANCE MUSIC (BY TOM MCCARTHY) (FRIDAY MAY 18, 2012)
BBC NEWS - PRESIDENT OBAMA LEADS DONNA SUMMER TRIBUTES (FRIDAY MAY 18, 2012)
MTV HIVE - DONNA SUMMER SAW AND SOUNDED BLISS (BY ANDY BETA) (FRIDAY MAY 18, 2012)
THE ATLANTIC - DONNA SUMMER'S HEAVY-BREATHING BLUEPRINT FOR POP (BY MICHAELANGELO MATOS) (FRIDAY MAY 18, 2012)
SLANT MAGAZINE - DONNA SUMMER (1948-2012) (BY ERIC HENDERSON) (FRIDAY MAY 18, 2012)
POPMATTERS - SHE'S A RAINBOW: A TRIBUTE TO DONNA SUMMER (BY CHRISTIAN JOHN WIKANE)
BILLBOARD - ROCK HALL REGRETS DONNA SUMMER SNUB (BY MARC SCHNEIDER) (FRIDAY MAY 18, 2012)

CATEGORIES: IN MEMORIAM..

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Disco Delivery #64:
Melba Moore - Burn (1979, Epic)



Melba Moore - Burn
Melba Moore - Hot and Tasty
Melba Moore - If You Believe In Love
Melba Moore - Night People
Melba Moore - Can't Give It Up
Melba Moore - I Don't Wanna Lose Your Love
Melba Moore - Miss Thing
Melba Moore - Need Love

Melba Moore - Night People (12'' Version)


While Melba Moore's success in music and stage made her one of the most versatile acts working in music, (the lady possesses a Tony award and a four-octave vocal range) the peaks and valleys of her career are almost as legendary as her voice.

Following a notoriously bitter divorce from ex-husband/manager Charles Huggins in 1991 which practically derailed her career, and which she claims left her destitute; she has nonetheless remained active, albeit largely under the radar for the past two decades. More recently Moore was the subject of a 2009 episode of "Unsung," TV One's Behind The Music style mini-documentary series dedicated to veteran R&B acts. However, while there have been some excellent installments in the Unsung series, the Melba Moore episode was not one of them. Highlighting the limitations of the format, it looked as if the program's producers had scrambled to cover as many bases as possible, while not going deep enough into some of the key, contentious chapters of her story (particularly regarding the details and fallout of her divorce). One couldn't help but come away from the whole thing with more questions than answers. Although whatever the program's faults, the coverage seemed to be a harbinger of the renewed interest her catalogue would see in the coming years.

While Moore may not have occupied the same position in the public consciousness as peers like Chaka, Whitney or even Donna Summer may have, (in reality she seems to lie somewhere alongside or between Jennifer Holliday, Stephanie Mills and Phyllis Hyman in terms of popular recognition), Moore nonetheless has a rich catalogue to draw from. In spite of the recognition gap, having worked with producers as diverse as Gene McDaniels, Van McCoy, McFadden & Whitehead, not to mention the architects of her 80's hits Kashif & Paul Lawrence, it was a catalogue which had remained largely untapped over the years. Though given the resurgent interest in disco, boogie and all things related from the time period, the past two years has seen much of her material from the 1980s on Capitol/EMI and two of her three Epic albums re-released on CD across three different specialist labels (Big Break Records, Funkytowngrooves and PTG/Vinyl Masterpiece), after being out-of-print for decades. So far though, this is the only one of her three Epic albums which, as of this writing, has yet to be reissued.

Given earlier disco success on the Buddah label with "This Is It," co-written and produced by Van McCoy and mixed by disco mix master Tom Moulton, and the singles off her first Epic label album: the Philly-styled cover of the Bee Gees' "You Stepped Into My Life" (produced by McFadden & Whitehead) and "Pick Me Up, I'll Dance," it was perhaps no surprise that Melba and company chose to focus their efforts more squarely on disco for their follow-up.

Having worked largely with American producers before (and since) in a decidedly R&B vein, Moore and company broke from that with this album, opting for British (via Munich) producer Pete Bellotte. With Belotte being something of a disco specialist by this time after co-producing Donna Summer (and others) alongside Giorgio Moroder, "Burn" is clearly and obviously the most disco-centred LP of her career. Bellotte not only brought disco credentials, but a different sensibility to her work altogether.

In some of the press surrounding this album, much was made of the harder disco sound and sexier image she chose to portray for this record. A significant break from the rather generally cute, tamer image she had presented in the past, which probably outlived its usefulness on her previous album "Melba" (1978, Epic). With Moore awkwardly cast in the cover photos as a giddy painter splattering her name in coloured paint everywhere, it probably deserves a place among some of the more ridiculous album covers of the time. The image not only didn't jive properly with the music and feeling on the record, the results ended up looking more loopy and delirious than the 'funny/cute' image they seemed to aim for.

With legendary photographer Richard Avedon's sleeve photos showing off a new, kinetic glamour this time around; steering things away from ballads - aiming squarely for disco action on the musical side, there would be no such dissonance on this record. Despite disco's (often deserved) rep for championing producer control over artistic collaboration, curiously enough the more assertive image seemed to be matched in the credits, with "Burn" being the first album in which Moore herself received writing credits on all cuts, a fact which was highlighted extensively in an article by Irv Lichtman in the October 20, 1979 issue of Billboard:

With an accomplished background in the musical theatre, concerts, tv and films, she's collaborated with Pete Bellotte in a new Epic album, "Burn," for which she has played an authorship role for the first time in her disk career.

Some would argue that the disco formula is one in which performers can easily lose their identity. Not so, says the artist.

"All kinds of music have their guidelines and parameters," she explains, "but you can't lose your identity by listening to your inner personality...."

.....Whether it's recordings or concert appearances, her approach has one common denominator: to be honest with one's feeling and to perform for the audience, not one's self.

Moore's first songwriting venture on disks is the result of the rough demos she played for Bellotte and Epic executives Don Dempsey and Lenny Pietze. "They liked about four of the 10 songs I had on the demos. Bellotte had some melodic ideas, so I did the lyrics for these.
"

The four tracks she demoed appear to be the ones she co-wrote entirely with Bruce Hawes and Mikki Farrow - "Hot and Tasty," "Night People," "Miss Thing," and "Need Love." Both Hawes and Farrow were both prominent writers out of the Philly Soul scene, with Bruce Hawes having been one of Thom Bell's writers having penned songs for The Stylistics and The Spinners and Mikki Farrow working with producer Norman Harris having written songs for Salsoul acts like First Choice, Loleatta Holloway and Double Exposure. Mikki Farrow would later release an album of her own, which included the minor hit "Itching For Love," (produced by Norman Harris) in 1982. The other four tracks on the album ("Burn," "If You Believe In Love," "I Don't Wanna Lose Your Love," and "Need Love") were written by Moore (and occasionally Farrow and Hawes) with Bellotte and a smattering of his and Moroder's regular Munich Machine players/writers like Jerry Rix, Sylvester Levay, Michael Hofmann, Gunter Moll, Stefan Wisnet and the well-travelled Thor Baldursson (the album's arranger and keyboardist).

One look at the cast of credits, with its mix of European and American players and writers gives a small hint at the sound and sensibility of the record. With the involvement of Bellotte and the album's eurodisco/rock/funk hybrid, traces of Donna Summer's "Bad Girls" (released earlier in the year) and the prevailing stringless rock disco sound of the time are all over the place. For Moore, it would be probably the closest she would ever come to doing anything approaching Eurodisco, and alongside 1985's "Read My Lips" (Capitol) as far as she'd ever gone in incorporating rock elements in her music. Additionally, with players like the renowned bassist Marcus Miller on board, this album probably ranks as one of Pete Bellotte's funkiest solo productions.

The title track and album opener is, quite appropriately, the ultimate summary of the record's sound. Starting up with a popping bassline giving way to some blazing fretwork from John Gatchell (who doubles elsewhere on the record and on most of his credits as part of the horn section) sliding and wailing all over the mix, they wasted no time in making a bold first impression (who'd ever have thought you'd hear those guitars on a Melba Moore record?). With the whole thing speeding along at some 125 BPM, "Burn" ends up sounding like the wild child of Donna Summer's "Hot Stuff" and Blondie's "One Way Or Another" ("gonna gitcha, gitcha, gitcha!"). With Moore attacking the song like an unhinged disco temptress scorching her way through the music (see Wardell Piper's album or Ann-Margret's disco record for some comparisons), it's probably as far as she's ever gone from the sweet-voiced innocence of "This Is It."

Moore continues in disco temptress mode (along with some more heat and fire references) on the second track "Hot and Tasty" which is probably as suggestive as she's ever gotten, boasting about her tasty love and her need for "AK-SHUN." Fed by more of Gatchell's sharp, smoking guitars and a blaring horn section, with her vocals yelping and whirling like a dancefloor possessed pyro/nympho-maniac, threatening to "set someone on fire," it's probably no wonder this was one of the songs which seemed to garner the most press attention at the time of the album's release.

That aside, the album's lead single, "Miss Thing" is undoubtedly one of the record's most memorable tracks, if not the major standout on the album. With Marcus Miller bringing some major swagger on the bass (a foreshadowing of the sound he would bring to Luther Vandross' records, hear the break at the 3.10 mark) and the cool, sly touch of Gatchell's guitarwork, Moore and company pack more funk and attitude into this 5 minute gem than on practically anything she's done before or since.

With lyrics written by Melba herself, per her own words, as a homage to her gay fans ("all my people are so happy and so gay") and the flamboyant, raucus cheers they would often give her; she obviously knew her audience well. Peppered with sassy shout-outs, seemingly straight from the mouths of back-in-the-day club queens: "go 'head, miss thing!" "work it out, miss thing!" "oh, don't hurt nobody, miss thing!," Ms. Melba drops each and every one with some serious ferocity on here. The lady either had to have been witness to at least a few drag balls, or just simply knew and appreciated her gay audience that well to have written and pulled this one off the way she does. Pre-dating Paris Is Burning and "Vogue" by nearly a decade, I'd imagine that the gay cultural subtext would have likely escaped a good many listeners (or would-be listeners) altogether at the time.

For some added gay cred (not that it needed any) and visuals, YouTube has footage of Melba performing along to the single version on the late Bea Arthur's über-gay 1979 TV bomb, The Beatrice Arthur Special (also featuring Rock Hudson and Madame, more Bea Arthur Special here and here). According to an October 1979 article in Jet Magazine, the producer of the special gifted Melba with the dress she wore in this performance (which was also seen on the cover of that particular issue, see photo above). Said to have cost $5,000 at the time, it was apparently designed especially for this song, based on its lyrics.




Melba Moore - Miss Thing
Uploaded by jeffmiguel


While "Miss Thing" didn't receive a special extended remix (a missed opportunity, if you ask me), the second US single "Night People" did. Another one of the album's best bids for dancefloor action, with it's disco scene and scenester lyrics: "Night People with their glowing eyes, looking like they're superstars.. night people with their studio smile, looking like they're hypnotized" it's just about as deep as things get on here on the lyrical front, which probably isn't saying a whole lot, but was probably their closest attempt at a Donna Summer-esque Bad Girls-style single. The 12" version extends things by around three minutes, giving more space for Marcus Miller's bass in the intro and using some alternate vocal takes on the verses, not heard on the LP version.

Though the album is (thankfully and uncharacteristically by Melba's standards) unbroken by ballads, it's not all heat and fire. "I Don't Wanna Lose Your Love" and "If You Believe In Love" are trademark Bellotte style frantic funk, anchored by memorable, melodic choruses, with the latter showing off some of Thor Baldursson's synthwork (see Bellotte's Trax albums for a sound comparison) and a surprisingly jazzy sax solo on the former.

Though undoubtedly one of the major outliers in Melba Moore's discography, "Burn" is probably one of the most satisfying in it's presentation. While Moore, in her 2009 Unsung profile said she aspired to be like Aretha Franklin, her athletic pipes were and are of a different timbre altogether. In retrospect, it's clear why she seemed to be a natural stage performer. Her sprightly, energetic vocal style seemed perfect for the expressiveness of theatre. And while she made many excellent R&B records, at times she seemed to have been saddled with ballads which seemed to barely contain the sheer power of her voice. Even when being soft and subtle, there was a tension in her vocals that was (almost distractingly) palpable, their full force seemingly bubbling under the surface ready to burst forth at any moment and either not really getting a chance to or doing so in often surprising ways, leaving the whole thing in the dust (see her penchant for extended 30-second high notes). Although I'd venture to guess that nixing the ballads was more than likely Bellotte's idea rather than Moore's, it's probably one of the reasons why this record lives up to its name. With Melba's voice seemingly unleashed and unhindered, hearing Moore really walk on the wild side of her voice for the entire album is one of the reasons why "Burn" still sounds as exciting as it does.

Though it's rumoured that Moore was displeased with the final mix, and while she did hint at a sense of surprise at the results, having been quoted in Jet magazine saying that she "didn't think it all would be as sexy as it came out;" officially Melba was all praises in the promotional press. Speaking to Irv Lichtman in Billboard about working with Bellotte, she remarked that even if he wasn't entirely familiar with her background, he had ably "aroused the spirit of the bigger than life image I try to portray on stage" with the record.

However, in spite of her praises and performance; with the album's lead single "Miss Thing" barely scraping Billboard's Disco top 40, peaking at #41 (#90 R&B) "Burn" wouldn't exactly go on to set the charts on fire. Adding yet another entry to the heaping pile of (admittedly cliché) disco heat and fire references in 1979, count this one as yet another lost in the shuffle of that year. Whatever ideas the label or Moore's team may have had about recruiting Bellotte and going toe-to-toe with Donna Summer on the charts, it would take another three years, a label move and the talents of a couple of young, up-and-coming producers before she would score her next commercial breakthrough.

Perhaps in retrospect, Moore and company could have played it a bit more safely in choosing to focus on disco, picking producers more attuned to the R&B sensibilities of her past efforts - Mtume/Lucas, who were riding high with Phyllis Hyman at the time, for one example. The release of a cash-in album by her former label earlier in the year called "Dancin' With Melba" (1979, Buddah), a collection of older songs remixed for disco play (which included Richie Rivera's admittedly stunning treatment of "Standing Right Here") may have influenced the decision to check the prevailing trends and go for an edgier disco sound. Ultimately, Moore would return to more familiar settings with her follow-up album "Closer" (Epic, 1980) bringing back Victor Carstarphen and keeping "Burn" collaborator Bruce Hawes in tow.

Although Bellotte had been criticised elsewhere for subjecting Moore to a "disco standardization process" with this record, more than almost any of her previous and future producers, Bellotte managed to utilize the spunky, incendiary edge of Melba's voice to express a boldness that had never really been heard before (and scarcely since) in her music. Though while the record is ultimately more identifiable as a Bellotte production than a Melba Moore record; Moore, in her versatility came off sounding more animated than ever here, feeling like the most natural fit for Bellotte's brand of high-octane disco. Far from being just another anonymous, throwaway element in the production (as singers in disco are often derided as being), Melba's voice and personality here practically make this record. Backed by rollicking rock guitars, funky strutting bass all with an ever so slight Eurodisco bent; with Bellotte's production letting the lady's fiery personality burn (I just had to..) freely, this album remains one of Melba Moore's most interesting (albeit brief) shifts in sound.

UPDATE (JUNE 2012): This album has just been reissued on CD from Funkytowngrooves (who also have five other Melba Moore reissues coming), with three bonus tracks.

PREVIOUS RELATED ENTRIES:
DISCO DELIVERY #52: STAINLESS STEAL - CAN-CAN (1978, WARNER BROS.) (TUESDAY FEBRUARY 5, 2008)
BBC RADIO 2: CLASSIC SINGLES - I FEEL LOVE (SUNDAY DECEMBER 30, 2007)
DISCO DELIVERY #43: WARDELL PIPER (1979, MIDSONG INTERNATIONAL) (MONDAY AUGUST 27, 2007)
DISCO DELIVERY #40: MUNICH MACHINE - A WHITER SHADE OF PALE (SUNDAY APRIL 29, 2007)
DISCO DELIVERY #14: SUZI LANE - OOH LA LA (1979, ELEKTRA) (SATURDAY APRIL 8, 2006)
DISCO DELIVERY #5: GIORGIO MORODER - FROM HERE TO ETERNITY (1977, OASIS/CASABLANCA) (FRIDAY FEBRUARY 3, 2006)

LINKS:
DISCOGS: MELBA MOORE - BURN LP
DISCOGS: MELBA MOORE - NIGHT PEOPLE (PROMO 12")
DISCOGS: PETE BELLOTTE
ALL MUSIC GUIDE: MELBA MOORE
DISCOMUSIC.COM: INTERVIEW WITH MELBA MOORE (BY DAYNA NEWMAN)
GOOGLE BOOKS: JET MAGAZINE (DECEMBER 6, 1979)
GOOGLE BOOKS: BILLBOARD MAGAZINE (OCTOBER 20, 1979) - MELBA MOORE LEAPS INTO NEW RECORDING CHALLENGE (BY IRV LICHTMAN)
FACEBOOK: BRUCE HAWES, COMPOSER
DISCOGS: MARCUS MILLER
WIKIPEDIA: RICHARD AVEDON

CATEGORIES: DISCO DELIVERIES, VISUAL DISCO

Friday, April 13, 2012

Still Kicking


It has been well over a year since I've updated this blog, and aside from cleaning up the occasional spate of spam comments, I've basically left it alone ever since. So while I've basically let this blog become defunct since then, I'm glad there still seem to be people out there who seem to get something out of the blog posts (either that, or you've probably come to lift the pictures - no, I don't mind), even while most of the file links have since died.

On a more personal note, I've made some major changes in the past year, namely a cross-country move from Calgary to Toronto, opting to start a new life in a new city, leaving behind quite a few things, including most of my record collection (which is currently in storage). Also, in the disco world, companies like Big Break Records, Gold Legion, Funky Town Grooves and Harmless have been churning disco album reissues and compilations with unprecedented speed, quantity and quality in the last 2-3 years. For disco enthusiasts like myself, it has been exciting to finally see companies seriously tap into the appreciation around disco and of the original disco records with a level of consistent dedication and care never seen before. The things happening today on the reissue front seemed almost unimaginable in January 2006 when I started this blog as a bored 20 year old student in his parents' suburban bedroom.

That being said, with all that has happened there's likely less reason for this blog to exist now as there used to be. While I'm not quite as moved to write about records the way I once was, (I can hardly believe how much I did write when I was), I do still get the urge to put something down on something I enjoy every once in a while. With that, I figured I might as well revisit the blog and add some new content and update some of the old, as I get the chance.

I've managed to bring back a selection records from storage, not to mention acquire new ones with some regularity, so for those who may still be paying attention, expect some new content soon.


CATEGORIES: MISCELLANEOUS

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