Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
A History Of Casablanca Records In 10 Songs, From Kiss To Donna Summer To Lindsay Lohan
As the Casablanca Records story hits the big screen with ‘Spinning Gold’ on March 31, revisit some of the hits that have defined the now-reinvented label’s legacy.
Over the past five years, some of the most famous (and infamous) stories of the music industry have hit movie theaters, from Freddie Mercury’s meteoric arrival in Bohemian Rhapsody to Elton John’s breakthrough years in Rocketman, and most recently Whitney Houston’s remarkable rise in Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody. Now it’s time for the big-screen debut of a name that might not be as familiar: trailblazing record executive Neil Bogart.
Bogart is the outsized personality at the center of a new biopic, Spinning Gold, which hits theaters March 31. The film tracks the monumental first decade of Casablanca Records, the larger-than-life label that Bogart dreamed up in the summer of 1973.
The industry upstart defied the odds to become one of the definitive labels of the 1970s, with a highly eclectic roster that included KISS, Donna Summer, Village People and George Clinton’s Parliament. At the same time, Casablanca Records typified 1970s excess, with infamous stories of drug-fuelled parties, flagrant spending and unchecked egos — all rich material for a big-screen treatment.
Written and directed by Bogart’s eldest son Tim, Spinning Gold stars Jeremy Jordan as Bogart alongside a cast of current music luminaries in key roles, including Wiz Khalifa as George Clinton, Tayla Parx as Donna Summer, Ledisi as Gladys Knight and Jason Derulo as Ron Isley. (The hit-filled soundtrack is just as star-studded.)
After he was pushed out at Casablanca, Bogart went on to found Boardwalk Records (signing a young Joan Jett) before his tragic death in 1982, at the age of 39. In the decades since, Casablanca has had several lives, including its reinvention as a dance music label in 2012.
To celebrate the release of Spinning Gold, we’re taking a trip back through 10 of the label’s hallmark releases from the 1970s to the 2010s.
KISS, "Rock and Roll All Nite" (1975)
Neil Bogart’s first gamble as a label boss was on New York shock rockers KISS. Bogart signed the band to Casablanca Records on the strength of their demo tape, recorded with DIY grit alongside former Jimi Hendrix producer Eddie Kramer. While initially dubious of the group’s garish makeup, he backed their lean and mean 1974 debut album, KISS, even as it failed to ignite the charts.
As detailed in Classic Rock Magazine, KISS played Casablanca’s launch party at Los Angeles’ Century Plaza Hotel, bemusing the glamorous crowd to a flurry of smoke bombs and a levitating drum kit. Bogart stuck by his hard rockers, and in 1975 they released Dressed to Kill, featuring the undeniable anthem "Rock and Roll All Nite," one of KISS’ setlist staples to this day.
As the story goes, Bogart, who is a credited producer on "Rock N Roll All Nite," challenged songwriters Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons to write the definitive KISS song. Later in 1975, the band hit No. 9 on the Billboard 200 with the live album, Alive!, and their fire-breathing, fake-blood-spitting path was set.
Parliament, "Give Up The Funk (Tear The Roof Off The Sucker)" (1976)
If KISS represented one extreme of Casablanca’s early catalog, George Clinton’s Parliament confirmed there was no rulebook. Bogart recognised Clinton’s shambolic genius early on, signing the bandleader and his funk disciples to Casablanca in 1973. After a pair of slow-burning albums, in 1975 Parliament released Mothership Connection, an outlandish concept record exploring afrofuturism in outer space.
On an album that sounded like nothing else out there, "Give Up The Funk (Tear the Roof off the Sucker)" was a supremely funky standout. It became Parliament’s first certified million-selling single and gave the group the cachet to build their signature stage prop, The Mothership, which landed theatrically mid-show in a swirl of smoke.
Donna Summer, "I Feel Love" (1977)
Bogart’s circle of gifted friends included Giorgio Moroder, the Italian producer behind the hallowed Musicland Studios in Munich, Germany. In 1975, Moroder played Bogart a song he’d produced for an up-and-coming American singer named Donna Summer, who was living as an expat in Munich after appearing in the musical Hair.
That song was "Love To Love You Baby," a slow, slinky disco number that, on Bogart’s insistence, morphed into a 17-minute version. In its extended form, "Love To Love You Baby" seduced dance floors and took disco into a new realm of slow-burning sexuality.
In 1976, Summer returned to Musicland Studios with Moroder and his studio partner Pete Bellotte to record "I Feel Love," released on Casablanca the next year. Still exhilarating and influential to this day, the record’s futuristic synth sound cemented Casablanca as the go-to disco label.
Village People, "Y.M.C.A." (1978)
With Donna Summer now a certified star, Bogart found his next disco hitmakers in Village People. Founded in 1977 by French dance producers Jacques Morali and Henri Belolo, and fronted by vocalist Victor Willis, the group emerged from and celebrated New York’s gay club culture, with each member adopting a "macho man" persona and costume.
Village People’s third album on Casablanca, 1978’s Cruisin’, featured the instant earworm "Y.M.C.A.," which hit No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1979. A winking advertisement for the fraternal pleasures of the Y.M.C.A., the song became a gay anthem and paved the way for future hits "In The Navy,” "Go West" and an actual song called “Macho Man.”
"[Casablanca] was a very trendy label," Belolo recalled to DJHistory in 2004. "Neil Bogart was known as an entrepreneur who had the guts to take risks, and he was a very good promoter."
KISS, "I Was Made For Lovin’ You" (1979)
Released on their 1979 album, Dynasty, "I Was Made for Lovin’ You" proved even KISS weren’t immune to disco fever. Coming two years after the hard rocking Love Gun album, this glam, light-on-its-feet return had some fans reeling.
Co-written by Paul Stanley with pop songwriters Desmond Child and Vini Poncia, the single sold over 1 million copies and remains a favorite sing-along at KISS shows. To this day, its detractors include none other than Gene Simmons, who never liked his pop-tinged vocal part.
Cher, "Take Me Home" (1979)
While Casablanca was founded on new talent, by the late 1970s, the label was courting already established stars. With 14 albums to her name by 1977, Cher met Neil Bogart through her then-boyfriend Gene Simmons. After a run of underperforming releases, Cher came around to trying disco.
"Take Me Home," Cher’s shimmering foray into the still-hot genre, unleashed her inner disco diva, which she explored further on two Casablanca albums, Take Me Home and Prisoner. While the legendary singer later strayed from disco, the lush, Studio 54-soaked sound of "Take Me Home" is testament to Casablanca’s gravitational pull.
Lipps Inc., "Funkytown" (1980)
As the 1970s ticked over into the ‘80s, Casablanca went looking for the next sound. Behind the scenes, the label was in turmoil. With Polygram now overseeing Casablanca, co-founder Larry Harris quit and Bogart was pushed out. Disco’s popularity was also waning in the wake of the infamous Disco Demolition Night at Chicago’s Comiskey Park.
If times were tough, you couldn’t hear it in "Funkytown," a party-starting track by Minnesotan funk/disco band Lipps, Inc. Featuring Cynthia Johnson’s peppy vocals over a perfect marriage of synths, strings and cowbell, the song was a surprise hit for Casablanca and a gentle clapback to the disco doomsayers.
Irene Cara, "Flashdance…What A Feeling" (1983)
Throughout its first decade, Casablanca was closely aligned with Hollywood — after all, the label took its name from the Golden Age classic starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. In the mid-’70s, the label even merged with a film production company to make Casablanca Record And Filmworks, Inc.
Following Bogart’s exit from Casablanca, the label struck gold with Irene Cara’s "Flashdance…What A Feeling" from the 1983 dance drama Flashdance. Produced by label mainstay Giorgio Moroder, the song is a pure hit of 1980s nostalgia, elevated by Moroder’s synth and Cara’s roof-raising vocals.
"Flashdance…What A Feeling" won the GRAMMY for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance and the Academy Award for Best Original Song, giving Casablanca Records one last victory lap before it folded in 1986.
Lindsay Lohan, "Rumors" (2004)
Two decades after Jennifer Beals spun and vaulted through the music video for "Flashdance…What A Feeling," Casablanca was relaunched under Universal by veteran music exec Tommy Mottola.
One of Mottola’s early signings was "it-girl" Lindsay Lohan, who was coming off star-making roles in Freaky Friday and Mean Girls. Lohan’s 2004 debut album, Speak, featured the bonus track "Rumors," a club banger with spiky lyrics aimed at paparazzi and rumor-mongers hounding her every move. A long way from the halcyon days of KISS and Donna Summer, "Rumors" is still a time capsule to a quainter era before Instagram and iPhones.
Mottola’s other mid-aughts signings included singer and actress Brie Larson (long before she was Captain Marvel) and pop artist Mika, whose 2007 album, Life in Cartoon Motion — and particularly its infectious lead single, “Grace Kelly” — was a breakthrough success.
Tiesto, "Red Lights" (2013)
After its brief mid-2000s run, Casablanca Records went quiet again — that is, until its next relaunch in 2012 as a dance/electronic imprint under Republic Records. Capitalizing on the EDM boom at the time, Casablanca snapped up Dutch superstar Tiesto and his label Musical Freedom.
In December 2013, Tiesto dropped "Red Lights," the lead single from his fifth studio album, A Town Called Paradise, released on Casablanca the following year. A surging dance-pop confection built for Tiesto’s then-residency at Hakkasan Las Vegas, "Red Lights" endures today as a three-minute flashback to EDM’s heyday.
While Tiesto is no longer with Casablanca, the label has been a steady home for both veteran and rising dance acts over the past decade, including Martin Solveig, Chase & Status, Nicky Romero, Felix Jaehn and James Hype. Meanwhile, Lindsay Lohan has remained with the label, releasing her club-ready comeback single, "Back to Me,” in 2020.
Bringing the story full circle, a resurgent Giorgio Moroder also landed back on Casablanca Records in 2016. As the story of Casablanca's glory days hits the big screen, the label's latest chapter is still being written.
Photo: Courtesy of Atlantic Records
Inside Tiësto's Pulse-Pounding Musical World: 7 Keys To His Global Superstardom & Journey To New Album, 'Drive'
On the heels of releasing his seventh album, 'Drive,' Tiësto details the secrets to his long-term success as one of dance music's biggest stars — from collaborating with artists he loves to staying true to himself.
Tiësto has been at the top of his game for the past 20 years. With a reliable string of monster hits, starry collaborations and an immense stage show, the beloved DJ/producer has been a revolutionary force that helped electronic music explode onto the global stage.
Now, the GRAMMY-winning Dutch superstar is back with Drive. His seventh album, it features all of the star's typical calling cards, from heart-pounding singles perfect for the dance floor to a cadre of buzzy artists lending their vocals (Tate McRae and Charli XCX included). Naturally, its advance singles have already collected over 3.5 billion streams.
While on a brief respite from his busy touring schedule, Tiësto took GRAMMY.com through his massive career, recounting his collaborations, inspirations and how he's stayed relevant.
Songwriting Rooted In Inspiration
When it comes to Tiësto's creative process, the producer admits "it's always different." That includes the process leading up to the inner-working of Drive, his first album since 2020's pandemic-era The London Sessions and his first conceptual album since 2009's Kaleidoscope.
"Sometimes I'll hear a sound that inspires a melody, other times I'll hear a lyric or a vocal and I know exactly what I want it to sound like," he says. "I'll start messing around and having fun with it," he says. It's that adventurous spirit that results in unique production techniques, from his signature vocal tones and pounding synths.
His Blockbuster Live Shows Impact His Studio Work
Early on in his bubbling career, Tiësto was one of the first DJs who regularly played expansive, theatrical sets which wood record-breaking masses of people. It was in the summer of 2007, during a nearly six-hour set at the Los Angeles Sports Arena, when he performed what was "the largest-ever single-DJ show in North American history, featuring full-production and arena-scale theatrics the likes of which the dance community has never seen," according to Reuters.
As a result, he says his stage show is always top of mind when he's in the studio. "My main goal is thinking about how the song can fit into my performances," he explains.
One performance that stands out as one of his most memorable? "Being the first DJ to close the main stage of Coachella."
An Ear For Smash Hits
Proving his status as a hitmaker, Tiësto teamed up with pop star Ava Max on Drive single "The Motto," which first dropped in 2021. The song has since reached the top of Billboard's Dance Chart and has garnered one billion streams on Spotify.
"I had the idea for the song but needed the right vocal," he remembers of the global hit. "Once I heard Ava, I knew it was a perfect fit. Her voice is just incredible, and I can't imagine the song any other way."
A Career Built On Collaboration
"It really varies, but generally I find myself collaborating with artists whose music and voice I really love," he explains. "It's all about getting the best song possible and not just putting a name on the record."
To that end, Drive includes features from the likes Colombian star and GRAMMY nominee Karol G (she lent vocals to their hit single "Don't Be Shy", which marked her first-ever English song) and British pop star and GRAMMY winner Charli XCX (the sizzling track "Hot In It.")
Disparate (And Unexpected) Influences
Considering his towering stature in dance, one would think Tiësto would cite an act from the genre as an early inspiration. But that's far from the case when it comes to two of his bigger influences. He mentions classic rockers Iron Maiden, whom Tiësto calls a "childhood favorite," and notes his love for Elvis Presley.
"Perhaps because of my connection to Las Vegas, I love the music of Elvis," says the producer, who has played several Vegas nightclubs throughout his career, most recently holding a residency at Zouk. "He's one of my all time favorites."
Knowing When To Slow Down
Even with a jam-packed schedule of nightclubs and festivals, Tiësto is quick to note that his key to staying sane on the road lies far from the club.
"There's no better way for me to unwind than relaxing with my family," says the father of two. "And when they can't be there, they are my first FaceTime after a show."
Straying From Trends
In the fickle, fast-moving dance genre, Tiësto has been a rare case of a multi-decade success story. In his mind, staying grounded is the key to that longevity.
"The industry and trends are always changing, I think it's all about evolving your craft over time but staying true to yourself," he says. "I've been through many eras in my career because I like to keep it fresh and am inspired by everything around me as well. Staying true to your sound and not being highly influenced by trends is key and how we push the dance culture forward."
Photo: L. Cohen/WireImage
10 Record Store Day Releases You Need This Year: Taylor Swift, Nas, Dolly Parton & More
Celebrate Record Store Day this April 22 by stocking up on new, exclusive LPs from Taylor Swift, Björk, The Rolling Stones and more at your local participating record store.
From Post Malone to Peppa Pig vinyls, record stores around the world are stocking up on limited exclusive releases for Record Store Day 2023.
Held annually every April since 2007, the event honors independently owned record stores and the unity of fans and artists. This year, many stores will globally welcome more than 300 limited, exclusive records ranging from rock to jazz to rap on April 22.
With former official ambassadors including Taylor Swift, Metallica, Ozzy Osbourne, Jack White, Chuck D, and St. Vincent, Record Store Day celebrates music of all genres. And that's exactly the case with this year's lineup of special releases, spanning from Miles Davis to Beach House.
In honor of Record Store Day 2023, get excited about these 10 limited, exclusive releases dropping in your local participating store.
The 1975 — I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it: Live With The BBC Philharmonic Orchestra
Serving as the official Record Store Day UK Ambassadors this year, the 1975 take us back to 2016 with their second LP, I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it — this time, along with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra. Available for the first time on double clear vinyl, this orchestral version of the British rock band's second studio album also features a version of their breakout hit, "Chocolate."
Miles Davis — TURNAROUND: Unreleased Rare Vinyl from On the Corner
Miles Davis' album On the Corner celebrated its 50th birthday last October, and its innovation takes yet another turn on Record Store Day. Titled Turnaround, this sky-blue vinyl features four cuts from the expanded 2007 album The Complete On The Corner Sessions, also offering appearances from Herbie Hancock, Dave Liebman and Bennie Maupin.
Björk — the fossora remixes
Fill your record collection with some flora and fauna — natural, eccentric scarlet and green patterns adorn each vinyl sleeve of Björk's exclusive the fossora remixes. The release features two dynamic songs: A1 Ovule featuring Shygirl (Sega Bodega remix) and A2 Atopos (sideproject remix).
Beach House — Become
Fourteen months after psychedelic pop duo Beach House unveiled their eighth studio album, Once Twice Melody, they continue the story with a new EP. Titled Become, the five-song project — which is available on crystal-clear vinyl on Record Store Day — features five formerly unreleased songs from their 2022 LP.
Nas — Made You Look: God's Son Live 2002
Just over 20 years ago, Nas gave a spectacular performance at Webster Hall in New York City, further solidifying his status as a legend of East Coast hip-hop. The spirited 20-song concert now appears on vinyl for the first time, with familiar artwork calling back to its original DVD release in 2003.
Dolly Parton — The Monument Singles Collection 1964-1968
More than six decades into her career, Dolly Parton joins the Record Store Day fun with a celebration of her early years. The country legend's remastered singles from the 1960s are hitting record store shelves, and the special first-time collection also features liner notes from two-time GRAMMY nominee Holly George-Warren.
The Rolling Stones — Beggars Banquet
As the Rolling Stones sang of "a swirling mass of grey, blue, black, and white" on "Salt Of The Earth," the rock band's upcoming limited vinyl for Beggars Banquet will be pressed with a swirl pattern of the same four colors in tribute. The group merges classic rock with their blues roots on Beggars Banquet, and the vinyl of their 1968 critically-acclaimed album features the original artwork and window display poster.
Taylor Swift — folklore: the long pond studio sessions
In September 2020, Taylor Swift's GRAMMY-winning album folklore was reimagined at New York's Long Pond Studio with a pair of the singer's closest collaborators, Aaron Dessner (The National) and Jack Antonoff (fun./Bleachers). And in November that year, fans got to witness those sessions in a Disney+ documentary. Now, more than two years later, the serene album's acoustic studio sessions are available on vinyl for the first time, including four sides and bonus track "the lakes."
'Ol Dirty Bastard — Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version
ODB's memory lives on in the vinyl rerelease of his iconic 1995 debut album, Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version. Featuring the 2020 remasters of 15 tracks, this drop is the first posthumous release from ODB since 2011, but not the first time fans have heard his voice since then: SZA's SOS track "Forgiveless" concludes with a previously unreleased verse from the late rapper.
Donna Summer — A Hot Summer Night (40th Anniversary Edition)
This year marks the 40th anniversary of Donna Summer's momentous Hard For The Money Tour. This exclusive vinyl celebrates the Queen of Disco in all her glory, capturing her live concert at Costa Mesa's Pacific Amphitheatre from August 1983. The vinyl offers performances by special guests Musical Youth, her sisters Dara and Mary Ellen, and her eldest daughter Mimi.
Photo: Bob Riha, Jr./Getty Images
GRAMMY Rewind: Irene Cara Thanks Her Family And Friends For 'Flashdance' Win At The 1984 GRAMMYs
Irene Cara was speechless as she made her way to the stage to accept her award for "Flashdance … What a Feeling" at the 26th GRAMMY Awards.
From its star-studded cast to its timeless music, there's no questioning that Flashdance is one of the most iconic and influential films to emerge from the early '80s. Musical dramas decorated the year following its release, including Footloose and Prince's Purple Rain, which credited Flashdance as its inspiration. So, it was no surprise when the film's soundtrack made a sweep at the 1984 GRAMMY Awards ceremony.
In this episode of GRAMMY Rewind, we flashback to the night Irene Cara won Best Female Pop Vocal Performance for Flashdance's titular song. The triple-threat singer, actress and dancer was stunned as she made her way to the stage to accept the award: "Are you sure? I can't believe this," she squealed to the presenters.
After acknowledging the film's producers, actors and musicians, she thanked her parents, who encouraged her to begin performing. "My mother and father, who started it all for me many years ago — you know I can't visit them if I don't say that," Cara joked. "I love you all, thank you!"
Press play on the video above to watch Irene Cara's full acceptance speech for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance at the 26th GRAMMY Awards, and keep checking back to GRAMMY.com for more episodes of GRAMMY Rewind.
Courtesy of Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
An Ode To Donna Summer's 1970s: How The Disco Queen Embodied Both Innovator And Vixen
As disco’s greatest champion, Donna Summer redefined what it meant to be a pop star in a post-Motown world. In celebration of Summer’s continued legacy, GRAMMY.com dives into how the singer’s 1970s oeuvre changed music and stardom forever.
There is perhaps no sound that defines disco better than Donna Summer's hypnotic "I Feel Love." Indeed, the 45-year-old track was crowned the greatest dance song of all time earlier this year by Rolling Stone. Amidst the 2020s’ ongoing disco resurgence — from Kylie Minogue’s Disco to Beyoncé’s Renaissance, which features a prominent re-interpretation of "I Feel Love" — Donna Summer’s legacy looms larger than ever over pop music.
With five GRAMMY Awards and 18 nominations, Summer still holds the distinction of being the only artist to win awards in four different genres: dance, gospel, rock, and R&B. Though her catalog spans decades and features reinvention after reinvention, her golden period was undoubtedly the 1970s. She took that decade by storm with a string of seven classic disco albums — nearly entirely written and produced by Summer and European collaborators Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte — that culminated in 1979's No.1 compilation album On the Radio: Greatest Hits Volumes I & II. This compilation includes some of the genre’s most sublime and quintessential songs such as "Bad Girls," "On The Radio" and "MacArthur Park," all of which distill disco’s sense of humor, camp, and its otherworldly sound.
But the indisputable queen of disco is too often maligned to the margins of pop’s overall evolution — a consequence of the historic disregard for disco as an art form, though it defined the many branches of dance music that evolved in its wake. As disco’s greatest champion, Summer redefined what it meant to be a "pop star" in a post-Motown world. Summer’s artistry is emblematic of the way sound and aesthetic evolve and compound over time.
In celebration of Summer’s continued legacy, GRAMMY.com dives into how Donna Summer’s 1970s oeuvre changed music and pop stardom forever.
Donna, The Vixen
Donna Summer’s catalog displays a fascination with the ideas of femininity and desire. At a time where women in music culture were largely categorized as matrons, muses, or groupies, Summer’s music thematically centered women as complex and thrilling protagonists.
Her first internationally released album and her first foray into disco, Love to Love You Baby, features Summer moaning her way across the title track for 16+ minutes of utter sexuality. Summer herself came up with the idea for the song’s content, after producer Giorgio Moroder played her the instrumental and asked her to improvise. Her off-the-cuff response happened to become one of the most iconic hooks of all time. Embracing and simulating female orgasm — to this day a taboo topic in pop culture — was how Donna Summer introduced herself to the world, earning her the honorific of the "first lady of love."
Summer’s 1976 follow-up album, A Love Trilogy, was also her most outwardly yearning, with her cover of Barry Manilow’s "Could It Be Magic" serving as her second-best moan-filled song. Lyrically sparse, it features some of her most direct and simple sexual pleas, letting Moroder and Bellotte’s lush production do a lot of the talking and cemented Summer's status as a mystical sex goddess of disco.
Her exploration of femininity reached its creative apex with 1979's Bad Girls, often considered the quintessential Donna Summer album. It’s a portrait of a fully-fledged pop star with a cohesive vision, and is perhaps the peak of Summer’s comprehensive artistry.
One of many Summer concept albums, Bad Girls is a narrative told from the perspective of a "lady of the night" making her way through the streets of Hollywood. The album, and its title track in particular, was inspired by Summer’s observation of a record company employee being harassed by police for seeming like a street walker. It’s an ode to girls just trying to survive in a world that vilifies sexuality, and much of Summer’s career aimed to reclaim femininity and sexuality from a place of agency and power. To do so, Bad Girls leans into rock, letting go of the paradisiacal strings of disco’s past in favor of more hard-edged, synth and guitar-led sounds that lent well to the grounded subject matter.
Summer meticulously cultivated the album's visual identity, working with legendary photographer Harry Langdon Jr. to create album artwork that furthered the music’s story. Langdon describes the shoot as Summer’s own brainchild, creating an entire narrative from the imagery, with Summer as the "fallen woman." The result was a prototype of the pop star "era" of today, with visuals defining the album cycle and vice versa. It served as a shift in the creative control of women in pop, as Summer refused to let behind-the-scenes men wholly shape her artistry and expression. She instead centered her own synthesis of the world, expressing it through new personas, performances, and concepts with every new album.
"Bad Girls" also doubles as a tongue-in-cheek take on the prostitutive and isolating nature of pop stardom. Accosted yet desirable, dangerous yet captivating, the Bad Girl in question doubles for the so-called social danger attributed to the inherently liberatory nature of disco and to its primarily Black, female, and LGBT stars. Albums like Britney Spears’ Blackout have continued this thread of examining the price of fame through the lens of sexuality, exploitation, and the pop star as a commodity.
Donna, The Innovator
One of the greatest things Donna Summer ever did for disco was to usher in its evolution and encourage its sonic expansion. Summer drove rock and disco straight into each other — retaining the choral elements, danceable drum beat, and synth hook more commonly associated with disco, while mixing in a guitar break and a heavy bass line. She was a chief architect in moving the dreamier, string-led sounds of disco into the future of synth-led dance music. Following in the legacy of Black funk rockers like Labelle and Betty Davis, 1979's "Hot Stuff" loudly and proudly eschews the romantic desperation that was a staple of pop divadom in favor of straight-up demands, with an emphatic choir to back Summer’s insistence up. The song won the very first GRAMMY Award for Best Female Rock Performance in 1980.
Featuring Doobie Brother/Steely Dan member Jeff Baxter on guitar, "Hot Stuff" set the stage for the upcoming 1980s as a golden decade for women in rock, and particularly for Black women. Its influence can be heard on pop-rock classics like Janet Jackson's "Black Cat" and Tina Turner's "I Might Have Been Queen."
Like rock, another art form which Donna Summer innovated and elevated is the concept album — a highly lauded production often attributed solely to men in classic rock. The music canon, however, is full of savvy pop concept albums by women, to which Summer has contributed several bodies of work. Among her greatest contributions are Four Seasons of Love and Once Upon A Time....
Four Seasons of Love chronicles the life cycle of a romance in parallel with the seasons in an ode to the theatrically tempestuous nature of love. It follows the rush of a new fling ("Spring Affair") evolving into the fervor of passion ("Summer Fever") before fizzling out amidst desperate attempts to sustain it ("Autumn Changes"), eventually dying out ("Winter Melody") — giving way to another hopeful new affair ("Spring Reprise"). Summer exercises her chameleonic vocal tone to express the dizziness, intensity, desperation, listlessness, and finally hopefulness of each of the album’s stages. DJ Jesse Saunders, the creator of the very first house music record ever sold, cites "Spring Affair" as the song that "changed [his] whole idea of music" and inspired his desire to create.
Once Upon A Time…, Summer’s take on Cinderella, stands as one of the greatest concept albums of all time. A fully-fleshed fairy tale, it features some of the all-time most elegant and seamless transitions between songs (Beyoncé’s Renaissance took notes!). It’s an atmospheric production thematically split into four distinct storybook acts — isolation, despair, yearning and hopefulness — to form a transcendent disco opera. Standouts include the ethereal choir-inflected "Now I Need You," the cold and futuristic "Working the Midnight Shift," and the empowering turning point of "If You Got It Flaunt It." Summer is an absolute chameleon through the song cycle, using her vocal dexterity to master a wild variety of sounds and moods and showing off her studious knowledge of a wide berth of musical styles.
Donna, The Historian
Disco is a melting pot of decades of Black music, with soul, funk and pop all coalescing into a very sexy gumbo. Many of Summer’s greatest songs lean into this contextualization of genre and evolution, such as those on the aforementioned Once Upon A Time… and beginning with 1975’s "Need-A-Man Blues." Rather than merely fixating on what was next in music — as many tried to do in order to ensure their relevance — Donna Summer was keen on honoring her influences as a key part of her musical palate. She was a true student of her idols, unwilling to separate herself from the art that shaped her.
One of her first explicitly disco songs, "Need-A-Man-Blues" features a rhythm emblematic of Sly and the Family Stone's iconic "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)," Stax Records-esque psychedelic soul instrumentals, and Diana Ross-inspired breathy vocals, while Moroder and Bellotte's unique brand of Euro disco fizz ties it all together. It's one of Summer's many songs that dynamically pull the past into the future.
Summer’s tendency for cultural historicism hit its peak in her 1977 concept album I Remember Yesterday, which reflected on the history of pop music before predicting its future. The title track evokes the optimistic swing of the 1940s, followed by the ‘60’s Wall of Sound-inspired soda shop pep of "Love’s Unkind," "Back In Love Again’s" tribute to Diana Ross’ Motown stylings, and odes to the ‘70s innovations of funk and orchestral Philadelphia soul with "Black Lady" and "Take Me," respectively.
The album concludes with the ever-futuristic and eternally relevant "I Feel Love," making I Remember Yesterday an unparalleled chronicle of pop music. "I Feel Love" both foresaw and engineered the next 45 years of dance music, as a major influence for new wave, post-disco, synthpop, and a great number of other subgenres that would go on to define the pop music landscape.
As the ‘70s ended and disco "died," Donna Summer was nowhere near finished. She went on to release 10 more albums, including She Works Hard for the Money, and its title track became one of her most defining hits. Donna Summer never stopped experimenting and creating, though she never reached the commercial or critical acclaim as her ‘70s body of work. And between Madonna’s sexual liberation, Janet Jackson’s social justice-inflected concept albums, Beyoncé’s music historian tendencies, and Lady Gaga’s penchant for dance-pop as an artistic spectacle, it’s clear that over the last five decades, our favorite pop artists have all loved to love Donna Summer’s musical blueprint.