Archive for the ‘Donna Summer’ Category

It’s safe to say that, when it comes to popular music, 1978 was no better or worse than most years. Disco was hot, but so was pop, rock, country and soul/R&B. I was 13, and listened to WIFI-92, a Top 40 station in the Philly market, and an oldies show that WPEN-AM featured every Saturday night. (I used to send in requests for Jan & Dean songs via postcards.) And, when flush with cash, I usually frequented the Hatboro Music Shop, which was run by the town’s future mayor, Joe Celano.

But although I knew pop music present and past, I was ignorant of much – AOR rock is one example. I remember tuning in a station recommended by a classmate – either WMMR or ‘YSP – and thinking I’d turned the dial to a country station when the deejay announced Jethro Tull was up after the commercial. The only Jethro I knew was Bodine (aka Max Baer Jr. on The Beverly Hillbillies), so I tuned away.

I’ve written about the year before, of course, although not this month, so I’d like to give a shoutout to The Hideaway’s rundown of the WLS chart for 11/4/78, which led me to deep dive into this week. (As I tweeted Herc, “that fall has stuck with me through the decades.” It may not have been the greatest year, but it was a great time to be a kid.

And, with that, here’s today’s Top 5: November 11, 1978 (via Weekly Top 40).

1) Donna Summer – “MacArthur Park.” Okay, so some folks absolutely, positively hate this song in any form, and absolutely, positively hate Donna’s disco-fied rendition, which topped the charts this week and would remain there for the remainder of the month. Me? I hear my first months as a teen. 

2) Anne Murray – “You Needed Me.” The No. 2 song in the land came courtesy of the Canadian snowbird, who was gliding down from the chart’s peak, which she’d perched on the previous week. 

3) Foreigner – “Double Vision.” A song inspired by a vicious hockey check? That’s what Lou Gramm claims led him and Mick Jones to craft this million-selling single, the title tune to the band’s second LP. 

4) Ambrosia – “How Much I Feel.” According the Wikipedia, this SoCal band scored five Top 40 singles with their soft-rock sound from 1975 to 1980.

5) Nick Gilder – “Hot Child in the City.” The platinum-selling smash topped the charts in October, but remains a heatseeker this week at No. 5. The inspiration for it? Gilder’s shock at seeing underage girls being trafficked on the streets of Hollywood. He wrote the song from the perspective of a lecher.

And two bonuses…

6) Al Stewart – “Time Passages.” In its seventh week on the charts, Stewart’s classic musings on the passing of time – which was produced by Alan Parsons – rises two notches to No. 17. This video, by the way, was recorded on Nov. 12, 1978…

7) Linda Ronstadt – “Ooo Baby Baby.” Debuting on the charts at No. 59 is this wondrous remake of the 1965 Miracles’ hit, the second single released from her Living in the USA album. It would peak at No. 7 on the Billboard charts.

Thursday night found us at what sometimes seems like our home away from home, the World Cafe Live in West Philly, to see Rickie Lee Jones. If I’ve done my math right, it was the seventh time that I’ve seen the jazzy singer-songwriter, who’s long been a favorite. Though she had a cold, she delivered a solid set that was accented by spellbinding moments – especially on “We Belong Together.”

That’s not my video, I hasten to add. We were in the front row, where experience has taught me that the upward angle guarantees the overhead stage lights will appear like glowing orbs on my iPhone videos. But here’s a photo I took:

“We Belong Together” hails from her classic 1981 album Pirates, of course, and really should’ve been released as a single, as it’s one of her best songs.

Another highlight came earlier in the night with the second single released from her 1979 eponymous debut, “Chuck E.’s in Love,” which is the first thing I – and most folks, I’m sure – heard by her. According to Weekly Top 40, it made its chart debut – at No. 65 – on April 28th, the same week that Blondie’s “disco song,” “Heart of Glass,” topped the charts. Over the course of the next two months, it slowly weaved its way through the disco and pop dross cluttering Top 40 until, on June 9th, it hit entered the Top 10 at No. 8.

Four weeks later, on July 7th, it peaked at No. 4 (a spot it would hold for an additional week).

That July wasn’t much different from what I described in Today’s Top 5: June 1979 or Today’s Top 5: September 29, 1979 other than, for me, school being out. There was also this: I was 13 when the month began, and 14 when it ended. Beyond that, according to Wikipedia, the month’s notable events included, on the 2nd, the Susan B. Anthony dollar coin being introduced; on the 8th, L.A. passing a gay and lesbian rights bill; and, on the 16th, Steve Dahl’s “Disco Demolition” stunt at Chicago’s Comiskey Park going kaboom.

Among the albums released this month were Neil Young & Crazy Horse’s Rust Never Sleeps, the B-52’s debut and the Kinks’ Low Budget, but I wouldn’t discover them for quite some time. I was a kid on a budget, after all, and albums were often a luxury. And, too, there’s this: I was (likely) still grooving to a release from the month before: Wings’ Back to the Egg.

And, with that, here’s today’s Top 5: July 7th, 1979 (via Weekly Top 40):

1) Anita Ward – “Ring My Bell.” Some people hate this pure shot of disco fluff, which was enjoying its second week at No. 1, and it’s understandable why they might. But it has a certain charm…

2) Donna Summer – “Bad Girls.” As I noted after her untimely death, Donna Summer wasn’t just the “queen of disco” in the late ‘70s, but the queen of the Top 40. This week, she holds the No. 2 spot with the propulsive second single from the Bad Girls album; it was No. 3 the previous week, and would hit No. 1 the next. According to the Wikipedia entry, she was inspired to write the song after she was stopped one night by a police officer who mistook her for a prostitute. Who knew?

3) Donna Summer – “Hot Stuff.” And here’s additional proof of Summer’s chart dominance: “Hot Stuff,” the lead single from Bad Girls, dropped to No. 3 this week from No. 2, and before that had enjoyed a three-week run as No. 1. It would remain in the Top 10 for several more weeks, too. One of the interesting things about the song, to me at least, is the way it effortlessly blends rock and disco. (Check out the guitar solo at the end.)

4) Rickie Lee Jones – “Chuck E.’s in Love.” Rickie Lee’s biggest hit is also one of her greatest songs, a true effervescent shot of upbeat joy. This week, it reached No. 4 on the charts – a spot it would hold for one more week before falling out of the Top 10.

Here’s a cool video of her singing it on stage back in the day…

5) Kenny Rogers – “She Believes in Me.” Disco may have ruled the charts in the late ‘70s, but as evidenced by “Chuck E.’s in Love,” there was more to the era’s music than fast beats. And just as hip sounds could find their way in the charts. So could country – especially when sung by Mr. Rogers.

And a few bonuses…

6) Supertramp – “The Logical Song.” Mr. Spock’s theme song, from Supertramp’s smash Breakfast in America LP, peaks at No. 6 this week.

7) Wings – “Getting Closer.” Back to the Egg sported a cool cover, and some good-to-great tunes. Not Paul McCartney’s best, but far from his worse – New Wave in theory, at least in spots, but Old Wave in practice, through and through. This, the lead single, clocks in at No. 31, and would stall a few weeks later at No. 20.

Many of the Donna Summer obituaries that I read last week dubbed her the “queen of disco,” but that’s far too narrow in scope. In truth, during the second half of the 1970s – as this Billboard article shows – she was the queen of the Top 40. Yet, odd as this may sound, the first thoughts that flashed through my mind when I learned that she had passed weren’t of her music, but of WIFI-92, playing ball in the street and the Hatboro Theater.

In the late 1970s, my friend Don and I played on the street in front of his house or in his driveway, where he had a basketball net above the garage. I’m not sure now how we met or why we parted, just that our life paths diverged not long after we started high school. For those few years, though, we’d meet after school or on a summer’s day, break out the baseball mitts, Nerf football or basketball and have a blast with his brother and other friends from the neighborhood – and often, like thousands of other kids in the Delaware Valley, with a radio tuned to WIFI-92 blaring in the background.

For those too young or old to remember, at the time WIFI-92 was the region’s lone Top 40 station – a sonic melting pot that didn’t care if a song was rock, pop, country, soul or disco, just that it was a Top 40 hit. And while I can’t say for sure, it’s likely where I first heard Donna Summer. In the space of a year (11/78 to 11/79) she scored four No. 1 hits – “MacArthur Park,” “Hot Stuff,” “Bad Girls” and, with Barbra Streisand, “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough),” but I’m actually waxing nostalgic for the lead-up to that stretch, when she hit the Top 10 with “Last Dance” from the Thank God Its Friday soundtrack.

That was the summer of 1978, of course, when Grease was the word, the place and the motion; Thank God It’s Friday, on the other hand, was just plain bad. I say that from firsthand experience: I saw it that year with Don, his mother and possibly his brother at the Hatboro Theater. Yet I still walked home with a smile on my face. When Donna Summer commandeered the stage and let loose with “Last Dance,” hey, what wasn’t to like?

In time, along with many teens of that era, I embraced the notion that “disco sucks,” and tuned away from WIFI to WMMR and WYSP. In retrospect, while the anti-disco backlash was understandable, the palpable anger that underscored much of it was, at best, misdirected. Like all musical genres and fads, there was the good, bad and mediocre; that record companies and radio stations pushed too much of it was simply par for the course. When have they not hijacked a bandwagon and crashed it in a ditch?

In any event, a few years back I picked up a disco box set and a Donna Summer best-of. Now, I’ll never be mistaken for the greatest dancer (though my cat might disagree), never before bought a pure disco record and only heard what was played on WIFI-92, in the movies or on TV, and large chunks of that was while doing other things. So I was surprised by how many songs from the box set I knew by heart. Music has a way of etching itself into the brain like little else, of course, and imprinting along with it the faces and places that surround us, but… “ Knock on Wood”?! The first half of the Donna Summer best-of was more of the same, but at a higher octane: memories of friends and days (and nights) spent having fun in the summertime, of concerns no larger than what time to wake up the next day.

No, the songs weren’t deep, but how much of pop music is? At the end of the day, some days, it’s enough to say – as the kids on American Bandstand said – “it’s got a good beat and you can dance to it.” (Or, in my case, tap my foot.)