October 13, 2017

A Donna Summer Story

Coming from the major hit that was Michael Jackson's epic disc Off the Wall, (as I've long said, it's one of my favorite albums of all time by any artist), I was very excited to learn Quincy Jones would produce Donna Summer next. When her MacArthur Park single caught my ear on late night radio, it made me think twice about the Disco Diva. There was no question this woman could sing. Everything combined, I purchased her self titled album about a year after my wife and I were married. Needless to say, that was years ago.

Being in a bit of a retro mood lately, I decided to pop in this disc. Did her highly publicized and much anticipated album by the producer hold up decades later?  

Donna and Quincy in happier times.

Let's turn back time and backtrack a bit. Donna's 1980 album The Wanderer was not the mega hit the new label wanted and needed. It was too rock, too new wave, too different, too much of a stretch in style. It wasn't in the vein of dance floor hits like On the Radio, Hot Stuff, and Last Dance. Much worse than the stylistic evolution was the fact her warm strong voice was stripped clean of its roots and usually buried in the mix, turning her instrument into another to be used and arranged instead of being up and center where it belonged. In short, aside from the title track and Cold Love, the collection wasn't all that fun or likable.

There were personal issues as well affecting her public image. Donna's surprising decision to wholeheartedly follow Jesus Christ probably didn't work in her favor at the time. (But for eternity, well, that is another story.) Her striking gospel flavored I Believe in Jesus from The Wanderer did win her another Grammy. Clearly, Donna was growing as an artist and as a human, but her fans didn't seem to follow her. Nor did the radio. 

The next planned disc was not even released- quite a slap in the face for the star- and her new label head David Geffen brought in "Q" to give her something fresh, hoping to bring in a hit and recapture the attention of the public. On the surface, it appeared the perfect match of superstar artist with superstar producer.

Whose album is this anyway?

There was no doubt Quincy Jones was trying to create an "event", and as leader of the project, he needed a very strong direction. "Superstar" was name of the path he chose.

Bringing in "A List" artists such as Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Michael McDonald, and then red hot Christopher Cross to sing background on State of Independence was just the start. Getting Bruce Springsteen to contribute a track? Check. Duet with James Ingram? Done. All star studio musicians and song writing teams? Of course. Nothing was held back in pursuit of a hit. The promo machine was ready to go. 

Shockingly, the final result of it all was an album with even fewer hits and lower chart ratings than the previous one. Three and a half decades later, when you think about why it misfired, a fresh listen to Donna Summer reveals what went wrong. 

The "Q" version of Donna did do a few things right. Her voice is more prominent and much more natural in presentation. Without gimmick in approach or execution, it's straightforward, and it works. With solid and at times stellar vocals, this is just what you'd expect from Donna. And it's what you'd expect from any producer hired to showcase an artist. Vocally, the problem is Donna just isn't on the disc enough.

Which leads to the main issue I have with the album years later. The star is not Donna, instead, it's the arrangements and production. The lead track Love is in Control (Finger on the Trigger) uncovers it all. There's some promise with Donna playfully going up and down the scales and (incredibly) dropping to the basement before the chorus. Then a plethora of clever studio tricks, background vocalists, and a very complicated instrumental break take over. 

Where Donna as the primary artist should be clearly spotlighted among all the vocals, she's secondary at best- a bad choice- and not at all recognizable at worst. Shades of the producer hiding the singer, like once Whitney Houston lost the great range and beauty of her voice. The obvious difference here is that Donna was in her prime. Was Quincy shooting for another Don't Stop Til You Get Enough with this opening song? His approach for the collection seems very similar to what he would finally perfect with Michael Jackson's groundbreaking Thriller  later in the year.

Things improve significantly with the following two tracks. In fact, for this listener, they form the center, the very heart and soul of the album. Although two very different styles, Mystery of Love and The Woman in Me show Donna at her best. The first contains a near duet with James Ingram (legal matters stopped him from being more prominent, so he sits noticeably but comfortably behind her in the background). Beyond the classically inspired opening, Donna's voice soars above it all. She sounds terrific! The arrangement complements but doesn't compete. It is my go-to track when I want to hear something from this album.

How do you follow up such a terrific track? With a sultry ballad by John Bettis, one half of the songwriting team made famous by Richard and Karen Carpenter

The spoken intro only adds to Donna's deeply rich, understated, and therefore very effective, performance. A less accomplished singer would try to overpower the song instead of allowing the romantic mood to remain. The song is one of the most convincing on the disc. The production on this cut was so good that the rock group Heart released its own near replica a decade later. 

From here, things change, and not for the better. 

In quick succession one after another, State of Independence and Living in America, both suffer from one common feature: Leaving the singer behind in an attempt to create the album defining mega-hit. It's almost as if Quincy forgot who the singer was while he was busy crafting the record. The production is overblown on State of Independence. The All-Star chorus wastes the talents of so many distinguished artists as all their voices blend into one, and it becoming something very ordinary. In 1985, Quincy fixed this problem with We Are The World, giving individual vocalists a chance to shine- and a reason for fans of each artist to buy the charity song even if it only included a line or two of their vocals. (It is of notice that Donna was missing from that recording.) Living in America is not much better. The recording tries too hard to be political and trendy, instead ending up trite and throwaway.

Bruce Springsteen's Protection is the hard rocking centerpiece of "Side Two" and truly the whole disc. He slams down a searing guitar at the end and even slides in some background vocals. With Donna rocking as hard as he does, it's a pretty compelling argument that she could sing just about any genre. It would have been a great duet between the two, supposedly recorded and in the vault.

If It Hurts Just a Little is next, a fun, soulful, and funky romp into Chaka Khan territory. The swing of the tune gives this album a lift at just the right time. Donna sounds relaxed and if she's having a good time. The next tune, Love is Just a Breath Away, is written by Donna herself. It is a bit of a throwback to earlier days, but even with the synthesizer driving the song, it's not all that special. 

The old standard Lush Life ends the disc. Donna plays with the tune (and the audience) as its old lyrics take on the clearly intended double entendre meaning. It's befitting that Quincy finally lets Donna stretch vocally and in spite of the extended saxophone solo, become the masterful songstress interpreter of the song. The majesty of the recording serves to remind the listener what could and should have been. Pity.

The photo used on the back side of the LP.

(One additional note- The art direction and photography for this album was challenging. What was going on with that cover? In contrast to the brilliant art design and portrait for The Wanderer, the lead photo for this one puzzled me. Not a fan.) 

A much better version of what Donna could do finally came next on She Works Hard for the Money. Producer Michael Omartian was able to accomplish what her last two producers tried but couldn't. Teaming together, he and Donna created her best album in years. This was a career evolving, satisfying, richly textured collection that showcased the singer instead of the production. The disc was a fun listen without being lightweight, and as a result, it was also a sizable hit. Producer, label, artist, and thankfully, fans were all very happy.

With fours successes and four misses on the disc, why is the Donna Summer album and the artist's collaboration with Quincy Jones so interesting decades later? 

Think about it. Quincy is 84, and his time on earth will soon come to an end. He's an accomplished artist in his own right. He's also discovered and introduced us to some amazing artists. Modern masterpieces bear his stamp. Iconic records still in play decades after they were first created. This disc isn't among them, but it still has moments of inspired greatness.

Donna Summer is gone from us on earth, now celebrating God's goodness with the angels. Her legacy, her music, her life, is a testament to how people and their artistry can grow and evolve over time. It's also a reminder that what Hollywood markets to us is not usually substance but instead shallow flash to make a quick buck, much to our loss.

Donna the artist, Donna the human, was smarter than that and wiser than many. She looked beyond today and into eternity, choosing to live with a purpose, impact a generation, and call people to her King. Her music and her life lives on. May ours be lived as powerfully.

(Photographs copyright Donna Summer and Geffen Records.)


D.Harris said...

Very nicely done. I too, am not a fan of the album cover or the self-titled name of the release. By 1982, Donna Summer needed NO introduction, whether she was produced by Quincy Jones or not. In addition, I find it fascinating that one of your favorite tracks is "The Woman in Me" (mine as well) which was initially intended to be the album's name. I still own the original pre-release 7" single of "Love Is in Control" with the tagline "From Donna's forthcoming album "The Woman in Me".

paper world who feel said...

I call this album Quincy Jones (featuring Donna Summer)always have...always will.

Mark Taft said...

D. Harris- It's very interesting that the album was to be called "The Woman in Me"! You're absolutely right- Donna needed no introduction, and yet it seems as if the label (or Quincy) was trying to identify this disc as her ultimate career defining album by titling it with just her name. Paper World, your thought my be more indicative of how fans feels about the album more than you know. Thank you both for reading!

Ian M said...

Donna had clearly lost interest in her music career. She was happy to walk into the studio, do the vocals and go. It is a very polished album but not a Donna Summer set at all. I still listen to it now and again but it's light years away from what we all hoped for. 'The Woman In Me' what a super title!!!!! Shame it didn't happen.

Mark Taft said...

Hi Ian! I'm not sure I agree she lost interest in her career as much as I'd guess it just began to take its proper place in her life. I did read her book, but maybe I missed that. (I have a few other posts on Donna as well here. I think my thoughts on her book are somewhere in there. I can't remember after almost ten years of blogging.) Your assessment of the album as "polished" is perfect. Sometimes perfection causes an artist to lose their grit and the passion of a performance falls by the wayside. Thanks for reading - and writing!