From Rock’s Backpages: Donna Summer & The Story Of ‘Love To Love You Baby’

The Quietus and Rock's Backpages remembering Donna Summer with an extract from Jim Esposito's 1976 feature on the sexing up of AM radio

In the mid 1970s, things were not going well at Neil Bogart’s Casablanca label. A joint venture with Warner Brothers had failed, and a Johnny Carson album had tanked. But, in the shape of "a guy from Germany" and Donna Summer, all that was about to change. Speaking to Jim Esposito in 1976 (for a 13,000 word feature that can be read on Rock’s Backpages on Monday), Neil Bogart takes up the story…

"In December, 1974, after the Johnny Carson album, which was not successful – we lost almost enough money to close the company, some of the people here came to me and said: ‘Neil, we need a Christmas card. Whattaya wanna do?’ And I said, ‘Oh, show a gold record and snow falling. I don’t know.’ ‘But whatta you wanna say on it?’ they asked. And I thought about it for a minute – how dark everything looked for the label, and I said, ‘In every desert, there is an oasis.

"Six months later a guy from Germany comes walking into my office and says, ‘I have a label in Germany called Oasis Records. I’d like you to distribute in this country. We’ll be partners. Here are my first three acts: Schloss, Einselganger, and Donna Summer.’

"And I think: ‘In every desert, there is an Oasis…’

"I say, ‘You said the name of your label is Oasis?’

"And he says, ‘Yes.’

"I say, ‘When did you come up with that?’

"He says, ‘I’ve had that name in my head for a long time.’

"I said, ‘You’ve got a deal.’"

The "guy from Germany" was Giorgio Moroder. He and another guy, Pete Bellotte, were Donna Summer’s producers. When Giorgio went in to see Neil he had a three minute and 50 second version of a song called ‘Love To Love You Baby’ which had already been released in Europe.

"I listened to it and I loved it," says Neil. "Bought it immediately. And I held onto it for about four months. Never released it. There was just something that was bothering me about the record. I thought it was a hit, but there was just something that was bothering me. I didn’t know what it was.

"One day I put the record on at a party I had at my house. It was in the middle of a lot of familiar records. And all of a sudden, the whole mood in the room changed. Everybody got up and started dancing. They started touching. And it wasn’t like they were dancing with each other. They were dancing with everybody. The room was dancing.

"I watched this and I was getting pretty excited. I was thinking, ‘I gotta put that record out.’ Then the record finished and one of the girls goes, ‘Awwww… Put that on again.’ So I put the record on again. And the record finishes. And a couple of people applaud and someone else says, ‘Hey, play that again.’

"By this time I am so high off of what I am watching, I mean I just can’t believe it. I’m thinking, ‘Hey, you got a smash there, kid.‘ But I realized it wasn’t fulfilling everybody. They hadda hear it again. Now it would’ve been greater had they said, ‘Hey, that’s a great record. Boy, that’s fabulous,’ and once and it was finished. But they kept having to hear it. And so I said, ‘If I put out this single version, it’s gonna leave everybody unfulfilled and it’s gonna be a downer.’

"So I get on the phone and call Germany. Right in the middle of the party. It’s about one, two o’clock in the morning in California. It was about eight o’clock in the morning in Germany. I woke the guy up.

"I say, ‘I need a 20 minute version!’

"’You’re crazy.’

"I say, ‘Believe me. I need a 20 minute version! It’s the greatest fuck record! It’s the greatest dance record! But I gotta have a 20 minute version!’

"He says, ‘Maybe… I think maybe you call me back later. I don’t think I understand too well.’

"So about a week later they sent me a 16 minute and fifty second version, which we put out as the entire A Side of the album. We released the album and within a week and a half it was a smash. It was just overnight. Starting right at the Discos. We got a call the day after the album was released from New York that the album exploded in every Disco. That’s all people were requesting.

"Cause here’s the thing," says Neil. "There’s a music for everybody. There’s a music for the kids – the bubblegum music, the teenybopper music. And there’s a music for the acid freaks – the quick speed guitar music. And there’s a music for everybody. There’s a music for the heavy stoners that sit there and listen to some dynamite people, John Prine. You sit there and drink your bottle of beer and get into that shit. And that’s really good. But there was no music for people who just want to sit and relax and make love. You know? And just lay back. You listen to the radio and every four minutes, ‘Well. here’s another song!’ I started making love to television with no sound. Every record you put on – four minutes later the mood would break.

"I said, ‘There’s gotta be a record like ‘In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida’. Remember that? When I was younger that’s what I used to ball to. ‘In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida’. One cut, straight through. Put it on repeat. Let it keep playing over and over again. Another good balling record: Moody Blues. Some really good stuff. And it just carried a nice feel.

"Those are my top three balling records: In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida is third; Moody Blues second; and first Donna Summer, because it was just a beautiful, great balling record.

"It’s what I was looking for," says Neil. "Donna Summer fulfills those needs which I felt I needed to fulfill for the people I wanted to sell records to."

DONNA SUMMER is living in a house she rents high up on the side of the mountains overlooking Beverly Hills. It has all the crazy slants and cantilevers of a ’59 Impala, but you can tell it’s the Seventies when you notice the windows are all barricaded with sturdy black bars which look like they were added shortly after the Manson murders.

It is the sort of house all the suddenly happening new stars must rent when they arrive in Hollywood. You can stand in the den, look out the panoramic floor-to-ceiling windows, and between the bars, the whole city seems to be stretched out before your feet.

On a clear day, only God has a better view of Los Angeles.

Still, there’s something symbolically unsettling about the bars.

Raymond Chandler could’ve had lots of fun with this setting.

Peter, Donna’s boyfriend, is using the den for his studio. Peter paints. There is a wooden work bench set up by the windows. On the bench is a painting Peter is working on. It shows a sinewy black grotesque arm holding the cracked and decaying shaft of an upside down microphone. The head of the microphone is an eggshell with several pieces missing. In one hole you can see a disembodied human mouth with thick, rounded lips. In two other holes you can see two human eyes, the pupils floating in the whites like egg yolks.

Peter is painting the picture as a surrealistic representation of what people are doing to Danna Summer.

As he works, all Peter has to do is lift his head, look out the window, between the bars, and he can gaze out over Los Angeles.

Peter finds it hard to believe that Los Angeles is typical of America.

I can’t think of anyplace that’s more typical of America.

This is Peter’s first time in the United States and he’s still preoccupied with how new everything is in America. In Europe, he says, everything is very old. It’s all culture and tradition. Always culture and tradition.

"One zing I muzd zay about your country," Peter said at the rehearsal hall, returning a smoldering joint of Mexican commercial, "you haf… very… good… shit."

But the glamour and excitement of Hollywood doesn’t seem to phase Donna Summer much. Donna says she really prefers the European way of life.

"No matter where you go in America," says Donna, "people still eat hamburgers."

When Donna says home, she mean Munich.

Donna grew up in Boston, which she describes as "a boring city." Her father was an electrician. Her mother was a school teacher. It was basically middleclass.

"There were seven children in my family," she says. "But it wasn’t like having a lot of kids. It was worse. We lived in a three family house. On the first floor my aunt lived with five kids and on the third floor my grandmother lived with three children of an aunt of mine who was deceased. So it was like having an orphanage. But it was a lot of fun. The doors weren’t locked. The kids went from house to house. We always had the best backyard going because we had most of the kids in the neighborhood. And all the other kids in the neighborhood would come to our backyard to play. We were the majority. It would’ve been too much for all us to fit into their little yards.

"I knew what I wanted to do since the time I was nine or 10 years old. There was never any doubt in my mind. I’ve never wanted to do anything else except sing. I had literally a one track mind. I just sang. That’s all. That’s the only thing I wanted to do. That’s the only thing I tried to do.

"I was never a good student in school, unless I had to be. I couldn’t study. Unless my parents said, ‘You can’t sing unless you get that and that in school.’ Then I had it. Immediately. It was done.

"I used to skip school. I skipped more school than anybody. I used to go to school just enough to get enough good grades. We got five report cards. You got five marks. So if two of them were A’s, the rest could be D’s and it would even out to a C no matter what. Right? That was my method.

"When I was 16 one of my teachers hated my guts. I mean she hated me with a passion. And she told me I should leave school. I wasn’t doing anything anyway. So I went to my father and said, ‘Daddy, I think I should leave school. Because I’m not gonna get good grades. I don’t like to go to school anyways. I know what I wanna do so if I leave school now and get a job I can put myself through music school and do what I wanna do right off the bat. I don’t have to go through all these changes.’

"I talked to my father for weeks. And finally I got my father to say I could leave school. Then the whole city has an achievement test. I came out third in my class. In the entire class. In the school. And I hadn’t gone to school in weeks.

"Two months before I was supposed to graduate, one of my teachers told my class, ‘I don’t know why the Indians are complaining that they live on reservations. They should be very happy that the white man came anyway. They weren’t doing anything with the land.’

"I stood up in the class and told her off. I said, ‘How can you teach? How Can you possibly teach? You’re a menace to the educational system.’

"Of course, I got expelled. I haven’t regretted it yet."

Donna went to Germany when she was 19 to play "Sheila" in the European tour company of Hair. She stayed with the show for nine months. By that time she was going with an Austrian actor who lived in Munich, so she stayed in Germany.

Donna did some sound track backing for movies. After that, she played in a few musicals. Once she even worked in the Vienna Folk Opera. She also did some modeling somewhere along the line, but she doesn’t like to talk about that.

Eventually she married her boyfriend and decided to have a child. For the last four months of her pregnancy and the first few months after her daughter was born, Donna settled down into the role of a housewife.

"I went crazy," she says.

When her daughter was around six months old, Donna started to get back into singing. She got into a group called Family Tree which was making records on the European market. She also started doing a lot of studio gigs to get her voice into shape.

At one of these sessions at Musicland Recording Studios in Munich, Donna met a producer named Pete Bellotte. Pete liked Donna’s voice and asked if she’d like to record a few songs for him.

Donna recorded three songs for Pete Bellotte. At the time, though, Donna says she really wasn’t looking to get back into the business on the recording level. "I just figured I’d sing around."

Pete Belotte took the three songs to MIDEM, a recording industry convention held annually in Cannes, and sold them.

One song, ‘Denver Dream’, went to France. It never did too well.

Another song, however, ‘Hostage’, about a kidnap victim, became a very big hit. It was Number 1 in Holland and Belgium, Number 2 in France, also hit the Top 10 in Spain and Scandinavia.

In the meantime, Donna had taken her daughter and gone to Boston. One day, she got a call from her producer’s office. "You’ve gotta come back immediately. Your record’s a hit. They want you to do television."

Donna left her daughter in Boston and flew home to Munich. ‘Hostage’ was getting lots of play in Holland, Belgium and France, though it was banned in Germany because they are very touchy about kidnapping.

Donna went to France to do a TV show. She was going to stay four days. She ended up staying three weeks doing one TV show after another.

She also became known in Holland and Belgium. On one show Donna did a spoof of ‘Hostage’ which was voted the best comedy sketch of the year.

A year later she did the same with a spoof on ‘Love To Love You Baby’.

According to Donna, ‘Love To Love You’ evolved out of one of her jokes, and one of her producers’ threats.

"One of my producers, Pete Bellotte, myself, a few other friends, and people that work at our offices were sitting in the office in Munich when Giorgio (Moroder), my other producer, came in and said ‘Je t’aime’ was on the market in London and was selling again."

Donna went into a Mae West imitation and asked, "Oh, really? Well, why should we buy someone else’s ‘Je t’aime’? Why don’t we make our own?"

Her producers didn’t like this idea. "Oh, no," they said. "It’s not your image."

"Whattaya mean that’s not my image?" Donna replied. "Why isn’t it my image? Who are you to say I can’t make a song?"

Says Donna, "Out of that threat, ‘Love To Love You’ evolved.

"I had written a song the week before and I had called the publisher of our company and told him I would like to put it down as a demo. The chorus line of the song was ‘Love to love you.’ But it was a totally different song. But the publisher was in the office that day and he says, ‘Sing the song. Sing it. Sing it for Giorgio. Maybe he’ll like it. That was sort of a sexy song.

"And I say, ‘But it’s a different type of song. The song I’m talking about making would be a very sensuous song…

"But I couldn’t think of another song. All I could think of was the chorus line, ‘Love to love you.’ And I sang it like on the record and Giorgio sorta went for it. He kept telling me, ‘Sing it again. Sing it again.’ So I kept singing it. I sang it about 20 times. And finally, Giorgio left. Just disappeared.

"Two days later his girlfriend came to my house and said, ‘Hey look. Why don’t you come down to the studio?’

"I said, ‘Whattaya mean? Come down to the studio for what?’

"She says, ‘We just finished ‘Love To Love You’. We want you to come and sing the words to it.’

"And I say, ‘But I don’t HAVE any words.

"She says,. ‘Yea. Well, just c’mon.’

"So I put my clothes on and went down to the studio. And everybody was sorta sitting around, very nervous. And Girogio was supposed to be in MIDEM. Two days before when I saw him last, he was on his way to MIDEM. He never went!

"And so I said, ‘Wait a minute. I thought Giorgio went to MIDEM.’

"She says, ‘No. He never went. He wants to do the song. He really loves it.’

So I went into the studio with nothing in my hands except for this one line, ‘Love to love you.’ I listened to the song a few times and tried to scream it, shout it, yell it – everything, anything possible but to sing it the way it is sung. It was a little bit too personal. I really tried to do it another way. There were a lot of people in the studio and I just couldn’t get the song out. I just couldn’t imagine myself groaning in front of all these people. It was just too personal. So Giorgio threw everyone out.

"I said, ‘Look. I can’t sing this song. Why don’t we get someone else to do it?’

"I really had decided I wasn’t going to do the song.

"He says, ‘No. I want you to do it.’

"I say, ‘I… I… I just can’t. I really can’t to do this song. It’s not for me.’

"I tried everything to get out of it. And we fought. I mean we fought. Yelling at each other. ‘No!’ ‘I want you to do it!’ ‘Calm down, calm down.’ ‘Just don’t get hyped up about it. It’s just a song!’

"So finally I just went in and did it. It just got to the point where I said, ‘Okay. Forget it. Play the song. I’m not gonna leave this studio until I do this song.’

"So I just closed my eyes, listened to the music, and sang it the way it came out – in that general direction. The soft voice. Once I found out how I had to sing it, it wasn’t a problem anymore.

"But I never listened to it afterward. It was just too personal. Like who wants to listen to themselves groaning?

"That was just a short version. It was released in Europe and didn’t do too good. It was a change of image for me over there. Neil got one of the singles which was out in Europe. It was his idea to record it 20 minutes. We thought he was crazy. We said, ‘Man… That guy…’ We were all scratching our heads. ‘He’s gotta be nuts. He’s gotta be batty. He’s off.’

"Finally Giorgio and I looked at each other and said, ‘Well, if he want it, let’s give it to him.’

"It was easier to do the second time. The words evolved. I just pictured a situation in my mind and sang from it as if I were in that situation. It was like acting out a part in my mind. I just fantasized on whatever it was that I was thinking about at the time – which I really can’t even remember.

"Neil didn’t get 20 minutes. He got about sixteen fifty. And then he winds up knowing what he was talking about.

"I never listened to it. After the long version of the record, which I did once, and heard one time in the studio after I finished it I didn’t even hear the mix or anything. I just couldn’t listen to myself groan. I never expected it to be a hit."

The long version of ‘Love To Love You Baby’ was released as the entire A Side of Donna’s first album. The day after it was released Casablanca started getting phone calls from New York. The album had exploded in every Disco in the city. It was all people were requesting. Within a week and a half the album was a smash. By the time the long version had been edited down and released as a single the album had already been certified Gold.

JEANIE IS A nude dancer at The Ball, a private club off Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles where girls dance completely nude. She reminds you of Jack Nicholson’s girlfriend Candy in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest – without the gum.

There are two stages in The Ball. Jeanie has performed to ‘Love To Love You’ several times when she was dancing on the back stage. You see, she explains, the girl who dances on the front stage gets to pick the music. When ‘Love To Love You’ first came out she says, they were playing it all the time.

Jeanie herself, however, never chooses ‘Love To Love You’ when she’s dancing on the front stage.

"I like the record," says Jeanie. "But I don’t like dancing to it. It’s a good record to listen to, but not to dance to. When you’re dancing to it you have to get more erotic than the record," she explains, "and that’s kinda hard."

© Jim Esposito, 1976

This is an edited version of a fascinating 13,000 piece from Rock’s Backpages. Please find the rest over at the RBP website. Rock’s Backpages is an archive of the best music writing and criticism of the past 50 years. Sign up here for the weekly RBP newsletter, listing all new additions to the library

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