A Celebration of Donna Summer: The Pioneering Queen of Dance

still from the video of “I Will Go With You (Con Te Partiró)”
(dir. Rocky Schenck) BMG Music Entertainment, 1999. Donna Summer YouTube Channel

Donna Summer would have been 73 today. The legendary pop diva died almost 10 years ago at the early age of 63 and left behind a tremendous legacy of music. Much of her work in the 1970s defined what popular music meant and she was a pioneer of dance music, creating a dance-pop template followed by great dance divas like Madonna, Janet Jackson, Jody Watley, Britney Spears. She was linked with fellow giants of early dance music including Giorgio Moroder, Paul Jabara, Pete Bellotte, and Bruce Sudano. Her early single “Love to Love You Baby” from 1975 is arguably the most important disco single of the genre. It celebrated the carnal sexuality of the club culture. As Summer’s airy, sensual vocals moaned erotically over the funky beat. The song was a glorious 17 minutes long -a symphonic epic of passion.

“Love to Love You Baby” wasn’t Summer’s first single but it was an explosive introduction to a novel and distinct artist who would change music forever. It hit the US top 10, peaking at number 2, the first of 14 top 10 hit singles. She ruled the pop and dance charts, becoming the gorgeous face of disco music. Though dance music was seen with wary snobbery by rock critics who damned the genre as “inauthentic” or prefabricated, Summer became the voice of a dominant pop music genre that centered the voices of Black and Latino queer people as well as women of color. Disco music was the music of queer culture – a joyous celebration of queer sexuality and queer identity. Gay bars would play dance music and so gay audiences became discerning consumers of the music. As with any sort of subversive, subculture, once the mainstream, moneyed capitalist institutions got their hands on disco music, the music was distorted and white washed, getting the inherent campness wrong and the resultant was the polyestered tackiness.

But artists like Donna Summer continued to make innovative and dynamic music. “I Feel Love,” her 1977 single, was a sonic marvel: a futuristic, space-age banger, scored by a Moog synthesizer. The song is arguably the most influential singles of dance music, its echoes heard in every disco song, dance-pop, New Wave, New Romantic, electronica, house, and techno. After “I Feel Love,” pop music was never the same.

Though Summer personified dance music, she wasn’t content with staying in just one genre: she also looked to rock, soul, gospel, becoming one of the most creative and unique voices of her time. Critics wanted to dismiss disco music as a producer-driven genre (and yes, the producers and songwriters of the disco era were unheralded musical geniuses), but Summer wasn’t a singing mannequin or a cipher. An accomplished songwriter and producer, Summer was integral to the creation of her sound and music. She also had a beautiful and distinct voice, one that was malleable and flexible, able to drift like a cloud over the thick, programmed beats or blast through the productions with a fiery, gospel-hewed fervor.

Because Donna Summer was more than just a gorgeous face fronting dance music, but an actual artist, she was one of the few disco artists who was able to extend her career beyond the 1970s, adapting successfully to the synth-driven dance-pop and urban soul-pop. She started working with other dance producers in the 1980s and 1990s, hooking up with the ubiquitous Stock Aitken Waterman, Quincy Jones, and C+C Music Factory and recorded more excellent dance music that would extend her career into the new millennium, consistently landing in the top 10 on the dance charts.

More than any other singer of the disco genre, Donna Summer possessed a free and exuberant voice that captured, at once, the joy and exhilaration of dance music. Her sound, her music, remains essential when assessing the impact of dance music. She was an original originator, a Founding Mother of dance music, who would become its most important practitioner.

Important Highlights of Donna Summer

Crayons (2008): Summer’s final studio LP released whilst she was alive, this is a solid collection of dance and pop tunes that bear the mark of its time. As always, Summers enlivens everything with that glorious, clear-as-a-bell clarion of a voice (that has not aged). This is a stylish record of contemporary urban-pop, impeccably produced and performed with characteristic zeal.

Crayons 1 by Summer, Donna (2004-05-31)

“Power of Love” (2005): the death of Luther Vandross was a huge blow to the music community. Vandross was an inspired singer-songwriter and producer, lending his gargantuan talents to the likes of legendary divas like Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross, and Dionne Warwick. His voice was incredible – smooth, lyrical, expressive. He was the Mozart of romantic soul. On So Amazing: An All-Star Tribute to Luther Vandross, Summer reworks Vandross’ midtempo hit “Power of Love” into a hypnotic club tune.

“Love Is the Healer” (1999): an album track from a 1999 live album, this song is prime later-day Donna Summer. Written and produced with Nathan DiGesare and Thunderpuss, “Love Is the Healer” is high-tech house with great sonic accents, including the Gregorian chants (all the rage in the early 90s). Also, Summer laid down some of her best vocals on this dance hit.

Love Is The Healer
“Love Is the Healer”

“Carry On” (1997): the inaugural winner of the Best Dance Recording Grammy, this early 90s hit that became a dance staple in 1997 due to some fantastic remixes. It showed listeners that despite being in the business for more than two decades, both Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder were still able to make some great, vital dance music that still spoke to current audiences without pandering to current pop trends.

Carry on Pt.2 by Summer, Donna, Giorgio Moroder (1995-05-01)
“Carry On”

“Melody of Love (Wanna Be Loved)” (1994): the first single off a mid-90s compilation, this house-pop tune joined Summer with David Cole and Robert Clivillés of C+C Music Factory fame, and it’s no surprise that the union is inspired. Over the strutting, queer dance beat and pounding keyboards, Summer – at seeming vocal peak – joyfully belts over the bouncing percussion. Though her biggest hits were in the 1970s, songs like “Melody of Love” proved that in the 1990s, she was still as creative and vital a performer.

Melody of Love
“Melody of Love (Wanna Be Loved)”

“This Time I Know It’s for Real” (1989): Don’t call it a comeback because Summer wasn’t really gone. By the end of the 1980s, Summer’s impact on pop radio had dwindled, so she turned to the British outfit, Stock Aitken Waterman (arguably the commercial – though not artistic – successors of Giorgio Moroder), who created hits for Kylie Minogue. Summer collaborated with the trio on this sprightly, churning tune, which married SAW’s assembly-line dance-pop production with her distinct and heaven-sent vocals.

“Dinner with Gershwin” (1987): Originally written and recorded by Brenda Russell, “Dinner with Gershwin” is a strange, eccentric tune in which Summer warbles the names of the famous names she’d like to hang out with (i.e. Rembrandt, Curie, Picasso, Earhart, Mahalia Jackson). The production – courtesy of Russell and Richard Perry is somewhat dated now, but the angular, clipped arrangement is exciting to hear and the lyrics are fun and just odd enough to make this a winning highlight of Summer’s 80s output.

“Dinner with Gershwin”

“She Works Hard for the Money” (1983): early 80s pop music flirted with proletariat anthems, most notably with Dolly Parton’s paean to the working gal, “9 to 5.” For “She Works Hard for the Money,” Summer joins CCM giant Michael Omartian for this New Wave-inspired rocker about a working-class female worker, toiling away. Summer’s empathetic performance and the high-octane production are high spots on this corker of a tune. It’s an important song in Summer’s oeuvre because it also proved that the stigma of disco wouldn’t have much of an effect on her career.

“Love Is in Control (Finger on the Trigger)” (1982): Quincy Jones was the most in-demand producer of the early 1980s due to his iconic work with Michael Jackson. He turned to Donna Summer with this tight, funky tune that boasts some of Jones’ distinct characteristics of his 80s work – lots of gaudy synths, rumbling, mile-wide bass, sassy background vocals, vocoder-vocal samples. There’s also a hot sax solo and a whistle. It’s over the top and somewhat fussy and crowded, but it’s still a great, fun jam.

I’m a Rainbow (recorded in 1981; released in 1996): this record was shelved and in the ensuing years it became a legend among Donna Summer fans. Looking to dance-pop, synth-pop, and New Wave, the album was a concerted effort to move away subtly from her disco roots. Along with Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte, Summer also works with other top-shelf talent like Harold Faltermeyer, Bruce Sudano, and Silvester Levay, putting together a superb collection of pop songs. The bright, neon-spiked “Melanie” is a major highlight (and should have been a single) and despite it being arguably, one of the worst songs ever written, Summer manages to even make Andrew Lloyd Webber’s garbagey “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” moving and affecting. A shame that this album was shelved.

I'm a Rainbow (2014 Remaster)
I’m a Rainbow

“The Wanderer” (1980): Once Donna Summer entered the 1980s, she was facing an ever-shifting musical landscape. Though identified by disco, Summer always had designs on pop/rock, so this single is a fantastic indulgence. It’s a New Wave song with some post-punk inflections, crunchy guitars, and a bouncing beat. She affects a curling sneer of a voice when singing the song (there’s also a slightly rockabilly sound to some of Summer’s delivery). Like her other work of the 1980s, it showed a flexibility in her sound and abilities.

On the Radio: Greatest Hits Volumes I & II (1979): Arguably one of the best greatest-hits collections released, this 16-track, double-LP compilation is a brilliant encapsulation of the most important artist of the disco ear and one of the most successful artists of the 1970s. The track list has the greatest disco music ever recorded. New tracks added to entice buyers do not sound like last minute additions, but are excellent songs in their own right: the title track is a classic and her duet with Barbra Streisand “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)” is a camp classic.

On the Radio by Donna Summer (2012-08-08)
On the Radio: Greatest Hits Volumes I & II

“On the Radio” (1979): The title track of her greatest hits album, “On the Radio” follows the format of a classic Donna Summer tune: a sweeping ballad that will turn into a booty-shaking jam. The chorus of the song is crazily catchy and belies the tension in the lyrics which are quite moving, despite the discotheque pacing.

“No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)” (1979): The pairing of Donna Summer and Barbra Streisand is destined to be a camp classic and a kitsch standard. Summer and Streisand were both enjoying unprecedented success in the 1970s, scoring hit singles and selling millions of records. Both divas – icons and queens of gay male fans – were known for their large and expressive voices. A song like this pit the two against each other, culminating in an exciting – yet still hilarious – match. Written by dance great Paul Jabara and Bruce Roberts, the song is a delicious, over-the-top disco tune that embraces a silliness and queeny queerness.

Enough Is Enough / No More Tears (Enough Is Enough) [Vinyl Single 7'']
“No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)”

“Dim All the Lights” (1979): Donna Summer admitted that she originally wrote this song for Rod Stewart but was so in love with it, that she kept it for herself. The song is essentially two-in-one: it starts off as a bluesy ballad (I can hear Stewart singing this bit) before it boogies into a shuffling disco ditty.

“Bad Girls” (1979): One of Donna Summer’s most enduring hits is a sassy, saucy disco number which is a story song about prostitutes. Despite the subject matter, Summer imbues the song with a pointed, wary attitude. The backup vocalists add as much to the song’s appeal as Summer herself; they trade vocal licks with the diva, adding to the fun.

Bad Girls (1979): Arguably Donna Summer’s best studio LP which brings in a lot of her favorite sounds, including disco, rock, soul, and pop. It’s a diverse and wide-ranging record that allows for audiences to see just how masterful Summer is. The ballads show off Summer’s fantastic voice and the album’s innovative use of synthesizers and electronic instruments makes Bad Girls a seminal pop record of the 1970s. Producer Giorgio Moroder perfects 70s guitar-driven pop/rock as well as continue to develop the muscular, sweaty tech-driven dance music.

Bad Girls
Bad Girls

“Hot Stuff” (1979): Donna Summer’s embrace of rock sounds imply a second side career as a Tina Turner-esque rock goddess. Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte create a jumping, jangly disco-rock song that matches Summer’s rock star aspirations. There’s a fantastic undulating synthesizer as well as a crunchy rock guitar by Jeff “Skunk” Baxter.

“Last Dance” (1978): Paul Jabara won a well-deserved Oscar for this song which was written for Thank God It’s Friday. The accompanying soundtrack is pretty brilliant with excellent disco tracks. Jabara is a master at writing dance music and captures the wistful, lilting mood of when the last song is called at the end of a night of dancing at a club. It encapsulates that kind of feeling of yearning and want as well as regret that comes up when a night winds down and romantic feelings are still left unspoken and unrequited. Donna Summer performs the song beautifully, finding the tone of Jabara’s lovelorn, reaching words.

“MacArthur Park” (1978): Summer’s cover of Jimmy Webb’s ballad is one of the most bewildering songs ever. Starting off as a slow, swinging, funk ballad with an urgent, piercing vocal performance before she unleashes a sneering laugh, as the strings and disco beat explode. Despite the quixotic lyrics, the production and arrangement adds a fiery earnestness which Summer matches with a passionate, committed performance (her snarling howls are great). The synth work is also brilliantly bonkers.

“I Feel Love” (1977): The mission of “I Feel Love” was straight forward: to change the face of dance music. Produced by Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte, the song is a deep, dark, space-age disco sci-fi number. Summer’s voice is a sensual force of a nature. Every dance song, every synth-pop song, every New Wave song owes its sound to “I Feel Love.”

Love to Love You Baby (1975): though the title track is the main draw (a 17-minute opus of funk and sex), the flip side of the album has been unfairly overwhelmed by the success of the song. Pete Bellotte and Giorgio Moroder craft a string of perfect soul-pop songs with spirited vocals by Summer. The gutsy “Pandora’s Box” is a fantastic slice of piano-driven pop and “Need-a-Man Blues” is a whirling, driving tune. The title track is a classic, but the other cuts showcase Summer’s versatility (as well as Moroder’s and Bellotte’s).

Love to Love You Baby

“Love to Love You Baby” (1975): One of Donna Summer’s earliest hits, this song is arguably the sexiest song in history. You can hear in its production and writing, the blueprint of Madonna’s “Erotica” and Janet Jackson’s “Throb.” Few mainstream pop songs celebrated female sexuality and “Love to Love You Baby” was at once a feminist manifesto of feminine sensuality and a celebration of the sexy power of dance.

In celebration of Marianne Faithfull: Rock’s Greatest Chanteuse

Still from the music video for “The Gypsy Faerie Queen”
(dir. John Maybury), Prettybird LTD, 2018. Marianne Faithfull YouTube Channel.

On what is her 75th birthday, A Seat in the Aisle is celebrating the work of rock legend Marianne Faithfull. The word ‘survivor’ is thrown around a lot in pop culture, but the word seems to be tailor-made for Faithfull, a woman who has weathered personal and career travails and obstacles. In the 1960s, her fresh, English rose beauty made her a precious star – she sang pretty folk songs with a lovely, ethereal voice. But life and art got in the way, and with 1979’s Broken English, she staged one of the most impressive comebacks in rock history. The Marianne Faithfull of Broken English was a rough, wary, world-weary songstress, no longer content trilling coffee house fare. Her pretty instrument was replaced by a gorgeously ravaged voice, splintered, blistered, and crumbling, like a ruin.

Marianne Faithfull became rock’s Marlene Dietrich. Rock’s Lotte Lenya. Rock’s Elaine Stritch. She was a singer that applied her destroyed voice to a catalog of songs that matched the ditch-deep voice and hard-won gravitas. She wrote songs that told stories of her storied life, writing from the perspective of a wise sage. She also looked to Brecht, Coward, Weill, creating a repertoire of a brilliant storyteller.

She is an original, one who in her nearly 60-year career still surprises her audiences. In 2021, after decades of music, she returns with an album of spoken-word poetry, proving that she is one of her generation’s greatest performing artists.

Marianne Faithfull’s Greatest Moments

She Walks in Beauty (2021): Faithfull collaborated with Warren Ellis and recorded a collection of spoken-word poetry, mining the great works of Keats, Wordsworth, Shelley, Byron, and Tennyson. Ellis creates a lovely, lilting soundscape for Faithfull’s expressive readings. Recorded during the pandemic, during which Faithfull herself was struck by the disease, She Walks in Beauty is a poignant album – a possible swansong – for a career studded with idiosyncratic turns.

She Walks in Beauty (with Warren Ellis)
She Walks in Beauty

Negative Capability (2018): Faithfull’s talent as a song interpreter is unparalleled but she’s also a strong songwriter, herself. If this is Faithfull’s final album of music, then it’s a tremendous high note. At this point in her career, her voice is wizened and thickened, flecked with a sadness. The original tunes on the record are moving, but the highlight is a revisit of her iconic signature “As Tears Go By” which is immeasurably improved with a regal, tragic elegance.

Negative Capability (Deluxe Version)
Negative Capability

Horses and High Heels (2011): A fantastic album of covers in which Faithfull gives her inimitable stamp. The best part of the album is Faithfull’s affectionate nod towards her 60s past with her gravely – yet hopeful – take on Carole King’s elegiac “Goin’ Back.”

Horses And High Heels
Horses and High Heels

Easy Come, Easy Go (2008): Faithfull’s a singular artist but when paired with the right duet partner, she can create magic. On this album of covers which includes songs from Dolly Parton, Bessie Smith, Smokey Robinson, and even Leonard Bernstein, Faithfull is able to apply her particular brand of cabaret-rock to rock and pop-era tunes. She’s gives a gutsy take on Parton’s “Down from Dover” and a gloriously camp version of the Motown chestnut “Ooh Baby Baby” with queer rock icon ANOHNI. The album’s strangest but most entrancing moment is a jazzy duet with Jarvis Cocker on the Sondheim classic “Somewhere” from West Side Story.

Easy Come Easy Go by Marianne Faithfull (2008-11-14)
Easy Come, Easy Go

Before the Poison (2004): PJ Harvey invigorates Faithful in what could be best described as a late-career renaissance in which she collaborates with young, fresh producers and singer-songwriters. Producers Harvey, Nick Cave, Hal Willner, Rob Ellis are able to reacquaint listeners with Faithfull’s inner rock chick by giving her a platter of indie rock and jangly, guitar rock.

Before the Poison
Before the Poison

Kissin’ Time (2002): With Kissin’ Time, Faithfull sees her brand of rock filtered through thick, glossy, electronic rock. Hooking up with a diverse range of producers including Billy Corgan, Dave Stewart, Jarvis Cocker, and Étienne Daho, Faithfull’s inner New Wave diva is unearthed. Though she’s never sang on tracks as smooth as these, she still manages to pierce through the sheen with her heartache. Her tribute to Nico on “Song for Nico” is warm and lovely; and her homage to 60s Brill Building pop, “Something Good” is nostalgic and fun. The best track is her elegant hymn “I’m on Fire,” a brilliant collaboration with Corgan that is arguably her best song from her later career.

Kissin Time
Kissin’ Time

Vagabond Ways (1999): By 1999, Faithfull had dedicated most of her career to theatre hall songs, and this was another comeback for the singer. It’s a fine return-to-form with a collection of solid rock/pop songs that remind listeners that despite her exalted, lofty reputation, she’s still a masterful rock singer. Producer Daniel Lanois, most famous for his work with U2 and Emmylou Harris, brings his atmospheric sound to the record, but is far more restrained, allowing for the sturdy bone structure of the tunes to shine.

Vagabond Ways
Vagabond Ways

20th Century Blues (1996): As great a rock singer as Faithfull is, her strange and eccentric voice is a perfect match for art songs and cabaret. Her affinity for these songs – written by legendary tunesmiths like Kurt Weill, Bertolt Brecht, Noël Coward – highlights her chanteuse persona. She’s a clear disciple of Marlene Dietrich and Lotte Lenya, using the deep tones and shades in her gritty voice to add new sounds to these classic songs. “Falling in Love” again is a swooning highlight and her take on “Mack the Knife” transports listeners to a piano bar in the Weimar Republic.

20th Century Blues
20th Century Blues

A Secret Life (1995): Faithfull is paired with the moody, dense Angelo Badalamenti (best known for his scoring work on Twin Peaks) for a gorgeous, lush album that finds a ponderous beauty in her voice. It’s a cinematic record, one that is large and expansive and includes some of her best singing. Aesthetically, it’s one of her most accessible albums, but there’s still a Gothic darkness to the songs.

A Secret Life
A Secret Life

Blazing Away (1990): Blazing Away works both as a greatest hits record and a chronicle of Faithfull’s talent as a life performer. Recorded in St Anne’s Cathedral in New York City, Faithfull seems inspired by the grandeur of the venue and imbues her performances with a faded regal queenly elegance. The set list is a testament to Faithfull’s legacy and mythic history. Songs from the 60s, 70s, and 80s populate the track listing, and Faithfull’s performances are evergreen.

Blazing Away-Live by Marianne Faithfull (2006-05-03)
Blazing Away

Strange Weather (1987): In a career marked by a series of comebacks, Strange Weather is one of her greatest. An important album in her career as it was the work that gave audiences a fully-realized glimpse at Faithfull’s talents – not only as a rock singer but a genius songstress. The songs on Strange Weather indulge in Faithfull’s love of German art songs, folk songs, and dance hall ballads. The instrumentation on this record is lush and full, supporting Faithfull’s voice (which possesses a surprising power). Though Broken English is the record that reset Marianne Faithfull’s career, Strange Weather is the record that established her genius.

Strange Weather
Strange Weather

Marianne Faithfull’s Greatest Hits (1987): Faithfull’s recording career before Broken English is difficult to sift through – there are some inspired moments, some real songs of beauty, but there are also a lot of cookie-cutter folk-pop songs that feel bland and anonymous. That is why this collection is a great distillation of her 60s work. It includes covers of 60s pop songs like “Yesterday,” “Monday, Monday,” and Brill Building stuff like “Something Better” and “With You in Mind.” Faithfull’s voice is shockingly different for those familiar with raspy machete of a voice. Not all of the tunes are lighter-than air, though: her early version of “As Tears Go By” has a mournful quality and “Sister Morphine” has a spunky power. For Faithfull completists, this is an important entry in her discography.

Greatest Hits by Marianne Faithfull (1990-05-03)
Marianne Faithfull’s Greatest Hits

Broken English (1979): Broken English is Faithfull’s magnum opus and her greatest work. It’s also a record that brought audiences to the ragged, tattered voice that would be a perfect vehicle for her particular brand of brilliance. Though a thoroughly British performer, Broken English‘s smarmy, dirty, 70s disco-rock brought the singer to a pre-Giuliani New York. It’s a punk-pop album with licks of New Wave, dance, and rock. Each song – even the tracks she didn’t have a hand in writing – is personal and Faithfull is able to inhabit the voice of the characters. As a singing actress, she does a dizzying job conveying the desperation and insanity of the titular narrator in “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan.” Despite the studio burnish, the album has an appealingly torn sound. This is an indispensable entry in the singer’s career.

Broken English
Broken English

12 Days of Christmas: Vince Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown Christmas

On the ’12 Days of Christmas’ I’m sharing my favorite Christmas movies, albums, Christmas episodes, specials, one for each day until we get to Christmas Day.

A Charlie Brown Christmas [2012 Remastered & Expanded Edition] (Remastered & Expanded Edition)

There are certain parts of pop culture that are so lionized and ubiquitous that it’s difficult to assess its quality. Are these beloved bits of pop culture really great or is it just our memory, tinged with nostalgia? Vince Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown Christmas is arguably one of the most important popular Christmas recordings of the 20th century. Tracks from the album – most notably Guaraldi’s pensive, shuffling take on the standard, “O Tannenbaum” and the original composition, “Christmas Time Is Here” – are licensed for countless television programs and played on the radio during the holidays.

Guaraldi’s soundtrack to the classic 1965 animated special captures Charles Schulz’s melancholic, somewhat sad take on Christmas. The special is a lovely piece of yuletide storytelling: the titular Charlie Brown is fretting because he’s feeling anxious about the holidays, in particular, whether he’s loved by his friends and whether the holidays have become too commercial. The skimpy, scrawny tree Charlie identifies with is a perfect encapsulation the charm behind A Charlie Brown Christmas. Schulz’s holiday stories are about the underdog hoping to persevere.

The score is perfect. Guaraldi’s soft, quiet work is a wonderful accompaniment to Schulz’s gentle story. It’s an odd album in that it’s a jazz record and a holiday record all at once – and save for some obviously Christmas tunes – it’s a record that isn’t tied to the holidays, and could have been a year-long album, not tied to December, had it not become such a Christmas icon.

Guaraldi takes on piano-playing duties himself and matches the slow, relaxed pace of the Christmas special. The poignancy of A Charlie Brown Christmas is summed up on the moody, thoughtful “O Tannenbaum.” It’s not the raucous, ebullient holiday music we’re normally accustomed to; instead, Guaraldi wants to capture the quiet moments during the holidays: the moments when we stop and sigh, looking at our loved ones in affection, taking in the twinkling loveliness of the Christmas tree. The instrumental take on “Christmas Time Is Here” is equally pensive and lovely. The jazzy “Skating” is set to a gently joyful piano that rolls slowly like a small trickle of water.

Though A Charlie Brown Christmas is a seemingly meek affair, Guaraldi throws in a few moments of spirit. “Christmas Is Coming” shuffles with some nimble piano playing. And of course, the sassy “Linus and Lucy” has transcended mere holiday music and has become legendary on its own merits (we can just picture the Peanuts gang grooving to the tune) And largely an instrumental album, there are a couple of tracks that are spiked with the joyfully tuneless warbling of a children’s choir, their off-key trilling sounding utterly charming and sweet in the genuine joy and fun; these kids’ amateurish approach to chanting the Christmas chestnut “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” is great to listen to because it feels like one has stumbled into a Christmas pageant.

After its release in 1965, the album’s legend grew exponentially as new generations embraced this record. Though many of the album’s tracks were licensed repeatedly their impact was not diminished by the sustained playing of the songs on the radio, on television, and during the holidays at shopping malls and department stores more than 50 years ago. Its sheer beauty lies in its wistful, lilting simplicity.

Stocking stuffer from last year: a roundup of 1960s Christmas pop albums by a selection of pop singers such as Barbra Streisand, Lena Horne, and Peggy Lee, among others.

12 Days of Christmas: A Very Special Christmas

On the ’12 Days of Christmas’ I’m sharing my favorite Christmas movies, albums, Christmas episodes, specials, one for each day until we get to Christmas Day. 

A Very Special Christmas

Charity records are often a mixed bags. It’s hard to criticize an album that’s recorded to raise money for a worthy cause and it’s quite churlish to criticize an album that’s been created with good intentions. Thankfully, there’s no problem in embracing A Very Special Christmas (1987), the first of eight holiday albums that bring together contemporary pop, rock, and soul artists to perform popular Christmas standards. The record brings together some huge stars of 1980s top 40 radio including legends u2, the Pretenders, John Cougar Mellencamp, Sting, Run-D.M.C., Bruce Springsteen, and Madonna, among others. The performers bring personal stamps on songs that have been recorded over and over again, and because these stars are so original and dynamic, they bring talent, star power, as well as joyful feelings of Christmas joy.

Curated by Jimmy Iovine, A Very Special Christmas is a great and fun record to listen to – the artists are giving their all, not only to give listeners a wonderful Christmas time, but to raise money for the Special Olympics.

The album opens with the Pointer Sisters’ energetic take on the children’s yuletide classic, “Santa Clause Is Coming to Town.” The production recalls Motown as well as Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound (the Pointer Sisters paying homage to the Crystals). The track was recorded during the Pointers’ synth-pop career so it’s a treat to hear something rockier and the sisters are having a ball belting their song.

Speaking of synth-pop, the Pointer Sisters’ track is followed by a New Wave take on “Winter Wonderland” by the Eurythmics. The chugging drum machines, thick, glassy synths and keyboards immediately date this song. Annie Lennox’s soulful wail is subdued but still engages. It’s an interesting choice for Lennox and Dave Stewart to reinvent the Christmas chestnut as a synth song; it still retains the swinging bounce of the original song, though it sounds batter-dipped in 80s synth-dance.

Following the Eurythmics is Whitney Houston’s majestic “Do You Hear What I Hear.” Houston’s voice is unparalleled and despite the smooth-as-glass urban-pop production, her gospel convictions cut through the gloss with a stunning power. It’s an excellent track and it’s a joy to hear the diva finding the spirit of Christmas. Yes, some of the instrumentation feels timestamped, but my lord, that voice is a natural wonder. The song captures Houston at her youthful best, with the singer possessing all of her talents and gifts.

Following Houston is a tough task, but Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band does an ample job with a rollicking rendition of the R&B song “Merry Christmas.” Backed by the E Street Band (Clarence Clemons steals the show with his masterful sax playing), Springsteen does a great job with his inimitable grainy, raspy growl. The live track is a great moment that shows how fantastic Springsteen and the E Street band is in front of an audience, just jamming and being entertaining.

The Pretenders’ “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” follows. Chrissie Hynde powerful, yearning vocals sound suitably wistful over the atmospheric instrumentation. The song is one of the most depressing Christmas songs ever – and the most famous version is done by Judy Garland, one of the saddest singers of all time. Hynde doesn’t have Garland’s well-deep pathos but she does a solid job in conveying the lilting sense of regret and loss in the song’s poignant lyrics.

John Mellencamp does a rockabilly version of the novelty hit “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.” It’s got some traces of Zydeco as well as Mellencamp’s brand of Southern rock. It’s a nothing song with silly lyrics and the Mellencamp doesn’t take himself too seriously. He’s not mugging through the goofy words but instead is having a ball (which is a lot of what A Very Special Christmas is about)

Sting’s does predictably idiosyncratic work, chanting “Gabriel’s Message.” The beautiful Basque folk song is a religious song that tells the story of the angel Gabriel’s visit to the Virgin Mary to inform her that she’s destined to be the mother of God. Over a strumming synth, Sting’s layered vocals warble beautifully.

A Very Special Christmas sported an original song, the humorous, Golden Age Hip-Hop song, “Christmas in Hollis” by iconic rap group Run-D.M.C. It’s a fantastic song, the production littered with samples, sleigh bells, and hooks from classic Christmas songs played on synthesizers. The song also boasted a great music video by New York downtown artist, Michael Holman.

Rock gods U2 look to Phil Spector for “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” reining in their area rock sound to ape Spector’s Wall of Sound production of the Darlene Love classic. Bono’s keening croon is an odd fit for the song, as is the guitar work, but it’s fine because the band is rocking on some powerful good will.

Pop superstar Madonna mugs through Eartha Kitt’s “Santa Baby.” Instead of opting for a dance-heavy production or 80s pop instrumentation, she hews closer to the original sound. She adopts a gun moll diction as she pouts through the song’s materialistic lyrics. At this point in her career, Madonna wasn’t taking herself too seriously and there’s a fun, silly charm to the tune. Like Mellencamp’s entry, this is a filler track, but one that’s very fun to listen to.

Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band take on “The Little Drummer Boy” and to a good job remaking the song as a slick heartland rock song. Seger’s throaty, soulful voice is beautifully matched with a heavenly backup chorus. Like Springsteen or Mellencamp, Seger has an appealing resonance with working-class listeners, and the driving playing and singing give the song a urgency and power not normally associated with the classic tune.

Bryan Adams does another novelty pop song, “Run Rudolph Run,” which was a rock and roll hit for Chuck Berry. Adams is not Chuck Berry and doesn’t really capture the original song’s rootsy rocking power; still, Adams’ performance is good and like with the lighter moments on the record, it scores points because there’s so much fun and joy coming through on the vinyl.

Bon Jovi redoes Clarence Carter’s Christmas funk song “Back Door Santa” as a hard rock song. A shredding electric guitar accompanies lead singer, Jon Bon Jovi’s gusty vocals. Like U2, Bon Jovi’s sound is expansive and huge. But unlike U2, Bon Jovi choice to interpret their track as one of their crashing glam metal-pop head bangers.

Former Yazoo singer Alison Moyet brings her thick, plump soulful vocals to “The Coventry Carol.” Sounding a lot like Annie Lennox, Moyet brings the album down to a more sedate tone after a trio of rock songs. This song, like Sting’s track, is a unique tune, highlighting a great juxtaposition of classic folk carols festooned with 80s synthesizers and drum machines. Alison Moyet is a gorgeous singer and handles the moody harmonies beautifully.

As a closer, rock goddess Stevie Nicks lends her distinct vocals to the Christmas standard “Silent Night.” It’s a great way to end A Very Special Christmas because few performers possess the interpretive skills of Nicks, who has a soulful, mystical voice that captures the spiritual elements of the Christmas carol. I could listen to Stevie Nicks sing anything but her stirring rendition of “Silent Night” is a major highlight of the album (also, the background vocalists are ace).

A Very Special Christmas was followed by other albums that paired contemporary pop singers with Christmas tunes for similarly cool and refreshing interpretations of ubiquitous carols. Similarly to the Red Hot album series, A Very Special Christmas raised money for a worthy cause whilst also offering fresh takes on classic song.

Stocking stuffer from last year: a recap of “The Hanukkah Story” from The Nanny.

Summer of Soul is a fabulous, powerful testament to music, fellowship, and Civil Rights

Searchlight Pictures

Something very important was happening. It wasn’t just about the music.

Gladys Knight

In the summer of 1969, hundreds of thousands of people convened on Mount Morris Park in Harlem to witness pop music history. For six weeks, some of Black music’s most powerful and amazing artists entertained large crowds with soul, jazz, pop, and gospel music. The 1960s were drawing to a violent and dispiriting close, with the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Robert Kennedy. Rebellions ripped through the innercity and Black communities were targeted by the police. In this tumultuous context, the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival was a seeming salve to bring peace, love, and art to a community that was struggling for equality.

Despite the high attendance and the superstar caliber of the entertainers, the festival has slipped into unjust obscurity until the careful curation of Questlove, the drummer and frontman of the hip-hop band, the Roots. A reported four hours has been whittled down to a tidy two hours, most of the performances truncated to accommodate interviews with attendees as well as participants. Though it would’ve been great to see the performances in full – and I’d love to see the full four hours – Summer of Soul is a fantastic tribute to a beautiful moment in pop and contemporary history when artists of different genres were able to get together to give happiness and escape to their audiences.

The talent that graced the stage for the festival is dizzying. By the late 1960s, soul music was going through an evolution that saw the gospel-influenced popular music taking on psychedelic sounds that reflected the times. This evolution was illustrated with a performance by the successful pop-soul group the 5th Dimension which was singing their big hit “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” from the Broadway musical Hair. Members Billy Davis, Jr. and Marilyn McCoo are on hand to talk about their participation in the festival and how important it was for the group, which was dragged by criticisms that they were “too white.” In one of the film’s many moving moments, McCoo is moved to tears as she watches a younger version of herself with her bandmates performing at this once-in-a-lifetime event.

Along with the Fifth Dimension, other legendary acts like Mavis Staples, Gladys Knight, and Stevie Wonder narrate their performances. Staples, in particular, has a great account in which she talks about performing with gospel great Mahalia Jackson, when the two were introduced by a young Jesse Jackson to sing “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.” Staples and Jackson duet on the spiritual with a transcendent power that is simply breathtaking. The Edwin Hawkins Singers also provide a spiritual highlight in the film with their classic “Oh Happy Day.”

Though the church songs were among the most moving, the film chronicles pop superstars Stevie Wonder, David Ruffin, Sly and the Family Stone, and Gladys Knight acknowledging that their involvement with the festival was an important turning point in their careers in which they assessed the direction of their sound. Wonder – who was a mere 19 years-old when performing at the festival – reminisces about his participation in the show and how it informed the kind of artist he wanted to be as an adult. Ruffin, of the Temptations, who is shown performing a mind-blowing version of “My Girls” (though his vocals are sandpapery and rough, he hits some gravity-defying whistle notes), represents a bridge between the respectability politics of the Motown assembly line and its tux and evening gown aesthetic to the more modern sounds of the festival. An important highlight of the film is the appearance of Nina Simone who commands the stage with a regal presence. After a performance of her song “Young, Gifted, and Black,” Simone recites a poem to the appreciative crowds, reading the fiery and powerful lyrics of David Nelson of the Last Poets.

One of the things that Summer of Soul indicates is the intersection of politics and the music festival. Organizer Tony Lawrence is portrayed as a canny and impressive impresario who is able to parlay his talents to network with and ingratiate himself to political, cultural, and business leaders of the time. New York mayor John Lindsey is portrayed as a sympathetic ally to Lawrence’s agenda, appearing at the festival, being coined a “blue-eyed soul brother” and several interview subjects testify to Lindsey’s allegiance to the Civil Rights Movement.

The participation of activists Charlayne Hunter-Gault and Denise Oliver-Velez is an excellent way to firm the connection between the use of art in promoting social justice and racial equality. Hunter-Gault, a journalist for The New York Times, spoke in the film to the importance and power of embracing the word “Black” and its coinage being so significant at the time; scenes in the film moved away from the concert stage to beauty shops, barber shops, boutiques, as the media began to cover different forms of Black beauty, including hair and fashion, which took its roots from Afro-centrism. These are very important scenes that highlight the importance of the festival and how it was was one part of a larger tapestry of a response to the racism and oppression that met Black and brown people.

When I saw the film, Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos innovated space tourism. During the festival, man walked on space. In a smart juxtaposition of reactions, the film showed the news media gauging the interest in the lunar landing: white respondents were enthusiastic, marveling at the technological innovation; Black respondents were less impressed, highlighting that the high cost of these endeavors could be directed toward urban renewal and to combat homelessness and poverty. This instance is only one of many when dark parallels are found: police brutality, communities reacting to violence with rebellion, politicians neglecting the concerns of communities of color. What Summer of Soul does best is not only capture a beautiful moment but the conditions that made such a beautiful moment necessary. Attendee Musa Jackson summed it up best when he remembered, “It was incredible. Families. Fathers. Mothers. Kids running around – I was one of those kids. Beautiful, beautiful women. Beautiful men. It was like seeing royalty.”

Nora Ephron’s Musical Kindred Spirit: Carly Simon

Nora was incapable of doing anything without having a sense of humor about it, and there was never a Nora who was ever embarrassed about the romantic.

Carly Simon
Carly Simon / This Is My Life Soundtrack

After success in the 1970s as a singer-songwriter, Carly Simon nursed a few years of career lows before finding renewed triumph as a soundtrack performer. Though she had a number two hit with the James Bond theme, “Nobody Does It Better” from Lewis Gilbert’s The Spy Who Loved Me, she didn’t write the tune – Marvin Hamlisch and Carole Bayer Sager did. It wasn’t until her 1986 hit, “Coming Around Again” that Simon established herself as a major film music composer. The song, the theme to Mike Nichols’ adaptation of Nora Ephron’s Heartburn was the first time that the singer worked on an Ephron project. Due to this resurgence, she was tapped to write the theme tune to Nichols’ comedy Working Girl, “Let the River Run” which won Simon an Academy Award. Both Nichols and Ephron share an aesthetic with Simon – the three have a creative point of view that is sophisticated, urban, and domestic. When Ephron debuted as a director with her 1992 comedy, This Is My Life, Simon was the predictable yet fitting choice to score the film and create the soundtrack. The album is impressive in its scope as Simon plays the role of the film composer – it’s worth noting that few soundtrack albums at this point were written, produced, and performed by a female composer.

This Is My Life is based on Meg Wolitzer’s novel. The film tells the story of Dottie Ingels (Julie Kavner), a single mom with two kids, who has dreams of becoming a stand-up comic. Ephron wrote the screenplay with her sister Delia. In interviews, Simon has lauded Ephron’s ear for turns of phrases, crediting her with coming up with some interesting and compelling lines that found themselves from the script into Simon’s lyrics. The frazzled housewife narrating “Coming Around Again” admitted burning a soufflé, something that Ephron mentioned to Simon, who then spun it to a pop lyric. For This Is My Life, this symbiotic relationship continued, with the author inspiring the singer, resulting in the soundtrack’s single, “Love of My Life.”

The soundtrack to This Is My Life has twelve songs, a mix of instrumentals and vocals, all written by Simon. The songs score Ephron’s story of Dottie who makes her way from a makeup counter at a department store in Queens to finding work as a comedienne in Manhattan clubs, before leaving her kids with friends, and becoming a star on the West Coast. The album has the hallmarks of a Carly Simon/Nora Ephron collaboration, namely, lovely, sentimental pop music. Simon’s lyrics are deeply specific and very much in the voice of a distinct character – in this case Dottie, a clever New Yorker. Though Dottie cares about her career and wants to become a famous comic, she also adores her two kids. So though the message of “Love of My Life” is about a mother’s devotion to her kids, the lyrics mirror Dottie’s New Yorker identity as well as her comedian identity, mentioning how much she loves Woody Allen movies and noting, “I love Lucy and pumpernickel bread/The Statue of Liberty and standing ovations.” It’s the specificity that makes the tune so fitting – Dottie, a New York comedienne, would be a fan of Allen and Lucille Ball, as well as a fan of New York cultural minutia like pumpernickel bread (which harkens back to Dottie’s Jewish identity)

Simon also makes several showbiz allusions with her music in the album, essentially paralleling the story of Dottie’s Hollywood ascent. She references stand-up comedy’s vaudevillian roots with jaunty, strumming ukuleles in the two versions of “Back the Way” – one version from the point of view of Dottie, the other coming from the perspective of her daughters. And with “The Show Must Go On,” Simon channels her inner Irving Berlin, penning her own take on “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” belting lyrics about a comic juggling a growing show business with still having domestic concerns like staying home to bake, leaving the oven on, running out of underwear, or dealing with a rude handyman. So even though she ponders “Will I be the joke or the comedienne?” she never can wholly leave her life as a mom. This Is My Life is all about Dottie’s struggle, trying to nurture her entertainment aspirations with her maternal responsibilities.

When the film open, we hear the pokey, slightly jokey plunking of a ukulele and Simon riffing and scatting, before we are taken to an eccentric domestic scene of the two young girls of the film: Erica (Samantha Mathis) and Opal (Gaby Hoffman) making their bed as Dottie, undressing behind a Chinese screen. The girls are getting ready for bed, setting up the sofa bed, which the three share. Erica’s voiceover introduces the film, insisting that the story’s focus isn’t solely her mother’s fame. As the ukulele continues to play, Dottie and the girls settle into the bed to playact Dottie’s future appearances on The Tonight Show, with pint-sized Opal playing Johnny Carson. The resultant effect of this scene feels a bit like “Born in the Truck” – the cliché of humble beginnings which lead to great success. The idiosyncrasy of the characters’ lives also telegraphs that our characters are creative. Creative people are often depicted as unconventional, bucking traditional mores.

The first time we hear Simon’s voice singing a song in its entirety is when Dottie and her daughters make the momentous move to Manhattan from their home in Queens. After Dottie’s aunt dies, she inherits the house which she sells to fund their move to the city. Though they’re simply moving from one borough to another, it’s a major move, nonetheless. As the cosy, working class domesticity of Queens gives way to the gleaming, concrete bustle of Manhattan, Simon begins to croon “Love of My Life.” Shots of Amsterdam Avenue, Central Park, and East 66th Street appear whilst Simon-as-Dottie croons about loving New York cultural tropes and her affection for her comedy. The move from Queens to Manhattan isn’t just a geographic move but a cultural move – an important step for Dottie’s “journey” to get out of her working-class roots.

We get to hear “Back the Way” when Dottie and the girls are reunited after she travels for work, plugging away, trying to become a success. The girls come to Las Vegas where their mom is headlining at the Tropicana. A limousine takes Dottie and her daughters to the hotel, cruising down the neon-sluiced strip, the dizzying lights accompanying Simon sweetly singing about struggling, trying to famous and making it. As Simon (again Simon-as-Dottie) warbles “But now my prayers are answered/and my star is on the rise/Flashbulbs popping, traffic stopping/Everyone’s my best friend” we see a giant sign in front of the Tropicana announce Dottie’s name (along with Liberace) with Opal crowing proudly, “that’s my mom!” as she stands outside the sunroof, her arms extended in prideful triumph. As the song meanders towards a swinging end, we glide with Dottie and the girls down the hallway of a lush hotel, before we’re invited into a plush suite, the song lilting lyrics looking back wistfully when the three were squeezing themselves onto a shared sofa bed, pretending Dottie was holding court on late night TV.

To illustrate the growth of Dottie’s career as well as the associated growth of her daughters’ separation, the soundtrack marches in with a punchy, instrumental version of “The Show Must Go On” which recalls the kind of “hooray for Hollywood” songs of the great Hollywood musicals. Before the song can be heard, we see Dottie do a stand-up set and there are numerous rimshots to punctuate her gags, and the drumrolls sound like the intro to a musical theatre number. On screen, we see Dottie do clubs and talk shows, whilst the girls are being raised by Dottie’s network of friends (other struggling comics and actors who are trying to make it)

The last time Simon’s voice appears on the film’s soundtrack is for a reprise of “Love of My Life” near the end of the film. The script had Dottie reach a level of success she couldn’t imagine, but inevitably, she began to neglect her children a bit. After a disappointing reunion with their estranged father, the girls are finally reunited with Dottie at a train station, chastened and appreciative of their mom’s sacrifices. They rush into their arms, crying and shouting apologies over each other, reconciling. Ephron indulges in some old Hollywood with an orchestra swelling before Simon starts to belt powerfully “You are the love of my life/through all the pleasure and pain” as the three are falling into each other’s arms, kissing, and yelling “I love you” repeatedly, drowned out by the extradiegetic music.

After listening to This Is My Life one can imagine Simon spinning it off to a Broadway musical. The songs were to progress the film’s story, narrating the characters’ frustrations, dreams, as well as their feelings of angst as they are pulled toward the seeming allure of fame and fortune. Simon – always an astute and clever songwriter (she settled some major scores with her vengeful classic “You’re So Vain”) – finds deep kinship with Dottie as she does with Ephron’s sensibility. The music of the film is characteristic of scores from a Nora Ephron film as well as Simon’s film work of the 1980s/1990s. And most importantly, both Eprhon and Simon speak to a female audience – the female Baby Boomer who can relate to the sophisticated tales that the two women spin.

After This Is My Life, Simon went on to release a series of albums before writing the music for a pair of Disney Winnie the Pooh animated films. The 1990s also found Simon scoring a rock opera, Romulus Hunt: A Family Opera. Though these works featured some of her signature sounds, nothing would really match the scope and ambition of This Is My Life – in the liner notes, she gushed a thank you to Quincy Jones, head of Qwest, the label that released the album; she giddily noted that she now knew how Michael Jackson felt.

Though Ephron and Simon wouldn’t collaborate again like they did for This Is My Life, Simon would offer one of the soundtrack’s tracks, the original Christmas carol, “The Night before Christmas,” two years later for Ephron’s holiday comedy, Mixed Nuts. Unfortunately, This Is My Life didn’t do well for either Simon or Ephron, a shame because the film and its accompanying soundtrack highlights just how sympathetic the two women’s talents are to each other. Nora Ephron created a career of telling smart, funny stories of elegant, modern women – often New Yorkers – who are facing important questions of love, career, motherhood. Carly Simon also created a career of telling stories of smart, elegant women who experienced the pain, joy, and angst of being modern women.

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