Before we start, have you
anything to declare?
In the words of some long-ago
actor, "Well, I do declare!" - except when traveling
overseas on an international flight!!
How are you, Bob?
I've had so many opportunities
in my life and career, even some of my bad experiences (not that
anything has really been "bad") has added to up to
my answer: I'm great!
Coffee, tea or...?
Definitely coffee!!! As
the saying goes, I like it hot & black! My mother told me,
"If you're going to drink coffee, make sure you drink it
black! Otherwise you'll spend your whole life looking for
the sugar and the cream". Mothers always know!
What are the latest additions
on your iPod?
I don't have an iPod. That's
not entirely true. I bought one when it first came out, but never
got it together to fill it up. And then it was out-dated.
Because my dream for this device was to have everything I've
ever recorded in my life available at the push of a button, I
basically gave up. At least YouTube and Facebook is easy enough
for me to operate and to fill in some of the gaps! I have always
had Macs, so at least I'm generally up-to-date with the latest
one - until the next one replaces it - in about 2 months!
Well, since YouTube videos
can be downloaded and most current iPods can play videos, the
iPod of your dreams is not an IMPOSSIBLE DREAM. Santa Claus are
Is ANYBODY listening???!!!
Do you remember falling
in love with music or is it a part of you that's always been
I've always been in love with
music and performing. Started formal training at 7 years old
with piano, organ and voice - ultimately classical training in
opera, attending Peabody Conservatory in piano, many choral groups,
and performing in and creating music for theatre. In all
these formative years, ending in college, I knew I was ready
to go out on my own. Afterwards I moved to New York City and
began doing arrangements for singers as well as musically directing
various cabaret acts. Because of this I met Bette Midler,
Barry Manilow and others all struggling to make a name for themselves.
As a fluke, I met Paul Jabara, just before moving to Los Angeles
where I live today. In LA I worked with movie and TV stars, arranging
music for live acts and TV appearances on the major talk shows
and variety shows. I arranged and wrote a song for the great
Dusty Springfield (I FOUND LOVE WITH YOU) and it was the first
time I knew I was meant to be in a recording studio - but I didn't
have any idea I would end up meeting and working with artists
such as Donna Summer.
Do you remember working
with Donna for the first time?
It was in Paul Jabara's house
in LA. He and I had written a song called SHUT OUT about being
on line to get into a hot disco. He knew Donna because
she was in the German production of Hair (Paul was in the original
in NY). Part of the song was to feature Donna, as herself,
basically singing to Paul in a dream encouraging him to not to
give up and he would eventually get into the disco - appropriately
named "Heaven". I arranged the 2 song medley,
and remember showing Donna her part for the transition from SHUT
OUT to HEAVEN IS A DISCO. We worked out the melody and
I was surprised at the effortless range and power of her voice.
I've heard a rumour that you co-wrote
LAST DANCE, though only Paul Jabara got credit for it...
After SHUT OUT was recorded,
Paul told me he locked Donna in her hotel bathroom in Puerto
Rico and forced her to listen to a cassette of a rough song idea
called LAST DANCE. Basically, Paul just had knowledge of a few
simple chords on the piano and his voice was rough, but he always
had the knack to sell anything! We always said he was like
a Lebanese rug dealer: he would sell a rug to an unsuspecting
customer and try to sell him another and another, until the customer
would flee the bazaar altogether leaving behind the first rug!
Luckily, Donna liked the song. Paul asked me to do an arrangement
so Donna could make a demo for Neil Bogart, the head of Casablanca
Records, who had to OK it. Because they were producing with Motown
Records a film ultimately named Thank God It's Friday, it was
to be Donna Summer's song. So, working on the arrangement with
Paul, I changed some of the chords and extended the "hook"
to repeat 3 times to finish the last phrase of the chorus. I
also added a bridge to build to a climax and suggested a ballad
intro a la AIN'T NO MOUNTAIN HIGH ENOUGH and another ballad in
the middle of the song building again to a high note for the
last chorus ending. To our knowledge, this had never been
done in a disco track. I was willing to do this idea, and confident
that it would work. We did the piano/vocal with Donna and
me of the full version including the two ballad sections and
the ending in one "pass". At the finish Donna
ad-libbed "that's all folks!" and we all applauded!
I recorded the full track in one day, rhythm in the morning,
horns and strings during the day. That same night, Giorgio Moroder
recorded Donna's vocal exactly as she sang the demo, in two takes,
and banning me from attending the session. In spite of the
fact Giorgio didn't like the song and didn't want Donna to sing
in a full voice style, I thought I would be at least credited
for co-producing the track and co-writing the song with Paul.
He ultimately took credit for it. And Paul Jabara took the
Oscar. I learned a bitter lesson from that, but I went on to
arrange ONCE UPON A TIME for Donna and was signed to Casablanca
Records as a producer.
Is there a Donna record
you wish you had arranged and/or produced?
I was in the studio producing
TAKE ME HOME for Cher as Paul Jabara was accepting the Academy
Award for LAST DANCE. Obviously I was upset, but I knew people
really loved the song and Donna deserved the hit. It really
made me proud. Because of the fact Cher was to have a hit, and
Barbra Streisand would have another with my production of THE
MAIN EVENT/FIGHT, I was the logical producer for ENOUGH IS ENOUGH.
Paul Jabara was still mad at me over the fact that Barbra's boyfriend
(Jon Peters) had banned him from the studio because of "inappropriate
behavior" during THE MAIN EVENT/FIGHT. Therefore he banned
me from the up-coming duet between Donna and Barbra. That
should have been my production along with Giorgio Moroder. A
phone call from Barbra wanting me to coach her a little, "because
I knew how to sing disco", made me laugh. And you should
have seen Paul's face when I entered the studio to "give
advice" to Barbra! I remained a friend and collaborator
till Paul's untimely death in 1992, even though he was a rug
dealer to the end!
Don't you have the feeling
that new memorable songs are getting harder and harder to find?
Could it be that "the greatest songs" have already
There will always be great
memorable songs! We remember our favorites.
Talking about favorites,
if you could choose three Donna Summer songs to be featured on
a new episode of GLEE, which ones would you pick?
Obviously LAST DANCE, I
LOVE YOU and HEAVEN KNOWS, the duet version. I could pick
other songs but I'm shamelessly biased.
You arranged what remains
one of Donna's finest albums, ONCE UPON A TIME... I heard you weren't
totally satisfied with the way Donna's voice sounds or was mixed
on some of the tracks. Tell us about it.
When I first heard the first
side of the double LP, I was confused. Once again I was
banned from the vocal sessions. I had the studio keys and heard
the tape by myself in the middle of the night. Because we
had finished LAST DANCE earlier in July (it wasn't released until
1978), and I had expected my "guide vocal" brought
to life again in a full voice treatment. I heard a child-like
voice which at first put me off. Donna sang one side a night.
When I asked Giorgio, who was absent from the entire production,
"was Donna going to re-sing the first part?", he replied
that it was already done. By the time she got to sides 3 &
4, she was the "new Donna" that I wanted to hear! She
wrote the lyrics after everything had been completed. Just
the background vocals were to be added as she continued her tour
of Europe. In retrospect, the concept of a young girl growing
up in the Cinderella story was totally right, and doing the vocal
the way she did it was ultimately brilliant. I was too arrogant
to appreciate the remarkable job she did! It was the case of
a young would-be-producer who "knew it all"!!!
So what do you think are
the standout tracks on that album?
FASTER AND FASTER TO NOWHERE,
IF YOU GOT IT FLAUNT IT, DANCE INTO MYLIFE, RUMOUR HAS IT &
I LOVE YOU. Not in any order, but if I have to pick what
I feel were the most memorable - oh, and don't forget the three
tracks that contain the (THEME) ONCE UPON A TIME!
This year marks the 30th
anniversary of THE WANDERER, Donna's first post-Casablanca Records
release. What do you think of it? Was it too rock? Too white?
Too ahead of its time?
Everybody was trying to make
sense of whatever you had to do in a transitional period.
There were "anti-disco" rallies staged by radio DJ's
all over America! Donna had to musically adjust and then
she had the great Quincy Jones! Of course it was ultimately
"dance music" that would change its name from "disco"
and re-emerge as the world's favorite again. And Donna Summer
You worked with Barbra Streisand
on her 1985 BROADWAY ALBUM. The medley you arranged, co-produced
and played keyboards on is certainly one of the album's highlights.
Have you ever thought of doing something like that for Donna?
She's singing NATURE BOY and DON'T RAIN ON MY PARADE in concert
these days, you know...
Donna and I have almost always
worked together over the years. She has done several demos of
Paul Jabara & my songs, but they ultimately were reworked
for artists like The Weather Girls, Billy Preston, Raquel Welch
and others. The Brooklyn Dreams are re-releasing SLEEPLESS
NIGHTS, which I produced, and Bruce Sudano of the group married
Donna. So, you never know!
Is there a singer you would
love Donna to sing with?
I would like her to sing with
a male singer that has a strong voice, an anthem ability with
soul, but like Donna, not getting in the way of the lyric. Donna
doesn't use unnecessary "licks" or over-embellishing
the melody for the sake of showing off. Joe "Bean"
Esposito did such a great and complimentary vocal on HEAVEN KNOWS,
singing an additional duet part to Donna's hit record. I wouldn't have a name to match with Donna - maybe she has an
Is talent a gift or a goal?
Both. It's absolutely necessary
if you want to have a career. Talent helps, but the willingness
and the ability to put the time and energy is needed to sustain
anything in show business. And being someone who recognizes when
opportunity comes your way. You have to have a sense of
being right for something, and to know when you're wrong. And
you need to know when to listen to someone more experienced than
you, and to recognize it. For instance, when I was privileged
to work with Barbra Streisand, and many people thought she was
"too difficult", my experience was fun and easy. Why
was it different for me? Maybe it was the fact she's so curious
about everything and knows to ask questions when she doesn't
know. That was when I knew a little bit more about disco
than she did, and she enjoyed the process and respected this
young energetic kid trying to make it the best it could be. One
of the artists I've enjoyed working with the most!
Do you have a favorite movie?
You know I could name a lot
of movies that I like and consider my all-time favorites. But
I want to pick a small independent gay-themed film. I want to
pick a film that makes me cry every time I've seen it.
The title is LATTER DAYS. It's about a Mormon kid who comes
to LA to fulfill his obligation to his church by becoming an
Elder. For 2 years he is supposed to go out to the public and
tell about his religion and hope to talk people into joining
it. Along the way he meets and falls in love with a waiter who
is gay. Outcast by his faith and his family he has to come to
terms with who he's going to be. The seemingly simple story
is ultimately uplifting and moving to me.
What is your drug of choice?
Let's just say I've done most
of the most of Hollywood has done, and I've survived. I'm for
the legalization of most drugs...
What's on your bedside table?
It's unbelievably messy and
too cluttered to be seen by anyone!!
Donna (and Gershwin) not being available, who you wanna have
Barack Obama. I would
like to have a conversation dealing with the question, "What
happened to you??!!!"
Is love really the healer?
Friends and occasional love
is the real "healer" - and a hot date who's willing
What is it that makes life worth living?
Enjoying it - through thick
Time: Bob Esty © 2010 Sebastiano Lionti
to be reproduced or redistributed in any form.