Question Time

 

Bob Esty
 

 

 

Legendary arranger, producer and songwriter Bob Esty had the privilege of working with some of the greatest singers of our time including Dusty Springfield, Barbra Streisand and of course Donna Summer. Now we have the privilege of having him share thoughts and make revelations about his life, career, collaborations, LAST DANCE and... GLEE!

 

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 you listening?

Is ANYBODY listening???!!!  Anybody???

Do you remember falling in love with music or is it a part of you that's always been there?

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 been written?

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 survived!

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 idea!

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 dinner with?

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 and able!

What is it that makes life worth living?

Enjoying it - through thick and thin!!

 

Question Time: Bob Esty 2010 Sebastiano Lionti
Not to be reproduced or redistributed in any form.
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Donna Summer: ONCE UPON A TIME...

Act One

ONCE UPON A TIME
FASTER AND FASTER TO NOWHERE
FAIRY TALE HIGH
SAY SOMETHING NICE

Act Two

NOW I NEED YOU
WORKING THE MIDNIGHT SHIFT
QUEEN FOR A DAY

Act Three

IF YOU GOT IT FLAUNT IT
A MAN LIKE YOU
SWEET ROMANCE
(THEME) ONCE UPON A TIME
DANCE INTO MY LIFE

Act Four

RUMOUR HAS IT
I LOVE YOU
HAPPILY EVER AFTER
(THEME) ONCE UPON A TIME

Produced by: Giorgio Morode & Pete Bellotte
Arranged by: Bob Esty
Electronic arrangements by: Giorgio Moroder
Drums: Keith Forsey
Bass: Les Hurdle
Guitars: Mats Bjoerklund & Geoff Bastow
Keyboards: Alan Hawkshaw & Bob Esty
Moog: Giorgio Moroder
Percussion: Keith Forsey, Josef Spector, Bob Conty, Pete Bellotte & Bob Esty
Brass: Dino Solera, Hanus Berka, Benny Gebauer, Herman Breuer, Rick, Blanc, Cap Etienne, Lee Harper, Jef Coolen
Sax solos: Dino Solera
Back-up Vocals: Lucy O'Neale, Gitta Walther, Judy Cheeks, Jerry Rix, Edo Zanki & Bob Esty
Back-up Vocals on IF YOU GOT IT FLAUNT IT: Donna Summer & Midnight Dreams