Donna Summer: New Label, New Hit?
Geffen Records, long frustrated by Donna Summer’s inability to regain her late-'70s superstar status in pop, looks like it may have finally come up with the right formula to put Summer back on the charts.
The irony: A rival company will reap the possible benefits.
Geffen executives put Summer together last year with Stock/Aitken/Waterman, the red-hot trio of British record producers who have designed hits for such dance-oriented artists as Rick Astley, Bananarama and Kylie Minogue.
“This Time I Know It’s for Real,” the first single from those recording sessions, has been a Top 5 hit in England for a month and is in the Top 10 throughout Europe. Summer’s “Another Place and Time” album, from the same sessions, is also doing well in Europe.
Just released by Atlantic Records in the United States, the single is already picking up air play at such influential radio stations as KPWR-FM in Los Angeles, and it enters the new Billboard magazine pop chart this week at No. 88.
How did the record get away from Geffen?
After commissioning the album and listening to the finished product, executives at the Los Angeles-based company decided late last month to drop Summer from her contract. The singer was quickly scooped up by New York-based Atlantic Records.
Ed Rosenblatt, president of Geffen Records, declined to comment on the decision to drop Summer, but said, “It was just time for our relationship (to end). It was better for us and better for her that she look elsewhere.”
Industry insiders pointed to several factors as having cooled the Summer/Geffen relationship, including Summer’s desire to tone down the more provocative aspects of her persona following her early ‘80s embrace of born-again Christianity.
But the bottom line may simply be that the Geffen/Summer union didn’t come close to matching the series of eight gold albums and 10 million-selling singles that she registered on Casablanca Records between 1976 and 1980. After nearly a decade of frustration, the relationship was bound to be strained.
“People can read a lot of things into (the severing of ties with Geffen),” said Summer’s attorney, Gerry Rosenblatt (no relation to Ed). “But the reality is that the relationship just didn’t work out.
“I don’t know if there was any bad blood; they just couldn’t get together on points. But I think if hits had happened, it would have been a different story. If they had sold a ton of records, everybody would be toasting each other. That’s just how it works.”
Gerry Rosenblatt said it was “kind of a shock” when label founder David Geffen phoned to say the label had decided to drop Summer.
“I remember he said, ‘I’m doing her a favor.’ And it may turn out to be for everybody’s benefit. Contractually they had to put the album out, but if they had put the album out and not marketed it, it wouldn’t have done anybody any good.”
Rosenblatt said that Summer--who is currently between managers--plans to perform again this summer, depending on the fate of the new album.
Early critical reaction to the album has centered on Stock/Aitken/Waterman’s production.
“Indistinguishable from Kylie Minogue on steroids or Rick Astley on helium,” sniffed reviewer Dele Fadele in the often-sarcastic British rock paper New Musical Express.
Billboard magazine’s dance music columnist Bill Coleman agreed that the album bears the Stock/Aitken/Waterman stamp, but argued that “Summer’s vocal elevates the material and soars way above their traditional fodder.”
And he noted: “The delicious dance/pop numbers do serve as nice vehicles for the songstress’ vocal charm. If the enthusiastic European response is any indication, then ’89 will undoubtedly be the place and time for Summer--again.”
Donna Summer was the last of Geffen Records’ three initial artists to leave the label. In returning to the record business in 1980 following a five-year hiatus, Geffen made a big splash by announcing that the first three signings to his new label were all world-class superstars: John Lennon, Elton John and Summer.
Lennon had been inactive for several years, but he still carried the Beatles aura, while Summer had been the world’s hottest recording artist in 1979, a title which John had held for several years in the mid-'70s.
Lennon and Yoko Ono’s “Double Fantasy,” released just before Lennon’s fatal shooting in 1980, sold an estimated 4 million copies in this country. But neither of the other artists’ albums broke the 1 million sales mark while at Geffen.
The irony: While Geffen Records stumbled with these superstars, it has done extremely well in the past few years with new and developing artists like Guns N’ Roses, White-snake, Edie Brickell & the New Bohemians, Tesla and Enya.
Ed Rosenblatt acknowledged the irony, but said the company never intended to focus on established superstars; that things just worked out that way.
“When David decided to return to the business in 1980, he had no idea that Donna and Elton would be free from their contracts--or that John Lennon would go into the recording studio without a contract,” he said.
Rosenblatt added that while neither Summer nor John had great success at Geffen, “they were very important to the growth of our company, because (the signings) certainly got everybody’s attention.
“It’s difficult to understand why their records with us were not as successful as records they had with their prior relationships,” he said. “But those things happen. It’s not like making Chevrolets. You’re dealing with human beings and various creative energies that come together or don’t come together as the case may be.”
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