Back in my college days, a missionary kid-journalist friend of mine (who later spent some time as a presidential speechwriter) turned me on to that fabulous “Sittin’ In” album by Kenny Loggins and Jim Messina. The songs were OK, he said, but his advice was to check out the horn charts and keyboards. We both said: Who in the world is Michael Omartian?
Being a music fanatic, I started following Omartian’s work, especially his incredible piano tracks on the classic Steely Dan album called “Katy Lied.” Eventually, I discovered — via his “White Horse” album for ABC Records — that Omartian was actually an evangelical Christian who was embedded, so to speak, in the elite levels of the LA studio scene.
And then something even more interesting happened. Omartian teamed up with Donna Summer, who was trying to find a way to blend her reborn Christian faith with her music career. She was moving out of the sex-sex-sex disco music club scene, but still wanted to produce pulsating songs. In other words, she wanted hits with content.
How did things turn out? Click here for a classic.
Summer’s great voice is gone, after she lost a fight with cancer, and journalists are trying to figure out the timeline of her complex career. Here’s a tip for readers: If the name Michael Omartian is in the article, you’re in good hands.
However, if you want to know how to get this superstar’s life wrong, check out this piece in The Los Angeles Times. It does include this quote up top:
A statement from her family called Summer “a woman of many gifts, the greatest being her faith.”
The story notes that she was raised in a church-going family and it hits the key notes in her stunning rise to the top of the disco-era hierarchy. Eventually, readers are told:
… (U)nlike some other stars of disco who faded as the music became less popular, she was able to grow beyond it and later segued to a pop-rock sound. She had one of her biggest hits in the 1980s with “She Works Hard for the Money,” which became an anthem for women’s rights.
Soon after, Summer became a born-again Christian and faced controversy when she was accused of making anti-gay comments in relation to the AIDS epidemic. Summer denied making the comments but was the target of a boycott.
Sorry, but that timeline is wrong and it’s also missing one or two key facts. The Washington Post came closer, but still got the timeline wrong:
Amid Ms. Summer’s success in the late 1970s, she suffered from depression and attempted suicide. She wrote in her 2003 memoir that she climbed onto the window sill of her Central Park hotel room. As she leaned out, her foot got caught in the drapes, preventing her fall. She became a born-again Christian by the mid-1980s and many of her later songs had religious themes.
Readers who want to see some justice done to Summer’s life, music and faith should turn to veteran music scribe Jon Pareles at The New York Times.
Early on, he accurately notes that her pulsating sex anthems turned her into a superstar in a perfectly logical venue:
With her doe eyes, cascade of hair and sinuous dance moves, Ms. Summer became the queen of disco — the music’s glamorous public face — as well as an idol with a substantial gay following. Her voice, airy and ethereal or brightly assertive, sailed over dance floors and lept from radios from the mid-’70s well into the ’80s. …
Her combination of a church-rooted voice and up-to-the-minute dance beats was a template for 1970s disco, and, with her producers Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte, she pioneered electronic dance music with the synthesizer pulse of “I Feel Love” in 1977, a sound that pervades 21st-century pop. Her own recordings have been sampled by, among others, Beyoncé, the Pet Shop Boys, Justice and Nas.
This is the easy part of the Summer story, the glittering piece of her complex life that pushed reports about her death into evening newscasts on the major networks. To see a typical example, one that ignores the complexity of her career, check out NBC’s wrap.
Pareles, however, nails down the details and captures the key sequence of events that defined her life.
… (S)he was increasingly uncomfortable being promoted as a sex goddess. “I’m not just sex, sex, sex,” she told Ebony magazine in 1977. “I would never want to be a one-dimensional person like that.”
She became so depressed that in late 1976 she attempted suicide, she wrote in her 2003 autobiography, “Ordinary Girl: The Journey,” written with Marc Eliot. She began taking medication for depression and seeking consolation in religion, becoming a born-again Christian in 1979.
Many news reports — like that Los Angeles Times piece — attempt to link her conversion with her fading musical career.
Sorry, but that gets the timeline wrong. It’s too simplistic. The actual sequence is more complex and looks like this — disco queen, depression, attempted suicide, reborn faith and then more hits in a variety of musical styles, including her work with Omartian. Here’s a crucial paragraph:
“On the Radio” was Ms. Summer’s last album for Casablanca. As disco receded, she moved to Geffen Records, seeking to hold her broader pop audience. She tried new wave rock on “The Wanderer” in 1981, then switched to the R&B produced by Quincy Jones for “Donna Summer” in 1982. But she would reach her 1980s commercial peak with “She Works Hard for the Money” in 1983, collaborating with the producer Michael Omartian. It was her last Top 10 album, and amid its gleaming pop productions it included “He’s a Rebel,” an indirect Christian rock song — “He’s a rebel, written up in the lamb’s book of life” — that won a Grammy for best inspirational performance.
Summer’s faith and values influenced her work in many subtle ways in the 1980s, including in her trailblazing music videos. As a tribute to her amazing talent, I would urge readers to watch the video at the top of this post, which adds an completely different layer of content to this Summer-Omartian take on the classic “There Goes My Baby.” Here’s a challenge: Try to count the number of shots of her wedding ring.