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Donna Summer – Last Dance

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One of the most interesting things I’ve discovered as the US Envoy/contributor for this column has been the often wide discrepancies between the US and the UK as to what creates, via chart success, a “classic” or “defining” hit for an artist. For example, some songs that arguably marked the career chart peak of an artist in the UK – e.g. Push the Button by Sugababes or Robbie WilliamsRock DJ – did not even register in the US. Similarly, US signature artist hits like Barbra Streisand’s People or Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run were complete UK non-starters. Even more interesting has been the discovery of artists with roughly equivalent US/UK career chart trajectories, who, at one point in their careers, suffered on one side or the other of the Atlantic a gaping worm-hole of chart failure with one of their biggest smashes. A prime example? Donna Summer, with arguably the greatest hit of the disco era: Last Dance.

By 1978, Donna Summer had amassed several huge hits in the UK and the US. The transatlantic hits Love to Love You Baby and I Feel Love are now recognized as dance-pop masterpieces and milestone pop tracks, influencing artists as varied as Joy Division and Michael Jackson. But for the most part, these hits were studio-driven electronic dance tracks, shaped by the genius of producer Giorgio Moroder. In these hits (and in another insanely strange UK top 5, Theme from the Deep (Down, Deep Inside), which I had never heard of before researching this column), Summer’s breathy, dispassionate vocals are secondary to the overall production and could have been recorded by anyone. They did little to show the powerhouse range and versatility that would define her later classics.

All of that changed with Last Dance. The song was written for the cheesy 1978 disco film, Thank God It’s Friday. In the film, Summer plays an aspiring singer who brings a vocal-free version of Last Dance to a disco in hopes that the DJ will let her sing the song for the polyester-clad dance club audience. After much back and forth, he finally relents and Summer sings the song to the acclaim of all. Summer’s acting in the film is as wooden as one might expect, but the performance, like the song, is magic. (But it does have Valerie Landsburg from TV’s Fame in it, so that’s good – Ed.)

 
The song was unique in its structure – it begins as a ballad before exploding suddenly into the joyful chorus, building and building with ever more tension until its final, rapturous single note finish. Throughout the song, Summer’s vocals are front and center, and unlike her earlier chart hits, the production compliments, rather than immerses, her powerful singing. Interestingly, Giorgio Moroder hated the song, and didn’t want Summer to sing it in a full vocal style. Luckily, however, Summer prevailed and a classic was created.

Last Dance kicked off Summer’s Imperial Phase on the US charts, peaking at no.3 and signaling the start of a three year run of 9 consecutive top 5 hits. It sold over a million copies and won Summer a Grammy Award for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance. Arguably, it became the most recognizable song of the disco era, and for at least a decade following its release virtually every mainstream dance club in America ended its evening with the song.

In the UK, however, the song reached a sad no.51. In fact, with the exception of MacArthur Park (which hit UK no.5) and her duet with Barbara Streisand No More Tears (Enough is Enough) (no.3), the hits that defined her American Imperial Phase (Hot Stuff, Bad Girls, Dim All the Lights, On the Radio, Heaven Knows, The Wanderer), all missed the UK top 10. Even her 80s US top 10s (She Works Hard for the Money, Love is in Control) did only moderately well in the UK. It wasn’t until the career-reviving Stock Aitken & Waterman makeover This Time I Know It’s For Real that she regained her chart supremacy in the UK.

Entered chart: 10/6/78

Chart peak: 51

Weeks on chart: 9

Who could sing this today and have a hit? Someone in need of a major career resurrection like Mariah Carey or Janet Jackson could make this work magic again. If that fails, there’s always Ariana Grande.

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