*The accolades have fittingly poured in celebrating the extraordinary life of one of America’s greatest multi-award winning artists, Donna Summer. From President and Mrs. Obama to Barbara Streisand and countless others around the world, all have offered their warmest condolences to Donna as we’ve revisited her incredible contributions to the world of music. There was always something very magical about Donna that put her music and her persona on a different level.
Perhaps it was her intellect, beauty, and quiet reluctant sex appeal or the mezzo-soprano vocal range that separated her from a large and very talented group of female performers in the early ’70s. Yet, she had a presence that was largely missing from the music scene at the time of her emergence. However, when Donna Summer exploded onto the American entertainment stage in 1975 at the age of 26, all that witnessed her early performances instantly knew that she was something very special. Yet, few could imagine just how great her appeal, via her music, would eventually become around the world in the months and years to come. Or, for that matter, the long influence she’d hold over a bevy of female artists to follow.
By the spring of 1974 in Los Angeles some months prior to Donna Summer’s first American appearance, owners Ron Bookman and the late Carl Hibler were beginning to establish the “New York Experience Private Club and Discothèque” in Los Angeles as an exclusive membership club for an array of high profile celebrity guests. By 1975, with a capacity of nearly 700 and located at Beverly Hills on Wilshire Boulevard, the New York Experience, noted the “Los Angeles Times” in its July 1975 edition was ushering in a “hot look” in fashion and the then emerging Disco dance craze that was sweeping the nation. Equally, “Time Magazine” in its August 1975 edition wrote of NYE and the dance explosion. Even Walter Cronkite’s iconic “CBS Evening News’s chimed in on the club in its widely watched television news program.
From NYE members holding sway on its backgammon tables or playing the early prototype electronic ‘pong’ games in the game room or to live entertainment with bands ripping R&B beats on its stage; and of course, there was the dancing rage, “the Hustle”. The club featured comics, magicians and gave newer bands their initial exposure such as ‘Grammy Award winning’ “Taste of Honey” and “Atlantic Starr” (originally the “Newban”). DJs were brought in from New York invoking its Manhattan theme with occasional VIP guest spinners including award-winning founder of EUR, Lee Bailey. The club was even the first in Los Angeles to offer on its dinner menu, ‘chicken and waffles’, which had been a popular item at Harlem’s famed “Wells Chicken & Waffles” restaurant for years. In mid 1976, the ‘New York Experience’ rebranded and continued its New York themed private membership club as the “Bronx Zoo II.”
In 1974, Donna Summer was beginning to make waves in Europe where she’d resided for several years. Having originally gone to Munich, Germany from her native Boston to appear in the hit Broadway musical “Hair”, Ms. Summer soon found herself bringing her soulful gospel infused musical styling throughout a string of touring Broadway shows and musical groups. But, her hidden talent lay in song writing. She initially co-wrote, what would become her first signature hit, “Love To Love You Baby”. With European music producer, Giorgio Moroder, “Love To Love You Baby”, initially intended as a demo for another artist, was sent to then Casablanca Records and its brilliant President in Hollywood, the late Neil Bogart.
Immediately Bogart was impressed but wanted Donna and Moroder to cut a 17-minute version of the sultry tune influenced by the great rhythm and blues legend “Sylvia Robinson’s” 1972 hit, “Pillow Talk”. And he wanted Donna to sing her song. His decision would prove to be one born of genius. Soon thereafter, still unknown in the American market, Casablanca Records signed Donna Summer to a recording contract and began the process of readying her single and subsequent album, “Love To Love You Baby” for international release.
But, in 1975, a 17-minute song for radio airplay was still not reality. But, on the dance floor, if the song caught the dancing tastes, it could be successful, Bogart considered. It was at that point Neil Bogart contacted Ron Bookman and Carl Hibler.
“If Donna Summer were to have an impact,” he stated to the two, “the ‘New York Experience’ would be the best place in America to initially introduce her to the VIPs in the recording industry, Hollywood celebrities, media and NYE members in hosting her ‘American National Showcase Debut’…”
Bookman recalls, “we agreed with Neil, and began to plan for the very first appearance in America for Ms. Summer in 1975.” Casablanca Records transformed the club into a scene directly out of the movie classic ‘Casablanca’, replete with palm trees, camel images, and even desert sand as a salute to the record company’s logo and image. With red carpet and klieg lights strategically placed on Wilshire Boulevard in front of the New York Experience entrance, and as chauffeured limos dropped off their VIP guests, the hosting of Ms. Summer’s debut performance soon took on the aura of a major Hollywood Motion Picture premiere.
When Ms Summer arrived at the club, both Bookman and Hibler were struck with her shyness and humility, but overwhelmed with her obvious beauty. As the appointed time for Ms. Summer’s performance arrived, the club was standing room only with over 800 invited media, celebrities and members including Liza Minnelli and the late Richard Pryor among the throngs. Ms Summer, in her designer all white alluring gown, appeared on a specially designed ramp and the downbeat to what would become her early signature anthem, as well as a major music hit around the world, “Love To Love You Baby”, began on the club’s sound system. The VIP audience at first sound and sight of the gorgeous Ms. Summer was enraptured.
Bookman notes, “Ms. Summer was appearing in our club before a ‘hard edge’ audience of recording executives, media, celebrity invitees and NYE members. It was a tough environment in which to have a major debut.” But, the reaction to her was immediate and absolutely overwhelming. Her voice and music were simply stunning. The ‘by invitation only’ audience was stunned at how incredible her performance was in every facet. All that were present have never forgotten that enchanted evening.
“She was,” Ron Bookman, recalls now, “magical”. Clearly many of the younger artists today including ‘Beyonce’ have aspects of Ms. Summer’s performing style. Indeed ‘Beyonce’ recently covered Donna Summer’s classic, “Love To Love You Baby”. Yet, some well-meaning fans continue to label Donna as the ‘Queen of Disco’. Granted, she brought a lot to the genre, but she was all that and much more. Still today, when you hear any of the string of her numerous hits such as, ‘On The Radio’ or ‘Enough Is Enough’, a duet with legendary Barbara Streisand, or ‘She Works Hard For the Money’ and countless others, you still just want to listen, sing, and dance.
But in 1975, before her appearances at entertainment venues such as ‘Madison Square Garden’ or ‘Studio 54’ in New York and countless other performing arts theaters around the world, she was first seen and heard at the ‘New York Experience Private Club and Discothèque’ in what some still refer to as the “debut party of the decade”. And that remains one for the history books. It was an experience many in the audience could recall nearly four decades later.
She remains for the ages, and we’re so fortunate to have had the magic of her song. The music of Donna Summer and her gorgeous image will forever be an indelible part of our lives.
Ronald G. Bookman is President of
Ron Bookman & Associates, Inc.,
Co-owner and Founder with the late Carl Hibler
The New York Experience
Private Club & Discothèque
And the Bronx Zoo II
Los Angeles, California