Friday Night Forgotten Oldie: She single-handedly saved a record company

This is quite the story from pop music history.

Casablanca Records was very successful in the 1970’s, but not always. The label started by Neil Bogart struggled out of the starting gate. By November, 1974, desperate for revenue, Casablanca records, named after the famous film, nearly folded.

Bogart needed some magic and decided to try  a “special products album.” Cash could flow in because studio costs are practically non-existent.

Producers Manheim Fox and Jeff Franklin worked to gain access to NBC-TV’s vault of
Tonight Show programs and put together Here’s Johnny: Magic Moments from the Tonight Show.

Casablanca advertised this album heavily, and the promoters promoted their socks off – this was going to be one of the biggest selling albums ever!

Marketing of the album was heavy. Billboard included the two-disk release in its Top Album Picks and in a review said “. . . there is no way the LP will not become an instant collector’s item.”

“It took nearly two years of work — including the planning, selection of material and actual production — for this recording to progress from an idea to a finished product,” said Fox. “This album tells the story of the show which changed America’s bedtime hour. People used to go to bed at 11:30 p.m., now they stay up to be entertained by Johnny Carson. It’s an amazing success story. In trying to give some perspective to this, – we – go back to the early days of the show in two spots, to include performances by the late Lenny Bruce and Billie Holiday which took place on the Tonight Show before Carson became host.”

Here’s the video of one of the tracks included, from September of 1973. Look for Barry Manilow on the piano.

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The album sold about 500,000 copies. Half a million. That’s very, very good.

So did the Divine Miss M, Bette Midler, single-handedly save Casablanca Records?

Well, no.

The problem was Casablanca produced one million copies of the album. Only half sold.

Now what?

Songwriter/Producer Pete Bellotte got a job in Munich, Germany as assistant to Italian singer, songwriter, DJ and record producer Giorgio Moroder.

“There were all these refugees from Hair back then, all these black American girls who had appeared in different versions of Hair in various cities and countries,” Bellotte told Richard Buskin in a 2009 interview.

One of them was Donna Summer who made a demo of ‘Love To Love You Baby’ for Moroder and Bellotte in 1975.  Summer re-recorded the song and it was released in the United Kingdom.

Major fail.

Then the tape was sent to Neil Bogart of Casablanca Records in the states.

Bogart loved it, but wanted a version that went beyond the boundaries of a typical radio single. He asked for a 20-minute version that would take up the entire side of an album.

“I’d gone to a lot of clubs where these peculiar Italian bands played a schmaltzy kind of music and they used to have this little drum machine where, if you just pressed a button, it would play a samba, or if you pressed another button it would play a waltz,” said Bellotte. “It was very basic and it had a horrible sound, but of course it played in time, so we sent out for one and we laid that down as a track. This then provided us with a four‑minute, metronomic beat that had a kind of groove going on, and that really was the origin of drum machines, and the thing that enabled us to stretch it to a 16‑minute version, kept in perfect time, when Neil Bogart requested it.”

The much shorter single peaked at Number two on the Billboard Hot 100, while the album of the same name was quickly certified gold. Casablanca Records was no longer on life support.


Summer and Moroder in 1977

Summer co-wrote the smash sensual hit that TIME reported had Summer simulating 23 orgasms during the studio recording. Summer had a Christian upbringing and told TIME Magazine in December 1975 that to write the lyrics, “I let go long enough to show all the things I’ve been told since childhood to keep secret.”

The released single was banned on many radio stations.

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No lip-synching there.

Donna Summer, the Queen of Disco, died in May of 2012 from cancer. She was 63.

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