For people of a certain age, the word "disco" is synonymous with the image of a white-suited John Travolta strutting his stuff in the blockbuster movie Saturday Night Fever while the hirsute, shiny-toothed Bee Gees squawked 'Staying Alive' with impossibly-high helium falsettos. However, as true connoisseurs of that much-maligned musical genre will know, there is much more to disco than the mainstream hits that brought what became a cultural as well as musical phenomenon a big slice of immortality.
But for every big disco hit, there was a stack of mirrorball-oriented singles that for various reasons, did not connect with the public at large but which enjoyed some healthy notoriety at a cult and underground level. Such was the case with Donna McGhee, a young, fine-voiced Brooklyn singer who made a superb single and a fabulous LP in the late '70s, but whose name is not a familiar one to those who think the Gibb brothers were gods of the dancefloor. Donna recorded what turned out to be one of the most collectable disco records ever: an album called 'Make It Last Forever.' Released by a small, New York-based indie label (Red Greg Records), the LP was a quality product packed with great tunes but perhaps lacking the distribution clout and promotional machinery of a more affluent major label, failed to generate the kind of interest it undoubtedly deserved.
Now, though, Donna McGhee, who is 65 and still working, is back in the limelight thanks to We Want Sounds' reissue of 'Make It Last Forever,' a record that in its now rare original US pressing commanded a three-figure price. Talking to SJF's Charles Waring from a rainy Portland, Oregon, where she was due to perform, Donna says she is elated by her album's revival. "I just got my copy the other day so I'm very happy that it has been reissued because now I have a new generation of people that appreciate it," she says. "It's had a good lot of good write-ups so I'm very pleased."
Donna's first singing experience was performing gospel songs in her grandmother's church choir when she was ten, and later, after hearing records by Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, and Chaka Khan, she sought to make a name for herself by singing secular music. At the age of 21 in 1975, she got recruited by The Fatback Band after the group's bassist, Johnny Flippin, heard her sing. He invited her to join them in the recording studio when they were making their sixth album, 'Raising Hell,' which included the big R&B hit, '(Are You Ready ) Do The Bus Stop.'"There's a video on YouTube that you can see of me performing that song with the band," says Donna, referring to a promotional film in which she featured prominently (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RH6iJgUo0co). "You will see a much younger version of Donna McGhee," she laughs.
Donna says that her three years with the Fatback Band was educational as well as enjoyable. She remembers that keyboardist, Weldon Irvine, who worked with the group on that and other albums by the Fatback Band, gave her some sage advice. "He said something to me which stuck with me and it made a great, great impact in my musical experience," she reveals. "Because I was coming raw straight out of gospel and wasn't trained, my intonation was a little off. I was singing (the Fatback Band's) 'Groovy Kind Of Day' but wasn't doing it properly. He was very professional and respectful and put everybody out of the studio. He said 'Donna, you stuck out like a sore thumb but I'm going to tell you something: one day you're going to be a really great singer. What I want you to do is go and get some training, which will help your vocals, breathing, and intonation. I took that advice and ran with it. And I thank God for that every single day."
Casting her mind back to 1978, when Donna recorded 'Make It Last Forever,' the singer says her association with producer/songwriter Greg Carmichael and arranger Patrick Adams, who helmed the LP, came when she was part of a band. "I was with a group called Ricky Williams & Night Flight and Carmichael came out and he heard me sing. He liked the group and turned us into Bumblebee Unlimited." Signed to Carmichael's Red Greg imprint, Bumblebee Unlimited (pictured above) was a novelty disco act - whose vocals were comically sped-up - but they scored a US R&B hit in 1976 with 'Love Bug' and their 1977 single, 'Everybody Dance,' is highly regarded by disco aficionados. Carmichael must have liked Donna's voice as he recruited her for another conceptual disco group, Universal Robot Band, a year later, who recorded a single and LP called 'Dance And Shake Your Tambourine.' Recalls Donna: "I did the Bumblebee Unlimited LP and then we went back in the studio and did the Universal Robot Band album. Then, after that, Greg Carmichael came to me and asked me if I would like to do a solo album. Still being young, I was appreciative and said okay, let's go for it."
Between then, Carmichael and Adams (pictured above) wrote five tunes that they chose for Donna's album. "They had the songs already so they said we would like you to listen to this," remembers Donna. "They played the songs to me and I had no complaints. They came strong with the full production. 'Do As I Do' was the first song that I recorded. That was on a 12 inch first. After I recorded that, then we went in and did 'Make It Last Forever,' 'It Ain't No Big Thing,' and 'Mr Blindman.' I'd already recorded 'I'm A Love Bug' with Bumblebee Unlimited but did my own version of it for the album."
Recalling how the sessions proceeded, Donna says: "The rhythm section was done first and the live strings came in last. It was all separate. I came in and always did my recording separate. Because of the string arrangement, a lot of people thought it was a Barry White production. Patrick Adams did a fantastic job on the record, arranging the string lines."
Donna says she enjoyed her time working in the studio with the Greg Carmichael and Patrick Adams, whose creative chemistry brought a special magic to the album. "Carmichael was the quiet one," she explains. "He was behind the scenes at Red Greg, because the label was named after him and he was the one with the money. Him and Patrick had a very good friendship and work ethic together. And they were so creative. It was an honour to work with both of them."
Though they wrote all of the songs, gave Donna reveals that Carmichael and Adams gave her creative latitude in the studio in terms of her vocals. "They just let me do my own thing," she reveals. "They would say 'okay Donna, here's the structure, but we just want you to do you and be yourself.' They gave me a lot of freedom. It was very easy to work with them."
They also showed sensitivity when they asked Donna to supply some erotic moans and groans on the title track, 'Do As I Do' (a UK version on Anchor Records is pictured above) and stomping 'I'm A Love Bug.' "Adams and Carmichael took everybody out the studio except for my engineer," discloses Donna, explaining how they minimised the potential for embarrassment or self-consciousness. "They put me in a booth, cut off all the lights, and gave me just a little ambient light. And that was it. They said, go ahead and do this, we're recording. So I put my cans on my ears and just went for it. It wasn't hard for me to do it. At that time Donna Summer was out as well and doing the same thing, so it was part of that era."
After Greg Carmichael took Donna on a photoshoot in Canada for the cover art, her then manager, Linda Williams, handled the publicity surrounding 'Make It Last Forever's' release. "She would set up radio interviews, and I would have to travel to different places to promote the LP," the singer remembers. "She handled all of that. She was my manager for 35 years. I truly miss her and, as a matter of fact, I have never found anyone like her because you have to really have someone who cares about you. She was a godmother to all my children and my matron of honour. She was more than just my manager - she was my best friend. She taught me a lot of things, like what to do and what not to do. I learned so much from her."
The album was favourably received but wasn't able to convert that interest into big record sales but it did alert other, bigger, record labels to Donna's talent. "After Make It Last Forever came out there was a major record company that wanted to pick me up," reveals the singer, but she didn't succumb to their advances. "With Greg Carmichael, it was like a family, so I just stayed there."
But she didn't make another album for Red Greg, and the label proved a short-lived venture. Eventually, she and her producers went their separate ways and in 1981, she joined another indie, Obago Records, recording the 12-inch dance single, 'You Should Have Told Me.' It was a strong tune with an infectious chorus and a hint of Chic in its DNA but didn't make enough noise to trouble the charts. "That was written by Philip Thomas from Crown Heights Affair," says Donna. "It was really a great song." She recorded other tunes for the label - "We had several songs in the can," says Donna - but they didn't come out. The reason? "I'll just say politics and leave it like that," laughs the singer.
After that, solo opportunities seemed to evaporate, though as the '80s became the '90s, Donna continued to work as a background singer, her clients ranging from cutting edge rappers (including Big Daddy Kane and Salt-N-Pepa) to stars of inspirational music (Be Be & Ce Ce Winans and Vanessa Bell Armstrong) and R&B (Teddy Pendergrass). "There were a lot of artists I did vocals for," says Donna. "I'm thankful for it and had fun doing it."
In 2011, Donna returned with a dance single, 'Remember The Time,' that saw her collaborate with producer, Shannon Harris. "He approached me and wanted to do a single. I said okay, even though I don't take everybody upon their offers. My husband (Ulrich 'Rick' Hodge) wrote the song and played all the instruments. I went in and did it and it turned out really well. It was a really nice single."
After that, in 2015, Donna had a cameo appearance on another 12-inch single: 'Dirty Talk' by Italian house music producer and DJ, I Robots (aka Gianluca Pandullo). Now, with the reissue last month of 'Make It Last Forever,' Donna's aiming to capitalise on the attention she's currently receiving. "I'm in the studio right now," she reveals. "So once we have full production and I figure out what I want for the cover, we'll release it. But it takes a lot of work and doesn't happen overnight. It's a combination of the Donna McGhee which you know because I do have a signature sound and a more mature Donna McGhee."
Donna toured the UK with the Fatback Band in the mid-'70s and would love to return. "I have never myself brought my show to the UK," she says, "so I'm hoping that some promoters will get together and I'll come out there and we will dance the night away."
Donna McGhee's disco classic 'Make It Last Forever' is out now via We Want Sounds