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The Stories Behind Donna Summer's Biggest Hits

© JONAS CUNHA/dpa/Corbis

Disco Queen Donna Summer has passed away after a battle with lung cancer at age 63. Even though her name is always automatically entwined with disco, it was a sobriquet that she was never fully comfortable with. And rightfully so; unlike so many studio-manufactured singers of that era, Summer possessed a pure, sparkling mezzo-soprano voice and felt that she performed her best on ballads and show tunes. Here are a few stories behind some of her biggest hits.

"Love to Love You Baby"

Her first international hit is remembered mainly because Summer’s vocals were reminiscent of Meg Ryan’s restaurant scene in When Harry Met Sally. After touring Europe with a road company of Hair, Summer ended up in Germany where she found steady employment as a background vocalist at Musicland Studios in Munich. Producer Giorgio Moroder and his assistant Pete Bellotte were recording a jam session with some studio musicians in 1975 when suddenly a very infectious four-on-the-floor bass drum rhythm coupled with a unique hi-hat pattern emerged. The pair wrote “Love to Love You Baby” around that rhythm and hired Summer to perform the overtly sexual vocals. Summer stated at the time that she was so embarrassed at the moans she was encouraged to create, she asked for the studio lights to be dimmed so she couldn’t see anyone in the booth.

Neil Bogart, the head of Casablanca Records in the US, received a demo tape of the song and excitedly phoned Moroder a few weeks later raving about it; he’d played it at a party at his home and his coked-up guests proceeded to get naked and amorous and kept requesting that he play the song over and over. So his brainstorm was to release an extended 16 minute long version of the song that filled up one whole album side. Moroder was skeptical but complied and the Love to Love You Baby album sold 400,000 copies in six weeks.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4JUnwrbU6Wg&feature=related

"I Feel Love"

No one involved in creating “I Feel Love” back in 1977 had an inkling that it would be groundbreaking, that 20-plus years later it would be referred to as the first “house” song, or that the synthesized beat would spark an entire new genre of music called “electronica.” At the time he composed the melody, Giorgio Moroder simply envisioned the song as part three of a musical trilogy, a journey through time – the two songs preceding it on Summer’s I Remember Yesterday album were in the style of Motown and disco, representing the past and present of popular music respectively.

Having all the instruments created on a synthesizer for “I Feel Love” was intended to present the music of the future. A studio engineer named Robbie Wedel was an inveterate tinkerer and had discovered a way to program four different Moog synthesizers to simulate the different instruments while staying in perfect sync. Even Robert Moog himself had to ask Wedel how it was done. Donna Summer and Pete Bellotte wrote the lyrics and when Summer’s sweeping vocals were placed on top of Moroder’s ethereal, hypnotic synthesized beat and instrumentation, the result was an immediate smash. Even today professional DJs keep this 35-year-old hit on their playlists because it is a guaranteed crowd pleaser.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k8TBmeK9Abg

"Hot Stuff"

Three years before Michael Jackson had Eddie van Halen add a smokin’ guitar riff onto “Beat It,” Donna Summer combined dance music and rock and roll with her 1979 smash “Hot Stuff.” Doobie Brothers guitarist Skunk Baxter played the driving riff that helped Summer to become the first female to win a Grammy for Best Female Rock Vocal Performance. Fresh off of a Doobies tour, Baxter was rife with ideas when he was hired for the “Hot Stuff” session. He played four guitar solos (using a used Burns guitar he’d bought for $20), eight rhythm parts, and two synthesizer parts in four hours. The resulting tune hit number one and remains the most-played song of Donna Summer’s catalog.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XtUoInkZScM&feature=related

"She Works Hard for the Money"

Summer’s biggest hit of the 1980s was inspired by (according to her) a real-life incident. When she took a bathroom break while dining at LA’s famed celebrity bistro Chasen’s she startled the ladies’ room attendant who’d fallen asleep in her chair. The woman, Onetta Johnson, apologized for being caught napping on the job and explained to Summer that she had a full-time job during the day was just plain exhausted. Summer thought to herself “she works hard for her money” and jotted down the name “Onetta” on a piece of paper when she returned to her table. The video filmed to accompany the song garnered Summer an MTV VMA nomination, the first by an African-American woman.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1TKQcWEXSKU

The Star-Spangled Banner

No particular story behind this performance, other than to illustrate the amazing power and range of Donna Summer’s voice as she sang the National Anthem live, a capella, not miming to a pre-recorded track, just the way Nature and Francis Scott Key intended.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o_7vRg14plA

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U.S. Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Matthew Henson, the Arctic Explorer Who Stood on Top of the World
U.S. Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
U.S. Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The year was 1909—roughly three centuries after the Age of Discovery ended and five decades prior to the Space Race. For explorers of the period, the North Pole represented one of the last untrodden frontiers still up for grabs. Robert Peary ventured into the tundra in February of that year, hoping to beat his competitors to the spot. Upon returning to the U.S., Peary was celebrated as the first man to reach world’s northernmost point, but it was his assistant, an African-American man named Matthew Henson, who many experts now believe deserves the distinction.

Henson was born in Charles County, Maryland on August 8, 1866, a year after the end of the Civil War. His parents—both freeborn sharecroppers—died before they had a chance to see him grow up. Henson found himself orphaned at age 11 and under the care of relatives. With nothing tying him to his home in Washington D.C., at age 13 he set out on his own, trekking 40 miles to Baltimore mostly on foot.

He got his first taste of life on the open ocean as a cabin boy on the Baltimore-based vessel the Katie Hines. The work he did onboard consisted of humble tasks like peeling potatoes, but the ship’s skipper, Captain Childs, saw to it he received a first-class schooling in seamanship. At sea Henson was mentored in math, history, literature, and geography, and at port he was introduced to the cultures of places like Spain, France, North Africa, and China.

Following his voyages on the Katie Hines, Henson eventually returned to Washington D.C., where he accepted a job as a clerk at a hat shop. It was there that he crossed paths with the man who would shape his destiny. Robert Peary met Henson in 1887 as a U.S. Naval officer with fresh dreams of reaching the North Pole. When he entered the shop where Henson worked, looking to sell seal and walrus pelts from a recent expedition to Greenland, it immediately became clear the two were kindred spirits. Peary admired Henson’s experience and enthusiasm, so he hired him to join an upcoming surveying expedition to Nicaragua. Eager to see more of the world, the starry-eyed 21-year-old accepted.

On this trip Henson proved himself an invaluable aide. He used the skills he picked up at sea, like map-making, to help Peary and the crew navigate the Central American jungle over the next two years. At the end of their mission, Henson was among the first men Peary had in mind to accompany him on his next adventure.

After returning to the East Coast—specifically, Philadelphia—just long enough to start a new job as a Navy Yard messenger and marry his first wife, Eva Flint, Henson was preparing to set sail once again. This time the destination was the iced-over tip of Greenland. Robert Peary had grown obsessed with the idea of being the first person to reach the North Pole, and he wasn’t alone. Explorers from the U.S., Italy, and Norway were all clamoring to beat each other in the race to the top of the world.

The team’s initial trip to Greenland was the first of many expeditions into the unforgiving Arctic. With Henson at his side, Peary had a key advantage over his adversaries. Aside from serving as a blacksmith, carpenter, hunter, and dog trainer, Henson was one of the few Arctic explorers and the only member of Peary’s party who took the time to learn the Inuit language. He had a knack for building trust with the local people and quickly adapted to their ways of life. Robert Peary once said of his comrade: "He is a better dog driver and can handle a sledge better than any man living, except some of the best Esquimo [sic] hunters themselves."

It was this rapport with the Inuit and the habits borrowed from their lifestyle that helped Peary and Henson survive in the Arctic for so many years. During that time they seized tons of iron-rich meteorite (not without controversy), mapped Greenland’s ice cap in its entirety, and traveled deeper into the Arctic than any explorer had before them. Unfortunately, Henson’s success up north resulted in the failure of his marriage back home. He married his second wife, Lucy Ross, during a return visit in 1906, but his only son, Anauakaq, was born of an Inuit woman he met during his travels.

After 17 years spent intermittently in the Arctic, there was one goal Peary and Henson had yet to accomplish: setting foot on the North Pole. They launched what would be their eighth and final effort to reach the frozen finish line in the summer of 1908. With the icebreaking vessel the Roosevelt in their command, the crew reached Ellesmere Island at Canada’s northern edge in February 1909. It was the job of 20-odd men to station food and supplies along the route before returning to camp while a smaller group made the full trek to the Pole. That core team included Robert Peary, four Inuits named Ooqueah, Ootah, Egingwah, and Seegloo, and Matthew Henson. "Henson must go all the way," Peary reportedly said while planning the expedition. "I can’t make it there without him."

Matthew Henson (center) and four Inuit guides. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In the end, it fell on Henson to lead the party to their target. Peary was incapacitated with frostbitten feet for the final leg of the journey, and Henson filled in for him as he was towed along in a sled. The plan was to let Peary take over at the last minute so he could be the first man to stand at the spot that had occupied his dreams for decades. Unfortunately for him, the team overshot their journey. Not realizing their mistake until it was too late, Henson and two of the Inuit guides arrived at the Pole on April 6, 1909 with Peary still 45 minutes behind them.

When Peary finally caught up, Henson greeted him saying, "I think I'm the first man to sit on top of the world." This did not sit well with Peary. The two remained on strained terms for the duration of their trip. Henson later wrote: "From the time we knew we were at the Pole, Commander Peary scarcely spoke to me [...] It nearly broke my heart that he would rise in the morning and slip away on the homeward trail without rapping on the ice for me, as was the established custom." By the time the two of them made it back home, one of the most successful partnerships in the history of exploration had disintegrated.

The controversy over who deserved of title of first person to reach the North Pole wasn’t limited to the two men. After returning to the States, they learned that another American, Frederick Cook, claimed to have beat them to the pole a year earlier. The photographic evidence Cook used to back up his assertion was eventually discredited, and in 1911 a Congressional Inquiry led to the official recognition of Peary’s achievement. (Today, Peary's claim to have reached the North Pole is still disputed.)

Robert Peary’s legacy would be cemented in history books from that point forward, but due to his skin color, Matthew Henson’s contributions were largely written out of the story. For a time, he struggled to find enough work to support his family. But though he may not have received all the credit he deserved during his lifetime, his feats didn’t go unrecognized. In 1937, he was made an honorary member of the prestigious Explorers Club in New York City. In 1944, he was awarded a Congressional medal, and he was honored by Presidents Truman and Eisenhower during the 1950s. Henson spent the last chapters of his life working at the U.S. Customs Bureau in New York City.

Matthew Henson died on March 9, 1955 at 88 years old. His remains were initially buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, but he's since been laid to rest alongside Robert Peary in Arlington National Cemetery.

Weather Channel Meteorologist Dave Schwartz Dies at Age 63

Kids who want to take up professional sports look up to football players and baseball legends. A person who goes into teaching had that one teacher who deeply inspired them. Children are regularly exposed to doctors and nurses and soldiers and first responders who can spark in them an interest that could grow into a lifelong passion. But when you’re deeply in love with the world around you and the sky above you, who do you look up to? For many of us young weather geeks, one of those people was The Weather Channel’s Dave Schwartz, who died on July 30 at the age of 63 after battling three bouts of cancer over the last decade.

If you’ve watched The Weather Channel at any point over the past couple of decades, you’ve heard his friendly voice at least once. Dave Schwartz was one of the few television meteorologists who mastered the talent of commanding his time on camera by having a personal conversation with tens of thousands of people at once. You weren’t Dave Schwartz’s audience. You were his friend, and he didn’t just tell you the weather; every minute he spent in front of the camera was his opportunity to personally guide you through whatever weather events lie ahead.

Schwartz started appearing regularly on The Weather Channel in 1991, quickly becoming one of the most popular meteorologists to work for the network. Bailey Rogers, a communications specialist for The Weather Channel, recently detailed Schwartz’s rise to on-camera meteorologist during the early years of the network. He began working as an assistant in the newsroom in the mid-1980s—a job he got by insisting he’d clean the bathrooms for free if that’s what it took to work there—and made his way on camera after years of persistent effort. Rogers says his ultimately successful application letter was titled “10 reasons why Dave Schwartz should be the next on-camera meteorologist for The Weather Channel.”

Shortly after NBC/Comcast bought The Weather Channel in 2008, Schwartz was one of a handful of longtime on-camera meteorologists who were laid off in a shakeup that sought to send the network in a new direction. After years of viewer feedback—including a website called “Bring Back Dave Schwartz”—the network rehired him in the spring of 2014. When I briefly met Schwartz during a visit to their Atlanta headquarters a few months after his return, The Weather Channel’s president told me that bringing him back was one of the best decisions they’d ever made.

It’s easy to see why. If you’re not familiar with Dave Schwartz, a quick search on YouTube will bring up dozens of entertaining video clips from his years at the network, including one recently when he asked viewers to send him pizza at the studio for Pi Day on March 14. Much like his colleague Jim Cantore, Schwartz’s widespread appeal was his infectious love for the weather. While Cantore is energetically nerdy—remember his pure, unfiltered joy at experiencing thundersnow six times in one night?—Schwartz’s style was more subdued and laid back, but effective just the same. Always addressing you as his friend, he could seamlessly weave forecasts, facts, and humor together to keep you informed and entertained like few others can accomplish.

Schwartz’s smooth presentation style did more than just attract viewers. He helped attract people to the field of meteorology itself. Upon news of his death, meteorologists and weather geeks flooded social media with condolences and memories of what he meant to them watching him on television and working alongside him in person. It was a common sentiment to hear that he helped spark that love of weather in someone whose passion for it is as strong as ever today. Watching him on television as a child helped me maintain my passion for weather even when other kids made fun of me for it. I partially credit him for my being a weather geek today, and so many others out there can say the same. Both the weather world and the world itself are better places today because of Dave Schwartz.

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