It was supposed to be the deal of the century, and in retrospect – if you count art rather than commerce – it was. It was a project bringing together the most talented songwriter of the ’70s with the most charismatic singer of the Disco era.
The deal should have made them the new Donna and Giorgio – the black Gospel vocalist and a Blue-Eyed Soul disciple, rewriting the American songbook with a Disco groove.
But it didn’t.
There’s a reason you haven’t heard the details behind this before – an all-star project released 36 years ago that gathered together Loleatta Holloway (the vocalist), Dan Hartman (the producer), plus Norman Harris and other leading lights of the Disco era. The fault lies not with the project, but with the waning Disco era itself. On its last legs as a commercial genre, the backlash was underway, and everyone who had an inkling of what was to come had begun to scatter for high ground.
Today, nobody suggests that “Donna and Giorgio” should take second place to “Loleatta and Dan” – but in some ways, I’m going to argue, they should. The argument should at least be made, but for a variety of reasons, it never has. For this brief collaboration created two of the most powerful records in music history – records whose DNA is embedded in the vitals of practically every dance music song to come thereafter.
Loleatta and Dan. But especially Dan. Tell me what you know about the man who wrote this song, Dan Hartman, and I will tell you a tale you will not possibly believe.
Much of his story, for reasons of a musical prejudice, if not a social one, has yet to be told.
Seven Degrees of Dan Hartman
Dan Hartman was one of the greatest songwriters of the 20th century and I bet you’ve never read this sentence before.
It contains a pretty big claim, but Dan Hartman was a pretty big deal.
I suspect that many have been intrigued by the man who wrote hits spanning such diverse (and mutually hostile) genres as Classic Rock, Disco, Pop and New Age. Most people like at least a couple of those, but few like them all, and decades of pop music prejudice have lead us to be suspicious of those who move so effortlessly between genres. It’s hard not to choke on the sheer enormity of Dan Hartman’s catalog – to wrap your arms around the hundreds of albums and probably thousands of individual songs he had a hand in. Like writing a history of a nation, there’s an uncomfortable feeling of leaving an essential piece of the puzzle out.
Dan Hartman worked with James Brown, Muddy Waters, Tina Turner and many more that I’m not going to mention here because I don’t want to choke or asphyxiate like the rest. Hartman was essentially the music industry’s Kevin Bacon: for two decades, you can connect practically any figure to any other figure, no matter how little they have in common, through a shared relationship with Dan Hartman.
Just reading the number of hits Hartman produced, wrote or performed – both commercial successes and in terms of tracks that have come to completely embody their genres – is exhausting. I won’t say he was the greatest Disco producer, the greatest Disco performer or anything like that. I don’t think he was. But I walked away from this convinced Dan Hartman was one of the greatest songwriters of his era. I can’t even comprehend how this statement could disputed. It’s just true.
Hartman died in 1994, of complications from an illness that even few friends knew he had: AIDS. His posthumous album, Keep The Fire Burnin’, was judged pitilessly “a strong case for the benefits of bandwagon jumping” by critics in SPIN, it’s creator accused of “attempting to milk Disco for some small change.” There were some tributes, but the man’s death mostly seems to have been an opportunity for some astonishingly mean-spirited criticism from writers that accused Hartman of either betraying his true calling or being entirely phony from the start.
And this after he had recently died of a tragic and, at the time, absolutely terrifying disease, at the age of just 43.
The attacks have abated, but only because Hartman’s celebrity has faded. Outside of being known as a professional hit maker of the kind that our era has mostly made obsolete, for writing catchy but crappy little tunes, not that much of Hartman’s career is taken seriously today. To understand the weirdly passionate attacks on Hartman after his death, you have to go back to his roots.
The Sell-out Is a Genius
Before Dan Hartman was a sell-out, he was a genius: stories still abound in the (unexpectedly large, though mostly underground) Hartman fan community of the child prodigy who couldn’t pick up an instrument without mastering it.
The secret wasn’t precociousness but persistence. An acquaintance recalls a young Hartman (a native of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania) sending out his demos constantly and receiving a matching rejection letter for each. This was a man with high ambition: when his older brother formed a band and invited his teenage sibling to join, they humbly named the group “The Legends.”
He kept at his correspondence and frequent trips to New York, however, until Rick Derringer (of “Hang on Sloopy” and the McCoys fame) connected him with rock musician Edgar Winter’s new project. Hartman played bass and keys for the Edgar Winter Group and wrote a number of the group’s songs, including a mainstay of AOR Classic Rock stations across America even today, a song that implores even haters of dadrock to “come on and take a free rideeeeee.”
“Free Ride” is the first song you know, but which you didn’t know was written by Dan Hartman. There will be many more to come.
But what most defined Dan Hartman – and would continue to define him – was an uncanny gift for musical mimicry. Many people write songs that span multiple genres. Some people (Jackson Brown comes to mind) even write individual songs that have lent themselves so well to interpretation that they’ve charted across multiple genres when performed by multiple artists. But few are capable of writing Top 10 songs in all of them.
This gift for mimicry (or shape-shifting) carried over to his own vocal style. Throughout his long solo career, no two Dan Hartman vocals really sound the same. It’s unsettling: the earthy but upbeat vocals from his Disco years don’t just sound “different” from his ’80s pop hits: he sounds like an entirely different vocalist. Years later, he would score a gig writing and producing for Tina Turner by recording a demo in which he – a very male and it should be noted a very white vocalist – imitated Tina’s smoky, Gospel-inspired voice with uncanny accuracy.
After the demise of the Edgar Winter Group, Dan produced albums for similar acts of the ’70s – .38 Special, Rick Derringer, Foghat and so on, and would continue to alternate between production gigs and solo projects for the rest of his life. Most of these sessions took place in a studio called The Schoolhouse. Considered something of a cross between Times Square and Fort Knox to Dan’s acquaintances, the Schoolhouse was a studio in a three floor building, all of which were wired up. “We have used almost every room in the house for different sounds,” Hartman told Rolling Stone in 1979. “The Schoolhouse is that room; it’s responsible for all those big-sounding guitars on Foghat’s Night Shift album – that really big sound Rock & Roll demands.”
A first solo album bombed, but Dan rebounded with the relentlessly saccharine and hook-laden single “Instant Replay.” Mixed by Tom Moulton, radio programmers around the country played the hell out of it, even while some of their DJs regarded the album of the same name with something as powerful as horror and visceral as disgust.
Dan Hartman – ’70s rock god – had gone Disco.
“I am amused by people who think I’ve made this big change,” Hartman told Billboard of the backlash against his new sound. He compared Disco to the “Motown pop sounds” he was raised on, which were “Disco of their day.” Dan mentioned Gloria Gaynor’s “(If You Want It) Do It Yourself” as an inspiration. “It had good melodies, good hooks, and a bright positive sound. [These are a]ll elements that I strive for in my music today.”
This is not a controversial statement today, in 2016, but for two decades, Disco was regarded as an awkward family photo to the Baby Boomers that dominated music journalism. The ’80s itself was nothing so much as a decade long hategasm against a musical style that today seems fantastic at best and harmless at its worst. That Disco grew out of R&B and Funk (and in many cases, across many years, was indistinguishable from them) seems so obvious that it’s hard for me to understand how people could see it any other way. But they did. And treason to rock, in 1976, was treason to good taste for most of the next 20 years.
It was this original sin that lead people to cheer on the death spiral of a man’s popularity and, more viciously, take potshots at him, even in obituaries when he was no longer around to defend himself.
According to some people, The Deal never happened. It even sounds like the kind of thing that makes for better Rock’n’Roll legend, like Dylan smoking up the Beatles or Robert Johnson calling down the devil to tune his guitar.
Yet The Deal must have taken place, for several people say so, and many others whose creative output was owned by rival record companies worked together across corporate lines, with their bosses’ acquiescence. Ambition was at the root of it for one party; perhaps an air of desperation for the others.
For Hartman it was ambition. He had written what he thought would be both his magnum opus and the apex anthem of the entire era of Disco history as a pop music phenomenon: “Relight My Fire.”
What most people know today as “Relight My Fire” is in fact two songs – an intro that foreshadows the coming of instrumental, bass-heavy House Music, “Vertigo”, and “Relight My Fire” proper.
This was typical Hartman: he didn’t invent the genre, and it could be argued he didn’t creatively push Disco forward much at all or expand its boundaries. But he came out with its prime specimen, a song so catchy that the history of Disco could never be written without reference to it.
At over 9 minutes, “Vertigo/Relight My Fire” (I’ve never played the two separately) was made for DJs by design. Hartman instinctively recognized that such a song, epic in scope – Disco’s answer to the operatic Rock of Led Zeppelin or Queen – would need more than just his own voice. A section of “Relight My Fire” beginning with the lyric “Strong enough to walk on through the night” seemed custom-built for the tough-sounding voice of a diva like Gloria Gaynor or, perhaps, Loleatta Holloway.
Loleatta was at the time working on her fourth and final album for Gold Mind, a subsidiary of Salsoul. The album didn’t have a name, and was, like most albums by vocalists then (and now) produced by a multitude of different personnel, both the in-house team at Salsoul and outside producers.
Hartman at the time wasn’t on a Disco label. In fact he was on Blue Sky Records, a subsidiary of Columbia created by a man named Steve Paul exclusively to release albums by acts that Paul managed. To call it eclectic is putting it mildly; “chaotic” would be a better term. Among Hartman’s label mates were legendary bluesman Muddy Waters, Edgar and Johnny Winter and David Johansen (then still known primarily as the vocalist for proto-punk outfit The New York Dolls).
Hartman was the label’s sole Disco act, and the lack of competition between Blue Sky and Salsoul as business entities almost certainly smoothed the wheels for a unique deal – The Deal – struck between the two entities.
The Deal was as follows: Hartman agreed to write and produce a track for Loleatta’s next album for Salsoul/Gold Mind, courtesy of Blue Sky Records. In exchange Hartman would get Loleatta’s voice for his own “Relight My Fire,” courtesy of Salsoul.
That song written for Loleatta wound up being far and away the stand out track for her final album for Salsoul. It was in fact the title track, and the song that both she and the Disco era as a whole will be identified with forever: “Love Sensation,” produced and written by Dan Hartman.
“Relight My Fire” and “Love Sensation” are two halves of the same coin. They share a great deal in common: both written by Dan Hartman, produced by Dan Hartman and, though “Relight My Fire” features Dan’s own vocal for the majority of the song, it was a defining characteristic of her powerful presence that any track Loleatta Holloway sang with became, inevitably, a “Loleatta Holloway song.” Not that it was easy: Holloway later claimed that she sang the song 30 times for Hartman, as he was literally exhausting her vocal cords to get the tone of ragged perseverance that he wanted for his song.
The Salsoul Orchestra’s Norman Harris also featured prominently in both tracks; while Hartman, always the savant, played a dazzling array of instruments on “Relight My Fire,” Harris arranged the crucial horn and string sections that gave “Relight My Fire” it’s overwrought grandeur.
And yet the epic “Relight My Fire” is but a beginning, closed when “Love Sensation” was released a year later. On a purely artistic level, no other compositions managed to combine the orchestral artistry of Salsoul’s “soul with strings” with Loleatta’s streetwise, earthy sound – and tie it off with Hartman’s irresistible pop hooks.
Commercial Disco never got this good again.
In fairness, it didn’t have the chance.
While both singles topped the US Dance Charts, that was about all that happened: the albums didn’t move, the singles didn’t cross over to the pop charts and the major labels’ overexposure of Disco nearly destroyed the recorded music industry as a whole.
“Relight My Fire” and “Love Sensation”, intended to push Disco further into the mainstream, instead found themselves leading Disco’s death march over a cliff.
People are fond of blaming Chicago’s Disco Demolition Night as the symbolic spark that lit the powder keg, but the writing had been on the wall. “Between 1974 and 1977,” Nicky Siano once said, “any record with the word ‘DISCO’ on it would just sell… People started getting burnt and they got ripped off. And they stopped buying.” In 1979, for the first time in a decade, music sales as a whole declined. In fact, they cratered: down 11%. Thousands of employees (particularly at CBS) were thrown out of work.
“Blind panic” is a good way to describe the atmosphere in the industry.
“Relight My Fire” was being mixed when the worst of the reports were coming in and as record stores began returning millions of unsold Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers “Disco remixes” to distributors. It was released in late 1979; by the time “Love Sensation” hit the stores in 1980, industry accountants were following the trail of blood to the coat check of the discotheque.
Dan Hartman & The Era of Anti-Disco
As the 1970s progressed, Disco replaced Rock on the radio, and it’s not much of an exaggeration to say that this mostly meant substituting an older Dan Hartman production for a newer one.
But the same would be true when it was Disco’s time to die, too. Hartman retreated to a solo career that was strikingly anonymous even as it was successful – commercially, more successful than ever.
Dan Hartman survived Disco’s demise by hiding in plain sight – skipping unprofitable parts of his biography and hoping nobody asked about his horrible Disco crimes. They usually didn’t.
Hartman’s 1984 single “I Can Dream About You” has always been a notable curio from the ’80s, and not just for hitting the top 10 in the pop charts and making up for “Relight My Fire’s” lost promise. It was one of the first songs MTV broke through to the masses, showing cowed industry executives still reeling from Disco’s hangover the power of the video format for selling records.
It was also considered one of the first videos by black artists to break through on the deeply racist network. But except for the backing vocals, it wasn’t by a black artist at all. The video featured Stoney Jackson and two other black actors lip-synching Hartman’s voice against footage from a movie nobody saw. Hartman himself was nowhere to be found. Even today, some people who grew up in front of MTV in the ’80s are astonished to learn that “I Can Dream About You” was the work of a curly haired white songwriter from the Disco era rather than a black trio.
After the song hit the top 10 pop charts, Hartman starred in a new video for “I Can Dream About You.” Cast as a bartender in one of the storyline-driven videos that were fashionable at the time, Hartman actually lip-synchs his own voice being lip-synched by the three actors of the more popular version broadcast on a TV in a pub. It’s fairly surreal: Dan Hartman was a bit player in the success of a song written, produced and performed by Dan Hartman.
“People were stopping us on the streets, they’d see us in a shopping area street corner and they’d put the song on their radio and point at us and say, ‘I got your song!'” actor Mykelti Williamson, one of the actors, told The Golden Age of Music Video site. “It was amazing. Dan Hartman was so upset, he wanted people to know it was him singing, not Stoney.” According to Williamson, Hartman’s follow-up, “We Are The Young,” rushed another music video into production as a follow-up to try to capitalize “I Can Dream.”
“Dan was so upset that he insisted that they do another music video right away so people would know who Dan Hartman really was,” Williamson said. “But after that, his record sales died. I guess, you know, Stoney’s a really good looking guy. A lady killer. I guess when people found out that wasn’t Dan Hartman, they were like, ‘Shhh, please.’ I don’t know what happened to [Hartman’s] career after that.”
Make no mistake, “I Can Dream” is undeniably one of the catchiest songs of the decade and a monument to good commercial songwriting. But while it’s sometimes categorized as “Blue-Eyed Soul” (or was after the actual performer of the song was acknowledged) the single is, like much of what Hartman did in the ’80s, what you might characterize as something different entirely: “Anti-Disco.”
Anti-Disco was soulful but sanitized, easy on the ear and – above all – non-threatening. Nobody sweat in Anti-Disco unless they were wearing legwarmers and appropriately absorbent aerobic gear. It was tight, contained and heavily processed. Basslines were muted, the drums synthesized, and nobody was at any time in any danger of losing control.
Having been the master of Disco, Hartman was proficient in the creation of Anti-Disco as well. Among Dan’s Anti-Disco hits were numerous songs for chase scenes in modestly successful movies (such as “Get Out of Town” for Fletch. An almost comically surreal video was shot for this, featuring actor Chevy Chase entering a tent where Dan Hartman envisions scenes from the movie in a crystal ball.)
There were also anthems for wildly successful (and masterfully kitschy) movies, like “Living in America” by James Brown for Rocky IV. Hartman could seemingly disappear into the music, behind whole different personalities. His voice could be lip-synched by a black actor and no one would be any wiser. He could pen songs for icons and create a kind of send-up of their style, like writing the quintessential James Brown song that James Brown never wrote.
Dan Hartman survived Disco’s demise in large part by disappearing and donning disguises of a sort – hiding in plain sight, sometimes unintentionally as Stoney Jackson, but just as often by creative redirection, skipping unprofitable parts of his biography and hoping nobody asked about his horrible Disco crimes. They usually didn’t.
Right On Time
According to Hartman’s attorney Patrick McNamara in an interview on the amazingly obsessive danhartman.com fan page, in 1989 a friend in London cheekily told Dan that he’d just heard a record he thought Hartman would like. He overnighted the record to Dan in Connecticut.
“The next day,” McNamara said, “the friend calls and says, ‘So what do you think?’
“Dan’s response: ‘I think I wrote it.'”
This was “Ride on Time” by Black Box, an Italian production that sampled Loleatta’s vocal as well as the hook from “Love Sensation.” Apparently the producers were as surprised as anyone else that their track became a hit; no clearances had been sought. Loleatta famously sued the producers; less famously, Hartman’s legal team also swung into action.
The Italians had hired a model to lip-synch the sample of Holloway’s vocal from “Love Sensation”; they later issued a re-recording of the track with the vocals sung by Heather Small. Holloway reportedly received a financial settlement; Hartman for his part received “a good percentage” of that song, and his name appears as co-writer on all subsequent issues (Hartman had been sole author of “Love Sensation”). The same was true of “Good Vibrations” by Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch.
Dan Hartman and Loleatta Holloway were at the center of the brave new era of sampling. After nearly a decade in oblivion, “Love Sensation” was back in circulation, and would of course go on to become one of the most sampled records in music history.
Dan Hartman could still write hooks, play keys, work a console or manipulate his chameleon-like voice. Loleatta had her voice, and the voice that made her the Queen of Disco left her struggling to reinvent herself away from it.
Hartman came out of the era of Anti-Disco bruised but not broken. Life as a Disco refugee was far more devastating for Loleatta Holloway. When Disco died, she lost a career and her entire identity. Hartman, after all, could still write hooks, could still play keys, could still work a console, could manipulate his chameleon-like voice and songwriting skills to fit practically any style of music. Loleatta’s career was her voice; the voice that made her the Queen of Disco made her a pariah in the Anti-Disco culture.
After Salsoul imploded, Loleatta signed to Streetwise with a roster of artists (Colonel Abrams and Africa Bambaataa among them) that might have presented her some cover as she tried to reinvent herself. But it was but the first brief stop in a vagabond post-Disco career. After the death of her husband and manager Floyd Smith in 1984, she appeared to drift aimlessly, and might have vanished altogether if her voice (though not her person) hadn’t begun to appear on dozens of new records via sampling. She hardly felt honored; instead she felt “destroyed.”
“I thought I was gonna lose my mind,” she told Bill Brewster of DJHistory. “I almost had a nervous breakdown. I couldn’t talk about it without cryin’… Someone’s just taken something from you, right in front of your face.
“For years it destroyed me, it made me a person I don’t like and I’m not a bad person.”
“Music didn’t do anything for me,” she told Tim Lawrence, author of Love Saves The Day. “I would probably have did better staying in the Gospel and getting me a nine-to-five job. I probably would have been better off than trying to make a career out of this because my career was destroyed, starting with Black Box.”
Loleatta was paid for some of these records, though often only after legal proceedings and her name was often omitted. And though he frequented a number of seminal discotheques in New York, Hartman rarely worked on much that could be considered “dance” music during its revival. At the time that Disco was being reinvigorated as House, Hartman was working on, of all things, a New Age album.
Clear Blue Days
Years ago, I purchased a copy of an ambient album called New Green/Clear Blue from a shop on Clark Street on Chicago’s North Side. I wasn’t really into it – I had a couple of Mixmaster Morris tapes like any self-respecting raver, but like every other self-respecting raver, I was instantly drawn to anything that seemed related to ingesting psychedelics. I had no idea that the album’s creator had written Disco (much less the Disco songs, the ones a shithead raver might know), and nothing on it would suggest he had.
New Green/Clear Blue is completely instrumental, mostly beatless and, as Hartman explained in interviews and the liner notes, was supposed to do something to help the listener tap into his or her own subconscious.
“It is intended to be played at very low levels in a tranquil environment,” he said. “It’s a platform for the imagination.”
It was sometimes compared to music by Brian Eno, mostly by people with only a passing familiarity with music by Brian Eno. (Eno himself was dismissive of “New Age music” in general and music from Private Music, the label that released New Green/Clear Blue, in particular, once describing a cab ride with a Private sampler playing as “torture.”) New Green/Clear Blue was primarily distributed in Europe; outside of a few bemused interviews, it was hardly noticed. Such were the times that multiple interviews with Hartman discuss his work with Muddy Waters and James Brown; his Disco pedigree goes completely unmentioned and, in the spirit of the times, was probably still unmentionable.
How much the pop magician’s new obsession with music that “created a climate of social and political awareness” had to do with his own station in life is unclear. Hartman was deeply, fiercely private about his life – hardly surprising, considering that even Boy George had to tap dance around the issue of being a gay pop star at the same time Hartman’s “I Can Dream About You” was becoming an unexpected hit. Hartman was gay, but never out; and was equally private about revealing his positive HIV status when he contracted the disease sometime in the 1980s. For instance, he worked with Holly Johnson of Frankie Goes To Hollywood, who had been openly HIV positive since 1991; Hartman never discussed the issue with him. Later he would work with British vocalist Dusty Springfield as producer and co-writer of “Born This Way,” which was widely interpreted as an opaque reference to Springfield’s own sexuality (It’s not related in any way to Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” released 20 years later.)
In lieu of talking about Disco, interviews for New Green/Clear Blue were concerned with what seemed to be Hartman’s sudden preoccupation with the state of society and the world. He spoke about how the world was changing, moving faster; how Warhol’s fifteen minutes of fame had been compressed down to five; how “Beijing, crack, AIDS” and all of the world’s problems had made it clear to him the need for love and meaningful relationships. This was a very ’70s sort of solution to the problems of the world, but one Dan Hartman had come to believe in. That it was the solution of a man near death, nobody else knew at the time.
Whether it was the success of “Ride On Time” and “Good Vibrations” or Disco’s slow renewal in popular culture now that the ’80s had ended, it should hardly be surprising that he came together again with Loleatta Holloway in the final sessions of his life for his posthumous album, Keep The Fire Burning. The title track was a new piece, a duet with Holloway, which unfortunately failed to capture the magic of their earlier material, though a package of remixes, including one by Frankie Knuckles and featuring fine instrument work by Eric Kupper (and four others by Todd Terry) is absolutely essential.
It was this album – revisiting a past that had been deliberately omitted from the official biographies and the press junket of New Green/Clear Blue – that inspired the unusually cruel comments after Hartman’s death, questioning his integrity and his career as a cynical chameleon. And they are actually right – at least when you erase what has to be seen as Dan Hartman’s most vital contribution to music, which is what music critics did. Writers – especially Rock critics – still had little good to say about Disco in 1994. It wasn’t until 2004 that we even had a name for this brand of jock-sniffing honkey pride, which Kelefa Sanneh dubbed “rockism.” “Rockism means idolizing the authentic old legend (or underground hero),” Sanneh wrote, “while mocking the latest pop star; lionizing Punk while barely tolerating Disco; loving the live show and hating the music video; extolling the growling performer while hating the lip-syncher.”
Forgive them, for they knew only what their hero-worship of Lou Reed allowed them. But many did know. At Sound Factory Bar, a memorial was held with Frankie Knuckles playing; Nona Hendryx performed and Loleatta was also present. This was basically Dan’s constituency – the sole group that didn’t clap him on the back with one hand and push him away with the other.
In private, there were still warm embraces. EMI Publishing bought Hartman’s back catalog, which is an exceptionally high value property compared to how little name recognition he has these days. Flipping across the radio dial, one can find a Dan Hartman track or a song that samples it enough to move the cash register till in practically every format imaginable.
Public recognition, however, has been slow to follow. Dan’s most popular solo album was probably Instant Replay, which hasn’t aged well. “Relight My Fire” and “Love Sensation” is what’s left, what stands out and what remains. In the end, ironically enough, it’s all of the “Anti-Disco” made by Dan Hartman and other refugees from the ’70s that sounds horribly dated, kitschy, schmaltzy – everything Disco was accused of being at the time.
It just can’t compare. The moment when Loleatta’s voice comes into “Relight My Fire” is still one of the greatest get-off-your-ass-and-shake-it moments in music history. And it was made by Dan Hartman and Loleatta Holloway, for all of the frustration and bitterness it caused.