R.I.P. Chuck Brown and Donna Summer or, 1979 Forever

When you mourn an artist who helped make your life better, it is inexorably a selfish act.

So first and foremost, R.I.P. Chuck Brown and Donna Summer. I hope your family and close friends find comfort knowing how well you were loved.

For me (and doubtless many if not most of my peers) both of these artists are inextricably associated with 1979, a year I celebrated in detail here (keyword: Slush Puppie).

Obviously as I grew older and learned more about music, and culture and history, I understood that Chuck Brown was not just a local hero, he was an industry unto himself. Now that he has gone to that great big Go-Go in the sky, I have no other option than to to celebrate the song that rocked many of our worlds circa 1979. Of course it still does and always will. (And, inevitably, there is a reason James Brown is called, amongst other things, The Godfather. It all begins and ends with him. You hear it here, and if there is anything wrong with that there was never nothing right.)

It’s possible, though unlikely, that you lived through the late ’70s and did not know who Chuck Brown was (my condolences), but if you were sentient during the late ’70s you knew who Donna Summer was. Period, end of story. Not until Michael Jackson a few years later was there an artist (much less a black artist) as ubiquitous as Donna Summer. Anytime I hear “Bad Girls” I’m back in 1979 and that is a very good place to be, with or without a slush puppie.

Yeah baby. That was the perfect song for a world that was still grappling with disco and what the Bee Gees had wrought (having once owned the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever functioning as a kind of eternal, existential aesthetic walk of shame, despite the redeeming value of “Disco Inferno” and the Tavares doing “More Than A Woman”. And, if pushed, a few of the Bee Gees songs as well. Damn it.)

Let’s break it down: this was pretty racy stuff, circa 1979, at least for mainstream radio. And this was all over the radio. For a nine year old straddling the line between young boy and adolescent (or between Kiss and The Beatles, before realizing the world could –and should– exist quite peacefully with both…and it does), this was not quite sexy but certainly not innocent. And I’m not talking about the lyrics, or even the music, necessarily. I’m talking about the groove, the feeling. It did what it had to do, on cultural and pop-culture levels, and it endures. That still sounds great. Dare I say: Disco is not dead?

Now, I can understand if you think I’m being nostalgic, even sentimental to a fault. Cherishing my memories of Donna Summer is one thing, but…Barbara Streisand? Yes. I can’t remember the last time I listened to this (but I’m glad I just had an excuse), although I certainly can remember the first times I heard it. Let’s name names. Many of my peers, at least the ones who, like me, went to Forest Edge, then Terraset, and eventually Langston Hughes (Panthers!), will remember Mr. Bryant. Spencer. He was so old school he was pre-alphabet. Afro: check. Rocking the ‘stache? Check. Working the gum like it was his job? Always. But aside from his inimitable voice and manner of speaking (straight street mixed with cool and, since this was the late ’70s I am allowed to say it, jive). He was at once intimidating, amusing and, in a way, inspiring. He did not just encourage us to be good, he demanded that we not be bad. I know Mark Seferian will remember Health class in 8th grade and the immortal promise he made on the first day of school: “You only get but one grade, A or F.” (No one said, isn’t that two grades?) If Mr. Bryant is around I hope he is well and I’d like to thank him for being himself.

And mostly, I’d like to thank him for playing music in gym class. Does anyone else remember that he would bring in the ancient school reel-to-reel tape player (big enough that he needed a TV tray to hold it) and play funk and soul music? He blared it. I distinctly remember hearing “She’s a Brick House” for the first time (circa ’77) at Forest Edge. By ’79, at Terraset, it was all Donna Summer, all the time. As far as I recall, none of us complained. And of all the songs I remember hearing as we played kickball or dodgeball, it was “Enough is Enough” and loving it. And him.

So I guess what I’m saying is that I’m sad to see Brown and Summer go, obviously. But I can –and will– appreciate the symmetry of them bustin’ loose from this mortal coil so close together, since they are so directy connected, culturally and for me, personally. Again, it’s inevitably a selfish act, but what else is an honest celebration than a sincere acknowledgment of happiness and gratitude? That is what this is, and all I have to do is listen, again, and it’s 1979. But it’s also today. And tomorrow.

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