Soul Train History Book Presents: Johnnie Taylor and the Queen of Disco, Donna Summer

On April 10, 1976, episode # 176 of Soul Train showcased a legend with a huge hit and a newcomer and future legend with a likewise big hit. Indeed, this classic episode featured two of the biggest disco hits of all time.

Soul veteran Johnnie Taylor, who was originally with the Stax Records label with hits such as “Who’s Makin’ Love” and “Jody Got Your Girl and Gone,” moved to the Columbia Records label in 1975, and the result yielded mega-success for the singer.

Taylor’s first album with Columbia, Eargasm (titled so because of the effect his music has on music listeners, according to the album cover), was highly successful, going gold and becoming his first top ten pop album, peaking at number five. It reached number one on the soul charts for two weeks in April 1976, eclipsing Rufus’ Rufus featuring Chaka Khan.

The album’s success came on the heels of its first single, a mid-tempo cut entitled “Disco Lady,” released at the height of the disco phenomenon. Ironically, the song is not a disco record per se; the music did not include the instrumentation and melody common with most disco records at that time. It had a laid back, sort of bluesy groove which was anchored by Taylor’s deep soulful vocals. The fact that this song was about a woman’s non-stop dancing at a discotheque is what helped make the song extremely popular among disco patrons and record buyers alike, as well as radio stations across the country.

Also of note: Taylor was not a disco artist, as some thought at the time of “Disco Lady’s” popularity, but a soul artist singing a song about disco.

After the single’s release in January 1976, it went to number one for six weeks on the soul charts from March to April and number one for four weeks on the pop charts in April. The single also had the distinction of being the first single ever certified platinum by the Record Industry Association of America (RIAA) and became the top selling single of 1976.

At the height of “Disco Lady”‘s popularity, Taylor made numerous appearances on all of the popular talk and variety shows. However, his fourth appearance on Soul Train was among the most memorable of them all.

Taylor promoted three tracks from his Eargasm album. The first was the slow cooking mid-tempo groove “Somebody’s Gettin’ It,” which later became the follow-up single to “Disco Lady,” peaking at number five on the Soul charts and number 33 on the Pop charts in the summer of 1976.

But it was “Disco Lady” that generated the most excitement among the Soul Train dancers.

Before his performance, host Don Cornelius presented Taylor with a gold record for “Disco Lady” (it would turn platinum later in the year). During his performance, the dancers shrieked and yelped–especially when he sang the line “girl you ought to be on TV on Soul Train,” which sent the dancers into a frenzy. Cornelius was highly pleased with the plug for Soul Train on the record. (When Taylor performed “Disco Lady” on American Bandstand, the dancers on the show also screamed and yelled when he sang the line about Soul Train, which would later be edited out when the song was played during its dance segments)

The last number Taylor performed was the bluesy track “Running Out Of Lies.” His promotion of Eargasm on Soul Train made it one of the biggest selling albums of that year.

Taylor performed “Disco Lady” again on Soul Train on the first episode of the 1976-1977 season, and he would go on to appear five more times on the show with his last appearance being in 1986.

The enduring popularity of “Disco Lady” was evident when he recorded a new version of the track in 1998 entitling it “Disco Lady 2000.” Taylor passed away in 2000, but he will not only be remembered for this one hit single, but the mark he left on the soul music world at large.

The other guest on this episode was Donna Summer, the most popular artist of the disco era, earning the title “Queen of Disco.” During Cornelius’ introduction of Summer, he said, “She will long be remembered as one of the most important artists of 1976 primarily as a result of a sensational single and album on the Casablanca label entitled ‘Love To Love You Baby.’ Her name is Donna Summer!”

Summer performed the steamy and sensual “Love to Love You Baby,” with the studio dimly lit to fit the proper atmosphere and mood for this seductive song with its relentless throbbing beat. Summer’s moans and orgasmic, whispery Marilyn Monroe-sounding singing style generated excitement among the Soul Train dancers. (The album track was 16 minutes and 50 seconds long and took over all of side one of the Love to Love You Baby album. It was edited to about three minutes for the single release.) This record was huge, peaking at number three on the soul charts in February 1976 and number two for two weeks on the pop charts, was certified gold and was a huge hit in discos around the world just like “Disco Lady.”

Later, Summer performed her current single “Could It Be Magic,” taken from her next album A Love Trilogy. This up-tempo disco track showcased more of Summer’s actual singing voice (and also featured the moans previously featured in “Love to Love You Baby”). The single reached #21 on the soul charts and  #52 on the pop charts.

During Cornelius’ interview with Summer, he mentioned how Summer was a popular recording artist in Europe, where she said she lived for eight years, and had albums go gold in Belgium and Holland along with a silver record in France. Cornelius asked, “What made you decide to do a song like ‘Love to Love You Baby?” Summer responded, “The urge!” That response elicited approving howls from the Soul Train dancers, to which Cornelius quipped, “These kids are quicker than I am!”

Summer would go on to appear on Soul Train two more times, later in 1976 to perform two tracks from her Four Seasons Of Love album and for the last time in 1984 to do two tracks from her album Cats Without Claws. Summer ruled the late seventies, having numerous hit albums and singles such as “Bad Girls,” “Hot Stuff” and “Last Dance.” She even appeared in the movie Thank God It’s Friday in 1978, playing a character who wants to break it big in the music business. Sadly, Summer passed away on May 17, 2012, but the impact and legacy she left on the music industry will never be forgotten. She will always be the undisputed “Queen of Disco.”

A bit of trivia: The Soul Train Scramble Board solution on this episode was . . . Time’s up! Johnnie Taylor! Didn’t get it? Oh well. No hair care products for you.

–Stephen McMillian

In addition to being a journalist, Stephen McMillian is also developing projects within the entertainment industry. 

One Comment

  1. John August says:

    Donna Summer, Electrified Soul train with Spring Affair’ You would have had to be there to see all the Children literally bring It, dancing’

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