RIP: Donna Summer, Chuck Brown, Belita Woods, Donald “Duck” Dunn, Charles “Skip” Pitts

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Posted May 17, 2012 by J Matthew Cobb in Features
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In a course of thirty days, the music world mourns the great losses of Donna Summer, Chuck Brown, Donald "Duck Dunn, Charles "Skip" Pitts and Belita Woods

It has not been a good year for 2012 for the memoriam list.

After the passings of Dick Clark, Levon Helm and Adam “MCA” Yauch, the heavy mourning within the music community lays in neutral as the announcements of disco legend Donna Summer and go-go king Chuck Brown are now added to this year’s growing list of departed musical icons.

Donna Summer’s timing into disco was perfect. She cradled the genre to popularity with her oozing vocal on “Love to Love You Baby” and spun a series of follow-ups with the same sexual appetite. By the time “Love to Love You Baby” was issued, which prove to be a groundbreaking smash out of the gate, disco crowds were now willing to relocate the moniker "Queen of Disco" from Gloria Gaynor to Donna Summer. But the gospel-trained singer proved to Casablanca Records’ president Neil Bogart that she was more than just a coy, lounge singer with beauty when she took the genre, to higher heights with inventive techno (“I Feel Love”), rock-fueled r&b (“Bad Girls,” “Hot Stuff”) and crossover magic (“She Works Hard for the Money”), as Munich-based producer Giorgio Moroder led the way. Even as disco peaked and started to billow, Summer’s stride didn’t wither. In 1979, she teamed up with Barbara Streisand on the Paul Jabara/Bruce Roberts composition, “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough),” which landed at number one pop. “MacArthur Park,” “Bad Girls” and “Hot Stuff” were also number one hit smashes.

The Eighties still slowed down her momentum, but didn’t stop her eagerness to reinvent herself and to record new music. She signed with Geffen Records, hoping to strike gold with her interest in New Wave and rock – borrowing from the burgeoning career of Pat Benatar. Moderate hits developed from that relationship. She later recruited Quincy Jones to producer her self-titled album Donna Summer, which spawned the Top Ten hit “Love Is In Control (Finger On the Trigger).” But it was 1983’s She Works Hard for the Money that helped reinvigorate her career, which contained the hit title cut (#3 pop). Her success continued into the ‘90’s, more so on the backs of UK fans. VH1 honored her with a TV concert spectacular titled Donna Summer – Love and More Encore, which produced the second highest ratings that year for the network. She continued to record music up to 2008, when she released the critically-acclaimed Crayons. Three singles on the album reached number one on the Billboard Dance Charts, proving the disco diva had not lost her edge. In 2010, she recorded “To Paris With Love,” which also rocketed to number on the dance charts. Later that year, she joined with record producer David Foster on his all-star album Hitman Returns: David Foster and Friends, where she sung with Seal on a medley of songs that included “Last Dance.”

TMZ first broke the report early this morning about her untimely passing, mentioning that the singer was diagnosed with lung cancer. Some sources claim that the singer contracted it by inhaling toxic particles after the 9/11 attack in New York City. She passed away at the age of 63 on May 17, 2012 in Florida.

On record, Donna Summer has won five Grammy Awards, twelve gold records, six American Music Awards and was nominated as an inductee in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame once in 2010, but was not chosen. She is survived by her husband and former Brooklyn Dreams singer Bruce Sudano, who recorded the hit single "Heaven Knows," with Summer in 1978.

In Twitterverse, stars are paying their tributes to Summer. Beyoncé Knowles, who also sports a bevy of club-friendly disco anthems in her catalog, tweeted, "RIP Donna Summer. Pls RT to show your condolences."

Go-Go maestro Chuck Brown, 75, passed away after a long bout with pneumonia on May 16, 2012 at Baltimore’s John Hopkins Hospital. His final diagnosis at the time of his death was of multiple organ failures, which including heart failure. Earlier in the month, rumors started to spread about Brown’s passing, which proved only to be a rumor, but the Washington, D.C. icon was fighting for his life, according to sources.

Brown’s career begins back in the 1960’s, playing guitar for Jerry Butler and Los Latinos, but his career elevates to popularity when he signed with Source Records, a small r&b and disco imprint handled by MCA. 1979’s Bustin’ Loose produced a number one r&b smash with its contagious title cut and putting him and his go-go band, The Soul Searchers, on the map of visibility. Go-go, a genre that fuses funk, Carribean influences and interactive call-and-responses, had very little shelf life in the world of popular r&b, despite E.U.’s fluke record, “Da Butt,” which catapulted to number one r&b after earning a place in Spike Lee’s 1986 film, School Daze.

In 2010, Brown earned his first Grammy nod with “Love,” a song that joined him with Jill Scott and bass legend Marcus Miller. He was nominated in the category or Best R&B Performance By a Duo or Group With Vocals.

At the time of his passing, Brown remained active in the Washington, D.C. area and was still on the marquee to perform at a number of shows, including the Summer Spirit Festival on Aug 4 with Erykah Badu, Common and Sharon Jones.

Others who are gone, but not forgotten:
Donald “Duck” Dunn, 70, was a unit member of the Booker T & the M.G.’s and played bass on hundreds of Stax and Atlantic hits. With the M.G’s, Dunn supplied the funky bass lines to Otis Redding’s “Respect,” Albert King’s “Born Under a Bad Sign” and went on to record behind acts like Rod Stewart, Eric Clapton, Stevie Nicks, Levin Helm, Tom Petty, Neil Young, Steely Dan and Muddy Waters. He is also remembered for joining the Blues Brothers ensemble – designed by SNL favorites Dan Aykroyd and Jon Belushi – in the 1980 hit film. Dunn passed away in Tokyo, Japan in his sleep after finishing up his fifth double show at the Blue Note Japan with Booker T. Jones, Eddie Floyd and the living members of M.G.s. He passed away on May 13.

Another Stax legend, Charles “Skip” Pitts, 65, was the backbone of Isaac Hayes’s proto-disco, classic, “Theme from Shaft.” The soundtrack’s lead song – a number one pop hit – opened up the window of opportunity for funk evolution and ushered Hayes to superstardom. Pitts remained dedicated to Hayes’ albums throughout the course of the Seventies and acted as Hayes’ band guitarist and bandleader up to Hayes’ unfortunate passing in August 2008. He also continued for many of Stax’s acts, including Rufus Thomas, Albert King and The Soul Children. After Hayes’ death, Pitts joined up with retro soul band The Bo-Keys to record a new album of music (Got To Get Back) and faithfully toured with them until his passing. In his final years, Pitts’ work with the Bo-Keys opened up newer possibilities: He performed on Cyndi Lauper’s 2010 album Memphis Blues; he appeared with Isaac Hayes in the Samuel L. Jackson and Bernie Mack comedy film Soul Men; Got To Get Back was nominated for a Grammy for Best Traditional Blues Album. The unsung guitarist died of cancer in Memphis, Tennessee.

In 1977, Brainstorm singer Belita Woods rocked the mega disco floors with their irresistible dance anthem, “Lovin’ Is Really My Game.” It’s a song that Whitney Houston wanted to cover on what would have been her eight studio album. Narada Michael Walden had already cut the track at his Bay Area studio. Woods now joins Houston as one of the fallen angels of r&b in 2012. Signed to Clarence Avant’s Tabu label, the funk band Brainstorm – which featured Woods as their lead vocalist – catapulted their career with their debut album, Stormin’. Thanks to the hearty, gospel-natured beast of “Lovin’ Is Really My Game,” which was featured in the motion picture soundtrack of 54, the album endures as the band’s best-selling album. Other hits were extracted from future releases, particularly “On Our Way Home” and “Hot for You.” But the band slowly lost steam. Eventually, Woods would join up with George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic in 1992, and recorded and performed with Dr. Funkenstein up to her death.

Woods passed away at the age of 63 on May 14 of heart failure.


About the Author

J Matthew Cobb

Managing editor of HiFi Magazine


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