Before we get on with today's story, let me just say this: next week we'll be presenting Disco hits from various artists. If you want to hear any song in particular (from the ones not already presented), write the name of the song in today's comments and I will dedicate it to you next week. I already had a number of songs that where suggested/requested by the good friends of this blog, Alan and the Record Man, so these will be dedicated to them. Also, if somebody else has already asked for your favorite song, don't fret: I can definitely dedicate a song to more than one person.
After our prologue, time for the introduction of today's subject. It's a low-profile man who, however, is responsible for some of the biggest hits of the 1970s and 80s, in rock, disco, and pop.
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 led 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. So, let's begin from the beginning:
Daniel Earl Hartman (December 8, 1950 – March 22, 1994) was born near Pennsylvania's capital, Harrisburg, in West Hanover Township, Dauphin County. He was a child prodigy who couldn’t pick up an instrument without mastering it. He joined his first band, The Legends, at the age of 13. His brother Dave was also a member of the band. He played keyboards and wrote much of the band's music, but despite the release of a number of recordings, none turned out to be hits.
He subsequently spent a period of time backing the Johnny Winter Band. He then joined the Edgar Winter Group (Edgar Winter was Johnny Winter's younger brother), where he played bass, wrote or co-wrote many of their songs, and sang on three of their albums.
This is the Edgar Winter Group and their biggest hit, the rock classic called Frankenstein. Hartman is the young guy in a dark striped top playing bass guitar:
Their follow-up hit, another rock classic called Free Ride, was written by Hartman, who also takes on lead vocal duties:
The ballad Autumn, another Hartman composition, was a regional radio hit in New England:
Upon launching a solo career in 1976, he released a promotional album titled Who Is Dan Hartman and Why Is Everyone Saying Wonderful Things About Him? It was a compilation disc including songs from Johnny Winter and the Edgar Winter Group. His second release, Images, was his first true album and featured ex-Edgar Winter Group members Edgar Winter, Ronnie Montrose and Rick Derringer and guests Clarence Clemons and Randy Brecker. Here are some songs from it:
My Love is a luscious pop tune that should have charted:
If Only I Were Stronger, resplendent in Tom Strohman flutes and heavy keyboards, is a blue-eyed Sound of Philadelphia song:
Ronnie Montrose adds his guitar to the driving The Party's in the Back Room. The Cat Scratch Fever riff of The Party's in the Backroom beat Ted Nugent by a year on this 1976 outing:
From October 21 until November 5, 1977, blues legend Muddy Waters used Hartman's recording studio in Westport, Connecticut. Hartman ran the recording board for the sessions, produced by Johnny Winter, which created the album I'm Ready. Among the featured songs was I'm Your Hoochie Coochie Man:
Then, just like that, Hartman crossed over to Disco music. The album was called Instant Replay (1978). Hartman sculpted his Disco breakthrough with the same intricacy as Seymour Chwast's phantasmagoric album cover, but his fondness for real live percussion, room ambiances, and endless good-time monkeyshines set the finished work apart from the chilling and provocative flesh-against-machine conundrums posed by Donna Summer's work with Giorgio Moroder.
The title track was an instant Disco classic. A top 10 hit in the UK and New Zealand, and a top 30 hit in the US, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, it was naturally a #1 hit on the US Dance chart:
It was remade in 1990 by the UK pop duo, Yell!, and it reached #10 on the UK Singles Chart:
Dan's unapologetic love of show tunes with top-hat-and-a-cane swagger shines through the 14-minute-plus Countdown/This Is It, a #18 hit in the UK:
Many Rock critics and fans regarded Hartman as a traitor to the religion of Rock. He had this to say about it:
"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 all] elements that I strive for in my music today."
The title track of his 1979 album, Relight My Fire, is for many both his magnum opus and the apex anthem of the entire era of Disco history as a pop music phenomenon. 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.
Hartman at the time wasn’t on a Disco label. In fact he was on Blue Sky Records, the label’s sole Disco act, and the lack of competition between Blue Sky and Salsoul (Loleatta Holloway's record label) as business entities almost certainly smoothed the wheels for a unique deal: 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.
The song topped the US Dance chart for 6 weeks and was a top 10 hit in Belgium and the Netherlands. Needless to say, it should have been much bigger. But Disco was beginning to not be fashionable (the ultimately racist "Disco sucks" movement) and the song's fortunes suffered for it:
Still, you can't keep a good song down. South African Disco group, Costa Anadiotis' Cafe Society, had a hit with it in 1984:
Then, in 1993, the reigning British boy band at the time, Take That, teamed with a legendary singer from the 1960s, Lulu, and took the song to #1 in the UK - and to the top 20 in most of the rest of Europe:
Hands Down trails off with Stevie Wonder and Edgar Winter trading fours on harmonica and sax respectively - an inspired collaboration that could have run for a few minutes more:
Just for Fun, almost a one-man show, contrasts a muscular, syncopated hook to the insouciance of the lyric:
The finale, Free Ride, retools a hit Hartman originally wrote and sung for Edgar Winter, transferring the choogle of the older version's rhythm guitar to the rhythm section for a seemingly-simple discofication displaying the hand of a master craftsman:
Remember the deal they made so that Loleatta Holloway would appear in Relight My Fire? The deal was a song: 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.
In 1989, a friend in London cheekily told Dan that he'd just heard a record he thought Hartman would like. He sent the record to Dan in Connecticut. The next day, the friend called to ask, "So what do you think?" Dan's response was: "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, #1 in the UK - and a top 10 hit in most of the rest of Europe; no clearances had been sought. Loleatta famously sued the producers; less famously, Hartman's legal team also swung into action.
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 the sole author of Love Sensation). The same was true of Good Vibrations by Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch.
Following the success of Hartman's two disco-orientated albums, as well as their singles, Hartman changed musical direction with the release of It Hurts to Be in Love (1981). The album which moved away from the disco scene with a more melodic pop-rock sound, with country music-like tones. Hartman returned to the musical style that was first heard on his Images album from 1976. Although the album contained a commercial, radio-friendly sound, it was not a success and took Hartman's solo career further away from the limelight. It failed to chart in America. Despite this, two of the three singles from the album saw some chart action.
The leading single It Hurts to Be in Love was a cover of a US Top Ten hit for Gene Pitney in 1964. The single peaked at #72 on the Billboard Hot 100, and #48 on the US Dance chart:
The second single, Heaven in Your Arms, peaked at #86 on the Billboard Hot 100:
Hartman wasn't ready to give up just yet. I Can Dream About You, the only worthwhile thing to come out of the film Streets Of Fire except for Diane Lane, became a smash hit and one of the most recognizable hits of the 1980s. But how did it come about? In Hartman's own words:
"Jimmy (Iovine) and I have known each other for years. He worked on the Edgar Winter Group's Shock Treatment album as assistant engineer for Shelly Yakus, and we stayed in touch over the years. One time I was in California and he was producing Stevie Nicks' Wild Heart in the same studio I was working in. I saw him in the hallway and he told me he was working on the Streets of Fire soundtrack and he'd like me to submit something. I had a tape of I Can Dream About You sitting around the studio as a demo. I sent it to him and he loved it. The version on the record is mostly my demo version, even though the original demo was much more electronic-sounding. The electronic drums at the beginning are there for the whole track. Jimmy added a real drummer, a real bass player, and a real guitar player. He gave it a more human rock element to complement my electronic dance element. It's got the best of both worlds."
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 then 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 US top 10, 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!'" said actor Mykelti Williamson, one of the actors in the video. "It was amazing. Dan Hartman was so upset, he wanted people to know it was him singing, not Stoney." This is the second video:
Although in the video, Dan is flirting with a woman, the people closest to him knew that in truth Hartman was gay, albeit a closeted one, deeply, fiercely private about his life. At around this time, he began collaborating in songwriting with fellow musician Charlie Midnight; Midnight has this to say about the official start of their collaboration: "Dan and I had been writing together for a short while when he came to my apartment on 7th Street. We had not as yet committed to each other as writing partners but we were instantly and obviously simpatico. He entered my tiny one-bedroom flat on the third floor of a walk-up building, looking very serious. He sat down on the couch and without much ado asked if I was interested in being writing partners with him. I answered, with less ado, in the affirmative. Then he said, "but I want to let you know that I'm gay." I laughed and said, "my record just bombed and I'm working the graveyard shift as a legal proofreader."
Hartman 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. Let's hear what Charlie Midnight has to say about it:
"My wife Susanna was pregnant with our daughter, Shantie, and we were having a baby shower at The House Of Music in New Jersey where I was producing a band. Dan showed up a little late which was his wont to do and so I thought nothing of it. He seemed out of sorts and I inquired as to how he was feeling. 'It hasn't been a great day but I am happy to be here,' was his reply. And, as always, he was the life of the party. Years later, when I visited him at the hospital, he told me that just hours before his arrival at the baby shower he had learned that he was infected with AIDS." Since Shantie appears to have been born in 1990 (it took a bit of sleuthing to find the date), Hartman probably learned that he was HIV positive in 1989.
Anyway, back to his music. Dan's next single off the I Can Dream About You album was the anthemic We Are the Young. There's an interesting story behind this song as well. Cue to Charlie Midnight:
"In the early stages of our partnership, Dan was contacted by the music supervisor for a film called Breakin'. He wanted Dan to write a song for the main dance sequence. Breakdancing and the music that accompanied it were about to become popular and this film was the first to try and take advantage of its burgeoning popularity. Dan was wary of doing it because it was a fairly low budget film and he questioned its chances for success. I, however, was anxious to do it for the synchronization fee. It was almost noon and Dan said, "if you have a lyric by 5 today, I'll write the music." I completed a lyric before 5 for We Are the Young and the music supervisor loved it. The dance sequence was cut to the song with Dan as the artist and everyone was happy. Then Jimmy Iovine, who was producing Dan's solo album, heard the song and wanted it for Dan's album as the first single. Dan withdrew the song amidst much furor. The dance number had already been cut to the song and withdrawing it was a big problem. As a result, we wrote another song called Heart Of The Beat. Dan did not want to be the artist on this song and so we created a faux group called '3V' which was, in fact, Dan and me. The film was a success and the album was even more successful, selling over 3 million copies. '3V' was asked to perform at a Spring Break concert on the beach in Florida. It was a blast. In the end, Heart Of the Beat was not used as the main song but instead, a song sung by Ollie and Jerry called There's No Stoppin' Us replaced We Are The Young, and, powered by the momentum of the film, hit the top of the charts. We Are The Young peaked at #25." Here it is:
Second Nature, the third single from this album, another Hartman-Midnight composition, peaked at the lower reaches of the US Top 40:
His follow-up album was called White Boy and was to be released in 1986. Let's give the mic, once more, to Charlie Midnight:
"The White Boy album was a result of Dan's continuing desire to create an edgier recording that would signify an evolution in his career as an artist. There were points that he wanted to express both musically and lyrically that were considered, by the record company, to be outside the box for an artist like Dan. Although the nabobs at the label conceded that the songs were good, they did not feel that the material suited Dan and his "image." As a result, the album, with wonderful songs like Age of Simulation and The War Is Over was not released."
Waiting to See You was supposed to be the album's opening track. It found its way to the soundtrack of Ruthless People:
In The Heat Of The Night was another track from the unreleased album:
... And so was Circle of Light:
Meanwhile, Dan was writing songs for films and writing for/producing other artists. We've just heard his song from Ruthless People. Get Outta Town appeared on Fletch:
... While The Love You Take (with Denise Lopez) was found on Scrooged:
He wrote and produced James Brown's big comeback hit, Living In America, from the soundtrack of Rocky IV. When they were in the studio recording James Brown's vocal for Living In America, Dan wanted him to end the song with a hearty "I feel good." With some trepidation, Dan made the request and with complete class and understanding, Mr. Brown obliged. One take and we had a classic James Brown moment.
Joe Cocker's 1987 album, Unchain My Heart, was co-produced by Hartman and Midnight. Here is the famous title track:
... And this is a song from the same album that the duo actually co-wrote. It's called A Woman Loves a Man:
In 1989, he co-produced Tina Turner's Foreign Affair. One of the album's tracks, Not Enough Romance, was also his composition:
Also in 1989, he co-wrote and co-produced Holly Johnson's Atomic City, a top 20 hit in much of Europe:
Hartman's next studio album appeared in 1989 as well, was called New Green Clear Blue and tackled yet another genre, New Age music. From this album, this is Hope of No End:
... And this is Beautiful Mist:
In 1990, he co-wrote with longtime collaborator Charlie Midnight 9.95 for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Movie. It was performed by Spunkadelic:
He also produced Dusty Springfield's Born This Way:
Hartman died on March 22, 1994, at his Westport, Connecticut, home of an AIDS-related brain tumor. His remains were cremated. At the time of his death, his music was enjoying a revival of sorts: a cover version of Relight My Fire became a British number-one hit for Take That and Lulu. Sales of Hartman's solo recordings, group efforts, production, songwriting and compilation inclusions exceed 50 million records worldwide.
Keep the Fire Burnin' was released posthumously in 1994. The album is essentially a compilation featuring remixes of earlier hits and previously unreleased material. Two previously unreleased tracks were released as singles; the title track was a duet with his old friend Loleatta Holloway:
His last single was The Love in Your Eyes:
In his will, Dan created the Dan Hartman Arts and Music Foundation and appointed Charlie Midnight as the sole Trustee. Today the foundation, in the name of Dan Hartman, supports the education of talented young people in the arts.