Donna Summer's 'I Feel Love' Joins National Recording Registry
The disco queen's ground-breaking techno hit joins work by Dolly Parton, Prince, The Grateful Dead and Edward R. Murrow on the list of recordings to be preserved as historical treasures.
Six days after her death, Donna Summer’s futuristic techno hit “I Feel Love” has been selected for induction into the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress.
Marking the 10th anniversary of the registry, Librarian of Congress James H. Billington on Wednesday unveiled his selection of Summer’s 1977 single and 24 other sound recordings to be preserved as cultural, artistic and/or historical treasures for generations.
Also among this year’s class of inductees are Dolly Parton’s autobiographical “Coat of Many Colors” from 1971; Prince and the Revolution’s soundtrack to Purple Rain; Leonard Bernstein’s debut performance with the New York Philharmonic in 1943; the 1912 “Come Down Ma Evenin’ Star,” the only surviving recording of Lillian Russell, one of the greatest stars of the American musical stage; a 1977 concert recording from The Grateful Dead; The Vince Guaraldi Trio's soundtrack to the TV perennial A Charlie Brown Christmas; and the pioneering 1979 hip-hop classic “Rapper’s Delight” from The Sugarhill Gang.
The selections span the years 1888 to 1984 and bring the total number of recordings in the registry to 350.
Summer, the disco queen who died May 17 at age 63, recorded “I Feel Love” for release in summer 1977 on Casablanca Records. With its synthesized backing track and Summer’s “breathy and ethereal vocal,” as the Library of Congress describes it, the song reached No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100 and quickly became popular in gay dance clubs across the world.
Under the terms of the National Recording Preservation Act of 2000, the Librarian, with advice from the Library’s National Recording Preservation Board, is given the task each year of selecting 25 recordings at least 10 years old that are “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.”
“America’s sound heritage is an important part of the nation’s history and culture, and this year’s selections reflect the diversity and creativity of the American experience,” said Billington. “These songs, words and natural sounds must be preserved.”
The recordings are housed in the Library’s state-of-the-art Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation in Culpeper, Va. Nominations are gathered through online submissions from the public and from the NRPB, which comprises leaders in the fields of music, recorded sound and preservation.
Here’s a look at the latest 25 inducted works (listed in chronological order), with descriptions supplied by the Library of Congress:
Edison Talking Doll cylinder (1888)
Few, if any, sound recordings can lay claim to as many “firsts” as the small, mangled artifact of a failed business venture discovered in 1967 in the desk of an assistant to Thomas Edison. This cylinder recording, only five-eighths of an inch wide, represents the foundation of many aspects of recording history. It was created in 1888 by a short-lived Edison company established to make talking dolls for children, and it is the only surviving example from the experimental stage of the Edison doll production when the cylinders were made of tin. As such, this recording of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” as sung by an anonymous Edison employee, is the earliest-known commercial sound recording in existence. It also is the first children’s recording and, quite possibly, the first recording to be made by someone paid to perform for a sound recording. Due to its poor condition, the recording was considered unplayable until 2011, when its surface was scanned in three dimensions using digital mapping tools created at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and developed in collaboration with the Library of Congress.
“Come Down Ma Evenin’ Star,” Lillian Russell (1912)
This is the only surviving recording of Russell, a versatile performer at home in operetta, burlesque and vaudeville whose personal life often generated as much publicity as her performances. Born in 1861, she was a star before movies and recordings, which in their early days could not do justice to her famous beauty, voice, style and stage presence. “Come Down” was her signature song; she introduced it in the 1902 burlesque review Twirly-Whirly, parodying the nouveau-riche society figure she had become, but she invested it with a poignancy that reflected its troubled history. Russell’s former music director John Stromberg wrote the song and committed suicide hours after finishing it because of the pain of chronic, untreatable rheumatism. Russell recorded the tune in 1912, but it was not released. In 1943, rare-record dealer Jack L. Caidin found a lone test pressing of “Come Down Ma Evenin’ Star,” inscribed by Russell herself, and released it on his own specialty label, providing a brief echo of the Russell phenomenon.
“Ten Cents a Dance,” Ruth Etting (1930)
Etting was one of the first great singers of the electrical era of recording, the period after the mid-1920s when the microphone replaced the acoustic recording horn. As with the best of the male crooners of the period, Etting’s vocal delivery was artfully understated and personal. In the words of popular music writers Phil Hardy and Dave Laing, Etting, “by turns peppy, fragile and gallant … evinced the contradictory spirits of America in the Depression: sometimes beaten down, sometimes bearing up, whenever possible blithe.” All these characteristics are evident in her recording of Rodgers and Hart’s “Ten Cents a Dance,” recorded only two weeks after Etting introduced the song onstage in the musical Simple Simon.
Voices From the Days of Slavery, various speakers (2002)
In 2002, the American Folklife Center created the online presentation Voices From the Days of Slavery, gathering together 24 interviews with former African-American slaves conducted mostly between 1932 and 1941 and across nine Southern states as part of various field-recording projects. During this period, thousands of slave narratives also were collected on paper by WPA workers, but these are the only known audio recordings of former slaves. As historian C. Vann Woodward said of the WPA narratives, these recordings “represent the voices of the normally voiceless” but with all the nuances of expression that written transcriptions cannot reproduce. They recall aspects of slave life and culture, including family relations, work routines, songs, dances and tales as well as the harsh realities of slavery, including punishments and auctions. They recount experiences of the Civil War, Emancipation and Reconstruction. One interviewee worked for Confederate President Jefferson Davis, as did his father and grandfather. These are fragments of history and reflect the technical and social limitations of the recording sessions. The voices of these ex-slaves, however, provide invaluable insight into their lives, communities and the world of slavery they left behind.
“I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart,” Patsy Montana (1935)
Montana’s signature song was written in 1934, when she was feeling lonely and missing her boyfriend. She recorded the tune a year later when Art Satherly of ARC Records needed one more song for a recording session with The Prairie Ramblers, a group that successfully melded jazz and string-band music. The lively, quick-polka tempo and yodeling refrain, coupled with Montana’s exuberant delivery, resulted in it being requested at virtually every performance, and the song became one of the first hits by a female country-and-Western singer. Montana’s film appearance in Gene Autry’s Colorado Sunset in 1939 introduced her to a wider audience, and her independent, high-spirited personality and style quickly secured her popularity as a singing cowgirl. Montana was named to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1996.
“Fascinating Rhythm,” Sol Hoopii and His Novelty Five (1938)
In the 1890s, Hawaiian musicians began playing open-tuned guitars flat in their laps, fretting the strings with steel to produce distinctive sliding tones. The style soon reached the U.S. mainland, and when young Hoopii arrived in California in 1924, the Hawaiian steel guitar was a mature and demanding instrument with national popularity. Hoopii emerged as its greatest exponent, applying it to traditional hulas, ragtime, jazz and pop. He and his peers influenced blues and country slide guitarists, and Dobros and pedal steel guitars are descended from the Hawaiian model. Hoopii switched to electric guitar in the 1930s, and on “Fascinating Rhythm,” he displays formidable technique, deftly mixing a chord solo and bass runs into a swinging improvisation on the Gershwin standard, departing far from the main melody, with beautiful tonal variations throughout.
The Indians for Indians Hour (March 25, 1947)
Originated by Don Whistler (aka Chief Kesh-ke-kosh), The Indians for Indians Hour was a radio show aired on WNAD at the University of Oklahoma in Norman from 1941 until 1988. It was a weekly venue for Native American music and cultural exchange featuring guests and music from 18 tribes reached by the station’s signal, including Apaches, Arapahos, Caddos, Cheyennes, Choctaws, Comanches, Kaws, Kiowas, Osages, Otos, Pawnees, Poncas, Seminoles, Shawnees and Wichitas. Whistler allowed only Indian music and had no non-Indian guests unless they worked for Indian Services. This program, one of 320 known to survive, includes news of a recent powwow and songs praising Indian war veterans sung by a group of Kiowa war mothers. Although the program was sometimes criticized for primarily highlighting music and entertainment instead of issues, it nevertheless served as an important tool for generational sharing and the popularization and preservation of Native American culture. In 1946, the show reached an estimated weekly audience of more than 75,000, nearly all of Native American origin. Whistler hosted the show until his death in 1951. Later hosts included Allen Quetone, Mose Poolaw, Clyde Warrior and Boyce Timmons.
“Artistry in Rhythm,” Stan Kenton and his Orchestra (1943)
That Kenton led a jazz orchestra, not a dance band, is obvious from the first notes of “Artistry in Rhythm.” Although he composed the song in 1941, Kenton was unable to record it until 1943 because of the recording ban imposed by the American Federation of Musicians over royalty payments. The music stood out then, and its freshness remains obvious today. This was no smooth, melodic song intended for swaying couples in the big-band ballrooms. Arranged as well as composed by Kenton, “Artistry in Rhythm” exhibits traits that are typical of his work: an aggressive sound, innovative for the layering of one section of the orchestra playing over another, then another layer over both. As one reviewer observed, Kenton’s music “was always controversial but never sleepy.”
Leonard Bernstein’s debut with the New York Philharmonic (Nov. 14, 1943)
A little-known assistant conductor of the Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York, Bernstein, then 25, made his conducting debut with the ensemble as a last-minute substitute in unenviable circumstances. Guest conductor Bruno Walter was sick, regular conductor Artur Rodzinski was hundreds of miles away, and the concert was to be broadcast live across the country by CBS Radio. Bernstein met briefly with Walter but had no time to rehearse. Concertgoers and radio listeners were moved deeply as Bernstein led the orchestra through the program. After the second piece, he was brought back to the podium four times and excitement continued to grow. In Boston, Bernstein’s mentor Serge Koussevitzky dictated a telegram: “Listening now. Wonderful.” Bernstein’s triumph made the front page of the next day’s New York Times and was reported across the country.
International Sweethearts of Rhythm: Hottest Women’s Band of the 1940s (1944-46)
The International Sweethearts of Rhythm was an interracial all-female jazz band formed in the late 1930s at the Piney Woods Country Life School, a boarding school for African-American children in Mississippi. The band made few commercial recordings but toured extensively in the 1940s, performing in Europe as well as at predominantly African-American theaters. The band also was showcased in several motion pictures. Professional musicians who joined the band include vocalist Anna Mae Winburn, Viola Burnside on tenor saxophone and Ernestine “Tiny” Davis on trumpet. The International Sweethearts of Rhythm album, released in 1984 by Rosetta Records — a record label dedicated exclusively to reissuing performances by female jazz and blues artists — includes commercially recorded tracks by the band and excerpts from an appearance on the Armed Forces Radio Service program Jubilee.
“Hula Medley,” Gabby Pahinui (1947)
Pahinui was a master of slack-key guitar, a style originating in Hawaii. In slack key, one or more of a guitar’s strings are loosened or “slacked” from the standard EADGBE format to create a different tuning, usually a chord that allows it to be played without using the fretboard. Often the thumb plays rhythm on the lower strings while the fingers play the melody on the higher strings. Pahinui made some of the first modern recordings in this genre, including the lovely instrumental “Hula Medley” in 1947.
I Can Hear It Now, Fred W. Friendly and Edward R. Murrow (1948)
I Can Hear It Now was an unlikely hit — a collection of speech excerpts and news reports 0from 1933-45 featuring an array of speakers from Will Rogers to Adolf Hitler. Columbia Records gambled on radio producer Friendly’s idea when a musicians’ strike limited the recording of new music. Friendly, later president of CBS News, spent months locating and copying 100 hours of broadcast disc recordings using newly introduced magnetic recording tape to create compelling montages. CBS Radio’s Murrow added star power as narrator and co-writer. I Can Hear It Now found Americans eager to relive their own history and sold briskly on 78-rpm discs and in Columbia’s new LP format. The ease of editing and recording on magnetic tape allowed the creation of portions of the album that are now controversial, such as the fabrication of a break-in announcement of the Pearl Harbor attack and the re-recording of a newscast to replace a damaged original. However, the recording was widely imitated, and Friendly and Murrow produced two sequels as well as radio and television spinoffs.
“Let’s Go Out to the Programs,” The Dixie Hummingbirds (1953)
At the time of its release, this was considered to be a novelty, but “Let’s Go Out to the Programs” now stands as a celebration of a golden age of African-American gospel music. In the ’50s, high-energy quartets and quintets like the Hummingbirds played multi-artist shows known as “programs,” where several top gospel acts pushed one another to the limit. Led by the legendary Ira Tucker, the Hummingbirds recreate such a program in less than three minutes with striking, good-natured imitations of four gospel groups: The Soul Stirrers (with their young lead singer, Sam Cooke), The Blind Boys of Mississippi, The Pilgrim Travelers and The Bells of Joy. The Dixie Hummingbirds continue to perform today, led by Ira Tucker Jr. Younger singers carry on the legacy of The Soul Stirrers, while original members of The Bells of Joy still sing in their home of Austin.
“Also Sprach Zarathustra,” Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (1954, 1958)
Richard Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra” was recorded several times during the 78‑rpm era but had to wait for magnetic tape, superior microphones and advances in disc mastering for its extremely wide dynamics to be fully captured as recorded sound. The dawn of high-fidelity recording happily coincided with the beginning of the Fritz Reiner era at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, when the ensemble was hailed by Igor Stravinsky as “the most precise and flexible orchestra in the world.” One of Reiner’s first recordings with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, “Zarathustra,” was taped simultaneously in mono and stereo by two RCA Victor teams, though only the mono version was initially issued. The album’s 1958 release in RCA’s Living Stereo line a few years later showed just how great the recording and performance were, with the perspective and balance Reiner drew from the orchestra fully revealed.
“Bo Diddley” and “I’m a Man,” Bo Diddley (1955)
Born Elias Otha Bates in Mississippi in 1928, Diddley acquired his stage name after moving to Chicago as a child. He played guitar locally with a small group, drawing inspiration from the polyrhythmic song and music emanating from storefront churches, a pulsing blend that he distilled into the song “Bo Diddley,” the A-side of his first single. Drummer Clifton James played the defining beat, and Diddley’s guitar and Jerome Greene’s maracas added further rhythmic layers beneath the chanted couplets. Having introduced himself, he threw down the gauntlet on the B-side, “I’m a Man,” a throbbing slow blues song that, as simple as it seems, took nearly 30 takes to get down just right. It was also a major hit and inspired Muddy Waters’ “Manish Boy.”
“Green Onions,” Booker T. & the MG’s (1962)
Booker T. & the MG’s were a rarity when they were formed in the early 1960s — a racially integrated R&B group. Formed as a house band for Stax Records, Booker T. & the MG’s were playing around in the studio in early 1962 when they came up with two catchy instrumentals. “Green Onions” was originally intended as the B-side to “Behave Yourself” but was quickly reissued as the A-side, then later as the title cut to their first LP. Anchored by the rhythm section of drummer Al Jackson Jr. and bassist Lewie Steinberg, “Green Onions” is propelled by Booker T. Jones’ driving organ and Steve Cropper’s stinging guitar.
Forever Changes, Love (1967)
Love was an integrated psychedelic band from Los Angeles that played an aggressively original mix of rock, folk and blues, but the band was falling apart as its members prepared for their third album, Forever Changes. Leader Arthur Lee was alarmed and pessimistic about the state of the world and convinced his own demise was imminent, though he lived until 2006. His new songs were filled with unexpected shifts and rife with foreboding, though his message was ultimately about resolution and self-reliance in the face of uncertainty and impermanence. Two compositions by second guitarist Bryan MacLean somewhat augmented Lee’s musings but were no less striking and unusual. Rock was growing more electric by the day in 1967, but Forever Changes is essentially acoustic, with a restrained and supple rhythm section supporting the ambitious horn and string charts of pop arranger David Angel, making Johnny Echols’ searing guitar solos all the more memorable. The fusion of psychedelic, mainstream and classical styles, now seen as a landmark, found few takers at the time. Love soon disintegrated, but Forever Changes continues to loom large.
“The Continental Harmony: Music of William Billings,” Gregg Smith Singers (1969)
Composer Billings published six collections of his choral music between 1770 and 1794. His “New England Psalm Singer” (1770) was the first tune book devoted entirely to the compositions of a single American composer. Billings was largely self-taught, yet his a cappella choral writing, featuring the melody in the tenor, created an indigenous sacred music that expanded the musical language of America. While Billings was well known in his lifetime — his song “Chester” was nearly as popular as “Yankee Doodle” during the American Revolution — his work was largely forgotten for more than a century. Despite his having composed more than 340 works, little of Billings’ music was included in mainstream American sacred choral music collections after 1820. His musical style and some of his pieces, however, were kept alive within America’s Southern shape-note singing tradition. Following World War II, a generation of scholars and performers rediscovered his fresh and vigorous music. This recording by The Gregg Smith Singers, a 16-member choral ensemble dedicated to the performance of American music, helped reintroduce Billings’ music to the world.
A Charlie Brown Christmas, Vince Guaraldi Trio (1970)
The television soundtrack album, which introduced jazz to millions of listeners, includes expanded themes from the animated Peanuts special of the same name as well as jazz versions of both traditional and popular Christmas music, performed primarily by the Vince Guaraldi Trio. The original music is credited to pianist Guaraldi and television producer Lee Mendelson. Best remembered is the “Linus and Lucy” theme, originally composed by Guaraldi for an earlier Peanuts project. It remains beloved by fans of the popular TV specials, those devoted to the newspaper comic strip and music lovers alike.
“Coat of Many Colors,” Dolly Parton (1971)
Parton’s autobiographical song affectionately recounts an impoverished childhood in the hills of Tennessee that was made rich by the love of her family. The song was instrumental in establishing Parton’s credibility as a songwriter. Her voice uplifts the tune with emotion and tender remembrances of her close-knit musical family. Parton has called “Coat of Many Colors” the favorite of her compositions because of the attitude and philosophy it reflects.
Mothership Connection, Parliament (1975)
“Ain’t nothin’ but a party, y’all” intones George Clinton on the title track of this lively and unbelievably rhythmic funk album. While this undeniably is a party record, it also is rooted in the deepest currents of African-American musical culture and history. For example, the words “Swing down, sweet chariot/Stop, and let me ride” are an unmistakable reference to the influential spiritual recorded by the Fisk Jubilee Singers. Mothership Connection was released in late 1975 shortly after the arrival to Parliament of saxophonist Maceo Parker and trombonist and arranger extraordinaire Fred Wesley. Like Parker and Wesley, bass player Bootsy Collins, dubbed by one critic a “bass deity,” had played with funk pioneer James Brown. Add to such assembled talent the classically trained Bernie Worrell, whose synthesizer conjures galaxies of cosmic sound but whose piano, as heard on the track “P-Funk,” evokes the ethereal chords of jazz pianist McCoy Tyner. DJ, conductor, arranger and wild lyricist Clinton oversees the whole, providing an amazing range of space characters (Lollipop Man, Star Child) outlandish vocabulary (“supergroovalistic,” “prosifunkstication”) and all-around funkiness. The album has had an enormous influence on jazz, rock and dance music.
Barton Hall Concert by The Grateful Dead (May 8, 1977)
The rock band was known for its eclectic style that drew on many genres of popular and vernacular music, an improvisational foundation, and a commitment to touring and “live” performances. The Grateful Dead was one of the few musical groups to not only allow but encourage fans to record its concerts, offering tickets to a special “tapers” section at its shows. The organized trading of Dead tapes goes back at least to 1971 with the formation of the First Free Underground Grateful Dead Tape Exchange. Fans of the Dead will never completely agree about which one of their more than 2,300 concerts was the best, but there is some consensus about the tape of this Barton Hall performance at Cornell University. The soundboard recording of this show has achieved almost mythic status among Deadhead tape traders because of its excellent sound quality and early accessibility, as well as its musical performances.
“I Feel Love,” Donna Summer (1977)
Brian Eno famously declared after hearing this single that the track would “change the sound of club music for the next 15 years.” Summer wrote “I Feel Love” in collaboration with producers Giorgio Moroder and Pete Belotte, who felt the song was supposed to represent the music of the future and should be entirely electronic. Consequently, they hired Robbie Wedel, who brought four cases of Moog synthesizers to the session. Those produced nearly all the sounds on the record, including synthesized bass drums and cymbals. Particularly notable was the bass line that Belotte has described as “a giant’s hammer on a wall.” When the thunderous sound was combined with Summer’s breathy and ethereal vocal, the cut — as Eno predicted — took the clubs by storm. Partly through the involvement of Patrick Cowley, who made a 15-minute remix along with an eight-minute one, the song won particular popularity in gay dance clubs and soon achieved the status of an anthem in the LGBT community.
“Rapper’s Delight,” The Sugarhill Gang (1979)
This infectious dance number might be said to have launched an entire genre. Although spoken word had been a component of recorded American popular music for decades, this trio’s rhythmic rhyming inspired many future MCs and rap artists. The album version of “Rapper’s Delight” is an epic 14 ½-minute salvo of irreverent stories and creative wordplay. The song dates from hip-hop’s infancy. As such, it does not address subject matter that has given rap music both positive and negative notoriety, but the song’s inventive rhymes, complex counter-rhythms and brash boastfulness presage the tenets of hip-hop. “Rapper’s Delight” also reflects an early instance of music sampling and a legal settlement; it draws its bass line and other features from Chic’s 1979 hit “Good Times.” As a result, songwriting credits for “Rapper’s Delight” include that song’s composers, Chic guitarist Nile Rodgers and bassist Bernard Edwards, as well as Sylvia Robinson and The Sugarhill Gang (Michael Wright, Guy O’Brien and Henry Jackson).
Purple Rain, Prince and the Revolution (1984)
Prince was already a hitmaker and critically acclaimed artist when his sixth album, the soundtrack for his 1984 movie debut, launched him into superstardom. Earlier, he had played all the instruments on his records to get the sounds he wanted, but now he led an integrated band of men and women who could realize the dense, ambitious fusion that he sought, blending funk, synth-pop and soul with guitar-based rock and a lyrical sensibility that mixed the psychedelic and the sensual. Prince experimented throughout the album, dropping the bass line from “When Doves Cry” to fashion a one-of-a-kind sound and mixing analog and electronic percussion frequently. Portions of Purple Rain were recorded live at the First Avenue Club in Prince’s hometown of Minneapolis, and the success of the album served notice that the Twin Cities were a major center for pop music as numerous rock and R&B artists from the region emerged in its wake. Like much of Prince’s other work, Purple Rain was provocative and controversial, and some of its most explicit lyrics led directly to the founding of the Parents Music Resource Center.