Donna Summer is singing to me: “When I think of home/I think of a place/where there’s love overflowing”. The lyrics to “Home”, Dorothy’s show-stopping number in The Wiz, is Summer’s answer to a word association about Casablanca Records. She punctuates the sweet, five-second serenade with, “That’s what comes to mind. That’s what it was for me, at least in the beginning”. Decades have passed since Donna Summer recorded for Casablanca yet she maintains affection for her time at “The Casbah”.
The occasion for my conversation with Donna Summer, and more than 50 artists and executives, is the 35th anniversary of Casablanca. It was that many years ago that a little company on Sherbourne Drive in Los Angeles debuted albums by KISS and Parliament. Within just two years, those groups evolved from selling modest amounts of records to selling out arenas, while acts like Angel, Cameo, and Village People dazzled audiences with a potent blend of musical substance and sartorial flair. By the end of the ’70s, Donna Summer was the top-selling female artist in the U.S. and Casablanca was second only to CBS Records (Columbia) in the number of gold and platinum records its artists acquired over a 12-month period. Not bad for a company that teetered close to bankruptcy within its first year.
Nothing about Casablanca was predictable, though. Not its impressive array of acts or its extravagant marketing plans. Not its ascent to one of the top record labels of the late-’70s or the magnitude of its legacy. It is regarded as the quintessential disco label yet a rock band catapulted the company into multi-million dollar profits. A dance record scored the company a platinum, number one pop hit even after DJs led anti-disco rallies. Casablanca was, in a word, unique.
Ruben Rodriguez would know. As National Promotion and Marketing Director for the label’s satellite office in New York, he contributed to the combination of creativity, intelligence, and perseverance it took to keep the engine of Casablanca running as smoothly as the leased Mercedes Benzes in the company parking lot. “When people talk about Casablanca”, he says, “all they seem to talk about are the limousines and materialism, but I don’t hear enough about the spirit of what the company stood for, the spirit of the artists that were on the label, and the spirit of the people that worked there”.
That spirit imbues PopMatters’ weeklong celebration of Casablanca. Too much ink has sensationalized the storied past of the label but seldom is the music accorded any true appreciation or meaningful dialogue. From innovative radio and club promotion, to striking album cover designs, the creative forces behind Casablanca excelled in servicing the music. How they did it and the artists they did it for is the foundation of Casablanca: Play It Again.
“My granddaughter should listen to this”, Bernie Worrell says suddenly while revisiting his days with Parliament-Funkadelic. “She’s older now but she needs to hear this”, the former P-Funk music director says, underscoring the importance of preserving the musical history of Casablanca. The resonance of his words is significant since so few albums from the label’s discography remain widely available and the outlets to procure them dwindle with each passing day. Until Universal Music, which owns the Casablanca catalog, sees fit to re-release everything from Fanny to Frankie Crocker and The Heart & Soul Orchestra, a fair amount of excavation in used-record store bins is required for curious ears to hear why Casablanca still matters. (Industry impresario Tommy Mottola re-activated the Casablanca imprint in recent years with releases by Lindsey Lohan, Mika, and Ryan Leslie but the label’s classic catalog falls outside his domain.)
The individual responsible for influencing three generations of music listeners, and creating an eclectic soundtrack for hip-hop masters, head-bangers, and hustle champions alike, is the late Neil Bogart. To quote Bruce Sudano, who recorded on Casablanca as a member of Brooklyn Dreams, Bogart never saw “No”. His genius allowed gay archetypes, teen idols, comic book characters, flamenco dancers, Ronald McDonald, and Cher to cohabitate on one record label. His boundless vision brought records into supermarkets 35 years before Wal-Mart signed a distribution deal with The Eagles. He spared no expense in granting his artists and producers the latest recording technology to experiment with in the studio, even across continents. He inspired his promotion and marketing teams to be limitless in their thinking: only at a Casablanca party would you find a live camel standing outside a club on a New York City sidewalk. He was, as many people attest on these pages, the P.T. Barnum of the music business.
Casablanca: Play It Again is as much a salute to Neil Bogart as it is to his label’s music. From the words and memories of artists and executives who were there, this is the story of a record company that believed in the business of show as much as supporting the artistry of its individual acts. Step through the gates of Bogart’s Café Americana, pet the stuffed camel, and experience the sound of 33 1/3 revolutions per minute, Casbah-style.
— Christian John Wikane