I recently had the pleasure of being granted an interview by one of my favorite disco artists of all time, Donna McGhee. It is fantastic to see her resurface, working on music again, performing new tunes and classics, and back in the soulful swing of things. I sent her a ton of questions, probably way too many, because now that I am reading back, this is dizzying! Anyways, I am extremely grateful that she took her time out to read them, and eventually got back to me with all the answers. So here are her answers, completely unedited and straight from Donna. I added some photos and music video clips to spice it up a bit. Enjoy!
Where were you born & raised? Were brought up in a religious family? Was your family musical?
I was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. Yes I was raised in a God fearing home. No, not really, my family was not into music, as far as on the entertainment side, they did listen to gospel.
How did you started singing in the church? Which Church did you sing in? Is it still there? Did your Church group ever record an LP, and/or did they ever tour or sing outside of your Church? If so, can I hear this???
My grandmother started an choir, called the "Lucille Robinson Ensemble", and I started singing in the choir, however I did not lead a song for years, I was to bashful. the name of the Church was called "Zion Temple Church of God in Christ,which was located on Decatur Street, in Brooklyn, New York. I am not sure if the church is still there. Our Choir never recorded a record, but we did travel to several states to compete against other choirs. I also joined the Community state choir, under the direction of Minister of Music Ronald Banks, and we traveled to several countries and won several trophies for being the best choir.
Did any other singers from your Church become secular/proffesional singers as well?
As far as our choir was concerned, I was the only one to venture out into the secular sound.
Were you allowed to sing secular music as a child? If not, did you sneak it? What other music were you listening to during your youth besides Gospel?
As a child, my grandparents did not hinder me from listening to all sorts of music. I listen to several artist such as Aretha Franklin, Shirley Brown, Gladys Knight, Pattie Labelle, Natalie Cole, and of course Chaka Khan, and many others.
Did you ever sing at any local talent shows or block parties in Brooklyn as a kid?
I performed at several parks,venues and also at the Contental Bath Houses in Harlem.
Please try to tell me about the musical atmosphere of your Brooklyn neighborhood at the time of growing up. Also how did you end up in The Fatback Band? I honestly did not know you were in the Fatback Band until recently. You know I'm going to have to go back and listen :) Are there any tunes with Fatback that you feel really feature you as a vocalist? How long were you recording with Fatback?
As far as Brooklyn and its musical atmosphere, it was quite strong in the music industry. Several artist came out of Brooklyn, and we had great studios as well. As far as The Fatback Band is concerned, the bass player, Johnny Flippin introduced me to the group. We call him Flip, for short, and he felt I had talent and he brought me into the group, and that is how I became afflicated with the group. Fatback Band was a dance band, so no one in particular was featured. I performed and recorded with Fatback over a period of three to four years, my last LP I recorded with them was with the late great Phyllis Hyman.
(donna in this classic fatback video)
Who did you tour with while with Fatback? What is your best Fatback tour memory? Are you still in contact with anyone from that era?
While with Fatback we tour with Teddy Pendergrass, Chaka Khan, Crown Heigts Affair, Fankie Beverly and Maze, and so many other artists. My best memory touring with Fatback is a concert we did in Washington, D.C. it held around 40,000 people in attendance, and it was our first time working with Chaka Khan, and it was an experience to say the least. I am still in contact with Bill Curtis, Johnny Flippin and George Victory. We will always remain friends forever.
(Epic photo of Donna with Greg Carmichael)
After Fatback, how did you end up meeting Greg Carmichael & Patrick Adams?
You've recorded with Phreek, Universal Robot Band and Bumblee Unlimited before your solo LP. I've always assumed these were just studio musicians/sessions, until I saw a photo of you with the group. Were these real groups that had their own members, etc, or was it really one group?
After leaving Fatback I joined a group by the name of Ricky Williams and Knight Flight, I cannot remember the date as far as meeting Greg Carmichael, however, he heard our group and that is how it began. The beginning of a great collabration. Greg and I became good friends, and he asked me to be part of his company. I met Patrick Adams through Greg. As time went on, Greg and Patrick as well as myself and others went into the studio and recorded Bumblebee Unlimited and Universal Robot Band LP's. The Phreek LP came later. Patrick Adams and Greg Carmichael played all the instruments except for the live strings. Our group was the orginal Bumblee Unlimited and Universal Robot Band as well.
(Rare Photo of Bumblebee Unlimited!)
Once the songs became huge, we had to hire another group to become Universal Robot, because Bumblebee Unlimited was traveling and performing on shows such as the Dick Clark show and others. The Phreek LP became Musique. I performed with Bumblebee until I was asked to go solo. Yes the voices were sped up to give the sound of bumblebees. It was orginally recorded in our normal voice.
During this disco era, what were your favorite clubs to hang out at? ie: Studio, Paradise Garage, Loft, Better Days etc?
Who were your favorite DJs at the time? Did you perform at any of these more underground clubs?
To be honest, my manger Linda Williams, never had me hang out at clubs, I did make some personal appearenes, at some clubs, such as the Paradise Garage, Studio 54, Cotton Club, and many others clubs. As far as DJs are concerned there were so many important Djs that it would not be fair to just mention some and not others. So all I will say is thanks to each and everyone one of the radio jocks and djs that made the record what it was.
Eventually Greg & Patrick decided to produce a solo LP for you. "Make It Last Forever" is my favorite disco LP ever, hands down. From the instrumentation, to the vocal delivery as well as the lyrics, this just does it for me. What was it like working with Patrick and Greg? What was the song writing process like? Were you involved in that at all?
Also upon listening to the LP, there seems to be a lot of overdubbing, and the songs are incredibly long. How many sessions, and how many takes were needed to achieve this? Overall, How long did the album take to finish?
Greg Carmichael who owned Red Greg Records, came to me and said he wanted to do a solo LP on me, and I agreed to do it. Patrick Adams and Greg took me into the studio and with the great writting of these two great producers, "Make It last Forever" became a wonderful project and a record that still today is played and respected by many. Working with Patrick and Greg was a wonderful experience, we had fun collabrating together. They let me use my creativity in the making of the LP, that is why it has a touch of love from all three of us. The LP had its foundation, however we all had a great imput in creating the LP. There might have been some splicing here and there, but there was nothing that was lost in the production.
I've always wondered if there were any songs that didn't make the album, being that there were only 5 songs. Is there any unreleased material from this LP hidden on a reel somewhere? Upon listening to the LP, there seems to be a lot of overdubbing, and the songs are incredibly long. How many sessions, and how many takes were needed to achieve this? Overall, How long did the album take to finish?
Well for one there was not much overdubbing at all, everything you heard was real,and although there were only five songs on the LP, in those days, especially with disco that is how it was.
Some of these songs were so long, I can't imagine radio touching music like that these days with all the 3 minute pop songs these days. Was radio more willing to play long songs back in those days, or was this LP recorded with extended club dance floor play in mind?
There were several versions recorded, not only the LP version, but 12 inch version as well, and also AM and FM versions that had to be done. AM radio was more vital at that time then FM radio. So the mix had to be completed with all versions in mind. It tool a good while for the LP to be completed, because of so much work that had to be done in order for the Lp to be played on the airwaves. In those days you had to be very careful on what could be played and what could not, alot of things were censored then, nowadays it is a totally different story. Radio is so different now, if radio, and record companies had the disgression that we had then, I feel there would be more respect and dignity in our music industry today.
Forget "I Will Survive", to me "It Ain't No Big Thing" is the ultimate break up song in disco! Your attitude is so mature, and you come of so non chalant in this song, I love it. That's what I've always strived for in a break up. Are you like that at all in real life? Did you have to think of anyone or any experience in particular to relate the lyrics to?
When I recorded It ain't no big thing, to be honest, I was just singing a song, I cannot really say that I was thinking of anyone or anything at the time. As I speak to many of my fans today, I am very humble and thankful that they have testimonies regarding how It ain't no big thing changed so many of thier lifes. I never thought that this song would have been a life changing experience for so many people, however I am very grateful.
I love Mr. Blindman. Who is "Mr. Blindman" to you?
Who is Mr. Blindman?, well, he is a man that seem to have not realized how his woman truly loved him she tried to explain to him how she needed his love, but he could not see the love she had for him, so that is why he was called Mr. Blindman.
"Make It Last Forever", and "Do as I Do" have to be some of the sexiest songs ever made in disco. Every time I play them, the vibe in the room changes. Were you shy at all when recording this? Is that you on the overdubs moaning?
As far as as Do as I do, and Make It Last forever, no I was not shy, and there was no overdubbing on any of my moans. When I recorded those sounds, Everyone was put out of the studio, except for my engineer and my producer, they shut off all the lights in the booth where they were and where I as and left me one little light, and they told me to do whatever I felt like saying, and I did, so that is what came out, it only took one take, I was just performing, thats all. However I am glad you and others enjoy it so much. ~~lol~~
Were your Gospel grandparents ever angry at you for doing secular music like that?!?
My grandparents were very proud of my sucess.
When your contract with Red Greg ended, How did you end up on Obago records? This is a mysterious label to me, who was behind it? "You should have told me" is a killer tune, but it's your only Obago release I know of! Do you have any other releases on this label that I don't know of?
After my contract was up with Red Greg Records, my manager introduced me to the owner of Obago Records, and they wanted to sign me on, and I did a one record deal, and that was "You Should have told me", written by Crown Heights Affair, and remix by Jellybean Benitiz. It was a great song, and I enjoyed recording it.
After your deal with Obaga was up, I see you moved down south. What helped you make this decision?
Did your lifestyle change at all? You continued working freelance in the music business much of this time up until the present singing back up vocals on sessions etc. Who are some of the artists you sang back up for?
Any other commercial work you did?
After the contract was up, I moved my family downsouth, got married and had my family and sang back up for artist such as Salt-n-Pepper and, Vanessa Bell Armstrong, Daddy Kane, BeBe and CeCe Winnin. I am now currently working on my new single, and my Cd, which will have my signature on it, if u know what I mean. (smile)
As far as touring, you recently performed in Chicago, how did that come about? How did it go? What songs did you perform? Did you do any songs from the new LP?
Yes I did a concert/Event promoted by Soul In The Hole, with my new manager Sadar, in Chicago, with Leroy Burgess. It was a wonderful event. Chicago showed me so much love, and I have to say thank you to all my fans and friends. You were awesome!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
If promoters would like to book you for a performance, who should they get in contact with?
If you would like Donna McGhee in your city, state or country you can reach my manager "Sadar" at 773-493-1968 and or 678-777-2316. It would be a pleasure to perform for my beloved fans. A special thanks goes out to Richie, thank you luv, for a wonderful interview. And always remember to "Make It Last Forever"