In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
Donna Summer wanted to sing a rock song. That was the idea. Summer was the reigning queen of disco, and that had made her one of the most popular recording artists in America. But Summer, like much of the rest of America, was starting to get sick of disco. Maybe she’d seen the writing on the wall. Maybe she’d figured out that the disco bubble was about to pop. Or maybe she’d just gotten restless, the way artists do. So Donna Summer sang a rock song — a rock song that still sounded a whole hell of a lot like a disco song.
Part of the magic of “Hot Stuff,” Donna Summer’s second #1 single, is how well it fits in with Summer’s career continuity. Summer’s early smashes “Love To Love You Baby” (peaked at #2, a 10) and “I Feel Love” (peaked at #6, another 10) basically introduced the world to the synthetic-psychedelic Euro-disco sound. In the waning days of the ’70s, the rest of the genre had attempted to catch up to what Summer was doing with producers Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte. By the time she released her triumphant 1979 album Bad Girls, Summer was disco. But with that album, she also anticipated the synth-rock of the ’80s and left a tremendous influence on everything that would follow. Seriously: Everybody who sang a movie theme in 1983 was attempting to sound as much as possible like Donna Summer. She was disco, and she was also the thing beyond.
It’s hard to even imagine how busy Summer was in those days. Bad Girls was a double album, and it came six months after Summer’s Once Upon A Time, which was also a double album. In the second half of the ’70s, Summer released six studio albums, as well as things like the live-plus-studio monster Live And More, which had yielded her previous #1 hit “MacArthur Park.” Bad Girls is the last, biggest, and best of those albums — the crowning achievement of an absolutely monstrous career run. It was so undeniable that even disco-suspicious rock critics had to give it up. (Rolling Stone called Bad Girls “the only great disco album other than Saturday Night Fever,” which reads as a wild-ass hot take today.)
Bad Girls opens with “Hot Stuff,” that rock song that Summer had wanted to sing. Summer was smart enough to keep working with her regular collaborators Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte even though those guys weren’t rock producers. She’d developed an all-time sorcerer-level chemistry with the two of them, and it had taken all of them far. By this point, Moroder was already a recognized genius. Two months before “Hot Stuff” hit #1, Moroder had won an Oscar for writing the pioneering synth-pulse score for the Oliver Stone-written Turkish-prison drama Midnight Express. While working on that film, Moroder had started collaborating with Harold Faltermeyer, a German keyboardist and arranger. (Faltermeyer’s highest-charting single, the 1984 Beverly Hills Cop instrumental “Axel F,” peaked at #3. It’s a 9.)
Pete Bellotte and Harold Faltermeyer co-wrote “Hot Stuff” with Keith Forsey, the Donna Summer drummer who’d go on to write and co-write some other #1 singles in the decade ahead. Moroder and Bellotte produced the song. These men understood Summer’s voice and what it could do. They also understood that even though Summer wasn’t an especially wild woman in real life, she could play one on record. “Hot Stuff” is a song about absolutely needing sex right now, about being so horny that you’re practically climbing the walls. Summer sells the hell out of it.
On songs like “Love To Love You Baby,” Summer had gotten lost in ecstasy so convincingly that people believed she was really busting nuts in the studio while she sang. She doesn’t sing “Hot Stuff” that way. Instead, she’s all feverish urgency. She’s not having sex; that’s the problem. She is extremely forthright about what she needs: “Wanna share my love with a warm-blooded lover/ Wanna bring a wildman back home.” And she’s running through all the names in her little black book to get it: “Dialed about a thousand numbers lately/ Almost rang the phone off the wall.” When Summer hits the chorus, she’s practically panting: “Looking for some hot stuff, baby, this evening! Looking for some hot stuff, baby, tonight!” The way the backup singers hit the phrase “hot stuff,” underlining it in bright neon Hi-Liter, is just perfect.
The Moroder/Bellotte groove on “Hot Stuff” is just a monster. The beat is a slowed-down panther-stalk version of the disco boom. The synth hook whines and nags, pushing the intensity further while also providing one more sticky hook. On a proper rock song, it probably would’ve been a screamy guitar playing that hook, but it’s better off the Moroder/Bellotte way. Everything hits with force and purpose, including the little bass-pops that just slightly ornament that groove. At the end of the song, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, the Doobie Brother and former Steely Dan sideman, shows up to play a guitar solo that’s all spiky, discordant edges, growling just as hard as Summer.
“Hot Stuff” is a wonderful little engine of pop-music excitement, a great example of a star subtly moving into a new era without breaking stride. For Bad Girls, it was just a jumping-off point. By the time “Hot Stuff” finished its run atop the Hot 100, Summer had become the first woman ever to have two songs in the top five at the same time. We will hear from her again shortly.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from the 1997 movie The Full Monty where some guys dance to “Hot Stuff” while waiting in the unemployment line:
And here’s Prince Charles charmlessly attempting to reenact that scene in 1998:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the godawful unlistenable “Hot Stuff” cover that the pioneering and mostly-great metalcore band Integrity released in 2000:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene in 2015’s The Martian where Matt Damon drives around Mars listening to “Hot Stuff,” the “least disco song” to which he has access:
THE NUMBER TWOS: Sister Sledge’s anthemically sunny “We Are Family,” written and produced by Chic’s Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards, peaked at #2 behind “Hot Stuff.” It’s an 8.