efore Donna Summer recorded her discofied version of Jimmy Webb's "MacArthur Park," Richard Harris took the song to number two on the Billboard Hot 100 pop chart in June, 1968. But "MacArthur Park" has a strange history that pre-dates the Harris version. It begins in the summer of 1967, when Webb wrote a 22-minute cantata that ended with a seven-minute coda called "MacArthur Park."
Bones Howe became friendly with Webb when they worked together on the Fifth Dimension's Up, Up and Away album. After that, Howe went to work producing the Association and Webb was hired by Johnny Rivers to produce the Fifth Dimension's concept LP, The Magic Garden. When problems arose between Webb and Rivers, Howe was asked to come in and produce the vocal tracks.
"Finally we got The Magic Garden album finished and he really dug into the cantata and worked on it full time after that... I set up a meeting with Jimmy and the Association. We were in studio three at Western, and he came in and... played on the piano through these pieces that he hand worked and sang them and went back and played countermelodies, and showed them various things he had in mind for this cantata. It was just a wonderful piece of music. They listened and said, 'Because it's gonna take up the whole side of an album, we'd like to talk about it.' So Jimmy excused himself and walked out of the studio. They closed the door and somebody in the group -- I don't remember who -- said, 'Any two guys in this group could write a better piece of music than that.' I said, 'You guys are crazy. This is a wonderful concept'... they said, 'Yeah, but we'd have to give up the whole side of an album.' I said, 'This is a great possibility to go forward creatively and do something which nobody's done before.'"
"It was left to Bones to break the news to Jimmy. "He was really crushed by it," Howe remembers. The Association wrote all their own songs for their Birthday album. "I kept saying to their manager, 'There's not one song here that's as good as the cantata that Jimmy brought in. We ought to go back to him.'" The answer was no. Webb took the last movement of the cantata -- the seven-minute coda -- and produced it for Richard Harris.
In 1978 Donna Summer released a double album, Live & More. The "Live" referred to the first three sides, which included her hits like "I Feel Love," "Love to Love You Baby" and the Oscar-winning "Last Dance" from Thank God It's Friday. The "More" referred to side four, a nonstop disco medley titled "MacArthur Park Suite" that began with an eight minute, 27 second version of Jimmy Webb's coda, then segued into "One of a Kind," "Heaven Knows" (the follow-up single) and a one minute, 32 second reprise of "MacArthur Park."
Edited down to three minutes and 53 seconds for release as a 45, "MacArthur Park" debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 at number 85 the week of September 9, 1978. Nine weeks later, Donna Summer bested Richard Harris and had her first number one single.
As disco began to die out at the end of the Seventies, Summer tried to become more of a pop singer and in 1983 scored her biggest success since 1979's Bad Girls album with She Works Hard for the Money and its title track, a number three hit. In 1989, the British producing team of Stock, Aitken and Waterman brought Summer back to the Top 10 singles chart with "This Time I Know It's for Real."
- Fred Bronson, The Billboard Book of Number One Hits, Billboard, 1988.
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