Former head of Casablanca Records’ black-music division, Renny Roker promoted every Donna Summer hit.
When the former head of the black-music division of Casablanca Records, Renny Roker, talks about Donna Summer, he zeroes in on her intelligence, grace and talent. When it came to breaking her first hit, “Love to Love You Baby,” onto airwaves, though, the secret to her success was a little less sophisticated.
It had something to do with laxatives.
For nine months, Roker’s record label had been trying to convince radio stations to play Summer’s 17-minute debut single. But the track was too long for radio play and, already an established star overseas, Summer was unwilling to compromise and make it shorter.
Then a promoter on Roker’s team had an idea.
From childhood, Roker’s promoter was friends with a local DJ, and the promoter’s mother had made it a habit to make brownies for the DJ whenever she knew her son would be stopping by the studio. But this time, there would be a new ingredient.
While his mother wasn’t looking, the promoter poured laxatives into her brownie mix, visited his DJ friend and offered him a snack. Twenty minutes later, Roker said, the DJ had no choice but to play a longer record while he ran to the bathroom.
At some time after 1 a.m. in New York, “Love to Love You Baby” officially got its first spin.
Summer had arrived.
“By the time the guy came out of the bathroom,” Roker said, “every phone in the studio lit up.”
The next morning, the rush continued. Every store that Casablanca did business with was calling their distributors and looking to carry Summer’s album.
It wasn’t until then that Summer agreed to make a three-minute radio version of the song. “She wouldn’t budge until the album bust wide open,” Roker said.
When Roker joined Casablanca, the company hadn’t yet developed a strong roster of artists. But, due to an actors strike, Roker’s career in movies and TV (he had roles in “Gomer Pyle, USMC,” “Challenge of the SuperFriends,” etc.) had been put on hold.
So when company president Neil Bogart offered him a job, Roker jumped at it.
“I started (at Casablanca) and it was like a landslide,” Roker said, citing Kiss and Summer as the company’s two most prominent acts at the time. “I just happened to be at the right place at the right time.”
After Summer broke into the American mainstream, Roker led promotions on every one of her hits. And when his wife at the time became pregnant with their first son, Summer named herself godmother.
“Every time you screw up, I’ll be there to make sure you get it right,” Roker remembers her joking. “I’ve got to make sure he doesn’t act like you.”
Before Summer died unexpectedly last month, at 63, she called Roker one last time to offer her godson the ranch she bought in Tennessee after her first real paycheck from Casablanca.
“Donna Summer was one of the most intelligent recording artists I ever met,” Roker said. “She spoke seven languages, didn’t smoke, drink, do drugs. … She liked the simple things in life. … She was an incredible, incredible woman, I’ll tell you that.”
For more than a year, Roker has been working on building an Olympic-size BMX racing track for kids in Bunnell. And on June 23, a free Special Olympics event is planned for the practice track already built.
The Olympic-level track is scheduled to begin construction next week.