David Bowie once recalled in an interview about his time with Brian Eno while the two were famously making the Berlin Trilogy: “Eno came running in and said, ‘I have heard the sound of the future.’… he puts on “I Feel Love,” by Donna Summer. ‘This is it, look no further. This single is going to change the sound of club music for the next fifteen years.’ Which was more or less right,” said Bowie.
“I Feel Love,” produced by the great Giorgio Moroder swept Europe, eventually hitting the US and charted on the Billboard Hot 100 that summer. The throbbing disco smash was an enormous breakthrough for its arranger, a little known songwriter out of Iceland named Þórir Baldursson.
Born in 1944, Þórir (known also as Thor) grew up playing keys before notching some huge songwriting, arranging, and production credits later in life. He transitioned gradually from jazz to disco, with studio work that included ABBA, Elton John, and Grace Jones. “I Feel Love” is now a signature song in Donna Summer’s oeuvre and became commonplace sample fodder for ‘90s dance cuts, even Blondie and Madonna tapped its monster break for late-in-the-game dance-pop revivalism.
Þórir was also apart of another leading-edge arrangement, the oft-sampled “Sing Sing” by Gaz, which of course contained the foundational skeletal shakers that later became Baltimore club music’s backbone. Along with “Amen Brother” and “Apache,” “Sing Sing’s” break was a staple in early Grandmaster Flash routines and subsequently lifted by everybody from RZA to Kylie Minogue.
Through the years Þórir’s name has been so butchered, so miswritten that there are at least twenty different spellings to his credit. Some of them muddied through translation, others perhaps out of sheer laziness (“S.P. Bala” for one– not even close). Strange for a musician whose output spans back to the ‘60s and who’s still very much conscious of the fact. Says Þórir: “Music has been my sole source of income since the 1950s so this is my 61st year in this profession.”
Some of Þórir’s work was used on DJ Platurn’s Breaking The Ice, an esteemed mix of rare Icelandic grooves from his and his father’s collection. Through ties with his motherland, Platurn connected us with Þórir himself, who at a cantankerous 75 years of age, took time to humor us– if only briefly. It’s always incredibly satisfying and gives you hope to see artists succeed solely on the merit of their art for so long. Hats off.
Þórir Baldursson on his upbringing and introduction to music:
I was surrounded with music from early childhood. My father played accordion in local bands on most weekends. By the time I was eight years old, I was starting to perform on accordion. About the age of ten I was starting to accompany my father at local dances playing the piano.
On the SalSoul era and working with SalSoul as a company:
Very good memories. They treated me nice. I didn’t work directly with the SalSoul Orchestra but I worked for the SalSoul company. Our relationship was always pleasant. The owners Joe and Kenny Carie were super nice guys. My friend Tom Moulton, who produced Grace Jones, made things run smoothly.
On the emergence ofdisco and hearing his worldwide hit and now often sampled track, “SingSing” with Gaz:
Yes, I liked disco right away. The jazz and R&B elements appealed to me. It still appeals to me in rap music. And yes I’ve heard “Sing Sing” used and sampled, but that is all. Wish I would see some money for it. The industry is sadly crowded with thieves!
Studio time with disco titan Giorgio Moroder and working with Donna Summer:
I did not work on “I Feel Love” directly with Giorgio—he did that on his own with a German moog specialist. But I was in the studio though, as were some of my fellow musicians. Moroder was okay. He came across like an ordinary guy with a heavy mustache. He was immersed in his projects. Donna was a delightful person and was nice to be around. An incredible talent and always good natured. Very much a family person.
On collaborating with Grace Jones for the track “Suffer” and usage of vocal hooks:
I made scratch vocal tracks for Grace on some of the songs on ‘Muse’ for her to learn the melodies. Tom took the liberty to use my scratch on “Suffer” in the mix. I didn’t know about till it was released! At first I hated it. I thought it sounded too campy [laughs] but I’m ok with it now. Grace was incredible. She had a lot of humor and looked absolutely stunning.
Artists Þórir admired in his youth that impacted his subsequent career:
Elvis of course, the Beatles. At the time I didn’t care about the Stones – I do now. My thing was and has always been jazz and soul. I also got very much into folk music, The Kingston Trio, Peter Paul and Mary, and Joan Baez.
On what his days arelike now:
I have kept on working as an arranger, producer, keyboard player since I moved back to Iceland in 1990 and for the past 27 years have been teaching jazz piano at the Musician Unions Music Academy (FIH) here in Reykjavik.
On how his own music strikes him:
What strikes me? That it is no big deal really, it is just music. Which is much larger than me!
***DJ Platurn Sidenote***
Platurn on Þórir’s impact on disco and ultimately hip-hop as an Icelander:
Oneof the things that was so immensely fascinating when digging around all thoseyears for fodder for BTI (Breaking The Ice) was coming across these examples ofpretty damn funky Icelandic white boys who had quite a lot of groove in theirbackbones. It is a well known fact that Iceland has a varied and deep musicalhistory, but funk is not part of that story, albeit an inevitable one based onthe music that made it to their airwaves and eventually seeped into theircollective musical psyche. The fact that an Icelandic gentleman is responsiblefor one of the most sampled breaks in music is so dope to me, and in a weirdway brings my own personal music mantra full circle. As thorough as this 1st goaround was, I also feel like i’m just getting started.
Copies of DJ Platurn’s Breaking The Ice + a FREE limited cassingle are available via Needle To The Groove HERE while supplies last.