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R.I.P.: Bob Esty, 1947-2019

I’m heartbroken to learn that Bob Esty passed away last Thursday, Sept. 26th.

Bob was a close friend of Richard Amsel’s, and he was among the first people I interviewed for my documentary. The filming, which took place almost four years ago in Esty’s West Hollywood apartment, was filled with laughter, bawdy humor, touching remembrances…and more than a bit of singing.

For those who knew Esty, the latter will hardly come as a surprise. Esty has been referred to as “The Man Who Created Disco” – a musical genius who collaborated with Cher, Donna Summer, Sally Kellerman, LaRue, Billy Preston, Dusty Springfield, and Barbra Streisand. He was a music producer, arranger, composer, songwriter, and singer, whose work included such songs as “Take Me Home” and disco-era films such as THE MAIN EVENT, THANK GOD IT’S FRIDAY, and ROLLER BOOGIE. He also made a significant contribution to Donna Summer’s “Last Dance”, but was unjustly uncredited (and snubbed of the song’s Oscar as a result).

Despite his extraordinary career and success, Bob struggled in his later years. He suffered health issues, and other problems that befall so many of us. We’re fragile creatures, with fragile livelihoods. Such hardships plague even the most talented among us.

Esty had been recovering from a stroke some time before our interview, and there were moments throughout our Q&A where he was clearly fighting for words and remembrances.

My heart goes out to all his friends and family – especially those who cared for and supported him through those dark times.

Though it had been a while since I last saw him, we’d chat on the phone or on Facebook every now and then, and he was always warm and funny. I sensed a certain survivor’s defiance in him, too – the kind of soulful, spirited energy only found in those who’ve lived through and done so much. Indeed, when I filmed his interview, he wore a black T-shirt that read “BOB LIVES” in white letters.

It was something he wore often, as if it was his big shout out to the universe. I'll never forget that.

Since I began filming the documentary, I’ve carried a fearful dread in the back of my mind that some of the people who I’ve interviewed would not be around to see the final result. I’m saddened that it will have to honor the legacies of those beyond Richard Amsel, who now belong to the ages…

Here is his obit from The Hollywood Reporter:

Bob Esty, the songwriter, producer and arranger best known for his hit collaborations with Donna Summer, Cher and Barbra Streisand during the disco era, has died. He was 72.

Esty died Friday in Los Angeles after a short battle with metastatic cancer, his friend Dorian Hannaway announced.

Esty co-produced and arranged Summer’s disco sensation "Last Dance," which reached No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1978, won two Grammys and — featured in Thank God It's Friday — captured the best original song Oscar at the 1979 Academy Awards.

(The song was written by Paul Jabara and produced by Jabara, Esty and Summer's regular collaborator, Giorgio Moroder. Esty always thought he should have received a co-writing credit and said he "learned a bitter lesson from that.")

Esty also handled the arrangements for Summer’s Once Upon a Time album released in 1977 and produced songs and albums by many other artists during his stint at Casablanca Records, including Cher's 1979 release Take Me Home, for which Esty and his writing partner, Michele Aller, penned most of the songs. (He co-produced the LP with Ron Dante.)

He also worked with such acts as Jabara, Brooklyn Dreams (featuring Bruce Sudano, Summer’s husband), Patti Brooks and D.C. LaRue at the label.

Esty served as Streisand’s vocal coach on "No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)," her hit 1979 duet with Summer, and arranged and produced the title song for Streisand’s film The Main Event (1979), having co-written it with Jabara and Bruce Roberts.

He also produced the Streisand single "The Main Event/Fight" and co-produced and arranged "I Have Dreamed/We Kiss in the Shadow/Something Wonderful," The King and I medley on Streisand’s 1985 Broadway album. And he provided the orchestrations and choir arrangements and conducted the choir for Streisand’s 2000-01 world tours.

Robert Malcolm Esty II was born on April 20, 1947, in Springfield, Massachusetts. Raised in Baltimore, he played the organ in his family’s church when he was barely tall enough for his feet to reach the pedals. As a teen, he won a Mr. Junior Baltimore contest after he continued playing a piano that was sliding off a slanted stage.

Following a stint at Baltimore City College, Esty moved to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in 1965 to study theater and music at Franklin & Marshall College, then was hired as a musical director for the Armstrong Flooring Co. in Lancaster. (The company would stage shows for the salesmen who sold ads for its flooring products to network TV shows.)

He relocated to New York in 1969 and became a musical director for the off-Broadway musical Lyle, written by Eddie Cantor's daughters Marilyn Cantor Baker and Janet Gari. Its backers included Dick Cavett and Woody Allen, but it closed in three days.

Around this time, Esty also served as musical director for future Earth, Wind & Fire songwriter Allee Willis and worked with cabaret singer John C. Attle, an original castmember of Fiddler on the Roof, and the trio Gotham.

In 1974, Esty began a lifetime association with actress-singer Sally Kellerman. (Their mutual manager was Rudy Altobelli, who encouraged Esty to relocate to Los Angeles. Once there, he lived in Altobelli’s guesthouse on the property where Sharon Tate had been murdered five years earlier.)

After Esty accompanied Kellerman when she appeared in 1975 on The Smothers Brothers Show, Tom and Dick Smothers hired Esty to work with their musical guests.

He also collaborated with such artists as Harry Wayne Casey (the frontman of KC and the Sunshine Band), Ava Cherry, Jeff Stryker and Roberta Kelly during his career.

Survivors include his brother-in-law, Judson; niece Gwyn; and nephews Jud and Luke.

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