(June 4, 2023).  In the heady days of disco, and in the years immediately after, it wasn’t uncommon for a great dance tune to begin as a slow ballad.

It was a popular tactic for disco divas like Donna Summer and Gloria Gaynor and yes, even pop superstars like Diana Ross and Barbra Streisand, all of whom had hits that started with deceptively slow, simmering grooves that set a somber mood before exploding into a disco frenzy that had our feet tapping and butts wiggling faster than we could say, “wait, what just happened?!.”

This metamorphosis-in-song became so common in the disco (and post-disco) era that it was almost cliché, yet it still gave certain tunes the dramatic flair that disco—in its own self-indulgent, decadent kinda way—demanded, with the only remaining suspense being how artists would make that inevitable transition from those slow, somber warmups to the electrifying fast-paced workouts that have been seared in our hearts and minds (and feet and butts) ever since. 

For example, who could forget that melodramatic, piano glissando-led intro to Gloria Gaynor’s 1979 smash “I Will Survive,” where the one-time disco queen delivers her exasperated opening monologue over a beat-less melody before the song morphs into the famous 4/4 thumper that made it one of the biggest, most enduring disco songs of all time?

Or how about that sensual beginning to Diana Ross’ sublime 1976 smash “Love Hangover,” where the Motown diva spends the first nearly three minutes (in the long version) slowly bearing witness to love’s addicting effects before she finally gives us what we’d been waiting for: a 112-bpm, hi-hat driven, dizzying anthem that spends the next five minutes proving Motown’s arrival to the disco party was better late than never?

Or what about “Flashdance…What A Feeling” by the late Irene Cara?  The single edit of that 1983 gem, which topped the Billboard Hot 100 forty years ago this past week, clocked slightly under four minutes, with the first 47 seconds devoted to Cara’s slow, wistful expressions of fear and loneliness before, suddenly, that euphoric dance beat kicks in and all hope is restored.

Irene Cara’s “Flashdance…What A Feeling” was the No. 1 song in America (Billboard Hot 100) 40 years ago this week.

Those are just a few of the many examples—I’ve found more than two dozen—of ballad-to-disco classics that perfectly nailed that slow-to-fast transition…the songs that didn’t announce themselves as disco but in the end had our hearts, butts and feet all a-flutter on dance floors across America.

It is in this spirit, and partially in recognition of the 40th anniversary of the No. 1 crowning of Cara’s “Flashdance,” that the blog has created a ranking of the 25 best dual-tempo disco tunes, presented in countdown order from least to most, from bottom to top, based strictly on one blogger’s humble opinion: yours truly. 

The list below takes into account not only the songs’ perceived overall standing in dance and disco circles, but also those fabulous ballad-to-jam transitions…the more dramatic and jarring, the better!

Now if you’re wondering about omissions like Heatwave’s “Boogie Nights,” whose long version starts with a toe-tapping jazzy intro before morphing into the disco number most pop fans were familiar with, it didn’t make this list because that opening jazz beat is as fast as the rest of the song.  This ranking is solely about going from slow to fast. 

Readers will surely have their own views, including whether some of the songs even qualify as disco or whether the transitions really amounted to all that, so feel free to share and provide your thoughts in the comment section below or in any of the social media feeds where the article is linked. 

And please let me (and other readers) know if there are any songs you feel the blog omitted or where you believe these and/or others should’ve landed on the list.

Here they are, listed from bottom to top, with intro and total times provided for good measure, beginning with a couple of honorable mentions: 

Rank. “Title” – Artist (slow intro time; total time)/ (year)

Honorable Mention.  “Dance Turned Into A Romance” – Jones Girls (:27 of 4:28)/ (1980)

Kicking things off is an extra—one of two Kenneth Gamble & Leon Huff compositions covered here. This 1980 “soft-disco” single by the Jones Girls out of Philly, surprisingly, didn’t make the Billboarddance/disco chart (unlike the group’s prior-year breakthrough “You’re Gonna Make Me Love Somebody Else”). That’s likely because “Romance” leans more soul than disco. But it made the slow-to-fast transition convincingly enough to at least get a mention here, as a prelude to the top-25.

Honorable mention #2.  “Star” – Earth, Wind & Fire (:30 of 4:24)/ (1979)

The only song from EWF’s 1979 album, I Am, to make the disco chart was “Boogie Wonderland.”  And while that smash was about as disco as the Elements of the Universe would get, it was one of the album’s later singles, “Star,” that would employ the slow-to-fast segue better than anything else the group recorded.  Like the other honorable mention, it’s a stretch to call “Star” a disco song, but it’s too good to not at least get a nod.

Twenty-five.  “There Goes My Baby” – Donna Summer (:34 of 4:07)/ (1984)

The first song in the official list of 25 is Donna Summer’s “There Goes My Baby.”  No one mastered the ballad-to-disco morphology better than the late disco queen. As proof, Summer has seven (!) qualifying songs on this list, beginning with this not-so-disco, electro-pop number from her Cats Without Claws album (1984).  It’s a remake of the old Drifters hit from 25 years earlier and it was her last pop top-40 hit before her mini-comeback five years later (1989’s “This Time I Know It’s For Real”).

Twenty-four. “I Am Love” – Jackson 5 (3:42 of 7:26) (1975)

Motown’s attempt to cast the Jackson 5 as socially conscious, progressive-rock peddlers began with Jermaine wistfully crooning over a ballad that was so long, its edited version warranted the whole A-side of the 45 rpm vinyl single of “I Am Love” upon its release in late 1974.  But it was that transition near the full-length album version’s midpoint that gets it on this list.  In the rocked-out “Part II,” which served as the single’s B-side and received most of its pop radio play, Michael and Jermaine take the song over the top, with the last 1:20 being a total jam-out.  Again, not quite disco, but many butts were shaking to this one in the end. 

Twenty-three.  “Happiness” – Pointer Sisters (:36 of 3:59 or the 5:45 long version)/ (1979)

The Pointer Sisters were nothing if they weren’t versatile, which they proved repeatedly with songs spanning wide-ranging genres that included country, pop, soul, dance, funk and even 1940s bebop. Their first true disco entry was this followup to 1978’s mid-tempo rocker “Fire.”  Youngest sister June handled the vocals, including that slow, life-affirming, gospel-like intro that qualifies it for this list.  

Twenty-two.  “Once Upon A Time” – Donna Summer (:30 of 4:01)/ (1977)

Donna Summer wasn’t only the Queen of Disco, she was also the Queen of the 1970s’ Concept Album, with her ‘77 LP Once Upon A Time being one of at least three she recorded during the decade (Four Seasons of Love and Bad Girls being two others). “Once Upon A Time” told a Cinderella-like tale with the song’s slow-to-fast transition musically channeling the heroine’s famous rags-to-riches storyline. 

Twenty-one. “The Main Event/Fight” – Barbra Streisand (:30 of 4:53)/ (1979)

Barbra Streisand was no stranger to disco in 1979, with her two biggest releases of that year both being of the genre.  Not coincidentally, they both used the slow-to-fast transition as both songs (the other one is coming up later) were written by the same people: Paul Jabara and Bruce Roberts. “The Main Event,” from the same-named film starring Streisand and Ryan O’Neil, clocked at a very fast 137 beats per minute…that is, once it got past that slow 30-second intro where Babs’ delivers some front-page news about being all in love.  

Twenty.  “On The Radio” – Donna Summer (1:08 of 4:01)/ (1980)

By the time she released “On The Radio” on her first greatest hits album in 1979, some folks believed Donna Summer had overused the formula of beginning her songs as ballads before doing what she became famous for, yet the formula still worked. “On The Radio” (also found in the film Foxes) was another top-10 disco, pop and soul hit for the multi-format superstar, and her last big hit for Casablanca Records before she signed with Geffen in 1980. 

Nineteen.  “Street Life” – Crusaders (1:27 of 11:18)/ (1979)

The jazz outfit The Crusaders recruited vocalist Randy Crawford to do the lead on their biggest hit “Street Life,” which was one of 1979’s more pleasant surprises as it made the soul, pop and disco charts late that year.  But those who bought the vinyl 45–or heard the 12” promo in clubs—were denied the nearly minute-and-a-half intro on the full-length album version where Crawford smolders over a deceptive sax/keyboard/string musical backdrop before erupting to life at the 1:27 mark of the song.  Not your traditional disco tune for sure, but that didn’t stop folks from boogieing to what was one of the greatest jazz-to-dance crossover hits of its era…especially the last nearly ten glorious minutes of it!

Eighteen. “Never Gonna Be The Same” – Ruth Waters (:25 of 7:27)

Likely not as well known as the other more pop-oriented songs on this list, this 1979 gem by Ruth Waters epitomized the slow building disco tune, where the singer basically introduces the song in ballad fashion with a key part of the hook, which she then repeats over a sped-up disco beat moments later.  This deep disco cut was recorded and produced at Philly’s legendary Sigma Sound Studios by famed producer John Davis, who earlier had been one of two saxophonists with that name in the Philly Soul group MFSB.  This John Davis died in 2023 (age 75).

Seventeen. “Runaway Love” – Linda Clifford (:18 of 9:44)/ (1978)

When Linda Clifford belts out the line “I ain’t got no heartaches to spare” in this disco classic, one can’t help but think of the present-day mantra, “no f*cks to give,” which, although it has a different meaning, still comes across with the same dismissive flare as Clifford’s classic line from ’78.  The nearly ten-minute “Runaway Love” begins with a soft, 18-second keyboard palette accompanied by Clifford’s melodic moaning before she turns up the heat on her wayward lover and gives him the what-for.  This was No. 1 on Billboard’s disco chart for five weeks in 1978. 

Sixteen.  “Don’t Leave Me This Way” – Thelma Houston (:20 of 3:37)/ (1977)

Here’s the other Gamble & Huff song to be included here.  It’s the No. 1 pop/soul/disco smash by then-Motown singer Thelma Houston.  “Don’t Leave Me This Way” was a remake of Harold Melvin & the Bluenotes’ album cut from a year earlier (hence the Gamble & Huff connection).  If Thelma’s version reminds you of Diana Ross’ “Love Hangover,” it’s because both songs were produced by in-house Motown staffer Hal Davis.  In fact, “Don’t Leave Me This Way” was originally intended for Ms. Ross as the followup to “Hangover,” but reassigned to Ms. Houston instead.  The song’s slow intro is merely a 20-second moaning/humming vehicle for Houston.  But when it later reaches that crescendo, the singer is practically demanding that her needs be met amid a flurry of wildly shaking tambourines, and listeners are left to wonder whether Diana could’ve ever done it such justice.

Fifteen. “There But For The Grace of God Go I” – Machine (:17 of 5:17)/ (1979)

Of all the songs on this list, “There But For The Grace of God” has the shortest slow intro with just 17 seconds of a piano solo previewing one of the greatest disco classics of the era.  Like most of these songs, the 45rpm 7” vinyl single omitted the intro for radio consumption (station programmers preferred cold starts), but this tune just wasn’t the same without it. And one can only imagine throngs of disco patrons jumping to their feet as soon as that first piano note hits, knowing what was to come just moments later.

Fourteen. “I Will Survive” – Gloria Gaynor (:22 of 3:17)/ (1979)

One of the biggest-selling singles of all time owes its success to both of its vital elements: that slow dramatic intro (“first I was afraid…I was petrified”) and Gaynor’s triumphant declaration of independence after the tempo picks up.  It’s hard to imagine the song being as big a hit without either factor, but especially without the melodrama that songwriter/producers Freddie Perren and Dino Fekaris plugged into its first few bars.  (Seriously, who had ever used “petrified” in a pop lyric before “Survive”?)

Thirteen. “When You Touch Me” – Taana Gardner (2:43 of 10:41 on 12”) (1979)

Another deep disco cut, this one by Taana Gardner (of 1981 “Heartbeat” fame) was huge in discos in 1979, reaching No. 10 on Billboard’s disco chart but failing to make either the soul or pop charts that year.  It starts off less like a ballad than a mid-tempo, quiet storm kinda groove, with Gardner’s chirpy vocals hitting a register that sounded like a rough version of Deniece Williams.  Then, nearly three minutes in, it breaks out of its cocoon and turns into a fluttering disco nugget, with nearly eight more minutes of 133-bpm fun.  Yeah, this one was strictly for the dance floors.

Twelve. “You Get The Best From Me (Say, Say, Say)” – Alicia Myers (1:19 of 8:00) (1984)

Had this 1984 soul classic been released five years earlier, there’d be no doubt about its disco credentials.  As it was, “You Get The Best From Me” by Alicia Myers (formerly of the group Al Hudson & the Partners, who became better known as One Way) was five years too late, and thus the tune was considered disco in everything but name.  Myers’ soulful vocals were hard to top, particularly during this song’s ballad intro, where she faithfully followed the tried-and-true disco formula of singing a key line from the song really slow before repeating it over a thumping disco beat moments later.  Oh and brace yourselves when you play it: Myers repeats the word “say” more than 256 times in the long version, which has to be some kind of record.

Eleven. “Light My Fire” – Amii Stewart (:43 of 8:23)/ (1979)

Amii Stewart was a pop one-hit wonder with her remake of Eddie Floyd’s Stax Records classic “Knock On Wood” earlier in 1979.  But this cover of The Doors “Light My Fire” should’ve joined its predecessor as a top-40 hit (it flamed out months later at No. 69 on the Hot 100).  As all of these songs do, “Light My Fire” starts as a ballad before suddenly, 40 second in, Stewart shifts gears (and octaves) and takes us into a disco frenzy befitting every dance hall worth its weight in glitter balls.  Yet, surprisingly, this song didn’t even make the Billboard disco charts!  Go figure. 

Ten. “No One Gets The Prize” – Diana Ross (:24 of 4:40)/ (1979)

Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson produced Diana Ross’ entire 1979 album The Boss, which came only nine months before her Chic-produced opus Diana in 1980.  Because of that rapid turnaround, it is often overshadowed in dance-pop music circles by its more commercially successful successor. But that doesn’t take away from the pure disco heaven that was The Boss, especially “No One Gets The Prize,” the lead-off track where Diana sings of lies, jealousy and a broken friendship, and which cemented Ross’ true commitment to the genre, as well as Ashford & Simpson’s unwavering ability to produce some of dance music’s best burners.

Nine. “Star Love” – Cheryl Lynn (1:15 of 7:24)/ (1979)

This disco blazer by Cheryl Lynn followed her iconic “Got To Be Real” in 1979, and it’s best known for its “pig-call” scat (“suuuu-ha-ha”) during the song’s breakdown halfway through.  But it all starts with Cheryl crooning for more than a minute over a slow groove in which she describes the sinful cosmic rendezvous that becomes the song’s central point.  “Star Love” deserved a better chart fate as it failed to make the top ten on Billboard’s disco chart or the top 40 on the magazine’s pop list.

Eight. “No More Tears (Enough is Enough)” – Babs & The Queen (1:45 of 4:48)/ (1979)

When two superstars collided like Barbra Streisand and Donna Summer did in late 1979, the result was this No. 1 chart explosion that spent two weeks atop the pop list and four weeks atop the disco survey.  The song’s intro was a late decision—as was its title—both made to fit the theme of Babs’ “concept” album, Wet, where every song had something to do with water.  “No More Tears” would be Streisand’s second and last disco chart hit, and it would be the last No. 1 on the dance/disco chart for Summer over the next 15 years (until 1994’s “Melody of Love”).

Seven. “Dim All The Lights” – Donna Summer (:46 of 4:40)/ (1979)

The Queen of Disco struck again with this third single—and arguably the best one—from her Bad Girlsopus in 1979.  One of the things that elevates “Dim All The Lights” is the long note Summer holds as the song transitions from slow to fast.  The sixteen seconds she takes to finish the line “let it fill you uuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuup” is the stuff of legends (right up there with some of the long notes her later duet partner Barbra Streisand held in her biggest hits).  No disco diva is true unless she has the pipes to prove it, as Donna did so memorably on this track. 

Six.  “Dance Forever” – Ashford & Simpson (1:13 of 5:49)/ (1979)

The song that may be the least familiar of all on this list is from Ashford & Simpson’s 1979 album Stay Free, which included their first top-40 pop hit “Found A Cure.”  “Dance Forever” is the LP’s stellar third track and the only one whose intro qualifies it for this slow-to-fast tribute.  Other Stay Free tunes like “Cure,” “Nobody Knows” and the album’s title track may have filled America’s dance floors—at least based on their joint No. 1 ranking on Billboard’s Disco chart in 1979–but there’s no way DJs weren’t also spinning the mighty fine “Dance Forever.”  There just isn’t. 

Five. “Flashdance…What A Feeling” – Irene Cara (:47 of 3:58)/ (1983)

This song climbed to No. 1 at the end of May 1983, and remained there until early July, long enough to make it the second-biggest hit of that year (after The Police’s “Every Breath You Take” and just nudging out Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” in third place).  “Flashdance…What A Feeling” was a hit during the post-disco era, but its trademark slow-to-fast cadence fit squarely in the mode of so many true disco classics before it.  Irene Cara passed away in November 2022 at the young age of 63, just months before the 40th anniversary of the release of what would become her biggest hit.

Four.  “Come To Me” – France Joli (:58 of 9:50)/ (1979)

For those counting, more than half the songs on this list—14 to be exact—were hits in 1979.  In the waning days of disco’s peak popularity in summer ‘79 came this classic by a 16-year-old French-Canadian named France Joli (pronounced “fronz zho-LEE”). “Come To Me,” which spent three weeks at No. 1 on Billboard’s disco chart, also made the pop top 20 and soul top 40.  Ironically, the song, which employed Donna Summer’s trademark ballad-to-disco transition, received a boost when Joli filled in for the Queen during a concert at New York’s Fire Island earlier that summer.  Joli, who is just 60 years old now, is still the youngest living artist of those in this countdown.

Three. “MacArthur Park Suite” – Donna Summer (1:15 of 17:35)/ (1978)

This iconic “suite” was a medley of three disco songs by Ms. Summer, including the titular track, plus “One of a Kind” and another top-five smash, “Heaven Knows.”  But it’s the treatment she gave Richard Harris’ 1968 nugget that takes this one over the top.  Summer and her legendary producer Georgio Moroder were firing on all cylinders by the time they worked their magic on this cut, which began with Summer’s melodramatic reading of songwriter Jimmy Webb’s classic lyrics before segueing into a disco classic filled with strings, horns and that electronic, space-sounding, Tom-drum sound that was so prevalent during 1978-79.

Two.  “Last Dance” – Donna Summer (1:18 of 8:10)/ (1978)

The queen preceded “MacArthur Park” with “Last Dance,” her entry from 1978’s second-biggest disco film, Thank God It’s Friday (need anyone ask what the biggest one was?). The times mentioned above are for the song’s long disco version, but even the single edit (for the vinyl 45) couldn’t have survived without Summer’s melodic cooing over its ballad-like intro. “Last Dance” is the highest ranked of the seven Donna Summer songs on this list, and it accounted for six of the 43 weeks that the one-of-a-kind superstar accumulated at the top of Billboard’s disco charts in just over four years from 1975-79. 

One. “Love Hangover” – Diana Ross (2:42 of 7:54)/ (1976)

Diana Ross may not have been the Queen of Disco (or soul or pop for that matter), but she was—and still is—“The Boss” (no offense to Bruce Springsteen fans).  And she was the first solo woman to have a song top all three of those genre’s charts with “Love Hangover” in Spring 1976.  The song famously begins with Motown’s leading lady channeling a bit of Donna Summer’s orgasmic “Love To Love You Baby” moans with a few restrained breathy sighs of her own over a sultry ballad intro.  But the cooing is just an appetizer for the main course, in which Ms. Ross spends the last five minutes vamping over what was easily Motown’s best disco number up to that point in time.  Who knew Diana could ad-lib so well, and for so long?!  It is easily the best of the slow-to-fast disco numbers on my list.  

What about yours?

Again, feel free to comment below or on any of the social media feeds where the article is posted. 

And please enjoy this Spotify playlist featuring all of the above songs.

Here’s a recap, presented in rank order from top to bottom:

  1. “Love Hangover” – Diana Ross (1976)
  2. “Last Dance” – Donna Summer (1978)
  3. “MacArthur Park” – Donna Summer (1978)
  4. “Come To Me” – France Joli (1979)
  5. “Flashdance…What A Feeling” – Irene Cara (1983)
  6. “Dance Forever” – Ashford & Simpson (1979)
  7. “Dim All The Lights” – Donna Summer (1979)
  8. “No More Tears (Enough is Enough)” – Donna Summer & Barbra Streisand (1979)
  9. “Star Love” – Cheryl Lynn (1979)
  10. “No One Gets The Prize” – Diana Ross (1979)
  11. “Light My Fire” – Amii Stewart (1979)
  12. “You Get The Best From Me (Say, Say, Say) – Alicia Myers (1984)
  13. “When You Touch Me” – Taana Gardner  (1979)
  14. “I Will Survive” – Gloria Gaynor (1979)
  15. “There But For The Grace of God Go I” – Machine (1979)
  16. “Don’t Leave Me This Way” – Thelma Houston (1976)
  17. “Runaway Love” – Linda Clifford (1978)
  18. “Never Gonna Be The Same” – Ruth Waters (1979)
  19. “Street Life” – Crusaders ft. Randy Crawford (1979)
  20. “On The Radio” – Donna Summer (1980)
  21. “The Main Event/Fight” – Barbra Streisand (1979)
  22. “Once Upon A Time” – Donna Summer (1977)
  23. “Happiness” – Pointer Sisters (1979)
  24. “I Am Love – Parts 1 & 2” – Jackson 5 (1974)
  25. “There Goes My Baby” – Donna Summer (1984)


DJRob (he/him/his), who still carries disco’s torch some 45 years later, is a freelance music blogger from somewhere on the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff!  You can follow him on Twitter at @djrobblog.

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By DJ Rob

2 thoughts on “25 songs that started as ballads and ended up disco: Which of these slow-to-fast dance tunes did it best?”
  1. Interesting note on Dim All The Lights:
    On the extended mix (7:10), they reprise the slow intro at 5:30 before launching into the end of the song.

    1. Yeah they simply edited the intro into that part, which seemed senseless to me. But anything to make the song longer I guess.

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