Donna Summer would have been 73 today. The legendary pop diva died almost 10 years ago at the early age of 63 and left behind a tremendous legacy of music. Much of her work in the 1970s defined what popular music meant and she was a pioneer of dance music, creating a dance-pop template followed by great dance divas like Madonna, Janet Jackson, Jody Watley, Britney Spears. She was linked with fellow giants of early dance music including Giorgio Moroder, Paul Jabara, Pete Bellotte, and Bruce Sudano. Her early single “Love to Love You Baby” from 1975 is arguably the most important disco single of the genre. It celebrated the carnal sexuality of the club culture. As Summer’s airy, sensual vocals moaned erotically over the funky beat. The song was a glorious 17 minutes long -a symphonic epic of passion.
“Love to Love You Baby” wasn’t Summer’s first single but it was an explosive introduction to a novel and distinct artist who would change music forever. It hit the US top 10, peaking at number 2, the first of 14 top 10 hit singles. She ruled the pop and dance charts, becoming the gorgeous face of disco music. Though dance music was seen with wary snobbery by rock critics who damned the genre as “inauthentic” or prefabricated, Summer became the voice of a dominant pop music genre that centered the voices of Black and Latino queer people as well as women of color. Disco music was the music of queer culture – a joyous celebration of queer sexuality and queer identity. Gay bars would play dance music and so gay audiences became discerning consumers of the music. As with any sort of subversive, subculture, once the mainstream, moneyed capitalist institutions got their hands on disco music, the music was distorted and white washed, getting the inherent campness wrong and the resultant was the polyestered tackiness.
But artists like Donna Summer continued to make innovative and dynamic music. “I Feel Love,” her 1977 single, was a sonic marvel: a futuristic, space-age banger, scored by a Moog synthesizer. The song is arguably the most influential singles of dance music, its echoes heard in every disco song, dance-pop, New Wave, New Romantic, electronica, house, and techno. After “I Feel Love,” pop music was never the same.
Though Summer personified dance music, she wasn’t content with staying in just one genre: she also looked to rock, soul, gospel, becoming one of the most creative and unique voices of her time. Critics wanted to dismiss disco music as a producer-driven genre (and yes, the producers and songwriters of the disco era were unheralded musical geniuses), but Summer wasn’t a singing mannequin or a cipher. An accomplished songwriter and producer, Summer was integral to the creation of her sound and music. She also had a beautiful and distinct voice, one that was malleable and flexible, able to drift like a cloud over the thick, programmed beats or blast through the productions with a fiery, gospel-hewed fervor.
Because Donna Summer was more than just a gorgeous face fronting dance music, but an actual artist, she was one of the few disco artists who was able to extend her career beyond the 1970s, adapting successfully to the synth-driven dance-pop and urban soul-pop. She started working with other dance producers in the 1980s and 1990s, hooking up with the ubiquitous Stock Aitken Waterman, Quincy Jones, and C+C Music Factory and recorded more excellent dance music that would extend her career into the new millennium, consistently landing in the top 10 on the dance charts.
More than any other singer of the disco genre, Donna Summer possessed a free and exuberant voice that captured, at once, the joy and exhilaration of dance music. Her sound, her music, remains essential when assessing the impact of dance music. She was an original originator, a Founding Mother of dance music, who would become its most important practitioner.
Important Highlights of Donna Summer
Crayons (2008): Summer’s final studio LP released whilst she was alive, this is a solid collection of dance and pop tunes that bear the mark of its time. As always, Summers enlivens everything with that glorious, clear-as-a-bell clarion of a voice (that has not aged). This is a stylish record of contemporary urban-pop, impeccably produced and performed with characteristic zeal.
“Power of Love” (2005): the death of Luther Vandross was a huge blow to the music community. Vandross was an inspired singer-songwriter and producer, lending his gargantuan talents to the likes of legendary divas like Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross, and Dionne Warwick. His voice was incredible – smooth, lyrical, expressive. He was the Mozart of romantic soul. On So Amazing: An All-Star Tribute to Luther Vandross, Summer reworks Vandross’ midtempo hit “Power of Love” into a hypnotic club tune.
“Love Is the Healer” (1999): an album track from a 1999 live album, this song is prime later-day Donna Summer. Written and produced with Nathan DiGesare and Thunderpuss, “Love Is the Healer” is high-tech house with great sonic accents, including the Gregorian chants (all the rage in the early 90s). Also, Summer laid down some of her best vocals on this dance hit.
“Carry On” (1997): the inaugural winner of the Best Dance Recording Grammy, this early 90s hit that became a dance staple in 1997 due to some fantastic remixes. It showed listeners that despite being in the business for more than two decades, both Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder were still able to make some great, vital dance music that still spoke to current audiences without pandering to current pop trends.
“Melody of Love (Wanna Be Loved)” (1994): the first single off a mid-90s compilation, this house-pop tune joined Summer with David Cole and Robert Clivillés of C+C Music Factory fame, and it’s no surprise that the union is inspired. Over the strutting, queer dance beat and pounding keyboards, Summer – at seeming vocal peak – joyfully belts over the bouncing percussion. Though her biggest hits were in the 1970s, songs like “Melody of Love” proved that in the 1990s, she was still as creative and vital a performer.
“This Time I Know It’s for Real” (1989): Don’t call it a comeback because Summer wasn’t really gone. By the end of the 1980s, Summer’s impact on pop radio had dwindled, so she turned to the British outfit, Stock Aitken Waterman (arguably the commercial – though not artistic – successors of Giorgio Moroder), who created hits for Kylie Minogue. Summer collaborated with the trio on this sprightly, churning tune, which married SAW’s assembly-line dance-pop production with her distinct and heaven-sent vocals.
“Dinner with Gershwin” (1987): Originally written and recorded by Brenda Russell, “Dinner with Gershwin” is a strange, eccentric tune in which Summer warbles the names of the famous names she’d like to hang out with (i.e. Rembrandt, Curie, Picasso, Earhart, Mahalia Jackson). The production – courtesy of Russell and Richard Perry is somewhat dated now, but the angular, clipped arrangement is exciting to hear and the lyrics are fun and just odd enough to make this a winning highlight of Summer’s 80s output.
“She Works Hard for the Money” (1983): early 80s pop music flirted with proletariat anthems, most notably with Dolly Parton’s paean to the working gal, “9 to 5.” For “She Works Hard for the Money,” Summer joins CCM giant Michael Omartian for this New Wave-inspired rocker about a working-class female worker, toiling away. Summer’s empathetic performance and the high-octane production are high spots on this corker of a tune. It’s an important song in Summer’s oeuvre because it also proved that the stigma of disco wouldn’t have much of an effect on her career.
“Love Is in Control (Finger on the Trigger)” (1982): Quincy Jones was the most in-demand producer of the early 1980s due to his iconic work with Michael Jackson. He turned to Donna Summer with this tight, funky tune that boasts some of Jones’ distinct characteristics of his 80s work – lots of gaudy synths, rumbling, mile-wide bass, sassy background vocals, vocoder-vocal samples. There’s also a hot sax solo and a whistle. It’s over the top and somewhat fussy and crowded, but it’s still a great, fun jam.
I’m a Rainbow (recorded in 1981; released in 1996): this record was shelved and in the ensuing years it became a legend among Donna Summer fans. Looking to dance-pop, synth-pop, and New Wave, the album was a concerted effort to move away subtly from her disco roots. Along with Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte, Summer also works with other top-shelf talent like Harold Faltermeyer, Bruce Sudano, and Silvester Levay, putting together a superb collection of pop songs. The bright, neon-spiked “Melanie” is a major highlight (and should have been a single) and despite it being arguably, one of the worst songs ever written, Summer manages to even make Andrew Lloyd Webber’s garbagey “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” moving and affecting. A shame that this album was shelved.
“The Wanderer” (1980): Once Donna Summer entered the 1980s, she was facing an ever-shifting musical landscape. Though identified by disco, Summer always had designs on pop/rock, so this single is a fantastic indulgence. It’s a New Wave song with some post-punk inflections, crunchy guitars, and a bouncing beat. She affects a curling sneer of a voice when singing the song (there’s also a slightly rockabilly sound to some of Summer’s delivery). Like her other work of the 1980s, it showed a flexibility in her sound and abilities.
On the Radio: Greatest Hits Volumes I & II (1979): Arguably one of the best greatest-hits collections released, this 16-track, double-LP compilation is a brilliant encapsulation of the most important artist of the disco ear and one of the most successful artists of the 1970s. The track list has the greatest disco music ever recorded. New tracks added to entice buyers do not sound like last minute additions, but are excellent songs in their own right: the title track is a classic and her duet with Barbra Streisand “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)” is a camp classic.
“On the Radio” (1979): The title track of her greatest hits album, “On the Radio” follows the format of a classic Donna Summer tune: a sweeping ballad that will turn into a booty-shaking jam. The chorus of the song is crazily catchy and belies the tension in the lyrics which are quite moving, despite the discotheque pacing.
“No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)” (1979): The pairing of Donna Summer and Barbra Streisand is destined to be a camp classic and a kitsch standard. Summer and Streisand were both enjoying unprecedented success in the 1970s, scoring hit singles and selling millions of records. Both divas – icons and queens of gay male fans – were known for their large and expressive voices. A song like this pit the two against each other, culminating in an exciting – yet still hilarious – match. Written by dance great Paul Jabara and Bruce Roberts, the song is a delicious, over-the-top disco tune that embraces a silliness and queeny queerness.
“Dim All the Lights” (1979): Donna Summer admitted that she originally wrote this song for Rod Stewart but was so in love with it, that she kept it for herself. The song is essentially two-in-one: it starts off as a bluesy ballad (I can hear Stewart singing this bit) before it boogies into a shuffling disco ditty.
“Bad Girls” (1979): One of Donna Summer’s most enduring hits is a sassy, saucy disco number which is a story song about prostitutes. Despite the subject matter, Summer imbues the song with a pointed, wary attitude. The backup vocalists add as much to the song’s appeal as Summer herself; they trade vocal licks with the diva, adding to the fun.
Bad Girls (1979): Arguably Donna Summer’s best studio LP which brings in a lot of her favorite sounds, including disco, rock, soul, and pop. It’s a diverse and wide-ranging record that allows for audiences to see just how masterful Summer is. The ballads show off Summer’s fantastic voice and the album’s innovative use of synthesizers and electronic instruments makes Bad Girls a seminal pop record of the 1970s. Producer Giorgio Moroder perfects 70s guitar-driven pop/rock as well as continue to develop the muscular, sweaty tech-driven dance music.
“Hot Stuff” (1979): Donna Summer’s embrace of rock sounds imply a second side career as a Tina Turner-esque rock goddess. Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte create a jumping, jangly disco-rock song that matches Summer’s rock star aspirations. There’s a fantastic undulating synthesizer as well as a crunchy rock guitar by Jeff “Skunk” Baxter.
“Last Dance” (1978): Paul Jabara won a well-deserved Oscar for this song which was written for Thank God It’s Friday. The accompanying soundtrack is pretty brilliant with excellent disco tracks. Jabara is a master at writing dance music and captures the wistful, lilting mood of when the last song is called at the end of a night of dancing at a club. It encapsulates that kind of feeling of yearning and want as well as regret that comes up when a night winds down and romantic feelings are still left unspoken and unrequited. Donna Summer performs the song beautifully, finding the tone of Jabara’s lovelorn, reaching words.
“MacArthur Park” (1978): Summer’s cover of Jimmy Webb’s ballad is one of the most bewildering songs ever. Starting off as a slow, swinging, funk ballad with an urgent, piercing vocal performance before she unleashes a sneering laugh, as the strings and disco beat explode. Despite the quixotic lyrics, the production and arrangement adds a fiery earnestness which Summer matches with a passionate, committed performance (her snarling howls are great). The synth work is also brilliantly bonkers.
“I Feel Love” (1977): The mission of “I Feel Love” was straight forward: to change the face of dance music. Produced by Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte, the song is a deep, dark, space-age disco sci-fi number. Summer’s voice is a sensual force of a nature. Every dance song, every synth-pop song, every New Wave song owes its sound to “I Feel Love.”
Love to Love You Baby (1975): though the title track is the main draw (a 17-minute opus of funk and sex), the flip side of the album has been unfairly overwhelmed by the success of the song. Pete Bellotte and Giorgio Moroder craft a string of perfect soul-pop songs with spirited vocals by Summer. The gutsy “Pandora’s Box” is a fantastic slice of piano-driven pop and “Need-a-Man Blues” is a whirling, driving tune. The title track is a classic, but the other cuts showcase Summer’s versatility (as well as Moroder’s and Bellotte’s).
“Love to Love You Baby” (1975): One of Donna Summer’s earliest hits, this song is arguably the sexiest song in history. You can hear in its production and writing, the blueprint of Madonna’s “Erotica” and Janet Jackson’s “Throb.” Few mainstream pop songs celebrated female sexuality and “Love to Love You Baby” was at once a feminist manifesto of feminine sensuality and a celebration of the sexy power of dance.