Donna Summer was typecast as the disco-era “bad girl,” the diva who was too salty and sexual for some radio stations to play in the ‘70s. But she was also a musical revolutionary, a versatile singer who created a radical new template for dance and pop music with such songs as “Love to Love You Baby” and “I Feel Love.”
The singer died Thursday in Florida at age 63 of cancer.
Summer, born LaDonna Adrian Gaines on Dec. 31, 1948 outside Boston, came from a devoutly Christian background, first singing in church before branching out into pop. In the late '60s, she joined a psychedelic rock band strongly influenced by Janis Joplin, and then ventured to Europe, where she sang in musicals.
In the early ‘70s, she met the producers Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte while working as a backup singer in Germany, and they began forging one of the era’s great musical partnerships.
Their first success, “Love to Love You Baby,” ushered in the disco era in 1975, a 17-minute track with a pulsing, trance-like rhythm over which Summer cooed, cried and moaned. The track’s overtly erotic tone scared away some radio programmers, but an edited version became a pop hit anyway, and the extended version (among the first 12-inch singles) became a staple of dancefloors worldwide.
In a Tribune interview more than a decade later, Summer reflected on the image created by the song. “People didn’t think I could sing, because I was whispering,” she said. “And it was a persona … It was never something that I felt comfortable with. I struggled with it from the beginning … but it’s nothing I’m ashamed of.”
She escaped the one-hit wonder typecasting so prevalent in the disco era. Moroder, Bellotte and Neil Bogart, the president of her record label, Casablanca, put her in settings that showcased her as an artist with stunning vocal range. A succession of double-albums, side-long suites and extended tracks created a new type of progressive music, created largely with keyboards, that expanded on some of the innovations of electro-pop and avant-garde artists such as Kraftwerk.
In 1977, the producers and Summer collaborated on a concept album that surveyed several decades of music, “I Remember Yesterday.” Its “future” segment included the track “I Feel Love,” which lived up to the hype: hypnotic waves of synthesizer rhythm suggesting some kind of science-fiction metropolis, with Summer’s voice rising and falling as if riding the celestial highway’s curves. It was not only a No. 2 pop single, it would prove to have a lasting impact on music. Brian Eno, while in recording sessions in Berlin with David Bowie at the time, proclaimed the song, “The sound of the future.” Which, Bowie, added, “was more or less right.”
“We had the music, and we wrote so many lyrics that didn't work -- they were too dense,” Summer said of “I Feel Love” in a recent interview. “And I said, ‘This is a chant -- this is euphoric’ and started to sing simpler things ... and it was so natural. It still sounds great -- when you're on the cutting edge of something and you hear it back, sometimes it sounds so dated, but this still sounds fresh to me.”
Summer, Moroder and Bellotte kept up a feverish pace, producing four double-albums between 1977 and ’79, including the disco Cinderella story, “Once Upon a Time …” The run included the sprawling “Bad Girls” album, which featured not just a “disco queen,” but a woman whose past in rock, soul and ballad-singing was equally apparent. During this period, Summer released an audacious remake of Jimmy Webb’s baroque pop epic “MacArthur Park,” and the valedictory “Last Dance,” in many ways the capstone of the disco era.
Summer transcended that era even though she was going through a number of personal upheavals at the onset of the ‘80s. She changed labels, went through a divorce, got remarried, had children, and proclaimed herself a born-again Christian. Yet the hits kept coming, with the “She Works Hard for the Money” album and title track (1983) and “Another Place and Time” (1989), produced by the then-hot London production team of Stock Aitken Waterman. The latter collaboration netted her final Top-40 hit, “This Time I Know It’s For Real.”
The singer battled depression, and took up painting as a release. “Performing is what I do for other people,” she once told the Tribune. “Painting is what I do for me. Being on stage is a lot of stress. You have to be perfect. Look perfect, your weight has to be perfect. Painting is a lot easier. I don’t have to be beautiful or skinny.”
She never quit music, though, continuing to tour and record while raising two daughters, Brooklyn and Amanda, with her husband Bruce Sudano (she had another daughter, Mimi, from a previous marriage). Her 2008 album, “Crayons,” hit No. 17 on the U.S. album chart, her highest entry since 1983. It included a track called “The Queen,” in which she pokes fun at her lasting image as the “Queen of Disco.”
That was she able to play with icon-hood and embrace it was a triumph of sorts for Summer, among the more introspective talents produced by an era noted for its glitter and glam.
After she turned 40 in the late ‘80s, she told the Tribune that entering her fifth decade “was traumatic. But we, the black people, have a saying; it's, 'Black don't crack.' It made me think of a lot of things I want to do, and I don't want to die without doing them. It was like putting a fire underneath me. At first, it scared me, and then I thought, 'Let me make the best of the next 40 years, and let me leave an anchor for my kids and their kids.' That's my goal."
Donna Summer essentials:
“Love to Love You Baby” (1975): Worth it if only for the 17-minute title song, a disco landmark.
“I Remember Yesterday” (1977): A concept album about music, with the “future” defined by the landmark “I Feel Love.” Dance and pop music would never be the same.
“Bad Girls” (1979): The Summer collaboration with producers Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte was never better, branching out into rock, soul and ballads, and yielding hit singles in the title track, “Hot Stuff” and “Dim the Lights.”
“She Works Hard for the Money” (1983): Summer is a more confident singer than ever on her 11th studio album as she reinvents herself for the post-disco age with a blue-collar anthem.
“The Donna Summer Anthology” (1993): Solid overview of her first two decades, with the mostly excellent ‘70s on Disc 1 and the more hit-and-miss ‘80s on Disc 2.
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