In May of 2012, the world lost one of its most gifted, innovative, and influential queens of music—Donna Summer. Summer was a singer, songwriter, producer, artist, and actress who became the Queen of Disco, but made music that transcended genres and categorization. She, along with her longtime producers Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte, crafted a sound that highlighted some of Disco’s best musical moments—along with incorporating technology and musical instrumentation that fueled innovations within Pop, Rock, New Wave, R& B/Soul, Dance, House, Techno, and Electronica. You’ll not only hear this on songs like “I Feel Love,” “Our Love,” “Sunset People,” “My Baby Understands,” and “Can’t Get To Sleep Tonight,” but you’ll also hear the influences on Madonna, Kylie, and Beyoncé to name a few. Had it not been for the strides and achievements made by Summer, music wouldn’t be the same and many of today’s biggest divas might be irrelevant.
Summer was a Boston native, one of seven children, who grew up singing in the church. She knew, after giving a performance in church one day, that she was blessed with an amazing gift and that it would bring lots of notoriety. As the world would come to know, Summer’s voice was a force of nature. She could growl with fervor, sensually coo, and wail like a first class diva. Her colorful multi-octave voice was a soulful instrument that could make you feel any and every emotion. Summer could move within the various registers of her voice with great ease and control. She knew how to sell a song. She knew when to exercise vocal restraint and just when to let loose. And to top it off, Summer could sing any genre of music.
By the time Summer was in her early twenties, she had several successful runs in a series of musicals in Europe such as Hair, Show Boat, and God Spell. Summer released her first two singles, a German version of “Aquarius” from Hair and a cover of The Jaynetts’ “Sally Goes ‘Round the Roses” in 1968 and 1971 respectively. Her debut album, Lady of the Night, was released on the Groovy Records label in 1974. The title track and “The Hostage” were released as singles to great success in several European countries. This was just the beginning for Summer though. Summer would set the music industry, dance floor, and world ablaze with the first single from her sophomore effort. This song was her seductive 17-minute opus “Love to Love You Baby” (1975). Using her acting chops, she imagined herself as a character (à la Marilyn Monroe) in a state of ecstasy. Summer’s orgasmic performance cemented her stardom. “Love to Love You Baby,” was a No. 2 hit and would mark the beginning of a very successful period for Summer. She would score a total 20 top 40 pop hits, of these 14 were top 10 hits—with four going to No. 1.
Summer’s albums were often thematic. On her Four Seasons of Love (1976) album, Summer sang of a love affair using the seasons of the year as her metaphors. Her album I Remember Yesterday (1977) was an ode to music of yesteryear. The album featured jazz from the late 30s/early 40s, R&B/Soul and Doo Wop of the 50s, Motown of the 60s, and Funk of the 70s, and Pop/Dance of the day and beyond (with the early electronica leanings of “I Feel Love”). And her Once Upon A Time (1977) album, lauded as being one of her best (double) albums, is a fairytale–a Cinderella love story set to Disco and early electronica.
We tend to frown upon double albums today. This sentiment is mostly because very few artists have been able to maintain the audience’s interest beyond the close of the first of the two albums. Summer wasn’t one of those artists. In fact, several of Summer’s crowning achievements have been double albums. Aside from Once Upon a Time, other double albums included 1978’s Live & More and 1979’s Bad Girls. With Bad Girls, Summer, Moroder, and Bellotte looked beyond the confines of Disco. They incorporated electronic instrumentation and elements of rock, soul, country, and pop to push the musical envelope. Bad Girls(then) proved to be her most versatile effort to date. The album went on to sell over four millions copies worldwide, and spawning two Billboard No. 1 pop hits (“Bad Girls” and “Hot Stuff”), one No. 2 hit (“Dim All The Lights”) and one top 40 hit (“Walk Away”) in the US. Her record label decided to release a greatest hits compilation the same year, On The Radio: Greatest Hits Vol. I & II (another double album). On The Radio was another smash, going double platinum in the US and spawning the No. 1 hit duet with Barbra Streisand “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)” and the No. 5 hit “On The Radio.”
As Donna Summer went into the 80s, she distanced herself from Disco and began exploring different musical territory with solid success. 1980’s The Wanderer had more of a New Wave/Rock appeal, while 1982’s Donna Summer(produced by Quincy Jones) showcased even more of Summer’s versatility with its Rock, R&B/Soul, Gospel, and Jazz leanings. 1983 saw Summer return to her pop/dance roots with She Works Hard For The Money. The empowering title track went on to be one of Summer’s biggest hits, peaking at No. 3 on the pop charts. Summer would release three more albums before she had another top 10 hit single, “This Time I Know It’s For Real,” from Another Place And Time (1989). The 90s saw the release of two studio albums—1991’s Mistaken Identity and 1996’s I’m A Rainbow (an album she recorded in 1981 that Geffen shelved), one holiday album—1994’s Christmas Spirit, and one live album—Live & More Encore (1999). 17 years after the release of her last official studio album Mistaken Identity, Summer released the triumphant Crayons (2008). Crayons spawned three No. 1 singles on Billboard’s Hot Dance Club Play chart.
Over the course of her 40+ year career, Summer earned a total of 22 No. 1 singles on the Disco and Dance Club Play Charts. She was the first solo artist to score three consecutive No. 1 (platinum) double albums and the first female artist to have four consecutive No. 1 singles in the span of one year. Summer was also the first female artist to have a single and album reach No. 1 simultaneously and the first female artist two have two singles in the Billboard Top 3 at the same time (both were feats she accomplished twice). She received a total of five Grammy Awards, six American Music Awards, and was the first black artist to be nominated for an MTV Music Video award. Though she’s been nominated several times, she has yet to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. This is a bit disappointing considering the many contributions she’s made to music (especially when you see the list of artists who were inducted before her). Jon Landau, chairman of the nominating committee for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, said it was regrettable that she was never inducted (New York Times). UPDATE 12/14/12: Donna Summer will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013 (2013 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductees).
As influential as Donna Summer was, it still doesn’t seem like she’s received her just due (even after death). The coverage she received in Black press has been paltry at best. This is yet another disappointment because Donna Summer was one of our Queens of music and entertainment. Being one of the few Black artists to crossover without major support from the Black community, it shouldn’t be a question about identity. For some, it may be a matter of their ability or inability to identify with Summer. She was not your typical Black diva and did not limit herself to only singing R&B music. However, she could sing R&B and any other genre of music soulfully and masterfully. Summer knew who and what she was and never forgot where she came from.
Summer faced many obstacles (depression, addiction, and the trials and tribulations of the music industry machine to name a few), but she overcame them. She counted on her faith, stayed true to herself, and never took her gifts for granted. Summer brought so many people together with her music—people of different backgrounds, cultures, races, religions, class, and sexual orientation. She left an indelible mark on history, the music industry, and so many of her fans lives. And this is why Summer should be celebrated. She was an iconic, legendary entertainer. And let’s not forget—she was also the original Bad Girl!