It’s January 2003. Donna Summer is pondering the evolution of her career. I listen intently as she remembers the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, a time marked by platinum records and number one hits. Amidst all her success, the one constant was change. “I’m probably not any different than any other musical artist in that your music is a testimony to your life,” she says. “If you’re a songwriter, whatever is going on in your life is becoming part of your art—it has to. If it doesn’t then I don’t think you’re being true to yourself.”
Ten years later, Verve Records is revisiting a period wherein Donna Summer channeled her singing and songwriting into different musical personas. Between 1975-1982, she embodied the First Lady of Love, a glamourous disco Cinderella, a regal pop diva, a streetwise rocker, and a stylish R&B chanteuse. Each role was shaped by a vibrant creative world that lived within Summer. The albums she recorded with producers Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte moved dance music forward while her work with Quincy Jones proved that she could adapt her inimitable voice to any setting.
While Summer mastered many musical styles, evidenced by her five Grammy Awards in four different categories, Verve’s Love to Love You Donna (2013) celebrates her undeniable impact on dance music. It’s a significant project, marking the first official Donna Summer release since the singer’s passing in May 2012. Current architects of EDM have recast many of Summer’s hits, from “Love to Love You Baby” through “Love Is In Control (Finger on the Trigger)”. Filtering classic Summer songs through different strains of contemporary dance music, Love to Love You Donna underscores why Summer remains a vital musical force in the 21st century.
As a companion to Love to Love You Donna, PopMatters explores the original versions of Summer’s freshly re-imagined hits. Many of Summer’s peers, including musicians behind the Summer-Moroder-Bellotte triumvirate, join the conversation and offer new comments about the singer’s legacy. Previously unpublished excerpts from my interviews with Donna Summer also lend insight to her artistry and complete a portrait of a fascinating artist whose work encompasses some of the most innovative music of the last four decades.
Part 1: Famous in 17 Minutes
“The pinnacle of her sensuality!” That’s how producer Marc Cerrone describes “Love to Love You Baby”, his favorite Donna Summer recording. A year before Cerrone debuted with his own dance floor triumph (“Love in C Minor”), side one of Love to Love You Baby (1975) featured 17 minutes of non-stop disco bliss that forever changed the landscape of pop music.
However, Love to Love You Baby was far from Summer’s first recording. She’d moved to Munich in 1968 to join the German cast of Hair. Five years later, she met Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte and began recording demos for the producers. “She was one of the back-up singers in Munich at the time I met her,” recalls Thor Baldursson, who did arrangements for Moroder and Bellotte. “There were three girls singing and Donna was one of them. Oh man, she was such a sweet kid and so easy to get along with.” Keith Forsey, who moved from London to Munich in the early-‘70s, also knew Summer before her solo career took off. “There are lots of people you meet on a studio date but Donna was one of those people that was very easy to instantly like,” he says. “She had a way of making you feel really comfortable. You knew it was not insincere. She’s very gregarious. She pulled you in and you felt like you’d known this woman for years.”
Summer’s earliest recordings with Moroder and Bellotte combined elements of rock, pop, and folk. She sang Bellotte’s “Denver Dream” (1974), a single released in Holland by Lark Records, before recording her maiden release Lady of the Night (1974). Though “The Hostage” became a major hit in the Netherlands, it hardly foreshadowed the level of fame that would greet Summer within a year’s time.
Just as Summer’s star rose throughout Europe, former Buddah Records president Neil Bogart partnered with Warner Bros. to create his own label, Casablanca Records. Acts like KISS and Parliament had cultivated a dedicated fanbase yet the label struggled to shift units. In its first year, Casablanca scored only one Top 40 single, “So You Are A Star” by the Hudson Brothers. Frustrated by the corporate pace of Warner Bros., Bogart went independent in 1975. One of his earliest strokes of genius was distributing Moroder’s Oasis label. Three albums were part of the initial deal: the Bellotte-produced Schloss (1975), Moroder’s Einzelgänger (1975) project, and Love to Love You Baby.
“Love to Love You Baby” had been released as a single across Europe shortly following the February 1975 MIDEM conference in Cannes. Summer even performed an early version of the song in April 1975 on Van Oekel’s Discohoek, a Dutch music program that had championed both “The Hostage” and “Lady of the Night”. When Neil Bogart heard the song’s throbbing beat and Summer’s provocative vocal, he called Moroder and implored him to extend the track to a whole side. Six times its original length, “Love to Love You Baby” helped kindle the disco phenomenon.
Vince Aletti understood the impact of “Love to Love You Baby” better than most industry tastemakers. With “Discotheque rock ‘72”, he was the first journalist to profile the nascent disco movement in the pages of Rolling Stone. In his article, he spotlighted the popularity of international acts like Manu Dibango, Barrabas, and Osibisa and also noted how R&B hits like “Love Train” and “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” had broken in the discotheques. Aletti recalls, “The first time I heard ‘Love to Love You Baby’ was at a meeting for the record pool, which was, at that point, in David Mancuso’s Loft space on Prince Street. A DJ who had gotten an advance copy brought it into play and everybody freaked out. This kind of heightened, very intense music kept driving and building and really had a shape to it. There were almost no moments where you were let down. Everybody who heard it wanted to get a copy. It was very quickly the record in New York.” Aletti’s weekly column in Record World mapped the record’s lightning speed ascent in the clubs. “When I reviewed ‘Love to Love You Baby’, it was 20 September 1975. I wrote later that it was the fastest record to become a number one on the chart I was compiling. It hit number one in four weeks.”
In a year marked by major strides in club music, “Love to Love You Baby” certainly stood out. The mixing genius of Tom Moulton fortified South Shore Commission’s “Free Man” (1975), which was the first promotional 12” single ever released to clubs. Moulton, who’d introduced the concept of the “disco break” on Don Downing’s “Dream World” (1973) two years earlier, also turned side one of Gloria Gaynor’s Never Can Say Goodbye (1975) into a suite of songs that predated Moroder and Bellotte’s future side-long excursions with Summer. Moulton was immediately struck by “Love to Love You Baby”. He recalls, “Neil Bogart sent me a copy of it. I thought it was such a unique record. I thought, Isn’t that interesting? They lifted the feel of the bass riff from (the O’Jays’) ‘For the Love of Money’ and made it totally sensual. It had a beautiful melody.”
Thematically, the most obvious forebears to the kind of sensuality Summer expressed on “Love to Love You Baby” were songs like “Pillow Talk” (1973) by Sylvia and “Je T’Aime ... Moi Non Plus” (1969) by Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg. “It was such an aggressively sexy record,” says Aletti. “I think for many people at the club level, the other exciting thing about ‘Love to Love You Baby’ was that it became a huge radio record. At least in New York, DJs played the whole 17 minutes. It really opened the way for radio to play the kind of extended disco mixes that were popular in the clubs.” U.S. radio couldn’t get enough of the record, simulated orgasms and all. By February 1976, “Love to Love You Baby” shot to #2 on the Hot 100.
The massive, mainstream success of “Love to Love You Baby” followed closely in the wake of “Fly Robin Fly”, a hit by Munich-based Silver Convention that topped the Hot 100 in November 1975. Aletti continues, “I don’t think American audiences would have been quite so ready for ‘Love to Love You Baby’ had it not been for the success of ‘Fly Robin Fly’. It was the most successful Eurodisco record up until that point. It had a similar kind of openness and sweeping feeling.” Whereas Silver Convention featured an interchangeable line-up of studio singers and stage performers, Donna Summer was a wholly defined solo artist. As record shops filed stacks of Love to Love You Baby onto the shelves, audiences finally matched the singer’s striking visage with the most alluring voice on Top 40 radio.