Part 7: The Queen's Legacy Continues
In a way, the commercial proliferation of EDM over the past decade is vindication for the period that followed Donna Summer’s commercial peak in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. As early as 1980, the “disco” tag had become something of a scarlet letter. “It seemed to me when disco ‘died’, Donna and some of the other really big people in the genre took a career hit,” says Trevor Veitch. “In those days, some people felt there was a debt that needed to be paid.” Remarkably, Summer’s career still thrived in a climate where the very mention of the word disco engendered hostility, even though dance beats clearly hadn’t left the pop charts.
Following the Quincy Jones project, Summer teamed with Michael Omartian on She Works Hard for the Money (1983). To settle Summer’s contract with PolyGram, the album was released on Mercury Records. “She Works Hard for the Money” became a pop anthem, topped the R&B singles chart, and flew to #3 on the Hot 100. That same year, the Flashdance (1983) soundtrack featured Summer’s “Romeo”, a track that was rescued from I’m a Rainbow. By extension, the Grammy-winning soundtrack also reunited Summer with her old label since Flashdance was issued on Casablanca, albeit during Russ Regan’s regime.
However, six years passed before Donna Summer was even remotely near the Top 10. Artists like Madonna and Whitney Houston now occupied the pop and club spheres that Summer once dominated. Her final two Geffen albums, Cats Without Claws (1984) and All Systems Go (1987), generated only modest success with “There Goes My Baby” (#21) and “Dinner With Gershwin” (#48). After Summer’s respite from recording, UK production team Stock Aitken Waterman (SAW) reignited her career on Another Place and Time (1989). Having departed Geffen, Summer signed with Atlantic and landed back in the Top 10 with the gold-selling “This Time I Know It’s For Real”. Over the next ten years, Summer’s music flourished in the clubs. Produced by Clivillés & Cole, “Melody of Love” (1994) topped the dance charts while a remix of Summer’s 1992 reunion with Giorgio Moroder on “Carry On” (1997) was awarded the very first “Best Dance Recording” Grammy in 1998.
By 1999, Donna Summer was back in the public eye with VH1 Presents Live & More Encore (1999), her highest-charting album since Cats Without Claws 15 years earlier. Released on Epic, the set highlighted Summer’s hits as well as selections from Ordinary Girl, a musical based on her life. It also included “I Will Go With You (Con Te Partiro)” and “Love Is the Healer”, two new studio cuts that both became number one dance singles. Clubs continued to be fertile ground for Summer’s one-off projects as “The Power of One” (2000), “You’re So Beautiful” (2003), and “I Got Your Love” (2005) each shot to the Top 5 of the dance charts.
Crayons (2008) marked Donna Summer’s first album of new studio material since Mistaken Identity (1991). From show-stopping ballads (“Be Myself Again”) to swampy soul-rock (“Slide Over Backwards”), Summer’s chameleonic voice was in top form. DJs were treated to a plethora of tracks ready to be remixed. “I’m a Fire”, “Stamp Your Feet”, and “Fame (The Game)” were all number one dance hits and burnished Summer’s legacy as a club icon. “To Paris With Love” (2010), one of many songs Summer co-wrote with Bruce Roberts, topped the dance chart two years later. Sadly, it was the last time Donna Summer delivered a new recording to the clubs. She passed away on 17 May 2012.
All around the world, news of Summer’s death devastated the singer’s fans, friends, and colleagues. The music industry has since honored Summer on a number of occasions, including tributes at the BET Awards, the Billboard Music Awards, VH1 DIVAS 2012, and a posthumous induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (2013). Dionne Warwick, who witnessed Summer change the course of popular music, says, “Donna was a dear friend. When I think of her, I always first remember that wonderful smile of hers. She always greeted me with ‘Hey Lady D’ followed by a big hug. She also had a wonderful voice and was able to sing wonderful standards that would have people in awe simply because they never expected to hear this type of music coming from the ‘disco queen’. She was a devoted mother, wife, friend, and peer and is certainly missed by me and our industry.”
In recent years, Summer’s considerable body of work has been re-evaluated by many who’d overlooked just how influential her singing and songwriting had been. “I think what happened to Donna is like what happened with the Bee Gees,” says Diane Warren. “Since their songs were from the disco era, people have tended to discount them when in fact these songs hold up as well as any classics from any era.” Meanwhile, younger listeners raised on samples of Summer’s music by Beyoncé, Ne-Yo, and Nas discovered her decades-deep catalog without the stigma of “disco sucks” tarnishing the experience. “It seems to me that a lot of bad feelings that surrounded disco at one point have more or less disappeared,” says Vince Aletti. “There have been several generations of people who could care less about all the politics. Now they just see disco as the history of pop.”
Of all the tracks Summer wrote and recorded with Moroder and Bellotte, “I Feel Love” exists in a class of its own. More than ten years apart, remixes by Patrick Cowley (1982) and Rollo and Sister Bliss (1995) each brought the song back to UK charts. “I Feel Love” has been covered by everyone from Bronksi Beat & Marc Almond to Vanessa-Mae while major artists like Madonna and Red Hot Chili Peppers have worked the song into concert sets. In 2012, the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress even selected “I Feel Love” as a sound of cultural significance.
The effect of Love to Love You Donna is twofold. It’s a document of current production sensibilities in dance music, but it also reminds listeners that modern day dance music traces back to Summer’s pioneering efforts. There’s no doubt that “Love to Love You Baby”, “I Feel Love”, and “Hot Stuff” advanced the language of dance music. “Giorgio and Pete were in the business of making hit records,” says Trevor Veitch. “The way you do that is you surround yourself with the best people. It wasn’t just ego with them. They would bring in the best arrangers that they could. The team was extraordinary. Nobody but Juergen Koppers touched the board because he was better than everybody else in the room, from a sonic standpoint.” Those who helped craft those landmark recordings remember the camaraderie that shaped the notes and rhythms. “We all knew our place on the team,” says Keith Forsey. “That team spirit and that unity that we had ... We had fun from the moment we stepped into the room to the moment we left.” The international coalition of musicians that Moroder and Bellotte brought together also lent a uniqueness to the experience. “Music is music is music,” says Les Hurdle. “It didn’t matter which country I went to, whether they spoke English or I didn’t speak their language, there was this unknown connection, which was emotion. I used to get back on the plane sometimes and realize I hadn’t spoken to anybody all day but we recorded an album.”
As a songwriter, actress, and conceptual artist, Donna Summer created masterpieces like Once Upon a Time and Bad Girls. The unifying factor? A voice unlike any other. “She had one of the best voices in the history of pop music,” exclaims Diane Warren. “She could sing,” adds Julia Waters. “Her voice was really beautiful. There will never be another Donna Summer again.” Bob Esty continues, “Her voice was phenomenal. She could give the meaning of a song without a lot of licks. She could sing everything. She was such an icon and a trendsetter.” Maurice White concurs, adding, “She influenced many other female pop singers that came after her with her aggressive style of presentation and her strong, in-your-face sexuality.” Of course, male artists also admired Summer’s scale-defying voice. “Donna Summer is probably the first great vocalist I ever heard that I associated to popular dance music,” says vocal virtuoso Jon Secada. “Her instrument was one of a kind.”
Artists who contributed some of the most enduring music of the disco era also emphasize the singularity of Donna Summer’s talent. “I believe Donna is really unique and will never be replaced,” says Cerrone. “She’s just unforgettable.” Village People construction worker David Hodo continues, “Donna was an exceptional talent with a voice that will long be remembered with all of the greats.” In addition to Summer’s voice, Tom Moulton cites the singer’s mystique as one of her abiding qualities. “She was so beautiful,” he says. “The thing I love most, and how I like to picture her now, is the picture of her on Once Upon a Time. She really did look like an angel.” A line from Giorgio Moroder’s mix for “La Dolce Vita”, a recently unearthed track on Love to Love You Donna, might say it best: “She was la dolce vita, and we miss her so”. Then and now, the voice of Donna Summer soars above every beat.