Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in 2008 to celebrate the career of Donna Summer. At the time, a number of recording artists contributed quotes about Summer specifically for this piece, which also examined each of Summer’s albums. In the wake of the artist’s untimely passing, we wish to once again honor the groundbreaking legacy Donna Summer leaves behind.
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Beyoncé knows her queens. In her now infamous tribute to the trailblazing women of R&B on the 2008 Grammy telecast, the one that fueled the ire of Aretha Franklin, Ms. Knowles counted the “beat of Donna Summer” as a prime ingredient in her mix of influences. Of course, Beyoncé owes a huge debt of gratitude to Queen Donna for furnishing one of the most memorable hooks in young Beyoncé‘s career on “Naughty Girl” (2003). She’s not the only one: Madonna, Mariah Carey, and Kylie Minogue are just a few of the many artists indebted to Summer’s musical legacy.
There’s a whole lot more to Donna Summer than beats, however. Singing in Boston’s Grant A.M.E. church choir as a child, fronting a rock band in the late ‘60s, and becoming a Broadway-caliber star in Germany during the early ‘70s were all part of Summer’s ascent to world renown. Her versatility is awe-inspiring. Do you know that Bruce Springsteen penned a song especially for her or that Dolly Parton took Summer’s “Starting Over Again” to number one on the country charts in 1980? Have you seen the footage of Summer belting Barbra Streisand’s “Papa, Can You Hear Me” at the 1984 Oscars or heard a sassy “Donna Gaines” sing “White Boys” from the musical Hair—in German? Have you dug beneath Summer’s greatest hits and listened to transfixing album cuts like “Running for Cover” (The Wanderer, 1980) or “Cry of a Waking Heart” (Mistaken Identity, 1991)? These songs represent just a tiny fraction of Summer’s incomparable range.
On the eve of the release of Crayons, Summer’s first new studio album in nearly 20 years, PopMatters examines the multi-faceted arch of this singer/songwriter’s illustrious career. From her groundbreaking work with Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte to her numerous forays into rock, country, jazz, gospel, and reggae, Summer is indisputably one of the world’s greatest musical icons. Joining the discussion are 24 artists, songwriters, and producers who each offer praise, share memories, and explain how Donna Summer has both touched their lives and forever changed the landscape of popular music.
Lady of the Night (Groovy, 1974)
Long before “Queen of Disco” was ever bestowed on Donna Summer, audiences across Western Europe associated her with a vastly different style of music. After establishing herself as a star of the stage in Germany and Austria, Summer ventured into the world of pop recording as a background vocalist. Producer-songwriter Pete Bellotte heard the exceptionally talented young singer do session work for Three Dog Night and introduced her to his partner, Giorgio Moroder. The enterprising producers capitalized on Summer’s impressive vocal range with melodramatic “story” songs (think Cher’s “Half Breed”). A single, “Denver Dream”, was released in 1974 and a full-length album entitled Lady of the Night quickly followed. Summer had her first major pan-European hits with two songs from the album, “The Hostage” and the bellowing title track, which featured Summer’s bell-clear belt ringing high above the Phil Spector-styled wall of sound. Whereas the singles were noteworthy for their bombastic production, the rest of the album was a fairly standard folk-pop outing. What happened next took everyone, including Summer herself, by surprise.
Wynonna: “Donna Summer is a Queen. Period.”
Love to Love You Baby (Oasis, 1975)
The genesis for the 17-minute opus “Love to Love You Baby” is legendary: Casablanca Records president Neil Bogart wakes Moroder up in the middle of the night and demands that Moroder lengthen the song after his party guests devour the original three-minute version. Summer returns to the studio with her producers. Using Marilyn Monroe as her muse, she records among the most provocative vocals ever laid to wax. Her seductive moans make the ex-patriot an overnight star in the U.S. While acts like Beyoncé, No Doubt, and the Tom Tom Club have further secured that song’s timelessness, the public often forgets that four other songs comprised Summer’s U.S. debut, which was released on Moroder’s Oasis imprint, via Casablanca. Those who flipped the vinyl over found a soulful Summer on “Pandora’s Box”, a performance that stood apart from the playful coos of the title track. The operatic trills on “Whispering Waves” also revealed a unique power in Summer’s voice not shared by other pop and R&B singers of the time. However, a few more albums passed before the full gamut of her vocal capabilities was fully explored.
Jean-Paul “Bluey” Maunick (Incognito): “I used to sell her albums in a record shop in North London in the ‘70s. It was one of those little shops where DJs, dancers, and serious music lovers came to buy the latest imports. I can never forget the first time I heard ‘Love to Love You Baby’ in a nightclub. Everything around me disappeared, and I felt that the song belonged to me…only me!”
A Love Trilogy (Oasis, 1976)
Casablanca wasted no time pushing Donna Summer back into the market with another marathon-length, sidelong expedition into the boudoir. Clocking in just under 18 minutes, “Try Me, I Know We Can Make It” worked crowds over in the trendiest of clubs during the better part of 1976. Unlike Love to Love You Baby, Side B of A Love Trilogy was an all-disco affair featuring Summer’s remarkable rendition of Barry Manilow’s “Could It Be Magic”. Replete with swirling strings and vocals that poured strength and sensuality over a galloping beat, it was arguably Summer’s finest performance at that time. “Love to Love You Baby” might have been more of an event record but “Could It Be Magic” married the best elements of the Moroder/Bellotte/Summer team, despite the fact that Manilow wrote the song. It marked the first of a few instances over the course of Summer’s career where she reinvented another artist’s work and rightfully called it her own.
Roberta Flack: “Donna Summer is unique. In a business where so many singers imitate others, she has her own voice. I love Donna Summer. A lot!!!!”
Four Seasons of Love (Casablanca, 1976)
Draped across a quarter-moon in a white halter top, Donna Summer continued to embody her record label’s carefully crafted “First Lady of Love” image on the cover of her third Casablanca album. Four Seasons of Love emphasized the love goddess role with Summer exploring the peak and demise of a love affair through spring, summer, autumn, and winter. In a breathy falsetto, she ooohs her way through the pulsating opener “Spring Affair” and summons infectious heat on “Summer Fever”. Mixed together, the two tracks were an inspired, steamy blend for the discos. On Side B, the Caribbean-tinged “Autumn Changes” traces the end of a relationship while the lightweight ballad “Winter Melody” finds Summer wiping away tears. Perhaps even more memorable than the music is the back cover photograph. Saluting her inspiration for “Love to Love You Baby”, Summer imitates the famous Marilyn Monroe subway grate pose from The Seven Year Itch. Though Summer smiles for the camera in a billowing white dress, her tongue is planted firmly in cheek.
Teddy Pendergrass: “I believe Donna is one of the most prolific, beautiful, and sexy artists of our time. Her voice has the quality, uniqueness, and recognition of an original Renoir painting”.
I Remember Yesterday (Casablanca, 1977)
Moroder and Bellotte showcased a wider range of Summer’s vocal talents as well as their own production creativity on Summer’s fourth stateside release. Side A played like a round trip journey through the musical styles of the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s, including a touch of big-band on the title track and homage to girl-groups on “Love’s Unkind” and the Supremes sound-alike, “Back in Love Again”. Side B served up funk (“Black Lady”), frothy disco (“Take Me”), a ballad (“Can’t We Just Sit Down”), and something compellingly original: “I Feel Love”. In retrospect, it’s implausible to think that the song everyone from Brian Eno to Madonna has praised over the years was originally a B-side to “Can’t We Just Sit Down”. Flipping the 45 single over, DJs and radio programmers heard an innovative sound: a hypnotizing synthesizer track channeled somewhere from the future with Summer’s sensually angelic voice the frosty icing on the cake. More than 30 years later, the influence of “I Feel Love” continues to reverberate through contemporary music.
Roger Miller (Mission of Burma): “Donna Summer’s ‘I Feel Love’ blends macho machines and soft floating vocals so seamlessly you’d forget you weren’t having sex.”
Once Upon a Time (Casablanca, 1977)
The concept seemed tailor-made for disco: a fairytale about a young woman’s search for love in a lonely world. Spread across four sides, Once Upon a Time was the most ambitious project Summer had yet embarked on. Among the exceptional material on Sides One and Two were “Faster and Faster to Nowhere”, which simulated the claustrophobia of urban life to chilling effect, and “Now I Need You”, which featured a wondrous space-age electro-symphony that underscored the void inside the heart of Summer’s protagonist. Side Three presented a vampy Summer on “If You Got It Flaunt It” while “A Man Like You” eased the tempo down to spotlight Summer’s powerful, full-bodied belt. The masterpiece of the set, however, was Side Four, which strung together “Rumour Has It”, “I Love You”, and “Happily Ever After” for 15 minutes of exuberant, fanciful disco heaven. As 1977 drew to a close, Summer reigned supreme on the dance floor and Once Upon a Time brought to life the fantasies of listeners.
Marlon Saunders: “The talents of Donna Summer are endless. Her voice, her style, her beauty, not to mention her ability to bring many folks together through music is awesome! As an artist, I only dream of having heads hypnotically dancing all night long because the groove is so damn hot! Donna Summer has that artistic power—the special
thing that legends are made of.”
Live and More (Casablanca, 1978)
Live and More fixed Summer in the pop firmament. Summer’s first live album captured the exciting, rapidly escalating ascent of her fame—she appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone in March ‘78, debuted “Last Dance” in Thank God It’s Friday (the song gave Summer her first Grammy and writer Paul Jabara an Oscar), and landed her first number one pop hit with Jimmy Webb’s “MacArthur Park”. A sprawling 18-minute version entitled “MacArthur Park Suite” appeared on the studio-recorded fourth side of Live and More, producing another hit when “Heaven Knows” was extracted for single release the following year. It’s generally believed that Summer’s spine-tingling vocal on “MacArthur Park Suite” is her single most riveting performance ever. The concert portions of the album were no less superior and showcased Summer’s impressive ability to translate and even improve upon songs that were largely club-identified. Elsewhere, she takes on Barbra Streisand’s “The Way We Were” and sings standards in the jazzy “My Man Medley”. By the time Live and More shot to number one, audiences were deliriously infected with “Summer fever”.
Jimmy L. Webb: “Donna Summer’s vocal performance of ‘MacArthur Park’ is nothing short of astounding.”
Bad Girls (Casablanca, 1979)
The stats alone are impressive: more than two million copies sold in the U.S., the second of three consecutive chart-topping double albums, two number one pop singles, one Grammy win, and five Grammy nominations in four different genre-based categories. The Bad Girls experience featured four sides of consistently great, and often amazing songs that focused even more on Summer’s songwriting gifts than previous albums had. “Dim All the Lights” was the first song written solely by Summer to hover near the top of the chart while her composition with husband Bruce Sudano, “On My Honor”, nodded towards country. (The song foreshadowed a song they later wrote, “Starting Over Again”, which was a number one country hit for Dolly Parton in 1980.) Musically and conceptually, Bad Girls also struck a solid balance between the lusty image purported by Casablanca Records and the earthier view Summer held of herself . She growled through the carnal heat of “Hot Stuff” but took “All Through the Night” to church with rousing gospel inflections. By any standard, Bad Girls was a bonafide artistic and commercial triumph.
Liza Minnelli: “Besides being a friend and colleague, Donna Summer’s fabulous voice defined an era…and can again!”
“No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)” (12”), duet with Barbra Streisand (Columbia, 1979)
There will never be another duet that equals the drama, excitement, and extraordinary interplay between Barbra Streisand and Donna Summer on “No More Tears”. Penned by Paul Jabara and Bruce Roberts, “No More Tears” followed-up Jabara’s Oscar win for “Last Dance” and his work with Streisand on “The Main Event/Fight” (also co-written with Roberts). Bringing the two vocalists together was a major coup, owed largely to the passion and persistence of Jabara. Originally titled “Enough Is Enough”, the tune was rechristened “No More Tears” in order to fit the water theme of Streisand’s Wet (1979) album. Released in October 1979, “No More Tears” immediately shot to number one and even barred Summer’s own “Dim All the Lights” from the top spot. (Little-known fact is that Luther Vandross, then credited as “Luther Waters”, helped arrange and sing the background vocals.) Diva duets might be commonplace today, but “No More Tears” remains the first and the best.
Gary Klein: “Producing two of the world’s greatest divas on one recording was an incredible thrill for me. The vocal sessions became very competitive, with each one trying to one-up the other. I’m sure it was this competitive energy that added a little ‘fire’ to the final vocals. I want to confirm a story that’s been going around for years. Donna did pass out while trying to hold the word ‘tears’ as long as Barbra had. This occurred during the opening ballad section, just before the rhythm kicked in. Barbra’s vocal held the note alone.”
On the Radio (Casablanca, 1979)
Summer is smiling on the cover of On the Radio and with good reason. By 1979, she had racked up an impressive eight Top 5 pop hits in just four years. Within that time, she’d explored all facets of the 4/4 beat, from lush orchestrations to propulsive Moog workouts to bold fusions of rock and disco. On the Radio summarized the highlights between Love to Love You Baby and Bad Girls, serving up truncated takes on choice singles and segueing them together across a three-sided mix. The 12” of “No More Tears” was tacked on along with single and extended versions of the title track. “On the Radio”, which also served as the theme to Adrian Lyne’s Foxes (1979), reached the Top 5 in early 1980, boosted in part by Summer’s ABC TV special, The Donna Summer Special. The album itself became Summer’s third consecutive double album to reach number one on the album charts. She is the only artist—ever—to hold that distinction.
Ruth Pointer (The Pointer Sisters): “We first met when Love to Love You Baby was coming out in the states. My sisters and I were performing at the Bottom Line in New York City and they came to us and said, ‘We have a new artist. We just want to get a few people in the music industry to make her feel comfortable.’ They told us her name and we hadn’t heard of her at that time. It was kind of like a listening party in New York. We’ve remained friends ever since. I think her voice is very versatile. Her range is unbelievable. I wish I could do what she does! She is the sweetest lady. She is so smart and she’s got talent oozing out of everywhere. Donna and I get together, and chile, we can talk!”