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The 1980s

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The Wanderer (Geffen, 1980)


The 1980s were about change for Summer. Though Casablanca was instrumental in building her career, she left the label, feeling imprisoned by the living, breathing sex goddess image that so emblazoned her identity. Her debut album for Geffen Records, The Wanderer, symbolized a personal and professional emancipation. Still working with Moroder and Bellotte, Summer wrote five of the album’s tracks. Her lyrics documented her renewed spirituality while also explaining her escape from fame and the fast lane. Songs like “Looking Up” and “Running for Cover” were empowering testimonies to Summer’s musical, creative, and spiritual independence, With rock music as its canvas, The Wanderer was Summer’s boldest move yet; perhaps too bold, for many listeners didn’t even recognize the vocalist on the title track. Even though radio may not have supported rockier outings like “Cold Love”, label head David Geffen stood by his artist, defending and encouraging her change in course on his record label’s debut release. For those with thirsty ears, Summer brought listeners along on one of her most memorable musical expeditions.


Dionne Farris: “If I may say so, Ms. Summer, I love your voice! You had the ability to change how your voice came out on each song. Your tone was warm and wonderful. Your voice was rich, clear, infectious, and you could sing sweet and strong, and do both very well. You were the first singer I heard that I felt was a new singer for the age. Before then, I was listening to my mother’s singers. You were the bomb, plain and simple. As your musical tastes expanded, you really stretched the spectrum of styles.  You gave me hope and ideas, ideas that my own blossoming dream of becoming a singer could come true…because you looked like me! You were beautiful, glamorous, fashion-forward, and a risk taker, and that was hot! You gave little girls like me a glimpse of a progressive female artist in the music business. I honor you for your etchings on music’s history and I say thank you so much for giving me options for my masterpiece to the world of music. Ms. Summer, all my best to you.”


 

I’m a Rainbow (1981) (released on Mercury, 1996)


It was supposed to be another double album. It was supposed to be another winning Moroder/Bellotte/Summer collaboration. Instead, I’m a Rainbow was shelved by David Geffen for reasons that remain unclear. Summer was crushed. She’d given her all for the follow up to The Wanderer, including a superb rendition of “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina”. Though a little top-heavy at 18 tracks, I’m a Rainbow boasted an interesting array of material. “I Believe (In You)” re-teamed Summer with Joe Esposito for a glistening duet three years after they sang together on “Heaven Knows”. Summer’s saucy vocals on the rock-oriented “Highway Runner” echoed “Nightlife” from The Wanderer (it later surfaced on the Fast Times at Ridgemont High soundtrack in 1982). “Romeo”, one of Summer’s most playful, energetic performances, was featured in the movie Flashdance (1983) and helped usher the accompanying album to number one. For years, I’m a Rainbow circulated as a bootleg among fans until PolyGram released it on its Mercury imprint in 1996. Ultimately, the album marked Summer’s last collaboration with Moroder and Bellotte, the team that so perfectly shaped and defined her sound for nearly a decade.


Richie Havens: “Donna and I had the special knack of running into each other at airports…not enough time for me to tell her how special she was to me. The power of her voice and her sincerity to her music was my connection with her. I am so glad for the recognition she deserves to have. Welcome home, Donna. I love you.”


 

Donna Summer (Geffen, 1982)


Following the aborted I’m a Rainbow project, David Geffen asked Quincy Jones to steer Summer towards mainstream R&B. Though Summer wasn’t in the best recording frame of mind (she was also pregnant with her third child), the album remains an interesting pastiche. Summer successfully takes on everyone from Billy Strayhorn (“Lush Life”) to Bruce Springsteen (“Protection”) and, if anything, the album solidifies her character-driven approach to singing. “The Woman in Me” and “Love Is Just a Breath Away” reveal a sophisticated, layered sensuality in Summer’s voice while “Love Is in Control” and “(If It) Hurts Just a Little” immerse Summer in Jones’ prototypical early-‘80s production style. Enlisting an all-star chorus that included James Ingram, Michael Jackson, Kenny Loggins, Dionne Warwick, and Stevie Wonder on “State of Independence”, Jones mapped the blueprint for an even bigger choir that he’d produce three years later with USA for Africa. A Top 20 hit on the U.K. charts, the reggae-lite sway of “State of Independence” stands as one of Summer’s most spiritually grounded excursions.


James Ingram: “Donna Summer can sing, man! I was excited about being a part of her project by Quincy Jones. She’s just one of the greatest artists that ever existed. Her vocal strength, ability, flexibility, her energy behind that mic—there’s nothing she cannot do. Quincy can bring all that stuff out of an artist. I know she has the ability to sing gospel, opera…she’s a real singer. I performed with her two years ago at a private birthday party in New York and had a chance to hear her sing again. She hasn’t lost anything! My wife and I are huge fans of Donna’s, not just as an artist but as a human being.”


 

She Works Hard for the Money (Mercury, 1983)


Summer’s biggest album of the ‘80s actually occurred outside the Geffen collective. After severing ties with Casablanca, Summer still had contractual obligations with PolyGram, its parent company. Released on the Mercury subsidiary, She Works Hard for the Money brought Summer back to the summit of the charts: its title track went to number one on the R&B charts and scored a Top 5 entry on the pop charts while “Unconditional Love” (a duet with Musical Youth) climbed into the U.K. Top 20. Videos for both singles also became among the first by a black artist to be featured in regular rotation on MTV. A year later, the rock-tinged “He’s a Rebel” (not the Crystals’ hit) earned Summer a Grammy for “Best Inspirational Performance”. Summer lent her songwriting talent to each song on the album with co-writers Jay Graydon, Greg Phillinganes, Bruce Sudano, and producer Michael Omartian. Summer’s beautiful, self-penned ballad “I Do Believe (I Fell in Love)”, which closes the album, stands as the most haunting composition she ever wrote.


Jay Graydon: “Michael Omartian mentioned that he was producing the album and co-writing with Donna. I mentioned I wished to be involved, if possible. That happened and we wrote the songs in the studio. I have not heard the songs in years but I remember that one of them had a guitar lick I came up with that was the start of the song [‘He’s a Rebel’]. I would have been a writer on ‘She Works Hard for the Money’ if I had not been late that day!!! I was in the studio late the night before, hence the reason for being late—oh well! All in all, I remember we wrote quality stuff. She can write good melodies and lyrics very quickly. That is a gift! She has a great voice and sings ‘in tune’.  She is a very nice person with a heart of gold.”


 

Cats Without Claws (Geffen, 1984)


Building on the creative synergy from She Words Hard for the Money, Summer and Omartian collaborated again for Cats Without Claws. Her update of the Drifters’ “There Goes My Baby” narrowly missed the Top 20, “Supernatural Love” barely dented the Top 100, and the album itself logged a respectable but not stellar #40. Though the public may not have gravitated as enthusiastically towards Summer’s second outing with Omatrian, the album was very strong, if a bit stylistically eclectic. The moody title track found Summer observing street life in disguise, almost to an ethnographical degree, and the breakneck tempo of “It’s Not the Way” afforded Summer a chance to incorporate some gospel flourishes. The album’s original Side B was virtually filler-free, from the vocal pyrotechnics of “Oh Billy Please” to the Latin-infused “I’m Free” to the exquisite “Forgive Me”, which earned Summer another Grammy for “Best Inspirational Performance”. After recording or releasing at least one album a year over an 11-year period, Summer took a much-needed respite from recording.


Bobby Watson (Rufus): “Donna is sooo cool! She is an icon for me. Like millions of other people, I’ve listened to her forever and still do. She represents ‘class’ in a true female singer with an unmistakable style and sound. She will always be in a category all by herself.”


 

All Systems Go (Geffen, 1987)


In the three years between Cats Without Claws and All Systems Go, artists like Madonna and Whitney Houston carved out large niches in the pop and dance circles where Summer had once dominated. She faced more competition than ever on the charts as the industry turned its attention and focus to younger artists. Summer’s relationship with Geffen also became strained, especially as the label added more hard rock acts to its roster. Consequently, All Systems Go wasn’t really given much of a chance to make any sort of impact, despite a strong lead single like Brenda Russell’s “Dinner With Gershwin”. Summer reunited with producer Harold Faltermeyer (of “Axel F” fame) at Oasis Studios in Munich, giving the album a glossy sheen underneath Summer’s strident vocal performances. She does no wrong on Side B, which includes an excellent string of songs, “Dinner With Gershwin”, “Fascination”, “Voices Cryin’ Out”, and “Thinkin’ Bout My Baby”. Sadly, a relationship that held much promise in 1980 soon fizzled out: All Systems Go was Summer’s last date with Geffen.


Brenda Russell: “I was working with Stanley Clarke on my new album at the time. Stanley Clarke and I put the demo together for ‘Dinner With Gershwin’ and we sent the demo to David Geffen’s publishing company. He was my publisher, actually. Geffen flipped out over it and said, ‘This song’s got to go to Donna Summer.’ David has a way of making things happen. I had the pleasure of working on the track. Richard Perry was the producer and I got to hang around and put my two cents worth in. I guess you would have called me ‘Associate Producer’. It was a great experience because I’ve always been a big fan of Donna’s. She’s an incredibly talented woman with just an amazing voice. I was very excited that she was going to sing the song. It was the song that was going to bring her back into the forefront again because she’d been off the scene for a little bit. It actually did just that. She did a fantastic job on that song. It was a real thrill for me to collaborate with her and put that thing together. She really defies any categorization. She’s very versatile. I’m a big fan. I love Donna. She’s an amazing vocalist and an amazing person.”


 

Another Place and Time (Atlantic, 1989)


Donna Summer ended the 1980s in a much different place than where she began the decade. She retreated further away from the spotlight after All Systems Go to focus on raising her daughters and settle more into family life. By 1989, five years had passed since a new Donna Summer song gave people a reason to dance. That changed when Stock Aitken Waterman (SAW), the production team responsible for massive hits by Rick Astley and Kylie Minogue, brought Summer into the studio to record Another Place and Time, her first of two albums for Atlantic. Summer co-wrote three tracks on the album, including “This Time I Know It’s for Real” which climbed to number seven on the pop charts. The album closed with “Love’s About to Change My Heart”, one of Summer’s best vocal performances, which perfectly captured the bright, trebly sound of late ‘80s dance/pop. The runaway success of Another Place and Time proved that Summer was still an irresistible force on the dance floor.


Pete Waterman (SAW): “There are some people we have worked with who have outstanding natural talent—Donna Summer is one of these. She gave back more than we asked for.”

Christian John Wikane is a NYC-based journalist and music essayist. He's a Contributing Editor for PopMatters, where he's interviewed artists ranging from Paul McCartney to Janelle Monae. For the past three years, he's penned liner notes for more than 100 CD re-issues by legends of R&B, rock, pop, dance, and jazz. Since 2008, he's produced and hosted Three of Hearts: A Benefit for The Family Center at Joe's Pub. He is the author of the five-part oral history Casablanca Records: Play It Again (PopMatters, 2009). Follow him on Twitter @CJWikaneNYC. 


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