The announcement of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (RRHOF) nominees is a perennial litmus test for the world of music criticism. Who will rush to defend or dismiss the nominees? Will the nominated artists be subject to snarky one-liners, or accorded thoughtful analysis about why they merit a nomination in the first place?
When the RRHOF narrows the list from nominees to inductees, applause rings as loud as groans of disappointment. However, there’s a large distinction between educated dissenters and willfully ignorant misanthropes. Ironically, the endless well of information that is available in Wikipedia-dominated cyberspace presents a conundrum: history is re-written incorrectly, then copied and pasted ad infinitum. Key information is mysteriously omitted, facts are blurred. In the blogosphere, the race to author the wittiest remark has rendered fact-checking obsolete. This could only explain the sentiment behind a comment I read in an online discussion about the RRHOF’s Class of 2012. While many commentators maintained that Donna Summer should have made the cut this year, one site visitor wrote, “Donna Summer… Rock and Roll Hall of Fame… I don’t see the connection.”
Though the 2012 inductees have already been announced, the conversation is worth continuing. The following list attests why, in fact, there couldn’t be a clearer connection between Donna Summer and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Ordered chronologically, these ten examples trace Summer’s beginning in rock and roll, her bold musical makeover in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, and how her legacy epitomizes what the form is all about. As 1997 RRHOF inductee George Clinton once stated: “Donna Summer… she’s like a rock star.”
1. The Forerunner to Rufus
In the late ‘60s, music was the mirror to the times. The socially progressive spirit that fueled the Civil Rights Movement translated to recording studios and concert halls, as acts like San Francisco-based Sly & the Family Stone brought their fusion of psychedelic rock, soul, and funk to the pop charts. Concurrent with Sly & the Family Stone’s commercial success, other self-contained bands around the U.S. similarly crossed genres and racial lines. Chicago had Rotary Connection, Los Angeles had Love, and Boston had the Crow.
Since forming in 1966, the Crow had become a local sensation through its performances at the Psychedelic Supermarket, a venue where bands like Cream, the Grateful Dead, and Big Brother and the Holding Company made Boston tour stops. It was there that Janis Joplin made an indelible impression on the Crow’s lead singer, Donna Gaines. The Crow was singled out for its musical versatility, especially the ease by which the band’s frontwoman moved from one genre to the next. Before dissolving in 1968, the group was offered a record contract with RCA after a label scout caught its show at the Purple Onion in New York. Donna Gaines, of course, later became known to the world as Donna Summer, but her time in the Crow helped set a precedent in rock music. With a black female singer leading an interracial rock band, the Crow was a trailblazing forerunner to another 2012 RRHOF nominee—Rufus & Chaka Khan.
2. Launching the Rock Musical
Every movement has a first. The roots of the rock musical start with Hair, which premiered on Broadway in 1968 at the Biltmore Theater. Billed as “The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical”, Hair completely disrupted the playing field in musical theater, dramatizing youth culture in ways the Great White Way had never seen before. Reflecting many of the same themes that rock artists addressed at the time, Hair commented on the Vietnam War, racism, and sexuality. The musical generated anthems on and off the Broadway stage, with artists like Nina Simone, Gary Lewis & the Playboys, and the 5th Dimension taking songs including “I Got Life”, “Good Morning Starshine”, and “Aquarius” to radio.
Upon moving to New York City in 1968 and nearly signing with RCA, Donna Summer auditioned for the European production of Hair, and was offered an opportunity to launch the show in Germany. Relocating to Munich, Summer introduced the groundbreaking rock musical to German audiences, singing lead on “Wassermann” (“Aquarius”) and “White Boys”. Her success in Hair (or, Haare) yielded other stage opportunities in Porgy and Bess, Godspell, and The Me Nobody Knows. Whether American Idiot or Spring Awakening, any musical based in rock music owes a debt to Hair, and Donna Summer was there at the beginning.
3. Donna Summer’s Wall of Sound
Living full-time in Germany, Summer had already released a few singles and attained a degree of solo renown by the time she met producer Giorgio Moroder in 1973. Moroder enlisted Summer to sing demos that he then pitched to acts like Three Dog Night, yet he and his partner Pete Bellotte believed that the singer possessed a talent that could sell records. More than 100 million albums later, they were right.
Lady of the Night (1974) marked Donna Summer’s first full-length production with Moroder and Bellotte. The title track echoed Phil Spector’s famous Wall of Sound, a big and booming production that showcased Summer’s considerable vocal range, not unlike Spector protégé Darlene Love. The feverish drama of “The Hostage” mapped the tragic-pop of Shadow Morton’s hits for the Shangri-Las while “Wounded” immersed Summer in straightforward rock, foretelling the edgier kind of sounds she’d later explore on The Wanderer (1980). Though the album had a limited release in Western European markets, achieving its greatest success in The Netherlands, Lady of the Night was instrumental in shaping Summer’s creative partnership with Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte.
The Rolling Stones did it. So did Rod Stewart, Queen, Blondie, the Bee Gees, and Paul McCartney. As disco became a cultural phenomenon in the mid-‘70s, most rock acts experimented with their own variation on the style. A detour to disco not only expanded a band’s audience beyond their core rock fans but could net them a number one hit. Case in point: the six acts listed above—all of them RRHOF inductees—each scored at least one chart-topper because of disco.
Disco music was far more nuanced and sophisticated than its detractors rushed to claim, and many rock musicians recognized the genre’s musicality. Just like rock, R&B, or hip hop, a good disco record was a combination of creative songwriting, singular talent, and production expertise. Beginning in 1975, Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte mastered those elements with Donna Summer, something that artists as varied as Brian Eno, Robert Fripp, and Billy Joel acknowledged at the time. As a solo act, Summer delivered some of the most influential music of the era. Trace the timeline of the pop charts and it’s indisputable: rock artists followed Donna Summer into the land of throbbing 4/4 beats.
5. Donna Summer Made “Rock History”
Industry savant Bob Lefsetz recently proclaimed that Bad Girls (1979) was “one of the best rock albums of 1979”. Thirty-two years ago, critics unanimously praised Summer’s third consecutive double effort. “Donna is here to stay and this is her best album”, wrote Robert Christgau in his Consumer Guide. It’s easy to support Christgau’s assessment. Bad Girls contained a flawless four sides of music that underscored Summer’s character-driven approach to singing and her mutability between styles.
The opening “Hot Stuff”/“Bad Girls” medley was a blistering fusion of rock, soul, and disco. While Summer’s contemporaries in rock flirted with disco, she reciprocated by bringing rock into the discotheques. Elsewhere, she channeled Janis Joplin on her self-penned “My Baby Understands” while a song she’d written for Rod Stewart, “Dim All the Lights”, gave Summer her sixth consecutive Top Five single. In Billboard’s June 30, 1979 issue, the magazine announced that Donna Summer made “Rock History”: she was the first female vocalist to chart two number one singles in the Top Five at the same time: “Hot Stuff” and “Bad Girls”. That achievement warranted a million toot-toot’s.