[14 December 2011]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
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.
6. Grammy History Maker… For Rock
“Hot Stuff” actually landed Summer a few firsts. She was also the first female artist to hold a number one single and a number one album simultaneously on two different occasions. The first occasion occurred in November 1978 with Live & More and “MacArthur Park”. Seven months later in June 1979, Bad Girls and “Hot Stuff” repeated the feat.
As expected, Bad Girls was a favorite during the awards season of early 1980. Summer garnered five Grammy nominations, including Album of the Year. Her other nominations represented four different genres: pop, R&B, disco, and rock. Donna Summer left the Shrine Auditorium as a history-maker: she became the first-ever recipient of the Best Rock Vocal Performance, Female Grammy Award. “Hot Stuff” had earned her the honor, and rightly so. Jeff “Skunk” Baxter had ignited the song with a guitar solo that complemented Summer’s raw vocal attack, years before Eddie Van Halen emblazoned Michael Jackson’s “Beat It”. Written by Pete Bellotte, Harold Faltermeyer, and Keith Forsey—and immortalized by Donna Summer—“Hot Stuff” defined the word “pioneer”.
7. She’s a Wanderer
Few artists have so valiantly shifted direction at the pinnacle of their commercial success as Donna Summer. After On the Radio: Greatest Hits Vols. I and II (1979) secured Summer her—get ready—third consecutive number one, Platinum-selling album, she departed Casablanca Records and embarked on a new journey as the first artist signed to Geffen. Still collaborating with Moroder and Bellotte, Summer recorded the most daring of her numerous concept albums, The Wanderer (1980).
Portraying 10 different characters distinguished by 10 different vocal styles, Summer painted from a rock music palette that depicted 10 different—but cohesive—stories. Her self-penned “Running For Cover” was a harrowing, soul-stirring tale embellished by Steve Lukather’s guitar solo. “Cold Love” featured what Dave Marsh described in Rolling Stone as “slashing, Who-styled power chords… which Summer punches across like the ultimate Anglo-rock singer”. The latter song even brought Summer back to the Grammy’s rock category in 1981. Summer may have wandered around on The Wanderer, but she nourished her rock and roll heart. (Note: read PopMatters’ in-depth analysis of The Wanderer here.)
Bad Girls and The Wanderer further established Summer as an artist who transcended disco. I’m a Rainbow (1981) was slated to continue that trajectory but Geffen Records shelved the double album. Had it been released, listeners would have heard staunch synth-rockers like “Leave Me Alone” and “Highway Runner”, though the latter ultimately appeared on the Fast Times at Ridgemont High soundtrack in 1982.
Instead Geffen matched Summer with Quincy Jones. Ironically, the legendary producer’s work on Donna Summer (1982) involved handling one of the hardest-rocking songs Summer ever recorded. Written by Bruce Springsteen, “Protection” had been intended as a duet between the two artists. Instead, Summer sang the song solo. Inspired by Springsteen’s demo, she tore into “Protection” with a husky rasp in the verses that then opened up to her distinctive, full-bodied tone in the chorus. Appropriately, “Protection” later earned Donna Summer her third Grammy nomination for Best Rock Vocal Performance, Female. Oh, and Summer’s self-titled LP also prepared Quincy Jones for his next project: Michael Jackson’s Thriller.9. Respecting Rock’s Roots
With the release of Crayons in 2008, Donna Summer coalesced many of the different styles that have defined her career and crafted an album that was specifically tailored to her multi-faceted singing and songwriting talents. Reggae and rock intertwined with club beats, which shared company with ballads and Brazilian-influenced rhythms. One of the most remarkable recordings on the album was a song Summer wrote with Nathan DiGesare and Jakob Petren, “Slide Over Backwards”. Brushed with steel guitar and harmonica, the track typified the blues and country roots of rock and roll. Summer summoned the swamps of New Orleans, assuming the role of a character named Hattie Mae Blanche DuBois. Introducing the song with a gospel-inflected cry, Summer fully embodied Hattie Mae’s story of a hard-knock life. Many years had passed since the singer last called upon the coarser textures of her voice but “Slide Over Backwards” illustrated that she’d lost none of her rock edge. It follows a long line of songs like “Nightlife”, “Sometimes Like Butterflies”, and “Love Will Always Find You” wherein Summer disappears into character behind a rough-hewn vocal facade. I wonder what Donna Summer’s going to do next…
Perceptions about what constitutes rock and roll inevitably stir debate each year the RRHOF announces the nominees. Of course, rock and roll is a certain style of music that’s based on a combination of rhythm and blues and country. In another sense, rock and roll is a cultural framework through which popular music of the last 60 years has developed and splintered into different forms—funk, disco, punk, hip hop. Substitute “Rock and Roll” with “Popular Music” and it becomes clearer why ABBA, Jimmy Cliff, and the Stooges were among the Class of 2010, despite the vast musical differences between them.
The RRHOF committee certainly needs no convincing of Donna Summer’s obvious eligibility, but her fascinating career is instructive. She was the first solo female artist of the rock era to score three consecutive number one pop hits in less than a year. Her string of Gold and Platinum albums and singles demonstrated that an artist could cross over from the clubs to the pop charts and keep rock critics engaged with each LP. Without Donna Summer, 2008 RRHOF inductee Madonna would have had no career arc to follow.
However, even based on the strictest definition of rock and roll, Donna Summer is a pioneer in ways that her pop progeny are not. She participated in rock at a time when the music was a revolutionary cultural force. She won the admiration of her peers by staying original, progressing along a chameleonic path, and proving that dance music and rock need not be mutually exclusive. More than anything, though, Donna Summer exemplifies that true music innovators and rock icons are never bound by one category. Their work simply echoes through time.