Call for Music Critics and Essayists: If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by our quality readership.
Call for Music Critics and Essayists: If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by our quality readership.
APPLY HERE APPLY HERE
APPLY HERE APPLY HERE

She’s a Rainbow: A Tribute to Donna Summer

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.

* * *

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.

 

The 1970s

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!”

The 1980s

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.”

The 1990s and Beyond

Mistaken Identity (Atlantic, 1991)

Hard to believe but Summer’s last full-length recording of completely new and original material was this 1991 release. Summer teamed with the late producer Keith Diamond (Billy Ocean) for her second (and final) Atlantic release. Donning a blonde wig and blue contact lenses, Summer literally embodied the Mistaken Identity theme. Appropriately, the songs emphasized her various vocal “identities”, ranging from her angelic falsetto (“When Love Cries”, “Cry of a Waking Heart”) to her rich, amber-colored mid-range (“Friends Unknown”, “Work That Magic”). One of the best ballads of her career, “Heaven’s Just a Whisper Away”, stood out among the new jack-styled beats that dominated the album. However, a series of setbacks with Atlantic, including a delayed release, stalled the momentum that a new Donna Summer release should have garnered. No longer in print, Mistaken Identity is a curious bookend to the first phase of her post-Casablanca career. While the album isn’t immune to filler, it cannot be discounted as important moment in Summer’s career, a time when she sought to make a challenging and important artistic statement.

Eve Nelson: “I met Keith Diamond through another friend of mine in New York and he heard some stuff that I had done. I got to know him and I started writing with him. I guess within that year he said to me, ‘Eve, I’d like you to work with Donna.’ She was an idol of mine. I was totally overwhelmed. Donna has, in my opinion, one of the most unique-sounding voices, to date, that I’ve ever heard. I think Whitney [Houston] kind of followed in her footsteps a little. I think Donna had this amazing way of being totally soulful and hot and hip. Her black roots were definitely in her voice but then there was this incredible tone and the way she would hold a note for 20 seconds. Of course, you can’t deny how charismatic she is. When Donna would approach a vocal, the minute she’d open her mouth, it was freaking gorgeous. She closed her eyes and went there. She is very concerned about great melodies and honest lyrics. She really wants to say something. She doesn’t want bullshit. She is the most unbelievable artist.”

 

The Donna Summer Anthology (Casablanca/Mercury, 1993)

After parting ways with Atlantic, Summer retreated from recording for a lengthy spell. Though she may not have envisioned it at the time, 20 years would pass before any new musical ideas manifested into a full-length album. Thus, the early- ’90s commenced a period where Summer continued to tour, contribute a song or two to other projects, and compose her autobiographical stage musical Ordinary Girl. (Though an entire score exists, Ordinary Girl has yet to be produced.) One of Summer’s first post-Mistaken Identity efforts involved none other than Giorgio Moroder, who asked Summer to sing a track for his Forever Dancing (1992) album. The result, “Carry On”, marked the duo’s first collaboration together in more than ten years. When PolyGram assembled the two-disc The Donna Summer Anthology in 1993, “Carry On” brought Summer’s then 18-year career up to date. She became the first artist to win a Grammy for “Best Dance Recording” when “Carry On” was remixed and released as a single in 1997.

Rupert Lyddon (Grand National): “The studio pairing of Giorgio Moroder and Donna Summer is indisputably part of the backbone of disco music. Summer and Moroder helped disco set sail on its fantastic voyage and will forever influence whatever course it takes.” Lawrence Rudd adds, “I like the way gospel and electro are married on ‘State of Independence’. There’s a hint of yacht rock thrown in as well for good measure! Reminds me of summers gone by….”

 

Endless Summer (Casablanca/Mercury, 1994)

Within 12 months of The Donna Summer Anthology (1993), PolyGram issued the single-disc compilation Endless Summer (1994). As became custom for such collections, two new tracks were recorded for the set, including the soaring ballad “Any Way at All” and the rousing dance track “Melody of Love”, written by Summer with David Cole and Robert Clivillés of C+C Music Factory. Featuring the slow intro and suspenseful shift to a dance beat characteristic of Summer’s best songs, “Melody of Love” brought the singer back to the number one spot on the dance charts. As the ’90s continued into the millennium, Summer could be found in a number of different places outside a proper album release. She sang with Liza Minnelli (“Does He Love You”) and Bruce Roberts (“Whenever There Is Love”), contributed “La Vie En Rose” to A Tribute to Edith Piaf (1993), recorded a club version of “Someday” for Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996), and wrote “Dreamcatcher” for the film Naturally Native (2000). Even without a new full-length album, Summer remained impressively prolific.

Robert Clivillés: “Bruce Carbone, who is now at Universal, contacted me and asked if we would like to work with Donna Summer. I was definitely more than happy to work with Donna. David [Cole] and I were big fans of her work. What I remember about working with Donna Summer is how simple and fun it was to work with her. We just sat down with a drum machine and piano, ordered some take-out, and just acted silly for a few hours, throwing out all sorts of ideas till we came up with ‘Melody of Love’, simple and natural, just as we worked with Mariah Carey. This business changes people’s habits and views if you let the wrong people in but Donna seemed like she learned this early on: at the end of the day, this is just a job. She also understands that it is a fun job to have, to sit together with others and create something out of nothing and watch a song just grow from a few people congregating and sharing their thoughts that are able to reach others throughout the world.”

 

Christmas Spirit (Mercury, 1994)

Released only months after Endless Summer, Christmas Spirit was Summer’s first holiday album and became a stunning addition to the rather overpopulated offering of Christmas music albums. Despite casual listeners’ presumptions, the album did not contain club versions of holiday classics. Free of traditional commercial constraints, Summer was backed by sophisticated orchestra arrangements and gospel choirs. Produced by Omartian, the album featured original compositions and beloved Christmas songs alike. “O Holy Night” and “O Come All Ye Faithful” contained awe-inspiring vocals while “Christmas Is Here”, “Christmas Spirit”, and “Lamb of God” (written by Summer, Omartian, and Bruce Sudano) all explored different facets of the Christmas experience and have since become mainstays on holiday playlists. Though only available two months out of the year, Christmas Spirit should not be overlooked in Summer’s extensive discography. (Note: those looking for an uptempo Christmas song by Summer should seek out “Rosie Christmas”, her contribution to Rosie O’Donnell’s Another Rosie Christmas album in 2000.)

Johnny Mathis: “Donna Summer has been blessed with a voice for the ages. I have spent many hours listening to and admiring this extraordinarily gifted artist.”

 

Live and More, Encore (Epic, 1999)

Consistent with VH-1’s wildly popular Divas Live specials, the music network broadcast a full-length Donna Summer concert from Hammerstein Ballroom in Manhattan. Viewers were treated to her raspy, Rod Stewart-styled vocal on “Dim All the Lights”, a touching performance of “Someone to Watch Over Me”, all her chart-topping hits, and selections from her stage musical, Ordinary Girl. A portion of the concert was released by Epic, which also teamed Summer with dance music extraordinaire Hex Hector for the studio recording of “I Will Go With You (Con Te Partiro)”, originally sung by Andrea Bocelli and Sarah Brightman. Both “I Will Go With You” and “Love Is the Healer” (the other new studio cut on the album) held the top spot on the dance charts. The album itself landed just outside the Top 40 at #42, Summer’s highest-charting album since Cats Without Claws (1984). The following year, Summer appeared on VH-1’s Divas 2000: A Tribute to Diana Ross, where she stole the show with “Love Is the Healer”, “Bad Girls”, and a soulful version of the Diana Ross & the Supremes’ classic, “Reflections”.

Hex Hector: “I’ve worked with all kinds of pop stars — Madonna, Jennifer Lopez, Jessica Simpson, Ricky Martin. Donna Summer was the only person who I was completely star struck with. The reason for that is because Donna Summer was such an important part of my childhood. Growing up as a kid, I remember buying vinyl and picking up Love to Love You Baby. I was nine, ten years old, something like that. Epic hand-picked me to produce this record, which was a trip. It was like my childhood and my career coming full circle. Once she started, I got goosebumps because it was ‘Donna Summer’. She sounded just as powerful as when she was younger. Her voice was so powerful that she had to stand about ten feet away from the mic! As amazing a singer as Donna was, this was probably the hardest vocal I’ve ever done and the reason for that is — and it’s no fault to Donna — translating an opera song onto a dance track is no easy feat. It took awhile just to get it right but it was unbelievable!”

 

The Journey: The Very Best of Donna Summer (Universal, 2003)

By 2003, more than half a dozen compilations of Summer’s music crowded the market. It seemed the only time Summer released new songs was when Universal decided to release a new compilation. When The Journey hit record store shelves in 2003, it was no surprise that three new tracks appended the umpteenth release of “Last Dance” and “On the Radio”. The occasion of yet another career retrospective actually worked in tandem with Summer’s autobiography, Ordinary Girl, and reunited Summer with Moroder for two new tracks, “That’s the Way” and “Dream-A-Lot’s Theme (I Will Live for Love)”. The third new track, “You’re So Beautiful”, had apparently been leaked to clubs a year earlier though Summer hadn’t finished her vocals. A remix was sanctioned for official release and burned up the dance charts in typical Summer fashion. She scored another Top 5 club hit in 2005 with the single-only release, “I Got Your Love”. Co-written with longtime conspirator Bruce Roberts, the popularity of “I Got Your Love” once again confirmed Summer’s enduring presence in the club community.

Nick Ashford & Valerie Simpson: “A voice of distinction — that’s the way we think of Donna Summer. She has that ability to cut through because her sound is unique — not like anybody else’s. We can’t wait to hear her new material. The world needs it.”

 

Crayons (Burgundy, 2008)

Nearly 20 years in the making, Summer’s first new album of the 21st century affirms her iconic status. Crayons is a colorful kaleidoscope of sounds that reveal an invigorated, playful, and exceptional artist with her creative powers in full force. She slyly references her queenly stature, frolics in a playground of Brazilian rhythms, brings Ziggy Marley aboard for a reggae romp, throws down a house track with a beguiling Latin interlude, and sings one of the most candid sets of lyrics she’s ever written. She sounds youthful and vibrant. She experiments musically while staying true to her club roots. Almost two months before the album’s release, “I’m a Fire” (the first single) shot up the club play chart to number one. Though Donna Summer can still pack a dance floor, she is versatile in a broad range of styles, whichCrayons magnifies in large measure. To paraphrase an album title, Donna Summer is a rainbow, “ever-changing all the time”. Crayons finds the colors to that rainbow more rich, luminous, and vibrant than ever before.

Ziggy Marley: “Donna Summer is a legendary artist who I have grown up listening to. It is an honor for me to sing ‘Crayons’ with Donna.”

PopMatters