Music

She's a Rainbow: A Tribute to Donna Summer

Christian John Wikane

Wynonna, Ziggy Marley, Liza Minnelli, and more than 20 other artists, songwriters, and producers explain who they "love to love" as PopMatters studies the remarkable four-decade career of Donna Summer.

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."


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