There comes a time in one’s life where favourite performers begin to pass away in bigger numbers than usual. So imagine my shock, having grown up in the disco era, to learn that Donna Summer died on May 17 age 63 from cancer. I don’t ever remember hearing about her illness, and it apparently was kept quiet. So, as I tweeted on Thursday, Donna Summer songs were dancing in my head all day. There were so many of her songs that I heard, sang, and yes, danced to as well.
Like most of the rest of the world, I became familiar with her first huge hit “Love To Love You Baby” in early 1976. It was a pretty innovative-sounding record, and I purchased the 45 of it, even though its basis probably owed more to 1973’s “Pillow Talk” by the late Sylvia Robinson than any other song. “Love To Love You Baby” was expanded to a full album side on its same-named album. It was quickly followed later in the year by the concept albums A Love Trilogy (featuring her cover of Barry Manilow’s “Could It Be Magic”) and Four Seasons Of Love, including the lovely ballad “Winter Melody” and the dance hit “Spring Affair” (a double-whammy 45 that I also bought).
It was mid-summer 1977 though when I began listening to the Canadian radio show “90 Minutes with a Bullet” on the CBC’s AM station. It was the only show that I knew of that would take me out of my local radio stations’ comfort zone and bring news about performers and hits from around the world that hadn’t hit the charts here in Canada. I believe it was near the end of the show that the host told us about what was going on in the UK music scene. He announced that the new number one song was the latest by Donna Summer, and it was a different kind of hit record. I’m talking about the Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte produced “I Feel Love”, which busted electronica into the mainstream via disco, even though the R&B community had already been incorporating it into that style through artists like Stevie Wonder (“Superstition” for example). But this was five years after “Superstition” and electronic music was getting more sophisticated, and using the basic rhythms of disco to find its anchor. I couldn’t get “I Feel Love” out of my head. I visited a friend of mine in Ottawa shortly after, and by then Donna’s classic I Remember Yesterday album was released. It and “I Feel Love” had already made inroads into the Quebec and Ottawa markets, which were more radio friendly to disco/dance than Toronto. If the rest of the record represented Yesterday, then “I Feel Love”, the last song on the album, was the Future. I was sure a believer! Full steam ahead into the Future… Another concept album, Once Upon A Time, featuring “I Love You”, followed in early 1978, followed by the late Paul Jabara’s Oscar-winning contribution to the film “Thank God It’s Friday”, Donna’s seminal “Last Dance”.
So Donna Summer’s many songs were part of the rest of my teenage years on the radio, in dance clubs, and on my stereo. But Donna Summer was way more than a by-product of studio production, she could sure sing. I never did see a live show but of course saw her perform many times on TV. The double live album Live And More sure sealed the deal with a new version of Richard Harris’ 1968 epic “MacArthur Park” (that was the ‘More’ part, not being recorded live – live performance video above). Extended out to a full album side, the electronic production, disco trappings, and Donna’s emotional interpretation scored her first #1 single and album in North America. Her 1979 double album Bad Girls also went to the top and it was pretty much the pinnacle of her career, with two more dance classics (the rock-oriented Grammy-winning “Hot Stuff” and title track) reaching #1, and album tracks like the percolating “Sunset People” keeping club crowds happy. And after the success of her duet with Neil Diamond, Barbra Streisand teamed up with Donna for the still-amazing “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)”, her last #1 single. As the disco phase of 70’s dance came to an abrupt close, Donna’s On The Radio greatest hits album became her last #1 album (three double albums in a row), and the title song became a Top 5 hit. It was also Donna’s finale for long-time label Casablanca Records, as she became a born again Christian and shed her sexy image.
Late 1980 found Donna Summer one of David Geffen’s new signees to his Geffen label, and allowed Donna to branch away from her disco queen image with the solid pop/rock album The Wanderer. Still produced by partners-in-crime Moroder and Bellotte, the record yielded two of my favourite singles by her, the bouncy title track and the cutting “Cold Love” with its supurb rock guitar riff (listen above). Her self-titled 1982 album, with production by Moroder, Bellotte, and Quincy Jones, was more of a hodgepodge of styles and songwriters, including James, Jon Anderson & Vangelis (the familiar “State Of Independence” was revived in the 90’s by Moodswings & Chrissie Hynde), Bruce Springsteen (one of the best songs, “Protection”), David Foster, and Michael Sembello, but disappointed commercially. She charged back with the 1983 anthem “She Works Hard For The Money”, with one final album for Geffen (the so-so 1984 release Cats Without Claws), but didn’t find herself back near the top of the charts until 1989’s Stock-Aitken-Waterman production of “This Time I Know It’s For Real”, her last but memorable and enjoyable Top 10 hit in North America (video below). The dance club hits never stopped, with highlights like “Melody Of Love” and the Grammy-winner “Carry On” in the 90’s and, a recent favourite, 2008’s “Stamp Your Feet” from her last studio album Crayons (video also below).
Looking back at her UK successes, Donna had an entirely different radio audience in the UK than in North America. While “I Feel Love” was her only #1 in the UK, she had a different set of hits, such as “Love’s Unkind” (also from I Remember Yesterday), the theme from the film “The Deep” (“Deep Down Inside”), “I Love You”, and her last Top Tenner, “MacArthur Park”, until “This Time I Know It’s For Real” got there again 11 years later. “I Don’t Wanna Get Hurt” was her last Top 10 hit in the UK from the Another Time And Place album in 1989. Donna’s music was steadily on the charts and in the clubs in the UK in the 80s but she was no longer a doyenne of the radio.
The songs of Donna Summer helped shape my personal foundation of music. To me, she ranked right up there with the best female singers ever – among them Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross, Gladys Knight. She broke ground as a black woman performing rock-oriented music as early as 1979 when she won the Grammy for Best Female Rock Performance for “Hot Stuff”. Her songs were sexy, sweet, personal, and a whole lot of fun. With the Top 20 appearance of Crayons in 2008, her first full studio album since 1991, old fans found her again and she almost certainly found new ones. Her many talents will be missed.
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