Tribute to Donna Summer, a Woman of All Seasons
The most underrated quality about Donna Summer is her musical versatility. It is the strength of her artistry and the hidden key to her longevity. How many singers can attest to winning five Grammy Awards in four different musical categories? How many black singers own a Grammy for Best Rock Vocal Performance? Indeed, Donna was the first African-American – ever – to achieve this honor at the 1980 ceremony. Only a year before, she earned her first Grammy win in the R&B category and would later receive nods for her Inspirational and Dance performances. Her nominations for this prestigious award stretch even further into the pop, disco, and jazz categories, not to mention “Album of the Year” (Bad Girls).
Donna Summer defies categorization. Though she helped ignite the feverish disco craze of the 1970’s, her talent transcends trends. During her meteoric rise to stardom in the 1970’s, she and producers Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte experimented with a colorful palette of soundscapes that belied the rock contingency’s popular perception about disco being faceless, monotonous dreck. On the 1977 gem I Remember Yesterday, Donna’s voice effortlessly wrapped around the quintessential sounds of the 1940’s (the title track), the 1950’s (“Love’s Unkind”), the 1960’s (the Supremes tribute “Back in Love Again”), the 1970’s (“Black Lady”), and the then-future (the pulsating, groundbreaking, “I Feel Love”).
Donna’s 1979 masterpiece, Bad Girls, ushered in a fresh mutation of dance music, melding contagious disco beats with sizzling guitar solos and husky vocal stylings on “One Night in a Lifetime” and “Hot Stuff.” Yet on the same album, Donna’s songwriting reflected an intuitive knack for delicate country melodies, with songs like “On My Honor” and “All Through the Night.” The double album Live & More (1978) showcased her ability to entertain beyond the 4/4 disco beat as she vamped her way through a torch song medley, sang an emotionally-charged version of “The Way We Were,” and dedicated a lullaby to her daughter, Mimi. “Queen of Disco”? Yes, but there’s more to Donna Summer than “Love to Love You Baby” and “Last Dance.”
Born LaDonna Adrian Gaines on New Year’s Eve, 1948, in Boston, MA, Donna knew she was going to be famous. With influences ranging from Mahalia Jackson and Barbra Streisand to The Supremes and Janis Joplin, her vast repertoire reflected a singer willing and able to perform in nearly any musical milieu. During high school, Donna sang with the Boston-based band The Crow. The group’s live performances were an intoxicating melange of rock, jazz, and soul dipped in psychedelia.
With remarkable talent and ambition to match, Donna Gaines fled the United States and landed in Germany with a featured role in the German stage production of Hair. Having brought church congregations to tears in her childhood, Donna’s evocative voice was well suited to theater and more roles followed in Porgy and Bess, Godspell, and The Me Nobody Knows. In addition to her theatrical pursuits, Donna completed session work with producers Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte in Munich. The marriage of Donna’s voice, Bellotte’s songwriting, and the innovative production skills of Moroder signified the beginning of a dynamic artistic union, akin to another indomitable trio of talent, that of Dionne Warwick, Hal David, and Burt Bacharach.
Donna Gaines became Donna Summer (her anglicized surname courtesy of former husband Helmut Sommer) and enchanted European audiences with her first full-length album, Lady of the Night. Released in Holland on the Groovy label in 1974, Lady of the Night predates Summer’s foray into disco and thus, is not what casual listeners would expect to hear on a 1970’s Donna Summer album. The songs are mini-dramatic vignettes emblazoned within a pop-folk-rock context. “The Hostage” is a frantic tale about a woman whose husband is kidnapped and she’s ordered to pay a ransom while “Domino” features Donna telling a story about meeting a mysterious man at a masquerade ball (the latter tune bears a passing resemblance to Olivia Newton-John’s “Please Mr. Please”). The title track is the definitive highlight on Lady of the Night. It salutes Phil Spector’s “wall of sound” arrangement on The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby,” with Donna’s rich and full-bodied voice carrying the melody. An accordion even makes a cameo appearance to emphasize the lyrics’ Parisian setting.
Lady of the Night – both the song and the album –indicate the direction Donna might have taken had it not been for the explosion of “Love to Love You Baby.” In an interview for VH-1’s celebration of the 1970’s, Donna remarked that without disco, she would have become a rock and roll singer “which would have been difficult, because there aren’t many black female rock and roll singers.” However, disco proved to be the vehicle that catapulted the expatriate to global stardom.
Between 1975 and 1980 Donna Summer released eight albums on Neil Bogart’s Casablanca label. Love to Love You Baby, of course, brought her into the public eye while A Love Trilogy and Four Seasons of Love, both released in 1976, proved she was no one-hit wonder. She reworked Barry Manilow’s “Could it Be Magic” and it became a dance floor staple and was also featured in the Diane Keaton film Looking For Mr. Goodbar. 1977 was the first of many banner years for Donna: she co-wrote and performed the theme song to The Deep, scored another Top 10 pop hit with “I Feel Love,” and released the epic double album Once Upon a Time…
Conceived as a musical on record with a Cinderella-based storyline, Once Upon a Time… displayed Donna’s songwriting chops as she co-wrote each of the set’s sixteen songs. Her ability to utilize the different qualities of her singing voice gave the album a wholeness that made it the center of critical acclaim at the time of its release. Each song builds on one another to dramatic effect. The opening track, “Once Upon a Time,” segues abruptly into the nightmarish “Faster and Faster,” painting a claustrophobic portrait of urban life underscored by loneliness. “Now I Need You” and “Working the Midnight Shift” elaborate on this theme with haunting synthesizer tracks cradling Donna’s fragile delivery. If side one and side two depict despair threaded with a hint of hope, sides three and four illustrate a happy ending to the Cinderella story. The lead character gains confidence in the campy “If You Got It, Flaunt It,” finds a man in “I Love You,” and indeed lives “Happily Ever After.” Disco never got as convincingly theatrical as Once Upon A Time… and audiences were treated to fully orchestrated renderings of the album’s highlights during the supporting tour, captured on Live & More.
1978 and 1979 were watershed years for Donna. She made her film debut in Thank God It’s Friday, sang its theme song (the now classic “Last Dance”), and was rewarded with her first Grammy. The song’s composer, Paul Jabara, also won the Oscar for “Best Original Song.” Both Live and More and an edited version of “MacArthur Park Suite” held the top spot on the Billboard charts. A new studio album, Bad Girls, yielded two number one singles in 1979 while “Heaven Knows” (from Live & More) and “Dim All the Lights” were top five hits. At the close of 1979, Donna teamed up with Barbra Streisand for another Paul Jabara-penned tune called “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)” and earned a fourth number one single. A “greatest hits” package, On the Radio, shot to the top of Billboard’s Top 200 album chart. By decade’s end, Donna accomplished what no solo artist had done before: chart three consecutive number one double albums.
The dawn of the 1980’s witnessed shifts in Donna’s career and mainstream musical tastes. Disco was supposedly “dead” and its reigning queen severed ties with the record label that made her a star. David Geffen brought Donna aboard his new label in the company of John Lennon and Elton John. Her first album for Geffen Records proved that she could remain true to her artistry without conforming to anyone’s expectations. The Wanderer is a pastiche of rock, pop, and new wave. At the time of its release, it was an anomaly for a black female artist to venture beyond pop, soul, or dance music. Donna’s first effort for Geffen Records, while critically lauded, received little radio play because it lacked a receptive audience.
Rock radio programmers resisted playing a song by Donna Summer, even with renowned guitarists Jeff “Skunk” Baxter and Steve Lukather on the album, while disco fans found little on The Wanderer to dance to and thus, little reason to buy the album. The Wanderer remains, however, one of Summer’s most compelling and honest records. Each track showcases a different facet of Donna’s mutable singing voice to reflect the imagery of the lyrics. Songs like “Looking Up” and “Running for Cover” document the singer’s rediscovery of faith after nearly dying in the blinding limelight of fame. Though not as commercially successful as Bad Girls, The Wanderer still earned Summer one Top 5 and two Top 40 hits. (Casablanca released one more single off of Bad Girls to coincide with the release of the Geffen project. An edited version of “Walk Away” also reached the Top 40 in late 1980.)
Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte worked with Donna on The Wanderer and produced the follow-up, a double album called I’m A Rainbow. Regrettably, the album was shelved by Geffen and remained in the vaults until seeing the light of day on a 1996 CD release. A couple of tunes from the aborted album leaked out onto the Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Flashdance soundtracks (“Highway Runner” and “Romeo,” respectively). At Geffen’s insistence, Donna switched producers and worked with Quincy Jones on the 1982, self-titled album, Donna Summer. Though not the million-seller Geffen might have hoped for, the record includes a few memorable moments, featuring a diverse array of musical styles. Bruce Springsteen offered a blistering, guitar-inflected composition with “Protection,” Jones stretched Donna’s voice to new heights on the jazz standard “Lush Life,” and an all-star choir joined the singer for the reggae-tinged “State of Independence.” With such artists as Lionel Richie, Dionne Warwick, Michael Jackson, and Stevie Wonder in the chorus, Jones has often characterized “State of Independence” as laying the foundation for another group effort: “We Are the World.”
Donna Summer fared moderately well with the record-buying public, but 1983’s She Works Hard For the Money brought Donna back near the top of the pop charts. Produced by Michael Omartian, the album firmly planted its feet in dance-pop with a sprinkling of ballads. “He’s A Rebel” earned Donna her first win for “Best Inspirational Performance” at the Grammy’s. The reggae-tinged “Unconditional Love,” a duet with Musical Youth, was a trans-continental hit and became quite the showpiece on the tour supporting the album, replete with faux-island décor. The title song became nothing short of an anthem and the accompanying music video aired on MTV at a time when videos by black artists were virtually ignored by the station. Coupled with “Last Dance,” it is arguably one of Summer’s most enduring hits.
Donna channeled her energy into family life after the release of a second Omartian-produced album, Cats Without Claws (1984), and took a well-deserved, three-year hiatus. Though not the guaranteed hit-maker she had been in the previous decade, some of Summer’s strongest recordings were made post-1983. “Oh Billy Please” (from Cats Without Claws) features Donna emoting to hair-raising effect, particularly in the improvised “hey’s” and “ahh’s” towards the song’s conclusion. On the same album, Donna gave one of her most heartfelt gospel performances with “Forgive Me” (another Grammy winner) and experimented with synthesizers on the title cut, accentuating the lyrics’ Gotham-esque motif.
Harold Faltermeyer contributed his production skills to Donna’s last release on the Geffen label, All Systems Go (1987). Songwriter Brenda Russell volunteered “Dinner With Gershwin” for the project, one of the album’s few highlights. “Thinkin’ About My Baby” is a hidden gem from the Summer catalog. A self-penned tune, it situates Donna in a loose and jazzy atmosphere, not unlike Sade. Her voice floats over a stop-and-go rhythm with a refrain exemplifying her vocal prowess, which is unfortunately lacking elsewhere on the album. Since All Systems Go is currently not available on CD, hopefully “Thinkin’ About My Baby’ will someday be revisited. It’s a Summer classic.
Atlantic Records signed Donna in 1989 and released Another Place and Time. Heralded as Donna’s return to the dance floor, the project was produced by Stock, Aitken, and Waterman (SAW), the team who brought Rick Astley and Kylie Minogue to the top of the charts. SAW didn’t fail Donna as “This Time I Know It’s For Real,” co-written by the singer, made the Top 10 in the U.S. However, most of SAW’s contributions to the record are variations on one theme, with Donna’s voice adding the needed spice to a predictable meal. Wisely, Mistaken Identity, which followed two years later, spotlighted Summer’s unique, character-driven approach to singing. “Cry of a Waking Heart” remains a fan favorite. Both Donna’s falsetto and lower-register intertwine to create one of the most unconventional, but thoroughly satisfying, songs of her career. “Friends Unknown” is a tender ballad dedicated to Donna Summer fans featuring the signature, no-holds-barred Donna “belt.” “Get Ethnic,” “Mistaken Identity,” and “Let There Be Peace,” while not the most memorable songs, are bold, astute social commentaries. With scarce promotion and little support from the record company in promoting the album or its singles, Mistaken Identity stands as Donna’s poorest seller.
That was thirteen years ago. Donna Summer hasn’t released a new full-length studio album since, yet she retained a devoted audience throughout the 1990’s. On the numerous compilations of her hits (at least five have been released domestically in the past ten years), a handful of “new” tracks routinely appear and dominate the dance floor. The Grammy-winning “Carry On,” “Melody of Love,” “I Will Go With You,” and, most recently, “You’re So Beautiful” sit comfortably alongside “I Feel Love” and “Sunset People” in the canon of Donna’s dance floor classics. Her numerous soundtrack appearances are also telling of an artist in demand. She sang the themes to Daylight, Pokemon 3, and Naturally Native while her ‘70’s hits made their way to The Full Monty and Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle soundtracks
At the dawn of the 21st century, new legions of fans are discovering a woman who rightfully deserves the sorely overused “diva” crown. With her much-anticipated musical, “Ordinary Girl,” still in the works, Donna’s artistic sensibilities also find an outlet in her artwork. As a singer, songwriter, painter, and author, Donna Summer knows no limits to her talent. She is a woman of and for all seasons.