Donna Summer ruled majestically, if uneasily
Donna Summer's controversial international hit "Love to Love You Baby" was, according to her, recorded as something of a joke. It wasn't supposed to be the singer's calling card on the world stage. It wasn't meant to be one of disco's canonical tracks. And it wasn't supposed to set the mold for her public persona.
Summer and her siblings were raised in a deeply religious family, but she displayed her independent streak when, in 1967 at the age of 18, she took off for Germany as a member of the touring cast of the musical "Hair." There she modeled, sang, and performed -- and got married, had a daughter and became a divorcee. In 1975, she released the steamy "Love to Love You Baby" with producer Giorgio Moroder, helping ignite the disco craze and setting the stage for the battle between her gospel roots and her new public image.
The tension between her conservative upbringing and the unbridled sexuality of the disco era echoed the faith vs. secularity conflicts of artists such as Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin and Marvin Gaye. Like them, she straddled the tensions to create a sound and style all her own.
Though she grew up in the church, hers wasn't a conventional gospel voice; it was a bit more naturally polished, a bit more pop. What she took from her gospel training was the ability to invest a lyric with precise soulfulness, burrowing right in for the emotional truth, whether she was singing show tunes, pop standards, New Wave or her own disco classics.
In her music, she forged a home. In her image, she was often uncomfortable, sometimes making it clear that the genre she'd helped define was her albatross.
When people say Donna Summer was the Queen of Disco, it's not just BPMs, drugs in the backroom and sexual hedonism they're talking about. The dance music culture of the late 1960s through the late '70s, with disco as one of its most powerful and influential manifestations, is the revolutionary music-based culture that neither rock 'n' roll nor hip-hop is, or can ever be.
Disco was rooted in the cutting-edge sounds and aesthetics of black America and gay America (keeping in mind that the two are not mutually exclusive). But it was also refuge and mecca for all races, genders, sexual orientations and classes. All you had to do was show up. You didn't have to plead your case, didn't have to hide or be ashamed of any aspect of your being because its core identity was fluid and permeable. Flaming queens, working-class straight men, suburbanites and devout club kids all called the music and culture theirs.
Donna Summer ruled majestically, if uneasily, over it all.
Her work with the production team of Moroder and Pete Bellotte includes the "Four Seasons of Love" EP (1976), the concept double-album "Once Upon a Time" (1977), the Grammy and Academy Award-winning pop classic "Last Dance" (1978), the concert double-album "Live and More" (1978) and the Grammy-nominated "Bad Girls" album (1979), which is arguably her masterpiece.
Though she did fantastic work after breaking with the Svengali-like Moroder (including teaming up with Quincy Jones and working with one-time powerhouse British producers Stock, Aiken and Waterman), her best work was without a doubt with Moroder and Bellotte. She was their muse. They created sweepingly orchestrated tracks that run circles around 90% of what's being made now, and she brought a dazzling humanity -- sensuality, playfulness, soulfulness -- to the grooves, from the hypnotic repetition of "I Feel Love" to the swirling romanticism of "Heaven Knows," and dozens beyond.
A gifted songwriter (she wrote or co-wrote a lot of her material), she was known as the consummate professional, with her only real publicized battles concerning label interference after she signed to Geffen following her break with Casablanca Records, where she recorded her most famous and influential music. Still, a famous bit of diva lore trailed her after she went toe-to-toe with Barbra Streisand on the camp classic "No More Tears." The competitive recording session quickly became the stuff of legend after Summer reportedly strained so hard to keep up with Streisand on one note that she fell off the stool she was sitting on, while Streisand chirped merrily on. But make no mistake, her own voice was one of the most glorious and powerful in pop.
Controversy dogged her already faltering post-disco career after word spread that, following a concert in 1983, she told gay fans that AIDS was divine retribution for a sinful lifestyle. She steadfastly denied saying it, even suing New York magazine in 1991 when they reprinted the allegation. (The case was settled out of court.)
She's not referenced much now outside of conversations about disco (many of which take place in the bloodless realm of academia), but while she was that genre's undisputed queen, she was also -- for a while -- the queen of pop. Her legacy undoubtedly suffers from the fact that disco never received its due, was always shortchanged in terms of mainstream critical respect, and Summer herself often seemed conflicted about her own relationship to the music, its culture and what it represented.
If you want to really hear her at her best, and at the peak of disco's creativity, put on the 17 minute-plus "MacArthur Park Suite," from the "Live and More" CD. In the middle of it, and with the most exquisite ache, she sings the passage: "There will be another song for me / And I will sing it / There will be another dream for me /Someone will bring it / I will drink the wine while it is warm / And never let you catch me looking at the sun / And after all the loves of my life / After all the loves of my life, you'll still be the one…"
-- Ernest Hardy
Photo: Donna Summer performs at the Universal Amphitheatre on July 28, 1983. Credit: Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times