By Gillian G. Gaar
In the late 1970s, Donna Summer was the undisputed Queen of Disco. But few then realized that singing was just one of her many talents, and that Summer was actually a multi-talented performer who co-wrote many of the songs that have enshrined her in music history.
LaDonna Adrian Gaines was born on Dec. 31, 1948, in Boston. Her parents remember her as the kind of child who just couldn’t stop singing. So it was no surprise when the pastor at her local church asked her if she’d like to fill in for the lead vocalist who hadn’t shown up — even though Summer was only 10 years old at the time. One of her favorite stories to relate was the sense of joy she felt when she took the pastor up on his offer. She took it as a sign from God that singing was what she meant to do in her life — and that it was something that would bring her great fame one day.
Summer’s ambitions led her to drop out of high school to join a rock band in New York City; when the group broke up, she auditioned for the rock musical “Hair” and ended up being cast in a German production of the show. Summer spent the next seven years living overseas, performing in Germany and Austria, honing her skills in such shows and operas as “Godspell,” “The Me Nobody Knows,” “Showboat” and “Porgy and Bess.”
She made her recording debut on the German-language original cast album of “Hair” in Germany (“Haare”), released in 1968 on Polydor, along with the single “Aquarius” (“Wassermann” in German); she also appeared on German-language original cast recordings of “The Me Nobody Knows” and “Godspell.”
She also released her own singles (credited as Donna Gaines), including a cover of The Jaynetts’ “Sally Go ’Round the Roses”/“So Said the Man” in 1971, and “If You Walkin’ Alone”/“Can’t Understand” in 1972, neither of which made much of impression on the charts.
In 1973, she married Austrian actor Helmuth Sommer and her now-famous last name. Although the couple later divorced, she kept his surname and Anglicized it to “Summer.”
Summer found work as a backing vocalist, which is where she met producers Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte. The trio began working on material for Summer, and their first project together was the single “Denver Dream” (written by Bellotte), b/w “Something’s in the Wind,” which was released in 1974. It was followed by the album “Lady of the Night,” released in the same year, in the Netherlands only. The title track and “The Hostage” were released as singles from the album, and both reached No. 5 in the Netherlands.
But a bigger breakthrough was on the horizon. In 1975, Summer approached Moroder and Bellotte with an idea for a song based around the line “Love to love you, baby.” Once the song was completed, Summer recorded what she thought was going to be a demo for someone else, moaning and cooing through the song in a suggestive fashion (she later said she was emulating how she thought Marilyn Monroe would deliver the song). But she was persuaded to release the song herself, initially under the title “Love to Love You.” It made little impression at the time, and a subsequent single, “Virgin Mary,” also failed to chart.
Moroder then sent a copy of the song to Neil Bogart, head of Casablanca Records. Bogart played the song at a party he was hosting, and noted that his guests kept asking for the song to be played again and again (in one account, someone bumped the record player, jostling the needle back to the beginning of the song). The original version only ran 3:27, so when Bogart next spoke with Moroder, he asked him to produce a longer version of the song suitable for playing in discos. Moroder readily agreed, producing a version that ran 16 minutes and 49 seconds. The song, now titled “Love to Love You Baby,” appeared as the title track of the August 1975 album of the same name, and took up one entire side of the album. It became something of a parlor game to guess how many orgasms Summer was simulating during the number (“Time” magazine put it at 22); because of its perceived salaciousness, the song was also banned on some radio stations. The controversy also tagged Summer as “sexy,” an image with which she was uncomfortable. Rumors circulated about how she might have “stimulated” herself during the recording session; another rumor claimed she was actually a transvestite.
But “Love to Love You Baby” was also the song that brought Summer chart success at last. In November 1975, a 4:58 edit of the song was released. It reached No. 2 on the pop charts and topped the dance club charts (the album peaked at No. 11 pop, No. 6 R&B). When Summer arrived in New York for a promotional tour, she turned on the radio in the limousine that was taking her into town and heard her hit booming over the airwaves. Though thrilled by her success, she took pains to point out her talents were more well-rounded than people realized.
“I’m not just sex, sex, sex,” she told Ebony magazine. I would never want to be a one-dimensional person like that … I can sing songs like ‘Love to Love You Baby,’ but I can also sing ballads, light opera, things from musical comedies, church hymns — all kinds of things. Plus I can write, act and think.”
There wouldn’t be another pop hit for a while: the singles “Could It Be Magic” (1976), “Try Me, I Know We Can Make It” (1976), “Wasted” (1976), “Come With Me” (1976), “Spring Affair” (1976), “Winter Melody” (1977) and “Can’t We just Sit Down (And Talk It Over)” (1977) all charted higher on the dance charts than the pop charts, while the albums “A Love Trilogy” (1976), “Four Seasons of Love” (1976), “I Remember Yesterday” (1977) and “Once Upon a Time” (1977) all charted higher on the R&B charts than the pop charts.
Then came “I Feel Love,” released in July 1977, which brought Summer back into the Top 10 on the pop, R&B and dance charts. There was a 3:47 promo single edit, an album/single edit that ran 5:53, and a 12-inch single mix that ran 8:12. The song, co-written by Summer, was the first to feature an entirely synthesized musical backing, and the effect was mesmerizing. It was the starting point of what dance music would become. Some were quick to realize what was happening. On first hearing the song, Brian Eno told David Bowie, “I have heard the sound of the future … This single is going to change the sound of club music for the next 15 years.” The song influenced future genres, including electronica and techno; as The Guardian noted in 2011, “If it felt like the sound of tomorrow in 1977, now ‘I Feel Love’ just sounds timeless.”
From 1978 to 1980, Summer’s hits came one after another. “Last Dance,” which Summer performed in the film “Thank God It’s Friday;” “MacArthur Park;” “Heaven Knows,” which was co-written by Summer and featured the Brooklyn Dreams, whose keyboardist and producer, Bruce Sudano, Summer wed in 1980; “Hot Stuff;” “Bad Girls,” which was co-written by Summer; “Dim All the Lights,” which Summer originally wrote for Rod Stewart before she decided to record it herself; “No More Tears (Enough is Enough,” a duet with Barbra Streisand; “On the Radio” and “The Wanderer,” both of which were co-written by Summer, all reached the Top 5.
Summer’s cover of Jimmy Webb’s “MacArthur Park” about that famous cake left in the rain that was previously a hit for Richard Harris, became Summer’s first single to reach No. 1 on the pop charts. “Hot Stuff,” “Bad Girls” and “No More Tears” also captured the top spot. Summer’s first No. 1 album was “Live and More” (1978), which featured a mix of live and studio tracks. “On the Radio: Greatest Hits Volumes I & II” (1979) and “Bad Girls” (1979) also topped the pop charts, making Summer the first artist to have three double albums that reached No. 1.
Summer received her first Grammy awards during this period as well, with “Last Dance” winning Best Female R&B Vocal Performance in 1979 and “Hot Stuff” winning Best Female Rock Performance in 1980.
“Bad Girls” was Summer’s most commercially successful album; it sold more than four million copies worldwide. The album presented a mix of musical styles — not just the disco, but also ballads and numbers that emulate the electronic style of “I Feel Love.”
Summer’s albums were often musically diverse; 1976’s “Four Seasons of Love,” for example, was a concept album, with a song for each season of the year. Side One of “I Remember Yesterday” (1977) had an underlying “concept,” with a disco beat updating music from the ’40s (the title track), the ’50s (“Love’s Unkind”) and ’60s (“Back in Love Again”). “Once Upon a Time,” released the same year, was a modern-day version of the Cinderella story.
And despite the success she’d had with disco, Summer was anxious to branch out into other musical styles. Casablanca preferred she remain a disco artist, which prompted Summer to leave the label in 1980 and sign with David Geffen’s new label. Summer also took Casablanca to court over financial disagreements. Summer’s first album on the Geffen label, “The Wanderer,” reached the Top 20, while the title track reached No. 3. But Geffen ended up rejecting her next proposed album for the label, “I’m a Rainbow,” co-produced as usual by Moroder and Bellotte. Geffen persuaded Summer to work with someone new. Eventually, she agreed, working with fellow Class of 2013 Rock Hall inductee Quincy Jones on 1982’s “Donna Summer,” which failed to find the same chart success that “The Wanderer” had. The complete “I’m a Rainbow” album eventually was released in 1996 on Mercury, in case you’re curious to hear how it turned out.
It was then determined that Summer owed the Casablanca label — which was now owned by Polygram — one more record. Released on Polygram’s Mercury label in 1983, Summer’s “She Works Hard For The Money” became her biggest hit since “Bad Girls.” It was her last album to reach the Top 10. The title track, co-written by Summer, reached No. 3, and topped the R&B charts. The song’s video was also striking, featuring Summer observing a woman, alternately a cleaner, waitress and sweatshop worker, going through her work day, culminating in a dance number in the street featuring women in a variety of professional outfits — police officer, doctor, construction worker.
Her obligation fulfilled, Summer went back to Geffen. “Cats Without Claws” (1984) reached No. 40, and “All Systems Go” (1987) failed to crack the Top 100. When Geffen declined to release Summer’s next album, “Another Place and Time,” produced by the hit production team of Stock, Aitken & Waterman, Summer left the label in 1988. She then placed the record with Warner Bros., which released it overseas in 1989. When the single “This Time I Know It’s for Real” became a hit, the album was released domestically, by Atlantic. Summer ended up getting the last laugh when “This Time I Know It’s for Real” became a hit stateside as well, reaching No. 7; it was Summer’s last single to reach the Top 10.
Summer’s next album, “Mistaken Identity” (1991), confirmed that her hit-making days were largely behind her. But Summer continued to record new material and toured overseas to support it. Although she was no longer on the pop charts, her songs still hit the dance charts.
After becoming a born-again Christian in the 1980s, Summer sang more religious-themed numbers. Her rendition of “He’s a Rebel” (not the song popularized by the Crystals) garnered a Grammy for Best Inspirational Performance in 1984, and “Forgive Me” won Best Inspirational Performance in 1985. Summer’s 1994 holiday album, “Christmas Spirit,” was a mix of religious and secular holiday music, from “O Come All Ye Faithful” to “White Christmas.”
In 1992, Summer received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. That same year, she reunited with Giorgio Moroder to record the song, “Carry On.” The track was first released on the 1993 double-album set “The Donna Summer Anthology,” and it was also released as a single in Germany. In 1997, the song was remixed and re-released, and it became a bigger hit, climbing up to No. 25 on the U.S. dance charts. The song also won a Grammy for Best Dance Recording in 1998.
Summer slipped back into acting during this time period, including two guest appearances on the TV show “Family Matters.” The year 1999 saw the release of Summer’s “Live & More Encore,” an album of a Feb. 28, 1999, concert at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York City.
Summer surprised her fans in 2008 with “Crayons,” an album of new material via Burgundy Records, a subsidiary of Sony/BMG. Summer described the album as “a sampler of flavors and influences from all over the world.” She co-wrote all of the songs (two songs were co-written with Evan Bogart, Neil Bogart’s son) and worked with a variety of producers. “Crayons” peaked at No. 17 and became Summer’s highest-charting album since “She Works Hard for the Money.” Singles “I’m a Fire,” “Stamp Your Feet” and “Fame (The Game)” all reached No. 1 on the dance charts; “Sand on My Feet” reached No. 30 on the Adult Contemporary chart. She also poked fun of her image as the Queen of Disco in the song “The Queen is Back.”
The first year Summer was nominated for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame was 2008; she was nominated two more times before finally being selected for induction in the Class of 2013. That same year she also performed on “American Idol,” and was one of the performers at a 2009 Nobel Peace Prize concert held in Oslo, Norway, honoring that year’s recipient of the award, President Barack Obama.
Summer had one final chart hit in 2010 with “To Paris With Love,” which she co-wrote. The song topped the dance charts. She spoke about recording an album of standards, but no other new recordings were released during her lifetime. The last recording she worked on was “Angel,” a track by her nephew, rapper O’Mega Red.
“I worked with Donna in the past, but we never released any music,” Red explained in an interview. “She always said that I was a talented writer and musician, and when the time came and I wrote something undeniable, she would record a song with me. She kept her promise … she fell in love with the record, the melodies and writing of the song. She also had a lot of input to the direction and subject matter of the song, which brought it over the top.”
Summer’s death at age 63 of lung cancer, on May 17, 2012, came as a surprise to many, not only because she was not a smoker (which often is a cause of lung cancer), but also because few realized she was suffering from the disease. But her musical legacy, which changed the nature of dance music forever, will live on as long as there are dance floors and DJs.