By Steven M. Housman
Four Decades of Love
Donna Summer Still Keeps Us Dancing!
Last month, I was in an L.A. club and a very familiar voice over a driving beat was blaring from every direction of the venue. The voice wasn’t just familiar to me, but recognizable to everyone in the club as well. It was Donna Summer, and the song was her latest single, “I Got Your Love.” The dance floor, which was sufficiently occupied, became all of a sudden filled to capacity upon the sound of Summer’s powerful vocals. But this was nothing new. Over the past thirty years, if a DJ wanted to start a dance riot, all he or she had to do was place a Donna Summer song in the mix and the club would erupt in frenzy. In all the years I’ve been covering the club scene, this is one policy that has never failed. How many “dance” artists that emerged out of the mid-70’s can you name that still have that kind of impact? Still thinking? Exactly! As a matter of fact, as of the first week of January 2006, “I Got Your Love” was Number 4 on the Billboard Hot Dance Club Play Chart, and the single was also climbing the Billboard Hot Dance Sales Chart as well. What makes this statistic even more fascinating is the fact that Summer’s first U.S. release “Love To Love You Baby,” peaked at #2 on the Billboard Hot 100, and #1 on the Dance (Disco) Charts this very same week in 1976!
“Love To Love You Baby” was the advent of the extended Club Version, clocking in at a staggering seventeen minutes. With the song in heavy rotation at clubs and the pared down four minute radio single, Donna Summer was the talk of the music world. The most ironic fact about the single is that it was never intended to be taken seriously. Donna later said of the classic song (produced by Giorgio Moroder): “I told Giorgio that I had an idea for a song, and I sang the melody to him and he put down a track. I came into the studio the next day and he wanted me to put down my vocal, but I wasn't really prepared, so I ad-libbed, and that was left on the song. I was goofing around. I was lying on the floor moaning and we were all hysterical. It was just too funny.” Who would have guessed that over thirty years later, Donna Summer would be an artist entering her fourth decade and still be a driving force on the club dance circuit?
Before her immense recording success, Donna moved to Europe to begin her singing and acting career in the European production of the musical Hair. When the run ended, she quickly landed roles in other European productions of Godspell, The Me Nobody Knows and Porgy And Bess. During this time, she met her first husband, Helmut Sommer, and had a five year marriage that began in 1971. About the same time, she also met a man that would set the stage for her astonishing career, the now legendary Giorgio Moroder.
In 1974, Moroder and songwriter Pete Bellotte recognized Summer’s unique talents and wasted little time writing and producing her first single, titled “The Hostage.” The song became a hit in the Netherlands, France and Belgium, and the sound of Summer started a buzz in Europe. After the success of “The Hostage,” the aforementioned single “Love To Love You Baby” caught the attention of an American record entrepreneur, Neil Bogart. The seventeen-minute song was the entire first side of the album, while five steamy disco tracks made up side two. All the while, Summer was still in Europe (Germany) with her husband and her new-born daughter, Mimi, who was born in 1973. Unbeknownst to Donna, she landed back on American soil in 1976 without the slightest inkling that her song had caught fire. “Love To Love You Baby” was certified gold in a matter of three weeks! Donna learned of the success in America after the public had already discovered her!
Summer promptly returned to the recording studio for her second album, the 1976 release A Love Trilogy. The album was recorded in the same fashion as the first. Side 1 consisted of one song, “Try Me, I Know We Can Make It” and side two had four tracks including the fabulous remake of Barry Manilow’s “Could It Be Magic.” By this time, she had struck a chord with gay men, and there wasn’t a club you could walk into without hearing a series of Donna Summer mixes throughout the night. The gay community made Donna Summer their new heroine. Judy was gone, her daughter Liza picked up where she left off, Bette was storming the live stage with her boisterous repertoire, and Barbra was still the diva songbird. Donna was welcomed into that small esteemed unit of gay icons.
Throughout the following year, Donna released, Four Seasons of Love, I Remember Yesterday and Once Upon A Time. In June of ’77, Donna released the single “I Feel Love,” which is one of the most revered songs in electronica history. The song is also the most remixed and re-released song in dance history. Last year, I conducted an interview with DJ Manny Lehman and he commented, “‘I Feel Love’ is such a progressive song and it still sounds progressive when they add some bottom or some kick to it. It still sounds futuristic, and that’s something, considering it came out in the mid 70’s. Donna’s vocals are incredible and she’s standing the test of time. There aren’t a lot of divas who can say that.” In 1977, rocker Iggy Pop commented on the song saying, “It’s the future of music.”
The gay community knew what she had, but it was 1978’s “Last Dance,” composed by the late Paul Jabara, that linked Donna to the universe. The song bridged generation gaps and ultimately won an Oscar for Jabara, with much of the success owed to Summer’s phenomenal vocal delivery. Donna followed the success with her 1978 double-album, Live and More. The “live” part was the first three sides of her hits from her first five albums, along with a few power ballads, but it was Side 4 that contained the studio version of “MacArthur Park” that was so meticulously recorded and produced, it became an instant classic. It was also Summer’s first #1 smash on the Billboard Hot 100. Four #1’s and twenty Top 40 Billboard Hot 100 charted hits followed. On the Dance Club Play Charts, Summer has had more than two dozen #1’s.
In the spring of 1979, Bad Girls was released and is considered the finest studio album of her career. Donna Summer was now the reigning queen of the music industry. With the back-to-back success of “Hot Stuff” and Bad Girls” which placed her at #1 for 8 weeks in the summer of 1979, and the album’s six week run at #1, Summer had another place in platinum history come that fall. She teamed with Barbra Streisand and recorded the now historic “(No More Tears) Enough Is Enough.” The song perched itself at the #1 position for two solid weeks. Donna ended 1979 with her double-album On The Radio: Greatest Hits Volumes 1 & 2, making her the only female artist in history to have three consecutive #1 double albums certified platinum. That record has yet to be broken.
1980 began with a marriage and a lawsuit. The marriage was to musician Bruce Sudano, and the lawsuit was against Casablanca Records CEO Neil Bogart for allegedly withholding funds from her previous recordings. Donna switched labels and was the first artist to sign a contract with Geffen Records. The lawsuit was later settled. Unfortunately, Bogart, once a friend, died of cancer on May 8, 1982 at the age of 39. To complete her contract, Summer recorded one more album for Mercury (a subsidiary of Casablanca) in 1983, the wildly successful She Works Hard For The Money. But before the success of that album, Summer and Geffen released the critically acclaimed The Wanderer in 1980. Although The Wanderer had three hit singles, fusing disco, rock and R&B, it didn’t have the fanfare of her previous Casablanca albums.
In 1982, she teamed up with Quincy Jones and released the self-titled album Donna Summer. The album spawned three singles, “Love Is In Control,” “State of Independence” and “The Woman In Me.” After marginal success with the 1984 album Cats Without Claws, the tabloids reported that Summer had made anti-gay remarks, which were later proven false, but the damage had been done. The gay community, who believed the tabloid-written fodder, turned their backs on their one-time queen, which forced Summer to hold a press conference and tearfully address the press, and most notably, the gay community. In time, she came back and scored big with the 1989 album Another Place & Time, and the Top Ten single “This Time I Know It’s For Real.”
The negative press swayed Donna to re-evaluate her life and her ambitions. Although she never stopped recording, she did slow down and decided to devote herself to her family and to her other love painting. Her works have received rave reviews and have had showings in the most prestigious galleries all over the world. Her artwork has raised contributions for and awareness of numerous charitable causes that she is involved with, including: The Bogart Pediatric Research Foundation For Cancer, Leukemia & AIDS, The St. Jude Foundation, Make-A-Wish Foundation, Project Angel Food/Divine Design, Race to Erase MS Foundation, M.A.D.D., T. J. Martell Foundation and The Minnie Pearl Foundation.
In the 90’s, Summer would release an album and dance single here and there, and every time she did, she would not only get attention from DJ’s and gay audiences, she also received Grammy nominations. Her finest dance recordings of the 90’s were “Melody Of Love,” which was Billboard’s #1 Dance Record of the Year 1994, and the 1999 Grammy-nominated “I Will Go With You (Con Te Partiro).” In 1997, Summer won her fifth Grammy for “Carry On” in the first year the category Best Dance Recording was introduced. In 2003, the singles “Dream-A-Lot's Theme (I Will Live For Love)” and “You're So Beautiful” also hit the top of the Billboard Dance Club Charts. Out of the five Grammy Awards she has won, she has received them in the categories of Dance, Female R&B Vocal, Female Rock Vocal and Inspirational.
In 2005, she was featured on the CD So Amazing: An All Star Tribute To Luther Vandross with “Power of Love.” The latest single “I Got Your Love” is just another hit and feather in her platinum cap, and her 2003 autobiography, Ordinary Girl, is headed for Broadway in the near future where she’ll join the ranks of Elton John and Billy Joel, who have turned their musical legacies into Broadway gold. Interestingly enough, all of their careers began in the same decade.
Donna Summer is also embarking on a brand-new U.S. Tour beginning on June 11 in her home of Nashville, Tennessee (where she relocated to in the 90’s) and taking her through Chicago, Boston, Houston, Dallas, Atlanta, Albuquerque, Los Angeles and many more cities across the country and Canada. She’ll wind down in Vegas on September 3 & 4. If you are a fan of Donna Summer, I highly recommend seeing her live, ‘cause “Heaven Knows” she’s “One of a Kind!”
© 2006 Steven M. Housman. All Rights Reserved.