Donna Summer: The Queen of Disco… Forever

Donna Summer-1There are certain titles that belong to certain people, from now into infinity. That is the case whether they are  with us or have moved on to the next level. Aretha Franklin is the Queen of Soul. Bob Marley is the King of Reggae. B.B. King is the King of the Blues. And on it goes.

Donna Summer, who died last week, will always be the Queen of Disco. Her name, in fact, is synonymous with the genre that in essence “ruled” from the mid-1970s to the early 1980s. 

Her biggest hits are the very essence of disco, starting with “Love to Love You Baby” (a song that has been described as “orgasmic”) and continuing with, among others, “Last Dance,” “I Feel Love,” “Hot Stuff,” “MacArthur Park,” “Bad Girls” and her surprise duet with Barbra Streisand, “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough).”

However, it would be unfair to put Summer in a “Disco Only” box. She proved on many occasions to be masterful at delivering ballads, be they contemporary or standards. Those performances are to be found on some her albums, most notably “Live and More.”

LADONNA ADRIAN GAINES was born on Dec. 31, 1948 in Boston. Like so many African-American singers, she got her first experience singing in church, although she sought a career in secular music rather than gospel.

She also had acting aspirations. Interestingly, in the latter half of the 1960s she auditioned for what was to become one of  the biggest musicals in Broadway history, “Hair,” but lost out to future star Melba Moore.

However, when a cast was assembled for a European version of the show, Summer was offered the part. She accepted and moved to Germany, where she performed in a number of other stage productions as well.

By the mid-1970s, Summer had returned to the states. It was while singing with the hit pop/rock band Three Dog Night that she met two producers who would prove to be essential to the advancement of her career, Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte.

It was they who produced the groundbreaking “Love to Love You Baby,” the first of many.  To get the feel of the super-sexy song, Summer envisioned how it would sound if it was being sung by Marilyn Monroe.

ALTHOUGH SHE was firmly established as the Queen of Disco, with no viable challengers, Summer surprised people in 1979 with the danceable but decidely rock-edged “Hot Stuff,”  one of several of her singles that reached No. 1 on  the national charts. The song, in fact, earned Summer a Grammy in the Best  Female Rock Vocal Performance category.

It was a harbinger of things to come because not much more time would pass before the popularity of disco would wane, although “dance music” will always be here.

“The Wanderer” from 1980 sounded unlike anything Summer had ever recorded before (or anyone else for that matter). “Rock/pop” might be the best terminology.

Quincy Jones produced one of Donna Summer’s most outstanding recordings in 1982, “State of Independence.” It was a huge, lavish production, with Summer accompanied by what sounded like a 300-member choir. Its moderate showing on the charts was an indication that it may have been a bit too “artsy” for much of the public and for many radio programmers.

In 1983 Summer had one of her biggest hits, “She Works Hard For The Money,” which reached No. 3 on the national Pop charts and No. 1 on the R&B charts.

In the mid-1980s Sum-mer became a born-again Christian and as such greatly condensed “Love to Love You Baby” in concert, doing just a few lines of the songs and certainly leaving out the moans and groans.

The twice married Summer, mother of three daughters, released an album in 2008 titled “Crayons”  that proved that she was very much a contemporary artist rather than an “oldie but goodie.” She also made a guest star appearance on “American Idol” around that time.

The impact of Donna Summer is deeply embedded and, fortunately, her recordings are easily obtained.

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