|In Las Vegas concert, October 2011|
Summer was 63 and had recently been in meetings at her Los Angeles home with producer Jay Landers. The pair had planned to work on an album of duets with contemporary dance acts she had influenced and, with Barry Manilow, an album of songs devoted to the Detroit music scene.
“She had the regal quality of a singer who transcends the genre they are best known for — a fancy way of saying she could really sing the phone book,” Landers, a senior vice president at Universal who has worked with Barbra Streisand, Celine Dion and Carly Simon, said in a telephone interview Thursday from Los Angeles. “We planned to invite some of the leading dance contemporary artists like Lady Gaga, Pink, Katy Perry, Madonna and others who Donna had cut a path for. I was totally floored when I read the news because she looked great and was in great spirits.”
Her family, which includes husband Bruce Sudano, their daughters Brooklyn and Amanda, and her daughter Mimi from a previous marriage, said they “are at peace celebrating her extraordinary life and her continued legacy.”
“Words truly can’t express how much we appreciate your prayers and love for our family at this sensitive time,” the family statement read.
Though Summer came to prominence just as disco was emerging from New York nightclubs in the mid-‘70s, and came to define the glittery era with a string of No. 1 hits including MacArthur Park, Hot Stuff and Bad Girls, she was first inspired by Janis Joplin. Her debut album in 1974, Lady of the Night, revealed her considerable rock roots. Though released only in Europe, the album paired her with a producer/songwriter with whom she’d make musical history, Giorgio Moroder.
A year later, the two released the climactic and controversial disco classic, Love to Love You Baby. Summer, then a stage actress in Germany, intended the song only to serve as a demo for another artist to record. But the tune, which lasted longer than 12 minutes and featured a lengthy passage of simulated orgasms, became Summer’s first American hit when Casablanca Records founder Neil Bogart commissioned the track. He used it to help build his label on Summer’s soon-to-be inescapable sound.
Summer, however, came to regret the sexy song when she became a born-again Christian in 1980 and edged away from disco as the genre imploded.
“I don’t sing it anymore,” Summer told The Miami Herald in a 1996 interview. At the time, she was living in Nashville where she had composed Starting Over Again, a breakup ballad that became a country hit for Dolly Parton.
“I basically perform everything except Love to Love You. I’ve gone through dark periods and felt like I was in a cave. God has always been my center in getting me out of the cave. But I walked away when I did Love,” Summer said.
The singer continued to perform her subsequent single, I Feel Love, however, and that synapse-shattering 1977 hit stands as one of the most influential songs of the decade. I Feel Love burst open the doors to electronic music.
“One day in Berlin ... [Brian] Eno came running in and said, ‘I have heard the sound of the future.’ ... He puts on I Feel Love, by Donna Summer. He said, ‘This is it, look no further. This single is going to change the sound of club music for the next 15 years.’ Which was more or less right,” David Bowie told rock journalist Kurt Loder for the liner notes of his Sound + Vision compilation.
Summer also set a Billboard chart record, which likely will never be matched, when she sent three double-disc albums to No. 1: Live & More in 1978, Bad Girls and On the Radio: Donna Summer’s Greatest Hits in 1979. Her single Last Dance, from the 1978 disco knockoff movie Thank God It’s Friday, won that year’s Oscar for Best Song.
One of that era’s most amusing stories centers on a duet Summer sang with Streisand in 1979, No More Tears (Enough Is Enough). Streisand was reluctant to sing the disco hit but her son Jason, then 13, insisted that his mother sing it with his then-favorite artist. While singing in facing stools in a California studio, Summer didn’t breathe correctly and, while trying to hold a note to match Streisand’s, she momentarily blacked out and hit the floor. Streisand, the consummate perfectionist, kept singing the note straight through to completion.
“Hearing of Donna Summer’s passing is a cultural jolt on so many levels,” said Broadway producer Richard Jay-Alexander, who currently directs Streisand’s concerts. “When she first burst onto the music scene and became the Goddess of Disco, I knew she started in theater. She lost the role she wanted, in Hair, to Melba Moore, but played the part when a European tour went out. She settled in Germany, got fluent, did shows like The Me Nobody Knows, Godspell and Showboat. She got discovered and the rest, as they say, is history. There are so many songs she recorded that will never be forgotten, including a classic No. 1 with Barbra Streisand. Also, being a gay man, she is part of the soundtrack of our lives and all the memories that go with a very special time in history, both musically and politically.”
Unlike many stars of the disco who faded as trends turned the word “disco” into a pejorative, Summer grew beyond the steady kick drum thump-thump on albums like 1980’s trailblazing The Wanderer, whose rock-dance sound would prove an influence on Michael Jackson’s Thriller two years later. She had one of her biggest hits, and a memorable MTV video, with She Works Hard For The Money in 1983, a tune that became an anthem of sorts for equality.
Yet soon after, Summer faced controversy when she was accused of making anti-gay comments at the onset of the AIDS epidemic. Summer denied making the comments, but was the target of a short-lived boycott.
Born LaDonna Adrian Gaines, and raised in Boston on gospel music, Summer said the heady days of No. 1 albums and the constant pressure to follow one classic with another in the 1970s became too much.
“People don’t understand unless they experience it. Even euphoria has its limits,” she told The Herald at a time when she was finding new fame as a painter while living in Nashville.
“I’ve sold close to $1 million worth in my short career,” she said in 1996. “I’ve sold more than Van Gogh and I sing better than they paint,” she laughed.
Through the changes, and the genre-hopping that included two Grammy awards in 1984 and 1985 in the inspirational field, Summer still dominated Billboard’s dance charts. Her string of 19 chart-toppers between 1975 and 2008, the last one from her final studio album, Crayons, puts her second only to Madonna. She performed to a new generation on American Idol in 2008 and was still capable of selling out venues like Hard Rock Live in Hollywood as recently as 2010.
“She was wonderful in our venue,” said Bernie Dillon, Hard Rock’s senior vice president of entertainment. “She hadn’t been out in a few years, but came out in 2009 and we brought her back a year later, and she really rocked our house here. Over 5,000 people came and she’s still the Queen of Disco in all our hearts. She was really an icon back then and had an amazing impact on the music scene. As Elvis and the Beatles were to rock ‘n’ roll, you have to put her in the other categories. She’s up there.”
BY HOWARD COHEN
Suggested by Freddy Liwang, Florida