Summer, Donna (1948—)

views updated

Summer, Donna (1948—)

Singer Donna Summer was the first and perhaps only true luminary of the disco era. Beginning with a breakthrough 1975 hit that pigeonholed her as a libidinous electrified diva, Summer recorded several albums over the next few years that brought her international fame; for a brief time her style even seemed to be breaking down racial barriers in American pop music. She was often referred to as the "queen of disco" and by 1979 had topped the charts with Bad Girls, the best-selling album by a female performer that year.

Summer was born La Donna Gaines in 1948 and grew up in Boston. As a youth, she sang gospel in her church and moved to Europe before finishing high school when offered a role in the stage version of the popular hippie musical Hair. She spent the next several years in Germany, married an Austrian named Helmut Sommer (and kept his name after their 1974 divorce), and appeared in theater productions before beginning to work with two successful Munich producers, Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellote, at their Musicland Studios. The duo made minor disco hits for the European dance-club scene that were quietly making their way to the underground nightclubs frequented by gays, blacks, and Latinos in New York City. Such discos grew in popularity when a downturn in the economy made such clubs—with their five-dollar cover for an evening of entertain-ment—a preferable alternative to concerts.

Billboard magazine had introduced a disco chart in early 1975 after savvy record companies realized the huge potential of the emerging dance-club scene: certain records were selling in the thousands without any radio airplay at all. Summer had two minor hits in Europe, then suggested to her producers that they record something similar to a breathy French hit from 1959, " Je t'aime … moi non plus " by Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg. What they came up with was three minutes of Summer singing the words "love to love you, baby," a few other phrases, and a lot of moaning. When the track found its way to a party at the Los Angeles home of Neil Bogart, who had made a fortune in the sixties with a label that put out bubble-gum pop, his guests clamored to hear it over and over. He contacted Moroder and Bellote, asked them to make a longer version, and signed Summer to his new label, Casablanca.

Summer had a huge hit in the United States with "Love to Love You, Baby," and a debut album of the same name went gold. "It was a disc that spun day and night throughout the summer of 1975," wrote Albert Goldman in Esquire just two years later. "To the layman, it was just another catchy tune; to the initiate, it was the first unambiguous sign that we were in for another epidemic of the dancing sickness--that recurrent mania that sweeps over this country and Europe on an average of once every ten years. …" Time journalist Jay Cocks wrote, three years after its debut, that the song seemed to signify "disco's coming-out party," the emergence of homosexual subculture into mainstream America. Goldman termed it "the first frankly erotic album ever to achieve wide currency and airplay. Broadcasting the cries and moans of a woman enjoying intercourse may not sound like much of a breakthrough in this age of explicit sex and rampant pornography," Goldman wrote in 1977, "but it must be borne in mind that phono-recording is the most oppressively censored medium in America."

Summer became a household name. For a time she had a constant bodyguard, since fans were known to trap her in elevators. She released a number of albums over the next few years, including two in 1976, A Love Trilogy and Four Seasons of Love. A less-discofied album, I Remember Yesterday, had a great hit the following year with "I Feel Love." The song was notable for what came to be known as the "galloping bass line," a thumping, 140-beat-per-minute backbone of drum-machine rhythm structure that became the staple of many a disco hit. "Donna Summer snapped her choruses over booming rhythm tracks that moved the artfully tied construction boots of gay men and the teetery hetero platforms of the Saturday Night Fever disco hordes," wrote Gerri Hirshey in Rolling Stone. Summer's 1978 double-live album, Live and More, sold millions.

In 1978 Summer made her film debut in Thank God It's Friday, and a song she wrote and sang for it, "Last Dance" won her one of several Grammy Awards that year. The album Bad Girls, released in 1979, featured a blend of rock and disco—much of which she actually wrote herself—and garnered both good reviews and, again, huge sales. Yet it would also be her last for Casablanca, and in 1980 she became the first act signed by record industry executive David Geffen on his new label. She made The Wanderer in 1980 but had only a few minor chart successes over the next decade.

Despite her low profile for so many years after the death of disco, Summer has long enjoyed a cult following. The resurgence of disco kitsch in the mid-1990s—which helped breathe a bit of life into the careers of the Village People and the Bee Gees—was also beneficial to her. In March of 1998 she gave a benefit concert for New York City's Gay Men's Health Crisis at Carnegie Hall. "After nearly two hours of mature ovations and controlled excitement … the remarkably well-behaved audience could no longer be contained," wrote Larry Flick in Billboard. "As she began a salacious, guitar-drenched rendition of 'Hot Stuff,' fans rushed down the red carpeted aisles toward the stage." Summer lives in Nashville and hopes to see a musical she wrote, Ordinary Girl, debut on Broadway in 1999.

—Carol Brennan

Further Reading:

Cocks, Jay. "Early Reign of the Disco Queen." Time. December 4,1978, 93.

Flick, Larry. Billboard. March 16, 1998.

Goldman, Albert. "Disco Fever." Esquire. December 1977, 60-66.

——. "Studio 54, Driver!" Sound Bites. New York, Random House, 1992.

Jacobson, Mark. "Disco Dreams." Very Seventies: A Cultural History of the 1970s from the Pages of Crawdaddy. New York, Fireside/Simon & Schuster, 1995.

Porter, Evette. "Awaiting the Diva." Village Voice. December 17,1996, 61-62.

Rockwell, John. "The Disco Drum-Beating in Perspective." New York Times. February 25, 1979.

——. "Donna Summer Has Begun to Win Respect." New York Times. July 26, 1979.