Summer, Donna 1948–
Donna Summer 1948–
Like no other performer, Donna Summer personified the disco era during its zenith in the late 1970s. Working with a team of legendary European record producers, Summer wrote and recorded a string of hits that made her one of the most successful artists of the decade. She collected numerous gold records and awards during her prime, but her career was plagued by contractual and management problems during the 1980s.
Born in suburban Boston in 1948, LaDonna Andrea Gaines was one of seven siblings in a working-class household where church attendance and academic achievement were the rule. She began singing as a child in the gospel choir of her church, and was an especially devoted fan of gospel legend Mahalia Jackson. As a teenager, Summer sang in a Boston band called Crow, and shocked her family when she decided to move to New York City in order to find work on Broadway. At the age of 18, Summer auditioned for a role in the popular hippie musical Hair. She won a spot in the touring company for the show, and moved to Europe.
Summer spent the next several years overseas. She appeared in several German and Austrian stage productions, met and married a fellow performer, Helmut Sommer—from whom she took her eventual recording name—modeled, and occasionally worked as a backup singer for recording artists. During a 1973 Munich recording session with the band Blood, Sweat & Tears, Summer met producers Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte, who were entranced by her voice. She accepted an invitation to work with them, and recorded “The Hostage,” her debut single. “The Hostage “and two other recordings became minor hits in European dance clubs.
In 1975, Summer recorded a takeoff of a sexy, French hit from 1959, “Je T’Aime … Moi Non Plus.” Her version of the song, entitled “Love to Love You Baby,” featured a classic, speedy disco beat. The song was not a hit in Europe until Neil Bogart, an American record executive who had made a fortune with bubblegum pop records in the 1960s, suggested expanding the song to nearly 17 minutes in length. Summer was signed to Bogart’s Casablanca Records, and the shortened version of the song reached No. 2 on the American charts by early 1976.
At a Glance…
Born LaDonna Andrea Gaines, December 31, 1948, in Dorchester MA; married Helmut Sommer, (divorced, 1974); married Bruce Sudano, July 15–1980; children: (second marriage) Amanda Grace.
Career: Appeared in stage productions of Hair, Porgy & Bess and other American musicals in Germany and Austria, late 1960s, early 1970s; recorded “The Hostage” (European release only), 1973; recorded “Love to Love You Baby” and eponymous album, 1975; signed to Casablanca Records, 1975; achieved several Top Ten hits and gold records during the late 1970s; signed to Geffen Records, 1980, Epic Records, 1999–.
Awards: Best Original Song Oscar, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, 1978, for “Last Dance” Best Female R&B Vocal Performance Grammy, National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, 1979, for “Last Dance”, Best Female Rock Vocal Performance Grammy, 1980, for “Hot Stuff” Best Inspirational Performance Grammy 1984, for “He’s a Rebel,” and 1985, for “Forgive Me;” (with Giorgio Moroder) Best Dance Recording Grammy 1998, for “Carry On.”
Addresses: Office —Epic Records, 550 Madison Ave-, New York, NY10022,
Summer has been called the first crossover artist in pop music history, an African American performer who began her recording career working in a genre that appealed to minorities—the denizens of the New York nightlife scene, in which African American, Latino, and gay culture thrived in its own unique mix. That underground popularity eventually attracted a more mainstream element. Record company executives began to realize that some of Summer’s recordings that were marketed for the discotheque scene were selling briskly in mainstream record stores as well, even though they received no airplay on the radio.
The music industry journal Billboard created its disco chart in 1975. Summer soon began topping this chart, as well as the R&B and pop charts, with a string of hits. These hits included the 1976 releases A Love Trilogy, and the album Four Seasons of Love. The following year, she scored two more hits with the album I Remember Yesterday, and a double album, Once Upon a Time. All of these hits showcased Summer’s smooth, rich voice. One of Summer’s greatest hits, “I Feel Love,” was released in mid-1977 as a single from / Remember Yesterday. It would be the first hit to use what became known as the “galloping bass line,” a pounding, 140–beat-per-minute rhythm created by a drum machine. Such production techniques were rapidly adopted as a standard in disco music. Summer would also be remembered as the first female recording artist to successfully incorporate synthesizers into her work.
During the late 1970s, Summer kept a nearly nonstop schedule of recording and performing, even spending nearly two straight years on tour. She was one of the most popular recording artists of her day. Her concerts sold out regularly, fans mobbed her, and her record sales were astronomical. In 1978, Summer appeared in a dismal feature film that tried to capitalize on the disco craze, Thank God It’s Friday. Despite the film’s failure at the box office, one of the songs from the soundtrack, “Last Dance” became a number one hit and earned Summer a Grammy award and an Oscar for Best Original Song. A number of her other hits found their way onto her 1978 double live album, Live and More, which was recorded from a series of shows at the Universal Amphitheater near Los Angeles. This was followed by her double studio album Bad Girls, which was released in the spring of 1979. Bad Girls spent six weeks on the American album charts, and was the best-selling album by a female artist in 1979. It also earned Summer a Grammy award for Best Female Rock Vocal Performance.
Bad Girls would be one of the last records that Summer recorded for Casablanca. In late 1979, Casablanca released a compilation of Summer’s hits entitled, On the Radio — Greatest Hits, Volumes I and II. One of the songs on the album, Summer’s duet with Barbara Streisand entitled “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough),” topped the charts. In early 1980, Summer sued to be released from her contract with Casablanca, citing undue influence and fraud. Later that year, she became the first artist to sign with the Geffen label, which was founded by rising entertainment executive David Geffen. Elton John and John Lennon soon joined Summer on Geffen’s roster.
The year 1980 was marked by other notable changes in Summer’s life. She wed musician Bruce Sudano, whose Brooklyn Dreams band had backed her on some tours, and announced that she was a born-again Christian. Her debut album on Geffen, The Wanderer, reflected this new spirituality. The album reached No. 3 on Billboard’s charts, but its singles charted only in the 30s—a dismal showing compared to the string of gold records Summer had earned for her previous singles. The Wanderer was also the last album that Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte produced for Summer.
In 1982, Summer teamed with producer Quincy Jones and released the album Donna Summer. One of the singles from the album, “Love Is in Control (Finger on the Trigger),” was a Top Ten hit. She also recorded a cover song with Jones entitled “State of Independence.” Jones was also able to convince a roster of music legends—Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie, and Stevie Wonder among them—to sing backup on the album. Jones later remarked that this experience had inspired his production of “We Are the World,” the 1984 Ethiopian famine-relief recording. Under the settlement terms of her lawsuit against Casablanca, Summer was required to record one more album for the label, which was now a part of Polygram Records. The title track of the album She Works Hard for the Money, climbed to No. 3 on the U.S. charts in 1983.
Summer tried unsuccessfully to be released from her recording contract with Geffen Records. Sales of her 1987 album, All Systems Go, were so poor that a planned North American concert tour was canceled. In the late 1980s, Summer turned to art as a means of creative expression. She began to paint large, Expressionist-style canvases, many of which sold for several thousands of dollars. In 1994, Summer moved to Nashville with her husband and young daughter. She recorded an album of Christmas carols with the Nashville Symphony, and continued to paint.
In 1997, Summer appeared alongside Gloria Estefan and Chaka Khan at a benefit concert, Three Divas on Broadway. Her career was also bolstered by a popculture revival of the disco era during the late 1990s. In early 1998, Summer appeared at Carnegie Hall for a concert to benefit the Gay Men’s Health Crisis Center in New York. “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 [Summer] began a salacious, guitar-drenched rendition of ‘Hot Stuff,’ fans rushed down the red carpeted aisles toward the stage.”
By the end of the 1990s, Summer was signed to a recording contract with Epic Records. The company released yet another of her many best-selling anthologies, VH1 Presents Donna Summer: Live & More — Encore! She was also working on tracks for a planned musical autobiography, Ordinary Girl “I think women have incredible powers,” she told Rolling Stones Gina Zucker in 1999. “We can use both the intellectual side of the brain and the nurturing side, and we have to be proud of both.”
Love to Love You, Baby, Oasis, 1975.
A Love Trilogy, Oasis, 1976.
Four Seasons of Love, Casablanca, 1976.
I Remember Yesterday, Casablanca, 1977.
Live and More, Casablanca, 1978.
Bad Girls, Casablanca, 1979.
On the Radio — Greatest Hits, Volumes I and II, Casablanca, 1979.
The Wanderer, Geffen, 1980.
Donna Summer, Geffen, 1982.
She Works Hard for the Money, Polygram, 1983.
All Systems Go, Geffen, 1987.
Another Place and Time, Atlantic, 1989.
Christmas Spirit, Mercury, 1994.
VH1 Presents Donna Summer: Live & More — Encore!, Epic, 1999.
Billboard, September 3, 1994, p. 21; March 16, 1998; June 12, 1999, p. 9.
Rolling Stone, August 5, 1999, p. 27.
Pop vocalist Donna Summer’s first U.S. release was, arguably, her most famous recording. The 17-minute disco anthem “Love to Love You Baby,” replete with orgasmic moaning sounds, began Summer’s undisputed reign as Disco Queen during the 1970s. In the last few years of that decade, she had numerous hit songs and albums both in pop and rhythm and blues. When disco finally faded from the musical scene, Summer became a born-again Christian, revealing a religious side to her music. Although no longer a dominating pop music force, Summer continued to make bankable albums during the 1980s, and her willingness to adapt to currently popular musical styles has suggested that she will continue to generate hits for the remainder of her musical career.
Born Donna Adrian Gaines, Summer grew up in Dorchester, Massachusetts, a working class city adjoining Boston. Her father was a butcher, her mother a school teacher. As a child she sang in Boston-area church choirs but by high school her tastes had grown more secular. She piled up hundreds of truancy slips, skipping school in order to sing with a local rock band. Two months before high school graduation, Summer dropped out. In 1967, at age 18, she debuted at Boston’s Psychedelic Supermarket.
The following year found her abroad in the German production of Hair. Europe would be her home for the next eight years. After a year and a half of Hair, Summer moved to Austria, becoming a regular with the Vienna Folk Opera. The Opera offered productions of Porgy and Bess and Showboat during her tenure.
It was in Austria, in 1971, that she married local actor Helmut Sommer. Although their marriage would dissolve in 1976 under the pressure of Summer’s disco success, she continued to use the anglicized version of his last name.
Back in Germany in 1973, performing in a production of Godspell and working as a session singer in Munich’s Musicland studios, Summer met producer Giorgio Moroder. Moroder was to be called Summer’s “Svengali” due to his influence on her career. On the Oasis label, owned by Moroder and partner Pete Bellotte, Summer made a couple of European hits that were never released in the United States.
1975 saw the end of Summer’s relative obscurity, and “Love to Love You Baby” was the reason why: 17 minutes of romantic lyrics, disco beat, and feigned
For the Record…
Born Donna Adrian Gaines (also cited variously as Donna Gaines and LaDonna Gaines), December 31,1948, in Dorchester, MA; married Helmut Sommer (an actor), 1971, (divorced, 1976); married Bruce Sudano (a musician), c. 1981; children: (second marriage) Brook Lyn (daughter).
Debuted as vocalist at Psychedelic Supermarket, Boston, MA, 1967; toured Europe with German production of Hair, 1968-69; joined Vienna Folk Opera, 1969-73; Musicland Studio, Munich, Germany, session singer, 1973; signed with Oasis Records (Germany), 1973-75; signed with Casablanca, 1975; had role in film Thank God It’s Friday, 1979; released from contract and signed with Geffen Records, 1980.
Selected awards: Grammy Award for best female rhythm and blues vocal performance, 1978, for “Last Dance”; best female rock vocal performance, 1979, for “Hot Stuff”; best inspirational performance, 1983, for “He’s a Rebel”; and best inspirational performance, 1984, for “Forgive Me”; numerous gold and platinum albums and singles.
Addresses: Record company —Mercury Records, 825 Eighth Avenue New York, NY 10019.
orgasm delivered while lying down on the studio floor with the lights dimmed. Spinmagazine said of this song that it “launched the extended dance mix as we know it—the zygote of house and industrial... and invented the 12-inch.” Casablanca records received the U.S. license and became Summer’s record company upon her return to the United States. The song was an immediate disco hit and within months found its way up both the pop and rhythm and blues charts, hitting Numbers Two and Three, respectively.
Summer released an album named for the hit single in 1976. Love to Love You Baby nearly made the U.S. Top Ten and reached Number 16 in the United Kingdom. She and her producers were determined not to be merely a flash in the pan. In June of that year, the Summer-Moroder-Bellotte team released A Love Trilogy and also managed to squeeze in The Four Seasons of Love by December.
The first of her albums with a title that did not contain the word “love,” the 1977 release I Remember Yesterday generated the singer’s second gold single “I Feel Love.” The song, a synthesizer pop hit, extended Summer’s stylistic range, according to The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock and Roll. In 1978, Summer contributed most of the lyrics to the disco/fairy tale concept album Once Upon a Time, which she claimed was mostly autobiographical. The Cinderella-toned lyrics talked of girls who “live in a land of dreams unreal/Hiding from reality... trapped within their world.” Later in 1978, on Live and More, Donna covered Jimmy Webb’s “MacArthur Park” for an unpredictable massive hit—her first appearance in slot Number One on the pop charts.
As the 1970s ended, it seemed Summer could do no wrong. Between 1978 and 1980 she earned eight Top Ten hits. She even became a film star, portraying an aspiring singer in 1979’s Thank God It’s Friday. While one critic suggested audiences would thank god when this movie was over, the film’s Number Three hit song “Last Dance” won an Oscar and two Grammys—one for Summer and one for writer Paul Jabara.
Bad Girls, a 1979 number one double album, was Donna’s last recording for Casablanca. Four songs from this album reached the Top Ten, many sitting there for weeks, variously occupying the Number One and Two positions. But according to The Encyclopedia of Pop Rock & Soul Summer was depressed by her struggle with Casablanca to go beyond disco. She claimed that she’d been “stuck doing something that had been choking me to death for three years.” She began including religious songs in her performances, a return to her church roots and a reflection of a desire for inner peace.
This soul weariness took formal expression in a lawsuit against manager Joyce Bogart and husband Neil Bogart’s Casablanca Records to the tune of $10 million. When the legal dust settled, Summer was released from her contract and signed with Warner Brothers’ newly formed Geffen label.
The Wanderer was Donna’s first album for Geffen. The title track reached Number Three by 1981; the song addressed the singer’s recent born-again Christianity. The religious thread in her music continued for the next few years but did not cost her much popular appeal, perhaps because the disco fever had already lifted. “He’s a Rebel,” from her 1983 Mercury release, She Works Hard for the Money, won a Grammy for best inspirational performance—a trick Summer would repeat the following year with the cut “Forgive Me” off Cats Without Claws.
A further abdication of Summer’s reign as Disco Queen occurred when the singer allegedly remarked that AlDS was a form of divine ruling on homosexuality. Gay club enthusiasts who had embraced her and helped make her a star were angry. Despite Summer’s denial of making the AIDS remark, the rift never healed. On the home front, the beginning of the 1980s saw her marriage to Bruce Sudano, lead singer of Brooklyn Dreams. They named their daughter Brook Lyn.
Donna continued to work steadily throughout the eighties, although six years were to pass after “She Works Hard for Her Money” before she penetrated the Top Ten again. “This Time I Know It’s for Real,” off 1989’s Another Place Another Time, reached Number Seven. By this time Summer had moved into other areas of self-expression. Her neo-Primitive paintings and lithographs proved popular; in June 1990, a Beverly Hills gallery sold 75 such works for up to $38,000 apiece.
Summer has never stopped producing or changing. In a S/V/boardinterview, she discussed her latest transformation—into a country music singer. Together with musician/husband Sudano, she has penned several country songs, including the hit “Starting Over” with Dolly Parton. Questioned by the interviewer regarding these many transformations, as well as the personal and professional ups and downs of her life, Summer responded with a painting metaphor. Think of a painting, she said, which is left in the sun. The painting fades but “also takes on new colors. And instead of the colors being as vivid as they once were, they change into different and perhaps richer colors.” One cannot help but sense that Summer’s rainbow of colors will continue to grow richer for many years.
Love to Love You Baby, Oasis, 1975.
A Love Trilogy, Casablanca, 1976.
Four Seasons of Love (EP), Casablanca, 1976.
I Remember Yesterday, Casablanca, 1977.
Once Upon a Time, Casablanca, 1977.
Live and More (includes “MacArthur Park”), Casablanca, 1978.
Bad Girls, Casablanca, 1979.
The Wanderer, Geffen, 1980.
Donna Summer, Geffen, 1982.
She Works Hard for the Money, Mercury, 1983.
Cats Without Claws, Geffen, 1984.
The Summer Collection, Mercury, 1985.
All Systems Go, Geffen, 1987.
Another Place and Time, Atlantic, 1989.
Mistaken Identity, Atlantic, 1991.
The Donna Summer Anthology (includes “Carry On”), Mercury, 1993.
Pareles, Jon, and Patricia Romanowski, The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, Rolling Stone Press/Summit Books, 1983.
Rees, Dafydd, and Luke Crampton, Rock Movers & Shakers, Billboard Books, 1991.
Stambler, Irwin, Encyclopedia of Pop Rock & Roll, St. Martin’s Press, 1989.
Billboard, September 25, 1993.
Jet, September 18, 1989; October 16, 1991.
New York Times, May 14, 1989.
People, October 14, 1991.
Rolling Stone, March 23, 1978.
Spin, November 1993.
Stereo Review, September 1989; January 1992.
Variety, April 2, 1980.
Village Voice, May 28, 1979.
—Joseph M. Reiner