Why the late great singer was much more than just the Queen of Disco.
Written by Amy Linden (@notfornothin59)
She wasn’t the first disco artist. Disco existed before Donna Summer but after she arrived on the scene, disco was never looked at or listened to in quite the same way. Before Donna Summer—who passed on May 17th of lung cancer at the far too young age of 63—disco was shrugged off as yet another phase the music industry was muddling through. But it Donna—with her supple, church-trained alto and musical theater chops—who helped to liberate disco from it being marginalized as a mostly black, definitely gay, strictly for the clubs, faceless sub-genre that wasn’t considered “real” music.
Once Donna began making hits, disco was Top 40—suitable for appearing on American Bandstand—sold-out concerts. Bllack, white, Puerto Rican, everybody just-a-freaking mainstream music. Disco became as palatable as pop and no longer seen not as a rejection of R&B but a soulful sound all its own. Years before the Saturday Night Feverphenomenon, Donna Summer gave disco a legitimacy and artistic credibility that critics—then and now—worked hard to deny it.
Summer was a reluctant sex symbol... After 'Love To Love You Baby' became massive, Summer told reporters that she recorded it while lying on the floor with the lights off and thinking about the possible ways Marilyn Monroe might have tackled the lyrics.
If you require further proof of disco’s continuing status as music’s “red-headed stepchild,” consider the fact that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has yet to induct Summer (or for that matter Nile Rogers and Chic) although she’s been nominated two years in a row—a situation that some members of the HOF have now decried as awful and something that needs to be rectified. Gee, thanks guys! It’s so nice of you to figure out that she’s worthy now that she’s dead.
The stats are pretty staggering. Summer sold millions of albums and CDs worldwide and scored no fewer than 19 hit dance singles—a feat equaled only by Madonna. She was the first artist to have three double albums consecutively go to the number-one spot on Billboard’s Top 200. She was a five-time Grammy winner in pop, dance music, rock and gospel categories. Her music has been sampled by Nas, Beyoncé, and Pet Shop Boys—among others. Donna Summer is so major that Dolly Parton (who compared her to the late Whitney Houston), Chaka Kahn, Barbara Streisand and Presisdent Obama commented on her death.
Even if Donna Summer had retired from the biz after her first two singles—1975’s "Love to Love You Baby" and 1977’s "I Feel Love"—her legacy would have been assured. Seriously. As incredible as her run of hits was, those two joints right there? Done deal. She’s a superstar. Both songs were written and produced by Georgio Moroder and his partner Pete Belotte (although Moroder is gets the lion’s share of the credit). Summer met the two producers when she was in Germany performing the musical Hair. “Love To Love You Baby” was a 17-minute (obviously edited down for commercial air play) orgiastic aural wet dream of moans and groans that is so moist and sexual that just listening makes you feel like a voyeur. Born LaDonna Gaines and raised in Dorchester, Mass, Summer was a reluctant sex symbol. A sweet, shy church girl, she was initially uncomfortable with “Love to Love You Baby”'s hot and heavy sexuality. After the song became massive, Summer told reporters that she recorded it while lying on the floor with the lights off and thinking about the possible ways Marilyn Monroe might have tackled the lyrics.
There's no denying the fact that Rihanna’s 'We Found Love' is the second cousin twice removed of Donna Summer’s 'I Feel Love.'
The song was controversial as all get out but then it blew up big in the clubs and even bigger on the charts. But her next single, “I Feel Love,” would completely change the sound of pop/dance music. (Yeah, I know that sounds like one of those lines that music critics love to throw around, but in this case it also happens to be true.) "I Feel Love" is so futuristic it makes you forget what year it was released (fully 35 years ago, in 1977). The record opens with a barely discernible rush of synths that slowly builds as Summer’s sultry, ethereal vocals glide above the sinewy, seductive beat. This is what it feels like getting off—and you can take that anyway you wish. It’s electronica meets erotica. Even today "I Feel Love" is like nothing you've ever heard before, which is kind of insane seeing as how its influence can still be heard all over the radio. "I Feel Love" is the inspiration behind pop’s current love-affair with electro dance. Ask Chris Brown, Taino Cruz, Britney, Beyonce, Will.I.Am, Usher, Diplo, Calvin Harris, or David Guetta what the song meant to them. If they don't reply that it meant everything then they are either ignorant or they’re lying. Whether she’s aware of it or not, there's no denying the fact that Rihanna’s "We Found Love" is the second cousin twice removed of Donna Summer’s "I Feel Love.”
Call her the Queen of Disco if you must. After all, she did wear the crown with regal style and elegance. But the truth is that Summer’s range—both vocally and in her choice of material—would prove that she was more than the “Queen of Disco.” She repped for all types of “working girls” and she worked hard for the money herself—although respect was a bit slower arriving. Maybe that’s why you could feel a sadness behind many of her biggest dancefloor anthems. She was never a prima donna, but Summer sang a hit duet with Barbra Streisand for God’s sake. Hell, she even managed to turn the sublime but deeply strange “McArthur Park” into an exhilarating dance track—and for that feat along she deserves a prize. Donna Summer was one of the true greats, and while her music captures a moment in time the songs remain timeless. Which means someone somewhere will always be getting down to her music. Sad as it is to think that she’s gone, for Donna Summer the “Last Dance” will never end.