Think of the disco era, with the platform shoes, electric dancefloors and glittering disco balls, and chances are, the first person you think of (with the possible exception of John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever) is Donna Summer, who passed away today from cancer at the age of 63. Donna was nothing less than the Queen of late ’70s dance music, the most consistently successful disco solo artist in an era full of one-hit wonders and late-to-the-game bandwagon-hoppers. She had style and presence, she could convey feeling brilliantly, and when it came time to, she could moan and wail with the best of ‘em.
Donna Summer grew up in Boston in the ’50s and ’60s, and was inspired by both girl groups like The Supremes and solo female rockers like Janis Joplin to pursue a career in music. She bounced around in musical theater and tried out a relatively unsuccessful solo career, before joining Three Dog Night as a backup singer and being discovered by the man who would refashion her image and sound and help make her a star—Giorgio Moroder.
Moroder was an Italian producer and songwriter who had interest in the burgeoning sound of disco, then largely the province of Philly soul artists like the O’Jays and Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. When Summer brought him the idea behind “Love to Love You, Baby,” the moaning, pulsing sex ballad that would mark her mainstream breakthrough, Moroder fashioned it as a possible disco anthem, especially with a 17-minute mix that featured long sections of Summer’s orgasmic moaning. The song would eventually hit #2 on the charts and establish Summer as a star.
However, Summer’s follow-up records failed to match the success of “Love to Love You, Baby,” and her career fizzled, until she and Moroder hit on another winning formula with “I Feel Love,” which took the electronic nature of disco to heights previously unreached. The song’s zooming, unforgettable synth-bass line would end up influencing and inspiring generations of electronic and art-rock music artists, from David Bowie to the Chemical Brothers, while Summer’s upper-register cooing made the song crossover-accessible, and it ended up becoming her second top ten hit in 1977.
By the end of the decade, Summer’s career was peaking, as the disco sound with which she had become synonymous was also reaching its apex in popularity. She unleashed a string of mega-successes, starting with “Last Dance” (from Thank God It’s Friday, the movie which also marked her acting debut), continuing with her cover of Richard Harris’ “MacArthur Park” (her first #1 on the Hot 100), and lasting through such genre classics as “Hot Stuff,” “Bad Girls” and the Barbra Streisand duet “No More Tears (Enough is Enough),” all of which also topped the charts.
As the decade turned over, Summer made the personal and artistic decision to leave disco behind, suffering from anxiety and depression late in the ’70s and deciding the decadence of the disco era was not for her, especially after experiencing a rebirth of her Christian faith in 1979. She left Casablanca Records (the definitive disco label) for soon-to-be-super-label Geffen Records, and made a successful transition to the new wave era, having top five hits in the early ’80s with “The Wanderer” and the enduring working-girl tale “She Works Hard for the Money.”
The hits dried up some for Donna in the second half of the decade, and she took a great deal of flak in 1985 when she was reported as having said that the disease AIDS was a punishment from God for the sins of homosexuals—an especially damning quote for Summer, given how much of her disco music had become associated with gay culture. (She denied making the statements and later apologized for any misunderstanding.) She did have one more top ten hit by the end of the decade, 1989′s ‘This Time I Know It’s Real,” her last real mainstream crossover success.
Though the disco backlash did a great deal to hurt Donna Summer’s legacy in the perception of rock fans and critics, she has remained an immortal in the world of dance, where she’s continued to find success with songs old and new. She’s a two-time inductee to the Dance Music Hall of Fame, both as an artist and for the song “I Feel Love” specifically, and she has been nominated for both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and our own Popdust Hall of Fame, though she was denied induction to the former.
Summer’s legacy can be felt in the number of TV shows, movies and other songs that her music continues to appear in, whether it be Beyonce singing “Oooh, love to love you baby” at the beginning of her “Naughty Girl” single, the dance crew of The Full Monty working out a routine to “Hot Stuff,” Lindsey’s half-intentional cage-dance routine getting a soundtrack of “Bad Girls” on Arrested Development, or McDonald’s re-appropriating “She Works Hard for the Money” for an advertising message about how McD’s treats you right. And of course, no wedding or Bar Mitzvah will ever be complete without a sendoff of “Last Dance,” a dancefloor farewell that will undoubtedly take on added resonance in the days following Summer’s passing.
We’ll let Nils Rodgers, Chic bassist and disco peer of Summer’s, take it from here:
For the last half hour or so I’ve been lying in my bed crying and stunned. Donna Summer RIP fb.me/15xygMV45
— Nile Rodgers (@nilerodgers) May 17, 2012