Like a lot of closeted (even to myself) suburban kids, I educated myself in gay city life via music. When I turned 14 in 1975, I got a weekend job at Rochester, New York’s atypically hip record store House of Guitars, where I noticed that well-dressed white guys and more casual, inner-city black folks were regularly buying the same albums–Vicki Sue Robinson, Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band, and these lavishly packaged Donna Summer discs that followed each other every few months. A year or two later, when a clearly gay mutual friend lent me his copy of Summer’s Once Upon a Time, a double album lacking major Top 40 radio hits but nevertheless a major dancefloor smash, something in me opened. It’s a concept album about a young woman who, like me, was estranged from her family and longed for escape. Through the context of my gay friend, I could spot what were then daring references to gay life: The central Cinderella/Summer character tripped out on a “Fairy Tale High,” and when she went to the disco, she transformed into a “Queen for a Day.” By the fourth act and final LP side, she found her prince, and through their mutual love, they conquered their fears and isolation.
It was messages like these that made Summer both a mainstream star and a gay icon, the kind of messages that could speak to overlapping pop, black, female, and queer audiences of the ’70s and early ’80s with a simultaneous out-in-the-open yet under-the-radar sense of subversion. I don’t remember Summer acknowledging her gay fans at the height of her popularity; instead, she spoke to us in code, and we picked up these transmissions from Planet Disco with religious devotion. Like the Village People, who blasted out of every car radio with gospel-via-Broadway fervor the ostensible joys of working out at the Y.M.C.A., this suddenly magical place where a young man could “do whatever you feel,” disco was at its very core a dialogue about liberation where different cultural threads could weave together and be stronger and bigger and more colorful than their individual parts. Like the music itself, a hybrid of symphonic orchestration, African-American and Latin percussion, taut electric guitars, futuristic synths, prog-rock studio effects, and rich blends of black and white voices, disco was both integration and escape, heightened reality and its very opposite, and no one epitomized it like Donna Summer.
Summer was–like so many of her fans–both insider and outsider. Brought up by devout Christians and trained by years of singing in church, this working-class Boston girl rebelled by dropping out of school. Inspired by Janis Joplin, she joined a psychedelic rock group, and auditioned for Hair. Fellow future diva Melba Moore beat her out on Broadway, but she eventually snagged the same role in the Munich cast. While singing background for Three Dog Night she met Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte, the producers with whom she’d record her first international hit, 1975’s “Love to Love You Baby,” as well as many others. Like the Barry White records it was modeled after, Summer’s early smash smacks of sex: The producers dimmed the lights while Summer lay on the floor and approached the song as Marilyn Monroe might; breathy and groaning, she approximates orgasm after orgasm. Inspired by repeated plays at an orgy he was hosting, hype-conscious Casablanca Records boss Neil Bogart asked Moroder and Bellotte to create a 17-minute version in the LP-side-filling style of Iron Butterfly’s psychedelic rock opus “In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida.” Like so many early disco hits, “Love to Love You” first took off in the gay discos where only a few years earlier it was illegal in many states to dance with another man, then radiated outward to straight clubs and eventually pop and R&B radio, a combo that collectively turned it into a No. 2 hit. Inspired by that success, Summer and her producers focused on long, interconnected tracks that initially didn’t ignite pop radio but dominated clubs, particularly the gay ones that embraced what had become known as Eurodisco, a grand, even more lavish style that Summer’s team and production peers like Cerrone, Boris Midney, and Alec R. Costandinos epitomized.
Moroder and Bellotte broke new ground once again in 1977 with “I Feel Love,” which apart from Summer’s voice, is thoroughly electronic and remains one of the most influential records of any kind: Nearly every uptempo electronic dance track from the most underground dubstep cut to the latest Nicki Minaj hit descends from the sequenced Moog riffs and rhythms of “I Feel Love.” Discos became testing grounds for radical new sounds epitomized by that milestone; we voted with our feet the same way people “Like” something on Facebook today, but with far more profound personal experience. I’ll never forget the thrill of entering my first gay disco in 1979 and spotting two of my English teachers, with whom I exchanged knowing and instantly bonding glances. Or my first night at the Paradise Garage in 1983, where I entered while DJ legend Larry Levan spun a Culture Club B-side and emerged the next obscenely bright Sunday morning, freshly schooled by several dozen new and old club anthems I suddenly couldn’t live without. Later that day, the guy behind the record counter knew exactly where I’d been by the records I asked for. You don’t get that mutual understanding from iTunes.
From 1975 to 1980, Summer released seven studio albums, a three-thirds live set, and a greatest hits collection; four of those were double albums, and all of them went gold, platinum, or double platinum. Once Saturday Night Fever shifted disco from reliable mainstream presence to the hottest thing happening, nearly everything Summer released, from 1978’s “Last Dance” to late 1979’s “On the Radio,” became omnipresent. In two short years, she released eight Top 5 singles, and in that period, hardly a moment went by when some station somewhere wasn’t playing a Donna Summer record (and if there was, that airtime was undoubtedly devoted to the Bee Gees.) Not since the Beatles and the British Invasion of 1964 had one act and its sound held such sweeping cultural sway.
For Barry’s memories on the mainstream death of disco and its second life underground, click NEXT.