Donna Summer at the 1977 Billboard Music Awards (Photo by Chris Walter/WireImage)
Michael Paoletta was for ten years Billboard's esteemed dance/electronic music editor. He not only interviewed Donna Summer (and her producer Giorgio Moroder) on several occassions, but grew up with and was inspired by Summer's seminal music, meteoric success and sustained stardom. As such, there may be no better person to help put her greatness and loss in perspective.
My older sister had '60s girl groups and Motown. Growing up, I had Donna Summer and disco. For a teenager living in the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio, Summer and disco were one and the same. It was nearly impossible to have one without the other. She was the genre's voice and face. Her death yesterday (May 17) from cancer, at the age of 63, is significant.
She was my generation's Madonna, helping many of us to face our fears, insecurities and identities. A musical pioneer and chameleon, Summer paved the way for a succession of powerful female artists, including Beyoncé, Mary J. Blige, Rihanna, Lady Gaga, P!nk and, of course, the material girl herself.
In the halcyon days of disco (1975-1977), Summer recorded five artistically groundbreaking albums, released by Casablanca Records. She, along with producers Pete Bellotte and Giorgio Moroder (they of the über-clean arrangements and orchestration), created side-long suites, with one song seguing into the next; the result being one long disco track. ("Try Me"/"I Know"/"We Can Make It"/"Try Me, I Know We Can Make It" [Side 1] from her A Love Trilogy album is a personal favorite.) This was music intended for non-stop ecstatic dancing.
Along the way, Summer was crowned numerous titles, among them The First Lady of Love and Queen of Disco. While neither is inaccurate, a more fitting - and realistic - appellation is Queen of Pop.
Consider her synthesizer-pioneering song, "I Feel Love," which reached No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1977. The hypnotic track remains the template for today's EDM. Swedish House Mafia, David Guetta, Madeon, Calvin Harris and Avicii, among numerous other EDM acts, continue to be heavily influenced by Summer and her music, which decades later, continues to receive the remix treatment.
During my 10 years at Billboard magazine (1998-2007), I spoke with Summer and Moroder on several occasions. They were each other's muse; he was the spark, she the flame. The two are inextricably linked. Her voice - effortless, pure, emotional, with an incredible clarity - deft songwriting and keen melodic sensibility added life to his music. With Summer at the microphone, Moroder's music soared. Theirs was a special partnership.
Fans of music cannot escape the importance of their work together. From a honkytonk dive bar in Los Angeles to a supermarket in Charlotte, North Carolina, the music they made together is still heard, loud and clear. We all have reactions to and memories of such Summer classics as "On the Radio," "MacArthur Park," "Hot Stuff" and "Last Dance." Black or white, gay or straight, young or old, songs like these are levelers; they unite.
Summer's rise was not without its dark corners. A born-again Christian, she often wrestled with her fame and creative output as well as the disco culture; at one point, turning her back on the sensual hits that made her famous, refusing to sing them live. There were also those alleged anti-gay remarks that dogged Summer, and which she always denied. Still, she never stopped recording or touring.
On a universal level, Donna Summer was, and will always be, the face and voice of disco. So, naturally, when the disco backlash arrived in 1979, the highly recognizable Summer became its de facto poster child. Ironically, this was happening as Summer was enjoying the mighty success of her seventh studio album, Bad Girls, her biggest selling album.
In her four decades of making musically diverse recordings, the five-time Grammy winner earned 32 hit singles on the Billboard Hot 100, with 14 of those reaching the top 10. Her biggest singles include her four No. 1s (all within a 13-month period): "MacArthur Park," "Hot Stuff," "Bad Girls," and "No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)"; the latter, a fiery duet with Barbra Streisand. While Summer earned a string of successful singles in the 1970s, she continued to chart hits in the '80s, '90s, '00s, and '10s.
In 1983, her anthemic "She Works Hard for the Money" peaked at No. 3 on the Hot 100. Six years later, Summer had another top 10 hit with the Stock Aitken Waterman-produced "This Time I Know It's For Real." Her final Hot 100 entry (in her lifetime) came in 1999 with "I Will Go With You (Con Te Partiro)," which reached No. 79.
While Summer's presence on the Hot 100 diminished in recent years, she remained a force on the Billboard Dance/Club Play Songs chart throughout her career. She notched 14 No. 1s on the chart - all the way up through her most recent hit, 2010's "To Paris With Love." Her last studio album, 2008's Crayons, spawned three No. 1 Dance/Club hits: "I'm a Fire," "Stamp Your Feet" and "Fame (The Game)."
On The Billboard 200, Summer was the first artist to have three back-to-back two-disc sets reach No. 1: Live and More (1978), Bad Girls (1979), and On the Radio: Greatest Hits Volumes I & II (1979). She collected further top 20 albums with 1980's The Wanderer (No. 13), 1982's eponymous set (No. 20), 1983's She Works Hard for the Money (No. 9), and her last studio collection, 2008's Crayons (No. 17).
Thirty-three years after "disco demolition night" at Comiskey Park in Chicago, I am happy to note that Summer's music and relevance continue to shine bright. For this, I am grateful. You should be, too.
My Essential Top-20 Donna Summer Playlist (in chronological order):
"Love to Love You Baby" (the 16:50 version, please)
"Try Me"/"I Know"/"We Can Make It"/"Try Me, I Know We Can Make It"
"Prelude to Love"/"Could It Be Magic"
"Spring Affair"/"Summer Fever"
"I Feel Love"
"Now I Need You"
"Rumour Has It"/"I Love You"
"MacArthur Park Suite"
"Dim All the Lights"
"There Will Always Be a You"
"On the Radio"
"State of Independence"
"Dinner With Gershwin"
"Love's About to Change My Heart"
"Melody of Love (Wanna Be Loved)"
"Love On & On"
"Stamp Your Feet"