Today, Donna Summer is mostly remembered for an incredible string of hit songs and chart-topping double-albums that helped introduce the world to disco and electronic dance music in the 1970s, with pulse-pounding anthems that can still be heard on the radio and in clubs throughout the world. Her image as a cool yet steamy sphinx with a gardenia tucked behind her ear, singing golden melodies beneath a silver mirrorball, is etched in the popular imagination.
But Boston-born LaDonna Adrian Gaines was an incredibly flexible and omnivorous talent. She wrote No. 1 country hits for Dolly Parton (“Starting Over Again”), brought breezy tropical sounds to the pop charts decades before Justin Bieber (“Unconditional Love”), recorded a groundbreaking New Wave album (The Wanderer), and a gospel standard that reflected her church-singing roots (“I Believe in Jesus”), all while retaining such a hold on nightlife tastes that she had two No. 1 dance chart hits just before her untimely passing from cancer at the age of 63, in 2012.
Not bad for the ambitious young ingenue who moved to Germany in the 1960s to join the cast of the musical Hair. Still, it’s those eternal slices of disco heaven that she made after teaming up with producers Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte that continue to define her. Whether she was glamorously lounging within a giant crescent moon that descended from the ceiling, or stalking the stage in cat-eye sunglasses and a leather mini-skirt belting odes to “working girls,” she always brought life to the party.
Here’s a splash into her enormous and influential pool of hits.
The Dance Floor Anthems
(“Hot Stuff,” “Bad Girls,” “Last Dance,” “On the Radio,” “MacArthur Park”)
You can still dance and sing along to these standards at many parties – and weddings, too, alongside “YMCA” by the Village People and “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees. Who can resist the dance floor siren call of “toot toot, beep beep” from “Bad Girls” or fail to grab for a partner at the first, deceptively slow shimmers of “Last Dance,” before it blasts off into space? Full of melodic hits and unexpected flourishes that sounded great pumping from big discotheque speakers, these 70s classics bulldozed their way to the top of the charts.
However family-friendly those songs sound now, Donna Summer was using her dancefloor momentum to explore topics and material usually outside the realm of pop. She could just as easily sell glorious one-night-stands (“Hot Stuff”) as nostalgia for a simpler, more romantic world (“On the Radio”). And, while Richard Harris laid the groundwork, she took Jimmy Webb’s dramatic “MacArthur Park” to new heights, encouraging another generation to wonder who left the cake in the rain.
The Electronic Breakthroughs
(“I Feel Love,” “Our Love,” “Sunset People,” “Lucky,” “There Goes My Baby”)
In the mid-1970s, electronic music was still a novelty, used for sound effects in movies or incorporated into avant-garde composers’ musical experiments. Synthesizers were considered too harsh and alien to belong in romantic love songs or passionate pleas for human connection. The 1977 song “I Feel Love” changed all that, when Donna Summer laid her sensuous vocals over Moroder’s chugging, hypnotic electronic bed, formulated on the Moog synthesizer and enhanced with strobe-like effects. Lushly declaring her emotions, Summer became the soul in the machine, an electronic songbird heralding a new era of pop.
The immediate success of “I Feel Love” paved the way for future styles like techno and EDM, as well as earlier electronic subgenres like Italo disco and Hi-NRG. Contemporary artists from Daft Punk to Sam Smith cite its influence, and it continues to top lists as one of the best dance music songs of all time.
Summer and Moroder continued to mine the electronic-soul vein with the quirky, pretty “Lucky” and the panoramic “Sunset People,” which told of life among denizens of Los Angeles’ seedy Sunset Strip. Another electronic hit, “Our Love” foretold harder styles of dance music with its pounding drum-machine breakdown. Years later, Summer still successfully dipped into the style for her cover of The Drifters’ “There Goes My Baby”: by the time of its release in 1984, the charts had embraced her trailblazing electronic sound, and the video was put on heavy rotation on MTV.
The Hot and Steamy Songs
(“Love to Love You, Baby,” “Try Me, I Know We Can Make It,” “Spring Affair,” “Dim All the Lights”)
Nothing could prepare the music world for Donna Summer’s breakthrough song in 1975. “Love to Love You, Baby” was an uncompromising 16-minute record, born of an afterhours German studio session, during which Summer laid on the floor and simulated erotic ecstasy. It was, however, exactly what the disco world was waiting for and became a huge (and scandalous) hit, making its way overseas on a bootlegged cassette before launching Summer’s American career when a record executive heard it at a house party.
Summer had reservations about being known for such an explicit groove, and while she was never as over-the-top as that record, she did infuse future songs with a shivering sensuality few could match. “Try Me, I Know We Can Make It” was another marathon of passion, clocking in at 17 minutes (Summer pioneered the extended single format) that highlighted her breathy vocals and come-hither lyrics. “Spring Affair” is part of a lovely “four seasons” suite of songs and celebrates the start of a titillating affair, while “Dim All the Lights” is a dance floor thumper that showcases a woman in complete control of her desires. When Donna says turn ’em off and turn me on, you do it.
The Diva Throwdowns
(“No More Tears (Enough is Enough),” “Walk Away,” “Love is in Control (Finger on the Trigger),” “She Works Hard for the Money,” “State of Independence”)
“It’s raining, it’s pouring, my love life is boring” are the beginning lyrics of “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough),” a breathless, 11-minute empowerment-booster song that paired Donna Summer with fellow diva Barbra Streisand to kick an unsatisfactory lover to the curb. This was Summer the pop goddess setting her boundaries and taking out the trash. “Walk Away” is a bit more wistful, warning of the dangers her love can bring, but Summer still closes the door on a precarious relationship and locks it behind her.
A funkier diva emerges on “Love is in Control (Finger on the Trigger),” which was produced by Quincy Jones around the time he was working on Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall album and has a similar sound, right down to the interjected “oohs!” Mega-hit “She Works Hard for the Money” ruled early 80s radio with its unequivocal demand to treat working women with the respect they deserve. (The song was inspired by Summer’s encounter with an exhausted restroom attendant in Los Angeles.)
“State of Independence” was Summer’s sleeper hit, a beautiful, multicultural slow-burner featuring a full choir, which sees her emerge from life’s tribulations as a resplendent Earth Mother, claiming her spiritual freedom and reveling in the immense talent she was.
Think we missed one of Donna Summer’s best songs? Let us know in the comments below.