Over the last two weeks I’ve written no less than five drafts of this Donna Summer tribute piece for my colleague-friend Steve Pafford. After penning the Spice Girls Perfect 10 feature for him back in early March, he asked about me doing a similar list piece on one of our favourite female artists, the legendary Donna Summer.
In my mind I knew this would be a slam dunk. Having already written a book on this groundbreaking singer-songwriter — born LaDonna Adrian Gaines in Boston, Massachusetts on December 31, 1948 — back in 2017 and several standalone album retrospectives through the years, Summer was a subject I more than knew my way around.
But when I sat down to write, I couldn’t get the tone I wanted.
Words would not come and when they did everything felt a shade too showy, too precise. However, I didn’t want to be glib or flip. Suddenly, I understood what was causing this mental block: knowing how important Donna’s music has been to me personally and the weight of a decade’s distance since her untimely death at 63 on May 17, 2012 — it was a lot.
Now, I’m making my best attempt to capture not only who Donna Summer was to me, but who she was to so many others. She was an individual of uncompromising creative integrity and spiritual depth; she was also the “First Lady of Love” who defined a specific epoch in popular music culture and beyond.
As with anything, Summer was a woman who was all of these things and so much more, as is evidenced by this alternative top ten.
From the European pop drama of Lady Of The Night on through to stratospheric hits like Last Dance, and innumerable deep cuts such as Cry Of A Waking Heart, the scope of Summer’s abilities have always shown that she was never just a dance siren.
To use the overused epithet the “Queen of Disco” is to pigeonhole and constrain, because Donna Summer was a phenomenally well-rounded talent who wrote, sang, interpreted, and collaborated fearlessly across innumerable musical genres that included rock, pop, gospel, soul, R&B and even show tunes. She did it all this in a time when mostly white male pundits/gatekeepers showed hostility to any black women who dared to pioneer spaces where they supposedly weren’t welcome.
Donna Summer dared.
That her influence can be heard in women (and men) of all colours and genres speaks to the enduring breadth of her legacy. To mark the ten years since her passing, I’ve gathered some selections that, to me, display the many facets of Summer’s broader output and speak to said legacy. The text is by me with some additional input from Steve himself, particularly on selection number three.
You are so very missed Ms. Summer.
Lady Of The Night (1974)
There are those who still assume that Donna Summer got her start with the lascivious sprawl of Love To Love You Baby. They would be wrong. Summer relocated to Germany in the late 1960s to pursue a vocation in music theatre that ended up placing her on the path to her eventual career in music separate from that arena. After several false starts (via single-only releases), Donna finally intersected with Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte; Lady Of The Night was the first fruits of their labour. Her debut long player, issued on Groovy Records, was an eclectic panoply of krautrock, folk, cabaret tunes and other assorted styles, but the Spectorish grandeur of its title cut is arguably its biggest highlight.
Though she wouldn’t script this lead track, its subject matter anticipated many of Summer’s later endeavours by setting up her eternal fascination with the archetype of the modern woman as a songwriting touchstone. Nonetheless, Lady Of The Night was a decadent parcel of European pop crafted in a proto-disco vein to showcase the exquisite colour of her voice. It, along with The Hostage, went on to bring Summer notoriety in several parts of continental Europe in 1974 prior to her conquering British and North American territories the following year.
Come With Me (1976)
Although much was made of the brilliantly controversial single Love To Love You Baby, 1975’s sophomore album of the same name actually held more of the eccentric European pop that lined Donna Summer’s debut LP — 1974’s Lady Of The Night — than the steamy disco-soul of that single. Summer officially entered that realm with 1976’s A Love Trilogy, her third effort and second release on Casablanca Records.
A Love Trilogy is often remembered for the epic seventeen-minute plus floorfiller Try Me, I Know We Can Make It and a bona-fide hit single in the shape of her beautiful rendition of Barry Manilow’s Could It Be Magic, but, rooting for the underdog, perhaps its finest moment is slotted in as its conclusory measure: Come With Me is a sensuous clubland jam wrapped in filmic strings, percussion and well placed programming flourishes is dressed to vocal perfection by Summer herself. Exotically enticing.
I Feel Love (1977)
Pop’s paradigm shifts often happen peculiarly. By 1977, Donna Summer, Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte were assuredly one of the brightest teams in popular music. During their transcendental time together, the American, Italian and Englishman married sonic passion and precision in a way not heard before or since. Nothing encapsulates this more than the seminal electronic pop bauble that is I Feel Love. A landmark in studio recording, I Feel Love has become one of the most influential and imitated tracks ever, but was initially housed as something of an afterthought: first almost apologetically as the B-side to the balladeering Can’t We Just Sit Down (And Talk It Over) single and then on the larger parent project, I Remember Yesterday.
Aided by the chart-topping success of I Feel Love, Summer’s fifth collection gave Donna her only Top 10 studio album in Britain, reaching No.3 that July and stuck behind the infuriatingly immovable Johnny Mathis Collection and Streisand’s A Star Is Born soundtrack. Another ambitious concept affair, I Remember Yesterday transported listeners on a breezy historical journey through various eras of popular music, past, present and future — incorporating 1940s jazz (I Remember Yesterday), ’50s bad romance (Love’s Unkind), ’60s Supremes-style girl groups (Back In Love Again) through to ’70s funk and onto an imagined future. Alas, the song representing the future became the future.
The cutting edge clinical soul of I Feel Love cast this other-worldly mechanic masterpiece as the belated pièce de résistance of the entire project. Consisting of an entirely synthesized backing track, all the residual elements in disco — the aspects that connected it to pop tradition, show tunes, orchestrated soul, funk — were ruthlessly purged in favour of brutal futurism: icy electronic repetition, a blank-eyed fixated feel of post-human propulsion pulsing with ten tons of galloping bass. The first techno record, in other words, and an aural revelation barely seen outside of Kraftwerk. Yes, the Düsseldorf Kling Klangers were making music entirely by machines a few short years before this, but we’re talking techno as we know it today: sleek, stream-lined, pulsing, thumping dance music.
Four and a half decades later I Feel Love still stuns. There is unrelenting power in those pulsing, relentless synthesiser arpeggios. Those washes of Moog are like the Doppler effect from a passing supersonic train going Station To Station. The double stabs at the beginnings of bars also anchor the listener back to the dancefloor, and the possibility of what our new present could be – both now, and for ever. It held any who encountered it spellbound with its laconic sensuality, most famously David Bowie and his colleague Brian Eno, who were recording “Heroes” in Berlin at the time. No strangers to sonic inventiveness themselves, the pioneering pair were so enamoured with its innovative and insistent persuasion that Bowie famously recalled the former Roxy Music synthmeister rushing into the room waving a copy of the single with a breathless and prescient proclamation.
“One day in Berlin Eno came running in and said ‘I have heard the sound of the future!’. He puts on I Feel Love by Donna Summer and said ‘This is it, look no further, this single is going to change the sound of club music for the next 15 years’, which was more or less right.” — David Bowie, Sound + Vision liner notes, 1989
Except, of course, that I Feel Love was so revolutionary it has continued to blaze the path for pop music and club culture for 45 years, not 15, and pointed the way forward for genres such as Hi-NRG, Italo, house, techno, and trance. Covered by everyone from Blondie to Bronski Beat ft. Marc Almond, Madonna to Sam Smith, the track has since gone on to inspire countless homages and recreations, but Summer’s cool, originating take makes hers the definitive version.
Bad Girls (1979)
At the close of the ’70s, Donna Summer was feeling emboldened in every respect — coming off a string hit projects can do that to you. It came as no surprise then that her next album reflected this earned confidence and thus Bad Girls was born. 1979’s ambitious double album was thematically enriched both by the singer’s observational storytelling of Los Angeles nightlife, but also peppered with some of her own personal tales of love and self-discovery. The title song ended up becoming one of Summer’s signature tunes.
With its muscular four-on-the four beat trimmed in opulent brass, Summer tucks into Bad Girls with aggressive abandon and spins a tale about the women of the L.A. streets prowling for fast love and even faster cash; it’s a red-hot blend of disco, soul and rock often imitated, but never quite duplicated. Additionally, it has gone on to further immortality as a sample evergreen for hip-hop heads, alternative troubadours and even one of Donna’s musical daughters, Kylie Minogue. The Australian pop pixie cleverly mashed up Bad Girls with Little Eva’s 1962 chestnut The Loco-Motion — the song which helped propel Minogue from Neighbours to global renown — on her showeringly acclaimed Golden Tour in 2018 and 2019.
On The Radio (1979)
Donna Summer had amassed more than her fair share of smash hits in the seventies, and it was 1979’s all-encompassing On The Radio: Greatest Hits Vol. 1 & 2 that roped them all into one place. As an LP, it went on to become her third sequential number-one double album behind Live And More (1978) and Bad Girls in the United States — a record she still holds, incredibly. Out of all the known charters contained on this expertly segued compilation, two were fire-new: On The Radio and No More Tears (Enough Is Enough).
The second mentioned track was a once-in-lifetime duet between Donna and the incomparable Barbra Streisand and simultaneously appeared on the latter’s twenty-first LP Wet the same month. Circling back around to On The Radio, as with No More Tears the song starts off ballad style with a luxe downtempo opening that soon blossoms into a glistening disco stomper that Summer knocks out of MacArthur Park and any others that dared to get in her way. Given that she was preparing to pivot into more experimental terrain, On The Radio was a fantastic way to seal off her previous stretch of recording activity and look forward to a brand new decade.
Looking Up (1980)
At the height of her commercial clout, Donna Summer walked away from her home at Casablanca Records to gain further equity in business and artistic contexts. Geffen Records — named for its proprietor and industry heavyweight David Geffen — welcomed the “Queen of Disco” with open arms. She wasted no time getting to work on her eighth album, 1980’s The Wanderer. While the title track was a favourite of John Lennon no less, the song cycle as a whole was a contemporary fable of a young woman escaping the mundane world of suburbia and setting off for the lights of the big city and finding more than bargained for. And it’s clear that parts of the record stand in for some of Summer’s own experiences with fame she’d encountered in the 1970s.
One of the best entries on the LP is Looking Up, a cut detailing a romantic relationship that doubles as an emotional shield from life’s problems. These evocative lyrics are matched to an equally impressive musical backdrop where Donna dips into new wave aesthetics to awesome effect. Looking Up was proof that Summer, with assistance from her (then) two longest colleagues Moroder and Bellotte, had more to offer than the expected disco sound and could work just as artfully in other mediums.
The Wanderer was irrefutable evidence that there was creative, critical and commercial life after disco. Eager to keep pushing at the boundaries of what she could accomplish with fresh sounds and recording technologies, Donna got back to work with Moroder and Bellotte on 1981’s aptly denominated I’m A Rainbow. The project ballooned to a double album and would house all her genre appetites and then some. Unfortunately, Geffen heard nary a single in the batch and unceremoniously shelved the whole shebang.
Summer was soon shunted into studio sessions with Quincy Jones and barring two tracks making their way onto film soundtracks of the period — Romeo for Flashdance; Highway Runner for Fast Times At Ridgemont High — I’m A Rainbow languished in the vaults until its celebrated reveal in 1996. Ironically, Romeo was one of the more radio friendly tracks present. A fantastic new wave infused doo wop pastiche, Romeo was a highlight for critics and consumers on the Flashdance soundtrack. Donna’s own affection for it was shown due to her incorporating into her live sets on many a subsequent tour.
Lush Life (1982)
Shrewdly engineered by Geffen, Donna was paired with super-producer and musician extraordinaire Quincy Jones for her tenth long player and official sequel to The Wanderer. The decision to do this was reached upon hearing the 1981-recorded I’m A Rainbow, and not being satisfied with the product. Geffen and Jones were on the same page in desiring to retrofit Donna Summer as a more explicitly pop-R&B-cum-crossover act that could straddle the polarised, post-disco scene of the early 1980s in the United States.
There was mutual respect between Jones and the pregnant Summer but their working relationship had its fair share of bumps. Indeed, 1982’s Donna Summer set was a sometimes frustrating example of how a producer’s view of an artist can come into direct conflict with how that performer views themselves. That stylistic tug of war can be heard throughout this belatedly eponymous outing, even if it provided Donna with two enduring hit singles, in the shape of a moving cover of Jon & Vangelis’s spiritual State Of Independence and Love Is In Control (Finger On The Trigger), the latter Jones and Rod Temperton-penned electro-funker seemingly a prototype P.Y.T (Pretty Young Thing), just prior to Quincy helming Michael Jackson’s Thriller.
Despite the occasional mismatch, the LP reached No.13 in Britain and gave Donna her second-best chart placing for a studio album there behind 1977’s I Remember Yesterday, which was all the more ironic seeing as her next hit single in Britain would be Patrick Cowley’s coruscating remix of I Feel Love. One deep cut on the self-titled album was a particularly thrilling, if curious number: Lush Life. The Billy Strayhorn penned jazz staple has enjoyed multiple lives via different singers through the years — everyone from Nat King Cole to Ella Fitzgerald and Lady Gaga — and Summer was initially reluctant to cover it. A veteran of Frank Sinatra and the big band era, Quincy managed to convince her that she had the vocal chops to bring across its cited jazz persuasion but in that singular Summer fashion. Jones pulls out all the stops in drafting a fantastic canvas for her work on top of, and the singer met all the necessary requirements of the composition to make it her own.
Dinner With Gershwin (1987)
After a ten-year rush of professional (and personal) activity, Summer opted to take a couple of years off after the poorly received Cats Without Claws (1984). When she returned to the studio to plot the course of its follow-up, it was with a mix of old and new writer-producer friends — Harold Faltermeyer, Michael Omartian, Brenda Russell and so forth. For all of its commercial sharpness, 1987’s All Systems Go was still very much a Donna Summer album due to an ongoing commitment at penning her own material, but occasionally, she did pick songs that were right for her even if they did not come from her. Enter Dinner With Gershwin.
An idiosyncratic slice of jaunty synth-R&B-pop with warm programming washes and fleshly guitar picking possessed an even more interesting narrative allegory about getting next to next to the perfect guy in relation to a host of improbable situations. Written by the aforementioned Russell — an accomplished R&B-jazz singer-scribe-pianist — and decorated tunesmith Richard Perry, (Pointer Sisters, Carly Simon) it was as if Dinner With Gershwin had sprung from Summer’s own imagination. It not only became a moderate success stateside and in the UK, it also brought Summer her first ever appearance on one of Britain’s most venerated television shows of the 20th century, Top Of The Pops.
This Time I Know It’s For Real (1989)
Dinner With Gershwin did make a solid landfall on the British pop and American R&B charts in the autumn of ’87, but Donna Summer hadn’t had a large-scale charter since at least 1983’s She Works Hard For The Money. To say that the relationship between Geffen and Summer was strained after an itchy seven years was a gross understatement. Having said that, things weren’t so frosty that his suggestion that Summer pair with Mike Stock, Matt Aitken and Pete Waterman went unheeded.
Helming everyone from Divine to Dead Or Alive and Kylie & Jason, the British writing-production troika had been racking up hit after hit for a considerable portion of the latter 1980s at home and abroad. The streamlined dance-pop approach of the self-described “hit factory” looked to be ideal to put Summer back on top — and did it ever. A joyously infectious tale of unrequited love sung in Summer’s inimitable melodic style, This Time I Know It’s For Real was designed as a tasteful S-A-W simulacrum of the uptempo ballad approach she had made famous with Last Dance and On The Radio years beforehand.
Stupidly, and just prior to the single’s release, Geffen Records nixed Summer’s contract at his imprint and briefly left Summer without a business home. WEA, a conglomerate of the Warner Brothers, Elektra, and Atlantic labels, operated as the distribution arm of Geffen during Summer’s tenure there. Sensing the appeal of This Time I Know It’s For Real and its partnering album (her fourteenth studio set overall) Another Place And Time (1989), WEA onboarded Summer and issued the single. It generated major buzz throughout Europe, so much so that the stateside branch of Atlantic Records took notice. They brought Summer onto their roster, soon enough the track swept Summer back into the upper reaches of radio and retail on both sides of the pond for real.
Denver Dream (1974): Strangely not included on Lady Of The Night, the very first song that Summer cut with Moroder and Bellotte in 1974 is a plush excursion into the Ennio Morricone,-flavoured, Italo-western pop sound that fit Summer’s gilded voice like a Morrissey meets Marr-like hand in glove. It remains something of a hidden gem within the annals of Summer’s huge canon.
Sometimes Like Butterflies (1982): Written by Summer and Bruce Roberts and issued as the flipside to Love Is In Control (Finger On The Trigger), this pared down piano-rock-pop number is one of Donna’s most inspired and raw performances ever put on wax and was later covered by legendary diva Dusty Springfield. Issued as a single in 1985, it would ultimately prove to be a sadly ignored release just before the Pet Shop Boys resurrected her career. (By the way, it’s a matter of personal regret that PSB declined to work with Donna, despite her numerous overtures in the duo’s direction. Tennant & Lowe did, however, produce a version of Love To Love You Baby for Sam Taylor-Wood trading as Kiki Kokova in 2003 — Ed.)
I’m Free (1984): This fiercely bombastic mixture of calypso, electro-hop and pop rhythms with an absolutely soaring chorus called Cats Without Claws home. Despite its curious Mr Humphries in Are You Being Served? connotations, the song wouldn’t get the single rollout, but was curiously sanctioned for remixing by up-and-coming hitmaker John “Jellybean” Benitez anyway, in between his helming overhauls for Madonna, David Bowie and Whitney Houston. Summer memorably performed this number on Soul Train, alongside the 45 Supernatural Love, to rapturous applause from the studio audience.
Melody of Love (Wanna Be Loved) (1994): After the release of Mistaken Identity (1991), Summer’s fifteenth LP and conclusive release on Atlantic Records, she put forward a Christmas holiday album, a live set and two compilations over the remainder of the 1990s. It was on one of those compilations — Endless Summer (1994) a single disc iteration of twin-disc The Donna Summer Anthology issued in 1993 — that two new songs appeared: the ballad Any Way At All and the Clivillés and Cole-penned Melody of Love (Wanna Be Loved). The latter house-infused 45 found Summer coming back to her ballad-to-floorfiller approach to winning appeal. Several remixes helped the single gain traction with club-going crowds of the day, and the track hit No.21 in Britain, Donna’s last Top 40 hit with a new recording.
Crayons (2008): As hosted on the short-lived BMG subsidiary Burgundy Records, Summer unveiled what would prove to be her seventeenth and final LP — to positive reviews and sales. Crayons was her first album of fresh fare since Mistaken Identity 17 years earlier. The record was a colourful, contemporary sounding diverse raft of tunes, with the incendiary I’m A Fire topping the Billboard Dance Chart. But despite not reaching single status it was the title track that was truly a stunner: a kicking uptempo number soused in reggae tones, it was conceived by Summer, JR Rotem, Greg Kurstin, Danielle Brisbois and Ziggy Marley. Son of his father Bob, Marley gets in on the middle-eight of this ode to the indefatigable joy of the human spirit.
To Paris With Love (2010): A dreamy slice electro-pop, To Paris With Love wasn’t far removed from the feel of the Crayons set. She re-teamed with friend and songwriter Bruce Roberts on this ode to romance in the French capital, and it follows one of their most notable prior collaborations: the beloved Quincy Jones era B-side Sometimes Like Butterflies cited above. Many assumed that this midtempo groove was the sign of another album in the works, but sadly it was not to be.
Quentin Harrison is the author of the book Record Redux: Donna Summer, available here