December 31, 1948– Donna Summer
In late summer of 1975, I was at a club in West Hollywood, dancing my ass off, when this hot shirtless redhead gave me a huge smile and stuck a little brown bottle under my nose, as we moved, all of sudden, I felt super sexy as the strangest music filled the room, something I had never heard before, a driving thump-thump-thump as a woman purred: “Mmmm… LoveTo Love You, Baby”. I thought I had gone to heaven.
Unlike most musical artists in the 1970s, Summer never courted an LGBTQ audience. Yet, her transcendental disco sound was perfect for our gay culture, and we loved her for it. Her sound and her persona were perfect for that pivotal moment in time. But, Summer’s relationship with her gay fans became fractious after some comments about the AIDS crisis, comments that she denied ever having made.
Like her pop stardom, Summer’s early gay iconography was not something she went after; it was something bestowed on her. She didn’t nurture her talent to capture an LGBTQ audience. Yet, we embraced her because of that talent. In a post-Madonna/Lady Gaga Pop Music world it seems almost unbelievable that such a thing could happen, but Donna Summer was an accidental Gay Icon.
That unique sound that she produced during the apex of the Disco Era, with its elegance, confidence and open sexuality, hit a chord deep inside of gay people. When Diana Ross sang I’m Coming Out, she did it with a sly wink. When Grace Jones recorded an album of growling show tunes set to a disco beat, its gay appeal could not have been more succinct. But, when Summer breathily gave us her climactic sounds, she did it under the guidance of a straight producer in a sterile Munich recording studio. Summer and Giorgio Moroder were not club kids. They simply were beatified with the divine ability to know that at closing time under a mirror-ball in a gay nightclub, the sound should be sublime and transcendental. I Feel Love was it.
Summer became the Queen Of Disco. She had those doe eyes and big hair, plus a singing voice that was alternately airy, ethereal or bright and assertive. It was a singing voice, that wafted over dance floors and blasted from our radios from the mid-1970s until the end of the 1980s.
She moved through different styles like Funk, Electronica, Rock and Torch songs. Summer had 14 Top Ten singles, including: Love To Love You Baby, Bad Girls, Hot Stuff, Last Dance and She Works Hard for the Money. Before 1980, she had three double albums in a row that went to Number One, with each selling more than a million copies. The first artist to so.
Her combination of church voice and the latest dance beats was the template for Disco Music. With her producers Moroder and Pete Bellotte, she was the mother of Electronic Dance Music, starting with synthesizer pulse of I Feel Love in 1977. It is a sound that infuses our current 21st-century Pop Music sound. Summer’s recordings have been sampled by Beyoncé, Pet ShopBoys, and Nas.
Summer won Grammy Awards in several categories: Dance Music, R&B, Rock and Gospel. In 2009 she performed at the concert in Oslo honoring the NobelPeace Prize awarded to Barack Obama.
She was born LaDonna Adrian Gaines in Boston, one of seven children. She grew up singing in church and decided when she was a teenager that she would make music her career. In 1969, she was cast in the Munich company of the tribal rock musical Hair and she moved to Germany. She became fluent in German and found work as a studio singer specializing in Musical Theater. In 1972, she married an Austrian actor, Hellmuth Sommer, and after they split she kept his name but changed the spelling. She recorded her first single under the name Donna Gaines, an unsuccessful remake of The Jaynetts‘ Sally Go ‘Round The Roses.
She worked as backup singer, which brought her to the attention of Moroder. In 1974, her debut album Lady Of The Night was released only in Europe. But, with Love To Love You Baby in 1975, Summer became a worldwide sensation. She said she recorded the song’s breathy, moaning vocals lying on her back on the studio floor with the lights out, thinking about how Marilyn Monroe might purr its words.
Casablanca Records signed her after hearing the song in its European version, and asked her to extend it for Disco play. The resulting 17-minute single contains more than 20 simulated orgasms and it became an international hit, reaching Number Two on the American Pop Charts. Summer quickly released two additional albums, A Love Trilogy and the concept album The Four Seasons Of Love.
But, Summer was uncomfortable being promoted as a sex goddess:
“I’m not just sex, sex, sex. I would never want to be a one-dimensional person like that.”
She fell into deep despair and in late 1976 she attempted suicide. She began taking medication for depression and she became a Born-Again Christian in 1979.
Summer released two albums in 1977. I Remember Yesterday was built around the idea of mixing Disco with sounds from previous decades. But, a song representing the future, I Feel Love, was the tune that made the most impact. Its all-electronic arrangement was a startling new sound, and the contrast of human voice against a synthetic backdrop echoed through gay dance clubs around the globe.
She followed it with an orchestral album, Once Upon a Time, a set of songs that told a fairy tale, and then a live album in 1978, Live And More, which had the hit with a version of MacArthur Park. That was the first of four Number One singles she would have in a year, along with Hot Stuff,Bad Girls and duet with Barbra Streisand, No More Tears (Enough IsEnough). Summer won her first Grammy Award, for Best R&B Vocal Performance, for Last Dance,written by Paul Jabara for the film Thank God It’s Friday (1978). It has remained a favorite for the end of wedding parties ever since.
When there was a backlash against Disco, Summer strove to stay current. Her double album, Bad Girls (1979) had a Rock sound and Hot Stuff won a Grammy for Best Rock Vocal Performance. On The Radio: Greatest HitsVolumes 1 and 2, went to Number One in 1979, and the newly recorded title song was a Top Ten single.
On The Radio was Summer’s last album for Casablanca. As Disco was diminished, she moved to Geffen Records, hoping for broader Pop audience. She had a New Wave hit with The Wanderer in 1981, then switched to an R&B sound for Donna Summer for producer Quincy Jones in 1982. She reached her 1980s pinnacle with She Works Hard For The Money in 1983. It was her last Top 10 album, and it included He’s A Rebel, a Christian Rock Number with lyrics like: “He’s a rebel, written up in the lamb’s book of life”. It won a Grammy for Best Inspirational Performance.
Summer’s career slowed in the mid-1980s and she alienated her gay fans when she was quoted as saying that AIDS is divine punishment for an immoral lifestyle. LGBTQ people boycotted her music, and her streak of hits was finally broken. Her last Top Ten Pop hit, This Time I Know It’s For Real, was in 1989.
Yet, she persevered, which LGBTQ folks always admire. She continued to record and give concerts. She moved to Nashville and recorded a number one Country Music single with Dolly Parton, aptly titled Starting Over Again. A remix of a song recorded in 1992 with Moroder, Carry On, won her the first Grammy ever given for Best Dance Music. Even in the new century, she continued to have Dance Music hits. Summer:
“This music will always be with us. I mean, whether they call it Disco music or Hip-Hop or Bebop or flip-flop, whatever they’re going to call it, I think music to dance to will always be with us.”
Summer left this world in the late spring of 2012. Never a smoker, she was taken by lung cancer, most likely from toxic fumes and dust after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in NYC. Her passing stunned fans and friends in the industry. Barack Obama wrote:
“Michelle and I were saddened to hear about the passing of Donna Summer. A five-time Grammy Award winner, Donna truly was the Queen of Disco. Her voice was unforgettable and the music industry has lost a legend far too soon.”
Summer was just 63-years-old when she left us.
One of the many ironies of Summer’s spectacular career is that when she left Casablanca Records, where she had pioneered and shaped the Gay Disco Music sound with the assistance of a bunch straight guys, she was signed by the most ostentatious gay man in showbiz, David Geffen. Under his secular direction, she did her most spiritual work. Summer’s incredible commercial and creative highs were a manual on how to do everything the wrong way. Yet, somehow, the magic happened.
Gay men adored her. We still do. The ill-will she produced during her contentious 1980s Jesus era was so tough on us because we still cared about her. Aside from the sensational music she made, her legacy will always be as a Gay Icon. Gay culture, at its trashiest and most endearing, is now studied by Pop stars wanting lasting success. Summer didn’t have those role models. The 1970s were an epoch that brought huge changes in our attitudes about racism, sexism and homophobia. Some of that was because of her unfortunate fall from the pedestal of Gay Idolatry. In a crazy way, she was the one who opened many closet doors.