December 30, 1948 – Donna Summer:
“God had to create disco music so I could be born and be successful.”
She was born LaDonna Adrian Gaines. A five-time Grammy Award winner, she was the first artist to have three consecutive double albums reach Number One on the Billboard Top 100 and charted four more Number-One singles within 12 months. Summer has sold over 150 million records, making her one of the world’s bestselling artists of all time.
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.
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… Love To Love You, Baby”. I thought I had gone to gay heaven.
Love To Love You Baby is from her second studio album imaginatively titled Love To Love You Baby (1975). Produced by Pete Bellotte, written by Italian musician Giorgio Moroder, Summer, and Bellotte. The song was first released as a single in December 1975 as Love To Love You Baby. It became one of the first disco hits to be released in an extended form.
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 Theatre.
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.
By 1975, Summer had been living in Germany for eight years. She had also released an album in The Netherlands, Lady Of The Night (1974), written by Moroder and Bellotte, which brought Summer a couple of hit singles in Europe. She was still a complete unknown in the USA. Summer suggested the lyric “Love to love you, baby” to Moroder and turned the lyric into a full disco song and for Summer to record. At first, Summer said she would only record it as a demo to give to someone else. However, Summer’s erotic moaning impressed Moroder so much that he persuaded her to release it as her own song, and Love To Love You Baby became a modest hit in the Netherlands.
Summer in 1975:
“Everyone’s asking, ‘Were you alone in the studio?’ Yes, I was alone in the studio. ‘Did you touch yourself?’ Yes, well, actually I had my hand on my knee. ‘Did you fantasize on anything?’ Yes, about my handsome boyfriend.”
A tape of the song made it to Casablanca Records president Neil Bogart in the USA, and he played it at a party at his home. Bogart continued to play it over and over all night. He contacted Moroder and suggested that he make the track longer, possibly 20 minutes. Summer still had reservations; she wasn’t sure about the lyrics. To rerecord it, she imagined herself as Marilyn Monroe. The studio lights were dimmed so that Summer was in darkness as she lay on the floor.
The final recording lasted a bit more than 16 minutes, and it contained 23 “orgasms”. It took up the entire first side of the album of the same name, and a version was released on seven-inch vinyl.
In December 1975, the song became an international Disco smash hit. It became Summer’s first US Top 40 hit, spending two weeks at Number Two on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in February 1976, being held back from the Number One spot by Paul Simon‘s 50 Ways To Leave Your Lover, a very different sort of love song. Love To Love You Baby stayed four weeks atop the Dance Club chart, and Number Three on the R&B/Hip-Hop chart. The BBC refused to play it.
With the success of the song, Summer was labeled as a sexually oriented, fantasy image from which she would forever struggle to free herself. Summer:
“I am sensual and very physical. I’m very erotic. But my sexuality exists on a sort of a fantasy level.”
Casablanca Records became responsible for the distribution of Summer’s music and Bogart was particularly keen for Summer to portray the image of the rich, powerful, sexy fantasy figure. Bogart and his wife Joyce became Summer’s managers and close friends. However, Bogart also began interfering with every aspect of Summer’s life. She later became a born-again Christian, left disco, Casablanca and the Bogarts behind, and filed a lawsuit against them. Summer excluded Love To Love You Baby from her concert playlists, not reintroducing the song into her concert repertoire until 25 years later.
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 upon 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 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.
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 Bellotte, she was the mother of Electronic Dance Music. It is a sound that infuses our current 21st-century Pop Music sound. Love To Love You Baby has been sampled by Beyoncé, Pet Shop Boys, and Nas.
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 New York City. 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.“
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.