No one benefited from the disco explosion more than Donna Summer. A Boston-bred singer/actress who found herself performing in Germany, she hooked up with European producers Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte and proceeded to light up the latter half of the Seventies with a thunderous voice and a collection of hits that traversed a wider musical terrain than many folks give her credit for. Beginning her run of hits with some funk-laden erotic cooing on the Barry White-esque “Love To Love You Baby”, she went on to hit with Barry Manilow’s “Could It Be Magic”, the expansive ballad “Can’t We Just Sit Down & Talk It Over”, the anthemic “Last Dance” and the groundbreaking “I Feel Love,” one of the first hits to consist of nothing but synthesizers.
1979 was her biggest year-she hit the top of the charts with three songs: the dramatic diva duet “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)” with Barbra Streisand, the catchy “Bad Girls” and the guitar-etched “Hot Stuff,” which won Donna a Grammy for Best Female Rock Performance and greased the skids for future dance/rock classics like Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” and Madonna’s “Burning Up.”
When the eighties dawned and disco was declared dead, Donna experienced some career hiccups (although she wasn’t knocked clear off the charts like Chic and The Village People.) She’d actually anticipated this change in public favor, switched labels from Casablanca to upstart Geffen Records, and released The Wanderer in 1980, an album that had more of a progressive pop/rock sound. It didn’t do as well as it’s predecessors, but still peaked in the Top 20 of the national charts and went Gold. Summer quickly headed back into the studio with Moroder and Bellotte and recorded an album entitled I’m A Rainbow. Geffen Records rejected the album (it wouldn’t see release for another fifteen years) and forced Summer to look for new material-with new producers. Eventually, she wound up teaming with Quincy Jones, whose work with The Brothers Johnson, Michael Jackson and Rufus Featuring Chaka Khan defined the sound of urban radio in the very early Eighties.
Allegedly the sessions weren’t especially smooth-Donna complained about Quincy’s controlling nature, and at one point Quincy was quoted as saying something to the effect of “If you think you can sing as good as Chaka Khan, you’re gonna have to prove it to me.” The album didn’t restore Donna’s commercial glory, although it sold moderately well, peaking at #20 on the charts and spawning three Hot 100 hits. It sort of represents a point when Donna’s albums started becoming a bit personality deficient: many of these songs could’ve been sung by anyone from Pat Benatar to Michael Jackson (actually, many people to this day believe that MJ sings the chorus of “Love Is In Control”, but more on him later.) Of course, within a year, Madonna would show up and render Donna’s reign as a dance diva obsolete, but the trouble seemed to start in earnest here.
Of the three singles, the most commercial-sounding was the chugging “Love Is In Control.” Featuring a powerful vocal from Donna and background vocals from James Ingram and Howard Hewett of Shalamar, the song peaked at #10 on the pop charts and became her first R&B Top 5 in three years. The seductive “The Woman In Me” is another winner, featuring a breathy vocal by Summer, while “State of Independence” is more notable for it’s guest appearances than it is for the song itself-which, musically and lyrically, sounds like a pile of new age mush (surprising no one, the song was co-written by Vangelis.) An all-star choir of singers joins Summer on this record, including the aforementioned Jackson, as well as Stevie Wonder, Michael McDonald, and…Dyan Cannon? Consider this something of a dry run for “We Are The World.”
The album tracks were mostly tasteful soul-dance Jones productions utilizing his endless Rolodex and calling upon a series of the era’s top studio musicians, from members of Toto to Jacksons keyboardist Greg Phillinganes. Two songs stand out-“Protection”-a sassy rock number written by and featuring Bruce Springsteen (it was originally conceived as a duet but that didn’t work out) and the album’s final number, a pretty version of the standard “Lush Life” that predates Linda Ronstadt’s standards fixation by a year. Could an album of “Lush Life”s have rocketed Summer back to the stardom she enjoyed in the late Seventies? Hard to tell. Interesting to note that even these days, she hasn’t gone that route.
Interestingly, the next year would find Summer at her most successful during the Eighties. Geffen had to hand Summer back over to Casablanca (which at that point had been absorbed into PolyGram Records) for one album to fulfill a contractual obligation. The resulting single and album, “She Works Hard For The Money”, became a Grammy-nominated smash. I’d imagine there was some consternation over Summer regaining her former glory on temporary loan to her old label, but the success was short lived, and Summer’s chart fortunes again dwindled. Although she’s had several minor comebacks, she’s never regained the success of her glory days.
She does tour plenty, though. And she remains an icon. Check out this excellent piece that Popmatters posted, listing the reasons why Donna belongs in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.