It was 1978 and somewhere in Coral Gables the sounds of a little child crying echo through the streets. Soon following the annoying wails – the pounding rhythm of “I feel love” begin to play. Gyrating and pulsing through the walls of an apartment complex, a 1975 Magnavox stereo cranked the popular single. It was the only way to …
Donna Summer: The first lady of love
More than the original disco queen – a true artist in all aspects.
It was 1978 and somewhere in Coral Gables the sounds of a little child crying echo through the streets. Soon following the annoying wails – the pounding rhythm of “I feel love” begin to play. Gyrating and pulsing through the walls of an apartment complex, a 1975 Magnavox stereo cranked the popular single. It was the only way to quiet the boy. That little boy was me, and what soon followed was my marriage to disco and specifically Donna Summer’s music. Since the 1970s, Ladonna Adrian Gaines (Donna Summer) has been producing timeless hits and keeping us moving on the dancefloor.
Donna Summer was born in Boston, but spent most of the early 70s in Germany where she performed in a musical production of “Hair.” She learned to speak fluent German while in Munich. While there she met both Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte. With their help she released “Lady of the Night” In 1974 –and featured a modest hit with “The Hostage” in Europe. During the 1970s her sound can be attributed to her powerful production team of Giorgio and Pete. Giorgio Moroder went on to produce many other artists such as Blondie, Sparks and released solo albums as well.
Her big break didn’t occur till the following year in 1975 with “Love to Love You, Baby” where it reached number 2 in the US Billboard top 100. Donna Summer signed with Neil Bogart’s Casablanca Records, and at a demo party for the single – the producers where encouraged to extend the length of the single. “Love to Love You, Baby” ended-up as the first 17 minute orgasmic album side track. The controversial track was banned in Europe. In 1976, she released 2 more albums “A Love Trillogy” and “The Four Seasons of Love.” By late 1976, “Could it be Magic” (a cover of the Barry Manilow tune) became a discoteque favorite. Her LP “Four Seasons of Love” also featured an almanac for the year 1977 embraced with pictures of Donna Summer in various poses including her interpretation of Marilyn Monroe.
Many thought Summer would be a typical disco ‘one-hit wonder,’ but the years from 1977-1980 saw a string of successful pop and disco hits. In 1977 Studio 54 opened its doors, and the disco scene became mainstream with the help of the movie and soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever. Disco music and its lifestyle was big and everywhere! That same year she released “I feel love” which is amongst the most sampled song in today’s dance music. John Lennon was rumored to have bought a personal copy and claimed “this is the sound of the future.” It was highly influential and became a first for the particular style of synthesized disco music. That same year, she released her discofied Cinderella fantasy album “Once upon a Time.” It sprouted a couple of hits including “I Love You” and “Rumour has it.”
In 1978, she was featured in the movie Thank God it’s Friday. Paul Jabara wrote “Last Dance,” and was featured in the soundtrack. “Last Dance” became her disco anthem. This song won her two grammy awards (one for Paul Jabara). This same year she covered Jimmy Webb’s “Mac Arthur Park” which became her first #1 Pop hit. “Heaven Knows” a duet with Joe Esposito of Brooklyn Dreams became a top ten hit! Donna Summer married Bruce Sudano of the same group a couple years later.
In 1979, Donna Summer hit her highest plateau with her “Bad Girls” LP. She was the only artist to receive four number one hits within a thirteen month period and eight US Top 5 singles within a two year period. This album sprouted a string of hits including “Hot Stuff,” “Bad Girls,” and “Dim all the lights.” Donna Summer also sang a duet with the legendary Barbara Streisand. As the late Paul Jabara once recalled of the studio sessions for “Enough is Enough (No more Tears)” : “Once the tape began rolling, magic took over. There was Streisand, hands flaring, and Donna, throwing her head back -and they’re both belting, sparking each other. It was a song writters dream. Seeing them on their stools opposite each other was so mind boggling, my head nearly turned 360 degrees, like Linda Blair’s did in The Exorcist.” I, and the rest of the world, found love with their voices.
All things ‘disco’ along with Donna Summer’s music were viewed negatively for the most part in the following decade – the 80s. The music industry and the public taste in music began to change during this era. Donna Summer left her disco roots behind her and like many others re-invented herself. She worked with different producers, and left the Casablanca Records label. In 1983 she released the major pop hit “She works hard for the money” which hit # 3 in the US Top 100. In 1989, Stock Aitken Waterman (who produced for Rick Astley) produced her massive club and pop hit “This time I know it’s for real.”
Donna Summer found solace in her religion, and at one point was rumored to have bad-mouthed homosexuals during the 80s. She denied the accusations. This hurt her career and her gay fan base. I remember seeing record store owners placing boxes of Donna Summer inventory on the sidewalk – and refused to sell her music. She later won her gay fans back.
Aside from her music, Donna Summer produced fine art signed and numbered lithographs. She wrote an autobiography titled “An Ordinary Girl” about her life journey. She also had dance music success with “Melody of Love” in 1994. That same year she also reunited with Giorgio Moroder and produced the hit “Carry on.” In 1999, she released “I Will Go with You (Con te partirò)” and “Love Is the Healer” which reached number one on the Billboard Dance Charts. In 2004, Donna Summer was inducted in the Dance Music Hall of Fame. In 2008, her CD “Crayons” was released. It was the first studio album of all original material since “Mistaken Identity” in 1991. In 2009, Donna Summer appeared on American Idol along with the season 7 crew and performed. In 2010, Summer appeared as a guest celebrity singing alongside Prince Poppycock on the television show America’s Got Talent.
Her lyrics and music spoke to me like no other. Her songs of love and relationships became so relevant for me throughout my lifetime. I’m sure her music will continue to influence tomorrows generation, as it did today. Unlike my worn copy of “I feel love” – her music will stand the test of time. Donna, we will miss you dearly. Thank you for keeping us dancing with your uplifting music. Thank you for sharing your perspective on life’s positive journey. Love is the healer.