For music fans who experienced the club-hopping ‘70s, Donna Summer will long be remembered as the quintessential diva of disco, the oft-derided genre that rose and quickly faded within the span of a decade.
While many of her contemporaries were one-hit wonders, the Boston-area native was one of the few artists of the disco era to become a genuine star. “There was no question I would be a singer; I just always knew,” Summer said in a 1989 Associated Press interview. “I had credit in my neighborhood; people would lend me money and tell me to pay it back when I got famous.”
Born LaDonna Adrian Gaines on Dec. 31, 1948, right outside Boston, Summer honed her vocal chops singing gospel in church and dabbling in psychedelic rock during the ‘60s. But by the middle of the following decade, she had emerged as the undisputed queen of disco.
Summer parlayed her considerable singing and songwriting skills into a fruitful career that is notable for the release of the 1975 stereo-erotica hit “Love to Love You Baby.” Co-written by Summer, the stunningly sinful track was produced by Euro-synth wiz Giorgio Moroder, whom the singer met in Germany while touring with the musical “Hair.”
Signed in the States to Casablanca Records, where her labelmates included George Clinton and Kiss, Summer took the advice of the imprint’s visionary boss, Neil Bogart, who suggested that the tune needed to be remixed. Both its three-minute radio edit and an extended club version that ran nearly 17 minutes became monster hits.
With its seductive grooves and Summer’s hot-and-heavy breathing, “Love to Love You” was an aural pleasure for the era’s dance-floor devotees, even as it shocked airwaves across more than a few nations. The BBC banned it.
“I actually found it very hard to sing,” a 26-year-old Summer told Blues and Soul magazine in 1976. “When we first started, there were no words other than ‘Love to Love You Baby,’ so I made it up as it went along, in the hope that what I was saying fitted the mood of the music. It took 4 1/2 hours in all just to put my vocal track on - and I ended up handling it the way it is. . . . It got me to such a point that I threw everybody out of the studio except my producer, and he calmed me down by telling me just to sing it the way I felt it, rather than the way I felt it should be sung. Let’s face it: It’s in every woman to be seductive, whether she is a teacher or a whore.”
In addition to ushering in the rhythmic revolution, the track also inspired numerous artists, including Diana Ross with her equally wonderful “Love Hangover.” Years later, Beyoncé sampled the song for her 2003 single “Naughty Girl.”
With a career that spanned more than 30 years, Donna Summer went on to have hits that included the Oscar-winning “Last Dance” (1977), “MacArthur Park” (1978), “Bad Girls” (1979) and “She Works Hard for the Money” (1982). Mary J. Blige called Summer “a game changer.” Singer Gloria Estefan tweeted: “Few singers have impacted music & the world like Donna Summer! It’s the end of an era.”
At the height of Summer’s fame, the singer was considered by many in the gay community to be an icon on a par with Judy Garland and Marilyn Monroe. Yet when she became a born-again Christian in the late 1980s, a smear campaign circulated the rumor that she had said that AIDS was God’s revenge against homosexuals for their hedonistic lifestyle.
Although Summer always maintained that she never made such statements, her album and concert sales suffered. Her last disc, “Crayons,” was released in 2008. This year Summer was nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame but was passed over.
After news of her death Thursday at age 63, Grammy-winning performer and gay activist Elton John recalled her profound artistry. “Her records sound as good today as they ever did. That she has never been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a total disgrace, especially when I see the second-rate talent that has been inducted,” he said. “She is a great friend to me and to the Elton John AIDS Foundation, and I will miss her greatly.”
Meanwhile, this from RuPaul: “Donna Summer, your last dance will remain in our hearts forever.”
Gonzales is a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based pop journalist who also writes for Wax Poetics, Juicy and One Robot.