Donna Summer, R.I.P.

Categories: Obituaries

donnasummer_hair.jpg
In the two-family house where I grew up in Bensonhurst, the two musical acts I heard most often, blasting from stereos at the top and bottom of the house, were the Beatles and Donna Summer.

The former was more my parents' speed, although my teenaged cousins who lived downstairs played the Fab Four plenty, too. But for me, my sister and my cousins, Donna was omnipresent. More than a disco queen, Summer was a deity we could call our own, a Boston native who recorded with Italians, married a Brooklyn paesano and fronted a group called Brooklyn Dreams. With that powerful, breathy-to-guttural-to-rafter-shaking mezzo-soprano, she recorded music of both florid grandeur and hard precision, the very essence of urban life in the 1970s.

She was, in short, an honorary New Yorker. Which I imagine is how hundreds of born-and-bred New Yorkers unconsciously regard the news today of her untimely death at age 63 from (reportedly) lung cancer. Regardless of where her upbringing and musical training had taken her—a childhood and adolescence singing in churches in Dorchester, salad days in Germany in the musical Hair before she met her Berlin-based studio collaborator Giorgio Moroder—Donna, to the end, belonged to all of us: outerborough ethnics; Manhattan velvet-rope aesthetes (and those who pretended); the gay, black and Latino communities.

Of course, if you're reading this in Detroit or Las Vegas or Minneapolis or Atlanta or Los Angeles or London, Donna spoke to you, too. Considering her lifelong association with a communal, hedonistic pop-culture moment, it's remarkable when one plays back her oeuvre how intimate, almost solitary her great works really were. Call her the Wanderer, for her ability to stretch, adapt and transmogrify dance music until it embraced everyone and everything.


Donna Summer, "Love To Love You Baby"

The list of milestones she achieved within that purportedly limited genre, well before the invention of countless post-disco subgenres, deserves more recognition. She was the first to popularize the 12-inch single—a format previously consigned to deejays and only barely commercially available in 1976—and turn it into a kind of AOR-era art, with the tantric "Love to Love You Baby." It was the first of her decades worth of No. 1s on Billboard's Dance Club Play chart, a total that stretched to 2010 and includes anywhere from 14 chart-toppers to 22, depending on how one counts her many album cuts that disco-era jocks spun (another practice she led).


Donna Summer, "I Feel Love"

Famously, she and Moroder pioneered the genres of techno and electronic dance music with "I Feel Love" (No. 6, 1977) built on the first known all-synthesized track and still utterly fresh and timeless. With the Thank God It's Friday theme song "Last Dance" (No. 3, 1978), she won the first Best Original Song Academy Award for a dance or disco song. Reportedly, the unassisted, gospel-worthy note she holds for 16 seconds near the start of my favorite song of hers, "Dim All the Lights" (No. 2, 1979), is the longest-ever sustained note by a female artist in a Top 40 hit.


Donna Summer, "Last Dance"

For all her lungpower, she was more than a diva—at a time when music fans chose sides on the question of disco, Summer played on the rockers' turf. Her Bad Girls album, which spawned the crossover smashes "Hot Stuff" and "Bad Girls" (both No. 1, 1979), shrewdly and adeptly grafted disco to rock, better than the Stones or Rod Stewart had adapted rock to disco—on her terms, not the rockers'. That double album followed 1978's Live and More (still dance music's only No. 1 live album) and preceded late 1979's On the Radio: Greatest Hits atop the Billboard album chart. That consecutive trio of No. 1 double albums is still a record, and something no guitar-wanking, Side Three-choking dude, from Zeppelin to Frampton, ever achieved. Madonna's ability to credibly carry herself like a classic rocker owes more than a little to Donna.



Advertisement

My Voice Nation Help
8 comments
Janaya
Janaya

I love her n her music she was one of the best rip donna summer

hughster1
hughster1

Technically she didn't win the Oscar for "Last Dance."  That award goes to the songwriter, not the artist, and since Paul Jabara was the sole songwriter, he got the award.  Not to take anything away from her accomplishments, of course.

katmandu
katmandu

I read a comment on another board I just have to share: "When we are all old and living in nursing homes, they are going to mess with us by blasting "Last Dance" and watching as we all scramble, looking for napkins to write our phone numbers on..."

Rob
Rob

WON-DER-FUL piece. LONG time Donna fan here, devastated by this news. Let us ALL remember that she is TRULY one of the only singers whose music has bridged gaps through all sexes, ethnicity,  generations and preferences.

....her NOT being in the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame is a TRAVESTY.

She brought to the world the 12-inch, Electronic / Synth music, the DISCO DIVA Image, Dance Rock, 'Diva Duets', First Black Female to be played on MTV, started Black Singers going 'Eurodisco' (Boney M, Miguel Brown, Viola Wills, etc.),ONLY Black Artist to win Best ROCK Female Vocal Grammys, first Female to have #1's in a 50 YEAR timespan...IT. goes. ON.

but most of all, she will be remembered for her MUSIC. the pulsating, euphoric, elating, MUSIC that will be her legacy, and the soundtracks of MANY of our lives....Past, Present, AND Future.

...Dim All The Lights, our Queen has FINALLY had her LAST DANCE.

Alison Cecile Johns
Alison Cecile Johns

That. Was. The. BOMB. You said it so so well, thank you for expressing what I needed to hear (I'm just gonna speak for myself today, but I know so many of us have hurt hearts right now). It was the hate movement known as "Disco Sucks" that combined racism, sexism, and homophobia to knock this woman out of the spotlight, but she still shines on, and they BETTER induct her into the Hall of Fame, and a whole lot more! Thank You.

Sean
Sean

Very nice piece.

Epac
Epac

I know you like to think that it was "racism, sexism, and homophobia", but a better explanation was that disco really did, um...suck.

Now Trending

New York Concert Tickets

Around The Web

From the Vault

 

Loading...