This year has already seen so many high-profile losses in the music world: Whitney Houston, Etta James, Don Cornelius and Dick Clark. More recently, Adam "MCA" Yauch. Stax Records' bassist Donald "Duck" Dunn, in the disco realm, singer Belita Woods of the group Brainstorm earlier in the week; as recently as this Wednesday, Chuck Brown, Washington DC's Godfather of Go-Go. And now, Donna Summer.
Feeling emotional over the loss of a celebrity, in the way one would over a death in the family is always slightly uneasy for me. However, truthfully, out of all of them, this is the one which hurts the most. It's hard to fathom the loss of someone like Donna, someone who was so central to disco so much a symbol of it's success, of the times themselves.
I still recall as a ten year old, going to garage sales in our neighbourhood at the time, usually with my cousin in tow, she was a young 20 something girl who had recently immigrated to Canada at the time and had been living with us. She may have been my cousin and not an immediate one, even, but became like the sister I never had. She was so fascinated with these garage sales, these people giving away their possessions for practically pennies, that we would take them in whenever we got a chance. Thanks to these garage sales, she ended up taking an interest in vinyl for a brief moment and came back from one of these expeditions with a copy of Donna Summer's "On The Radio - Greatest Hits, Vol.2." From the groove of "Hot Stuff" and " Bad Girls" to the vocal showcases of "MacArthur Park" and "On The Radio," I would ponder the album cover as I listened (something only really possible with vinyl), wondering who was this woman? This woman with this voice soaring with feeling and clarity. I'm sure that I listened to that album more than my cousin ever did. In fact, I'm certain she barely even got to touch it once I got a hold of it. When I got around to the flipping the record over and hearing the relentless, throbbing pulse of "Sunset People," there was no turning back. I don't think any song had captured and transported my ten year old imagination more than that song did. People made records this forward thinking then? How was that possible!? A few years later, when I started taking a more serious interest in disco and in music generally, Donna Summer was naturally one of the first artists I had sought to explore.
Having fought a private battle with cancer that few knew about until now, her death seemed to come almost completely out of nowhere. She had announced, at the end of 2010, after touring for much of that year, that she was planning to take time off to record and release two albums, an album of standards and a dance record. Reportedly she had been working on one or both of them before she passed. It had been circulating among fans that she was working on her standards record with famed producer, the modern master of MOR, David Foster. Her last major public appearance had been on his David Foster & Friends concert in October of last year, so it seems entirely probable. Her final single, "To Paris With Love," originally recorded for Louis Vuitton, released in 2010, would be her 14th #1 on the Billboard Dance charts.
Since then, there had been precious little news of note. No tour dates on the horizon, no real updates on recording. Viewing one of the Donna Summer fan forums off and on, the relative silence of the past year had left some fans almost apoplectic. It's even more silly to read some of those posts now, fans will be fans, after all (especially on internet forums), however it only reinforces the absolute shock of it all. It's entirely understandable now, the woman probably wanted to avoid the media deathwatch that inevitably preceeds most high-profile deaths today. After all she had given, she was and is entitled to her dignity. It seems she was in control of her circumstances, up until the end. The loyalty of those close to her speaks volumes about her strength of character.
With the torrent of obituaries and celebrity tweets and statements flowing, New Yorker pop critic Sasha Frere-Jones had tweeted in response: "2012, and people feel like they need to save Donna Summer from disco to celebrate her. She WAS disco and disco won the war." He's absolutely right, and it's absolutely true. With Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte, she crystalized the sexual revolution and the hedonism and liberation of disco with "Love To Love You, Baby." Together, they would set one of the most important benchmarks of the genre. In 1977 Summer, Moroder and Bellotte had, to steal a phrase I read years ago, split digital skies with "I Feel Love." Today, those steely synth pulses and sensual vocals are still reverberating across the popular music landscape. Like Disco at large, she defied old boundaries around "black" and "white" music. She had never been R&B, nor strictly pop. A church rooted black girl from Boston, influenced by both Mahalia Jackson and Janis Joplin, she began her career fronting a rock band and later on the German stage and studio, backed by European producers. The varied influences and styles she incorporated, not just in her disco material, but throughout her career embodied the synthesis of influences that lay at the true heart of disco.
Donna Summer - Love to Love You Baby (Live, German TV)
Uploaded by shaymcn3
There were many, who in the quest for a popular reappraisal of disco, felt the need to separate disco into two classes. In a refrain that still gets played today, many were often quick to pooh-pooh the popular disco hits of the time in favour of the disco underground. The former was, like everyone had said, the fake, cheesy pop shit that was rightfully disdained; the latter - that was the real deal. In an effort to try and fit disco into some clichéd rockist narrative of authenticity, many seemed to think the only way to do that was to separate disco from itself. However wrong-headed it often was, that dishonour never extended to Donna Summer. It may have extended to Anita Ward, to the Village People, to the Bee Gees, but not Donna. To do so would have likely run the risk of revealing oneself as someone who didn't understand the real weight of her presence and her impact on disco, on popular music, as someone who just missed the point altogether. You didn't touch the Queen. Like the music of Chic, Donna was someone whose records crossed all of those boundaries, someone who was beloved among all walks of the disco faithful. As Alex Needham wrote in The Guardian, Donna Summer's disco was, indeed, as radical as punk.
Certainly, Disco was never short of great singers; auteurs, even. However, aside from her talent and success, what separated Donna Summer from her peers was that Summer was ambitious in ways that few of them were. There weren't many singers at the time inside or outside of disco who could move from one benchmark to another, pulling off expansive concept double-albums like "Once Upon A Time" and "Bad Girls," pursuing these grand artistic ambitions with unprecedented quality and frequency. And yet, she did. And it wasn't just because she had Giorgio Moroder in her corner, either. Surely he deserves a lot of credit, however it's often forgotten that many of Donna Summer's finest moments credited Summer, Moroder and Pete Bellotte equally. Donna was a singer who held artistic ambitions that, for a time, seemed to blossom further with each successive release.
In fact, Donna herself continued to make some good (even sometimes great) records in the 80's after the peak of disco, apart from Moroder and Bellotte. One of her biggest hits (and her most coherent contribution to the MTV age), "She Works Hard For The Money" was made without Moroder or Bellotte. Her final record for the Geffen label, "All Systems Go" (1987) is possibly one of her best from the time and certainly one of her most overlooked. Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte would also make great records apart from Summer and from each other. Moroder's own influential work, especially, needs little introduction here. However, nothing that either of them did apart from each other would ever quite reach that elusive apex of enduring popularity and influence the way their work together with Donna Summer would.
She wasn't just the First Lady of Love, one of the first titles bestowed upon her, the black Marilyn Monroe, cooing breathlessly to the throbbing disco beat; she could belt as soulfully as the best of them, she could tackle rock and country, even (she made her home in Nashville for many years, after all). Creatively, she seemed to chafe at stylistic boundaries, especially later in her career. She attempted to cross them the best way she knew how, without alienating her audience. Her now final album "Crayons" (2008, Burgundy) was proof of that. Her work often displayed an underplayed eclecticism, an eccentricity, even, that belied her 'Queen of Disco' title. Yes, she was that, but she also held a desire to reach beyond it whenever possible.
In the midst of the relative silence of the past year, released barely a month ago, Donna collaborated on a hip-hop track with her nephew, up and coming rapper O'Mega Red, on a track entitled "Angel." A song about lost loved ones watching over the living, with Donna singing the hook and melody, it was to be the very last release she would be part of in her lifetime. As the angel in the background, she had never sounded more comforting, more peaceful. It was to be her first and last hip-hop collaboration, one that was strangely prophetic and all the more poignant now that the voice is no longer with us. Rest in Peace, Donna Summer.
Further reading: Excellent pieces from Eric Henderson at Slant Magazine, Michaelangelo Matos in The Atlantic and Christian John Wikane at PopMatters (reprinted from 2008) on the life and legacy of Donna Summer..
PREVIOUS RELATED ENTRIES:
I LEFT MY HEART IN LOTUSLAND.. (UPDATES AND RE-UPLOADS) (SUNDAY OCTOBER 26, 2008)
COLOUR IT A COMEBACK? (WEDNESDAY MAY 28, 2008)
DONNA SUMMER/CYNDI LAUPER ALBUM UPDATES (THURSDAY MAY 15, 2008)
NEW DONNA SUMMER ALBUM COMING IN MAY.. (WEDNESDAY FEBRUARY 20, 2008)
BBC RADIO 2: CLASSIC SINGLES - I FEEL LOVE (SUNDAY DECEMBER 30, 2007)
TWIGGY DOES DISCO.. (WITH A LITTLE HELP FROM DONNA) (TUESDAY SEPTEMBER 18, 2007)
NEW DEAL FOR DONNA (THURSDAY AUGUST 3, 2006)
DONNA SUMMER - I GOT YOUR LOVE (MONDAY JANUARY 16, 2006)
DISCO DELIVERY #64: MELBA MOORE - BURN (1979, EPIC) (SATURDAY APRIL 14, 2012)
DISCO DELIVERY #52: STAINLESS STEAL - CAN-CAN (1978, WARNER BROS.) (TUESDAY FEBRUARY 5, 2008)
DISCO DELIVERY #40: MUNICH MACHINE - A WHITER SHADE OF PALE (1978, CASABLANCA) (SUNDAY APRIL 29, 2007)
DISCO DELIVERY #14: SUZI LANE - OOH LA LA (1979, ELEKTRA) (SATURDAY APRIL 8, 2006)
DISCO DELIVERY #5: GIORGIO MORODER - FROM HERE TO ETERNITY (1977, OASIS/CASABLANCA) (FRIDAY FEBRUARY 3, 2006)
NEW YORK TIMES - DONNA SUMMER, 1948-2012: THE QUEEN OF DISCO, WHO TRANSCENDED THE ERA (BY JON PARELES) (THURSDAY MAY 17, 2012)
NEW YORK TIMES - MEMORIES OF DONNA'S DISCO NIGHTS (BY JACOB BERNSTEIN) (FRIDAY MAY 18, 2012)
THE TELEGRAPH - DONNA SUMMER, 'QUEEN OF DISCO', DIES AGE 63 AFTER CANCER BATTLE (BY ANDREW HOUGH) (THURSDAY MAY 17, 2012)
THE GUARDIAN - DONNA SUMMER'S DISCO WAS AS RADICAL AS PUNK (BY ALEX NEEDHAM) (THURSDAY MAY 17, 2012)
SLATE - DONNA SUMMER, 1948-2012 (BY JODY ROSEN) (THURSDAY MAY 17, 2012)
THE GUARDIAN - DONNA SUMMER'S DEATH: POP MOURNS SINGER WHO TRANSFORMED DANCE MUSIC (BY TOM MCCARTHY) (FRIDAY MAY 18, 2012)
BBC NEWS - PRESIDENT OBAMA LEADS DONNA SUMMER TRIBUTES (FRIDAY MAY 18, 2012)
MTV HIVE - DONNA SUMMER SAW AND SOUNDED BLISS (BY ANDY BETA) (FRIDAY MAY 18, 2012)
THE ATLANTIC - DONNA SUMMER'S HEAVY-BREATHING BLUEPRINT FOR POP (BY MICHAELANGELO MATOS) (FRIDAY MAY 18, 2012)
SLANT MAGAZINE - DONNA SUMMER (1948-2012) (BY ERIC HENDERSON) (FRIDAY MAY 18, 2012)
POPMATTERS - SHE'S A RAINBOW: A TRIBUTE TO DONNA SUMMER (BY CHRISTIAN JOHN WIKANE)
BILLBOARD - ROCK HALL REGRETS DONNA SUMMER SNUB (BY MARC SCHNEIDER) (FRIDAY MAY 18, 2012)
CATEGORIES: IN MEMORIAM..