It seems almost certain that Donna Summer will be remembered as a great, lost disco queen — a singer who made her impact as the creature of recording studios, producers and the technological innovations that made disco such a divisive art form in its late-'70s heyday. And while that is appropriate, Summer was, of course, something more than that. Unlike Aretha Franklin or the somewhat less well-known Southern soul diva Candi Staton, Summer came out of no recognizable pop music tradition. Franklin flirted with disco, while Staton achieved her greatest commercial success performing it, but Summer was the embodiment of the post-soul, post-rock vocalist who added sex, grit and other human attributes to a style often derided for its supposedly anti-humanistic leanings.
By the time Summer hit the charts with the 1976 single "Love To Love You Baby" (a record reportedly inspired by the success of Serge Gainsbourg's "Je T'Aime ... Moi Non Plus"), disco had become a byword for ephemerality and shallowness. Starting early in the decade, producers and singers had begun to develop a hybrid music that drew upon just about everything: the good-time rock-soul of Sly Stone, the lush entreaties of Willie Mitchell's big-beat production work with Al Green, Ann Peebles and Syl Johnson, and the synthesizers and funny sounds of such European experimentalists as Can and Kraftwerk.
In addition, disco drew upon the tradition of the soul-inflected novelty record — today, almost no one remembers The Everyday People's fascinating proto-disco single, "I Like What I Like," but the 1973 track begins with a couple of minutes of pounding drums before shifting to a tune that splits the very strange difference between Big Star's "O My Soul" and one of Sly Stone's more optimistic singles. The song was about hedonism, and it was delivered by a strong-voiced but completely anonymous-sounding female soul singer.
Working with Italian-born producer Giorgio Moroder, Summer created the 17-minute disco epic "Love To Love You Baby," which scandalized listeners with simulated orgasmic moans and, of course, those synthesizers. Such explicit sexuality went hand-in-gland with the record's refusal to play the standard rock 'n' roll games — it wasn't Lynyrd Skynyrd or Little Feat. In the '70s, most rock artists paid lip service to soul and R&B, but a record such as "Love To Love You" provided a glimpse into the future of black music, while the craftsmen in Little Feat imitated New Orleans funk, which was a thing of the past.
Born LaDonna Gaines in Boston, Summer sang with rock groups and settled in Munich after landing a job in the German cast of Galt MacDermot, James Rado and Gerome Ragni's musical, Hair. The transition from that dead-on-arrival piece of '60s fluff to the pioneering work she did in the '70s is a useful starting point for anyone interested in musing over what happened to rock music after The Beatles. As everyone probably knows by now, rock fans believed disco was the enemy in the late '70s. They were dead wrong: Disco was a far more democratic form than rock, and comparisons between disco and the contemporaneous movement called punk rock leaves little doubt that the music of Summer and Chic went further than even The Clash or Pere Ubu.
For Summer, being stamped a disco queen was both a blessing and a curse. The 1977 track "I Feel Love" became a standard example of everything that was wrong with disco and right with, say, Bruce Springsteen or Southside Johnny and the Asbury Dukes. That people still listen to Summer today and have largely forgotten Southside Johnny tells the story of the disco-rock split quite effectively. Summer also recorded Jimmy Webb's renowned piece of stoned melodrama, "MacArthur Park," thus providing a link to the schlock pop of the past — her version certainly beats Richard Harris'.
As disco neared the end of its run, Summer released the 1979 album Bad Girls, which is a landmark of disco-rock fusion on the level of Chic's Risqué or Real People. Far from being a puppet of Moroder, Summer wrote much of the material on Bad Girls, and went into the mainstream far enough to duet with Barbara Streisand on that year's "No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)," which topped the charts.
Leaving her previous label, Casablanca, for David Geffen's eponymous imprint, Summer entered the '80s with the million-selling single "The Wanderer" and the somewhat out-of-place bit of Christian piety, "I Believe in Jesus." Announcing she had become a born-again Christian, Summer covered Springsteen's "Protection" and began working with such producers as Quincy Jones, Michael Omartian and Richard Perry, thus ensuring her ties to the pre-disco pop and rock music she had supposedly tried to kill in the '70s.
Dolly Parton took Summer's song, "Starting Over Again," to the top of the pop charts in 1980, and Summer hit in 1983 with "She Works Hard for the Money," as definitive a Reagan-era anthem as anything by Huey Lewis and the News. She worked with the British production team of Stock, Aitken and Waterman on such late-'80s singles as "I Don't Wanna Get Hurt," and moved to Nashville in 1994 — by this time, she had begun to concentrate on painting, although she remained a big draw in Europe and elsewhere.
Whether or not you get a sense of Summer's personality from her records, her career illustrated the essential unity of all divas in all genres — soul, country, disco or easy-listening. Summer belongs with Whitney Houston, Celine Dion and Dolly Parton in the pantheon of female singers who are remembered as much for their sheer presence as for anything they've done musically. If Streisand, say, is a technically accomplished singer who nonetheless has almost nothing to do with the progress of popular music, and Parton will stand as a country artist who found country too small for a woman who desires mass acceptance, Summer remains a paragon of musical innovation, and a cipher.
Of course, she wasn't unknowable to her family and friends, and if Summer may remain elusive, it's not her fault. A good, strong singer, Summer probably realized that her eminence in the world of disco had tainted her. She wasn't exactly an interpretative singer, but that's not what the job called for. Only a very canny artist would go so far over the top of the top for a piece of dreck such as "MacArthur Park," and after all, she did release one of the first disco concept albums, 1977's fascinating Once Upon a Time.
At her best, Summer communicated the joy in singing that only the finest pop artists can muster. She's not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and she deserves to be there as much as do, say, The Red Hot Chili Peppers. In her later years, Summer kept homes in Nashville and Florida, and her death Thursday in Florida deprives us of a pop music voice that always sought out a context worthy of its ambition.