Friday, May 18, 2012

Last Dance: RIP Donna Summer

Photo from Consequence of Sound
I was gutted to hear the news that Donna Summer had passed away from cancer at the age of 63. For a while, she'd been on my list of performers that I hoped I would still get to see in concert someday. That will never happen, but her music will live on as part of the soundtrack of my childhood. Whenever I need feel good music, Summer's is almost always the first I grab for. I also admired her for her ability to come across as down-to-earth in interviews; when Beyonce was in the news touting her pregnancy, I'd just shake my head and say, "Donna Summer would NEVER do that." For a huge star, Summer never seemed to exhibit diva-like behavior. As the disco queen herself told Rolling Stone magazine in 1976, "You can only be trapped by something that's stronger than yourself and I don't consider it to be stronger than myself. I don't intend to let an image make me."

And while we're probably never going to hear the end of Whitney Houston's troubles, I fear that the world will soon forget about Donna Summer's legacy. Well, I just cannot sit by and let that happen, even if what I'm about to offer is a VERY condensed biography.

I think one of the reasons I liked her so much is because she was, like me, a Boston girl. Raised as Ladonna Adrien Gaines in Dorchester, Massachusetts, she always loved to sing around the house, but her vocal talent emerged in church when she replaced a vocalist who never showed up. Everyone was surprised to hear a very grown-up voice coming from the ten year-old, and Summer herself was quoted later as saying, "I felt like God was saying to me, Donna, you're going to be very, very famous."

A rare photo of Donna Summer and her first husband, via Prince.org
But not right away. As a teenager, Summer auditioned for the Broadway musical Hair, but the part went to Melba Moore. She was offered the role in the Munich version of the show, and soon moved to Germany (and eventually Austria), learning the German language fluently and falling in love with an Austrian actor, Helmut Sommer, whom she married. Their daughter, Mimi, arrived soon after.(After the union ended in divorce, Summer kept her married last name, changing to "o" to a "u.")

Summer than began to record under the direction of Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte. The song that marked her breakthrough into disco was the controversial, hot and heavy hit "Love to Love You Baby." Moroder and Summer were inspired by the sexy Jane Birken/Serge Gainsbourg "Je T'Aime." Time magazine called the song "a marathon of 22 orgasms" and it was banned by the BBC. Summer herself admitted in a 1976 interview with Rolling Stone magazine that recording it was a little embarrassing. Only after the studio was cleared and the lights dimmed was Summer able to get into the mood.


And so her hits flooded the airwaves during the days of disco: "I Feel Love," "On the Radio," "Last Dance," "Bad Girls," "Hot Stuff," "She Works Hard for the Money," "Heaven Knows," and "Dim All the Lights." One of the songs that Summer was supposed to record but never did was Bruce Springsteen's "Cover Me." The record company preferred his rock arrangement, although I can easily envision Summer singing the song. Instead she was given another Springsteen composition, "Protection." A duet of the two megastars performing the song together was never released, but I found the following mash-up that a fan put together, and it sounds absolutely magical:



In the 80s, Summer wanted to distance herself from disco. One of her post-dicso hits was "This Time I Know It's For Real," a favorite of mine from the decade.

At the time of her death, Summer had been married to Bruce Sudano, whom she met in 1978. They had two daughters, Brooklyn and Amanda.


I was originally going to make this one of my Two Forgotten Friday Favorite posts, but I could not choose only two Donna Summer hits. RIP, Donna Summer--you will be missed.

 











12 comments:

JZ said...

It's that old thing about deaths happening in three's again. This has been an awful week for fans of soul music. Duck Dunn of Booker T and The MG's died Sunday; that one is a major loss for me. As a teen learning to play bass, I was very often wearing out copies of "Time Is Tight", "Green Onions" and "Hang 'em High" (my favorite, terrific bass on that one) learning the nuts and bolts of his style.

Then mid week, Chuck Brown, the father of Go-Go passed away. He had some success nationally but was KING of Washington DC, were his club gigs were constant sell outs. The Mayor of Washington has said that flags will be flown at half staff on the day of Chuck's funeral. I wouldn't be surprised if some businesses shut down for the day either.

And then Donna Summer. I was about 14 when "Love To Love You Baby" came out, fully in the grip of puberty. That record definitely brought some feelings up I hadn't felt before...:)At least she seemed to have kept her head on straight, not easy to do for a star as big as she was for awhile.

Pam@GoRetro said...

JZ - Thank you for your comments. I had no idea about Duck Dunn (I LOVE Booker T and the MGs) and I only heard about Chuck Brown in passing. There seems to have been a ton of talented people passing away suddenly this year.

ApacheDug said...

Awesome tribute Pam, I'm surprised at how little I knew about her (or perhaps knew but forgot). What's sad & ironic is that just a couple weeks ago I was remarking to my friend Paul (I'm 50, he's 52) how much I disliked disco music as a teen, but how much I'm enjoying it today, and he said "Yeah me too" and we wound up trading a lot of mp3s (Bee Gees, Donna Summer, etc) and then suddenly this happens. Well, 63 is too young and too unfair, rest in peace Donna.

Chelly said...

Ah what a talent she was. I didn't know she was a Boston girl. Such a wonderful tribute Pam! Lovely to read.

JZ said...

Pam,

More about Duck's passing here;

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/14/arts/music/duck-dunn-bassist-in-booker-t-and-the-mgs-dies-at-70.html

Arlene Goss said...

Great article!

lazlo1988 said...

Wonderful tribute. Hers was a sleek, stylish vocal, which went along so well with the stylishness of disco. As an '80s teen, my first real introduction to her was the 1983 hit,"She Works Hard For The Money." But I soon got into her late '70s material. There was a time I couldn't stop playing, over and over, the very catchy and modern "I Feel Love."

The late '70s and early '80s, her era, would not have been the same without her.

Decades a Go-Go said...

I still can't believe she's gone...

Anonymous said...

She was one of my favorite female artists and will be missed; she introduced me to Giorgio Moroder's (electronic) music through "I Feel Love". Goodbye, Donna.

s-a-h-d

PS Not Donna, but check out "I Feel Love" by the Blue Man Group featuring Venus Hum/Annette Strean on youtube.

42N said...

She helped define an era. What a voice!

Lisa said...

What a talent. In spite of watching the Behind the Music on DS a million years ago, I didn't know ANYTHING about that biographical info you mention in this post, so thanks for filling me in! The only thing I remember was how much I loved her hair, how big her voice sounded, and how worshipfully gushy David Bowie was about her in his interview snippets. Maybe a crush there?

Great tribute, thanks!

Pam@GoRetro said...

Thanks, everyone! I'll check out those links/tracks that were recommended to me.

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