Broadway was about the only place Donna Summer’s music didn’t dominate during her late ‘70s hit-making heyday. The jukebox musical Summer: The Donna Summer Musical finally brought the Queen of Disco’s catalog to the Great White Way.
It would be difficult to overstate Summer’s popularity from the mid-‘70s through the early ‘80s. She had 11 Top 5 singles on Billboard’s Hot 100 Singles chart, four of which went to No. 1. Working with producers Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte, her albums were carefully crafted concept pieces, with storylines (Once Upon a Time) or unifying themes (Four Seasons of Love, I Remember Yesterday, Bad Girls). Along with the band Chic, Summer refused to treat disco music as a novelty or as a superficial fad. The 4/4 beat may have been consistent, but her music drew from R&B, gospel, pop, rock, jazz and show tunes.
Summer signed to the then-struggling Casablanca label, and her success (along with that of labelmates Kiss and Parliament) turned around the label’s fortunes. Casablanca was enormously successful in the late ‘70s before its spectacular flameout from financial excess in the early ‘80s.
Summer’s singles regularly reached the upper level of the charts. Among her ‘70s hits were:
- “Love to Love You Baby”: Summer’s breakout hit made a memorable first impression as she moans and groans convincingly on this nearly 17-minute track. A 3:27 edit excised much of the simulated sex, but the record still was banned by the BBC and some U.S. radio stations.
- “I Feel Love”: A hugely influential record, “I Feel Love” established Summer and producer Giorgio Moroder as dance music pioneers. The use of sequencers gave the track a futuristic feel that had more in common with German electronic outfit Kraftwerk than any of the disco records with which it shared the charts. A Pitchfork piece commemorating the song’s 40th anniversary in 2017 said “ “If any one song can be pinpointed as where the 1980s began, it’s ‘I Feel Love.’”
- “Last Dance”: Summer’s Disco Queen Peak with a slow build-up giving way to a galloping dancefloor filler. The track was released on the soundtrack album of the mostly forgotten 1978 film Thank God It’s Friday.
- “Hot Stuff”: Disco beats and rock guitars signal the stylistic restlessness that would drive her next albums.
“Hot Stuff” was the lead-off track on Summer’s 1979 album, Bad Girls, one of the year’s most successful long-players. A greatest-hits compilation, On the Radio – Greatest Hits Volumes I and II, was her final release for Casablanca. Summer then signed with Geffen Records, the then-new label of music mogul David Geffen. Summer joined such high-profile signings as John Lennon, Elton John and Neil Young in the new label’s lineup.
Unfortunately, her time at Geffen was frustrating. Her first album for the label, 1980’s The Wanderer, was acclaimed critically but didn’t perform as well commercially as her ‘70s releases. Summer began work on its follow-up, a double album called I’m a Rainbow. Geffen, though, was disappointed with sales of The Wanderer, and scuttled the album, insisting that Summer record with producer Quincy Jones, red-hot from his work with Michael Jackson, instead of her long-time creative partners Moroder and Bellotte.
The result was 1982’s Donna Summer, which underperformed critically and commercially despite a number of high points: The first single “Love Is in Control (Finger on the Trigger),” the choir-enhanced “State of Independence” and the Bruce Springsteen-penned “Protection.” Summer said it felt like a Quincy Jones album she sang on rather than her own work.
Summer tapped producer Michael Omartian (Christopher Cross, Peter Cetera, Rod Stewart) for her next album, She Works Hard for the Money. The pairing produced a No. 3 hit with the title track, Summer’s biggest success since the ‘70s. The song’s video was popular on the then-new MTV and was at the time one of the few clips by an African-American artist being played on the cable channel.
Summer notched a few minor hits throughout the rest of the ‘80s but nothing as successful as her ‘70s peak. Her legacy, though, was already made.
Her 2012 death brought tributes from performers and President Obama, and while many called her “The Queen of Disco,” that title sells her a bit short. She was a singer and performer before the advent of disco, and she continued to make music after disco morphed into dance music. (Her singles continued to do well on Billboard’s Dance Club Songs chart throughout her career.)
Summer was a dynamite singer and performer but also a songwriter and a full partner with Moroder and Bellotte in creating those memorable ‘70s hits. She worked hard for the money, for her success, and for her place in pop music history.
Summer: The Donna Summer Musical runs at The Straz Jan. 11-16. Click here for tickets.