Born in Boston, LaDonna Adrian Gaines, her birth name, was raised in a church going family who encouraged a precocious talent. In 1967 she joined the acid rock crowd and, now based in New York, adapted her talents to Broadway musicals. Just beaten to the punch in Hair (Melba Moore won the role), Donna took part in the Munich production and became immersed in German culture. After making ends meet with modeling and backing singing, Summer met Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte at a Three Dog Night session. The trio clicked and she was soon recoding her debut album Lady of the Night. A European hit that spawned the single "The Hostage", this was no false start. Her career simply exploded with 1975’s Love to Love You Baby. The title track was Donna’s idea and Moroder adapted her lyric into a groove laden disco delight set across a 17-minute mix, a revolutionary move that took up the first side of this important release. Thanks to the risqué connotations of Donna’s vocal bliss she soon became known as The First Lady of Love and vied with Barry White, The O’Jays and MFSB for supreme iconic status in the beats and boudoir department.
While the single version of the title track was a worldwide hit it would actually continue to sell even better as the years went by. Summer’s next excursion, A Love Trilogy, followed suit with another full side epic - “Try Me, I Know We Can Make It” – and a souped up take on “Could It Be Magic”. This album is also where the Munich Machine, an ensemble used by Moroder, came into their own with strings, click tracks and super slick R&B breakdowns that sounded a world away from the down home soul of previous decades.
Four Seasons of Love (1976) is a concept piece that hasn’t always been appreciated as it should be and is now ripe for rediscovery thanks to the sweetly nuanced “Spring Affair” and “Winter Melody”.
An ability to fuse nostalgic references to old school standards to the molten solder of contemporary disco makes I Remember Yesterday (1977) a vital listen. Here is where you will find the original “I Feel Love”, the very track that Brian Eno and David Bowie salivated over while they were in the midst of their Berlin Trilogy. They cited it as the sound of the future and the song that would fundamentally change club dance music for decades. It was and it would.
Summer’s next work was even more lavish: the double albums Once Upon a Time, the essential tour document Live and More and Bad Girls maintained an incredible standard. The live set is totally awesome, containing the Jimmy Webb “MacArthur Park” suite and all her hits with an increased level of jazz vocalese to broaden her mass appeal.
Her third multi-platinum seller is On the Radio: Greatest Hits Volumes 1 & 11 (1979) an extraordinary double set that delivers non-stop brilliance and remains one of the most essential anthologies of the era thanks to the cherry-picking of all the hits plus rarer soundtrack excursions and the duet “No More Tears (Enough is Enough)” with Barbra Streisand, that fully confirmed Donna’s crossover appeal. The fact this disc was bookended atop the charts by the Eagles and The Bee Gees gives an indication of Summer’s enormous importance to the industry and she enters the 1980s with renewed vigour.
We’re proud to point you towards The Wanderer her first disc on the Geffen label, and the latterly rediscovered I’m a Rainbow, which ended her partnership with Moroder and Bellotte but brought her into contact with influential producer / writer / musician Harold Faltermeyer. Quincy Jones helms the Donna Summer album and significantly updated this eclectic artist once again.
The Jon Anderson and Vangelis piece “State of Independence” became a cult classic and “The Woman in Me” and “Love Is in Control (Finger on the Trigger)” also upped the ante. Jones employed a vast pool of musical talent here, including E-Street Band pianist Roy Bittan, the guitarists Steve Lukather and a certain Bruce Springsteen – he wrote “Protection” specifically for Donna - and the all-star choir who turned “State of Independence” into a track that still evokes every variation on the adjective sublime you care to throw its way. Rhythmically audacious and programmed to perfection this is a must to discover.
Michael Omartian’s production on She Works Hard for the Money is in keeping with the diva template and both the title cut and “Unconditional Love” makes it worth the price of entry.
For those looking to discover Donna via the collection route The Summer Collection: Greatest Hits and the club anthem favourite The Dance Collection: A Compilation of Twelve Inch Singles cover all the relevant remix ground. Invest in these and they won’t leave your head or your heart.
All Systems Go includes a superb reading of Brenda Russell’s “Dinner with Gershwin” while we pick her up her again with The Donna Summer Anthology (1993) where variant single mixes vie for attention next to the all-time classics. Another five star must-have. Further collections to whet the appetite are The Ultimate Collection, a 3-CD handbook on Donna disco and The Journey: The Very Best of Donna Summer. Also try Gold, a 2-CD summary of the very good stuff.
So, it is an endless Summer. There is plenty of choice for those who want the radio voice, just as much for the dedicated clubber and everything to satisfy a completist. Taking a journey into this remarkable woman's state of independence has never seemed like a more tantalizing proposition.
Words: Max Bell
Bad Girls marked the high-water mark in Donna Summer's career, spending six weeks at Number One, going double platinum, and spinning off four Top 40 singles, including the chart-topping title song and "Hot Stuff," which sold two million copies each, and the million-selling, Number Two hit "Dim All the Lights." Producers Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte recognized that disco was going in different directions by the late '70s, and they gave the leadoff one-two punch of "Hot Stuff" and "Bad Girls" a rock edge derived from new wave. The two-LP set was divided into four musically consistent sides, with the rocksteady beat of the first side giving way to a more traditional disco sound on the second side, followed by a third side of ballads, and a fourth side with a more electronic, synthesizer-driven sound that recalled Summer's 1977 hit "I Feel Love." Though remembered for its hits, the album had depth and consistency, concluding with "Sunset People," one of Summer's best album-only tracks. The result was the artistic and commercial peak of her career and, arguably, of disco itself.
Words: William Ruhlmann
Summer had made her name the previous decade as the most successful female artist of the disco genre, releasing a vast selection of hit singles and albums on Casablanca Records. During this period however, Summer had felt that the label had exploited her and made her portray a sexually orientated image ("The First Lady of Love") with which she never felt comfortable. The label had also taken over other elements of Summer's personal life, to the point where she felt she had no control over her life or career. Having come out of a period of depression and rediscovering her Christian faith, Summer had made the decision to break away from Casablanca and file a lawsuit against them. After the lawsuit was eventually settled, Summer became the first artist to be signed to the newly established Geffen Records. By 1980, banners reading "disco sucks" were seen everywhere and disco records became flops. Summer decided to leave the disco sound behind. The album was co-written and produced by Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte, who had produced the vast majority of Summer's hits since their partnership with her began in 1974. The production for the Wanderer was rushed, Geffen wanted to get new product out because of Casablanca plans to release Walk Away another Greatest Hits Collection. "We would have like to do more tweaking, and have more time for production. But we just had to let it go," said Harold Faltermeyer about the recording of the album. "Cold Love" gained Summer a Grammy nomination for Best Female Rock Vocal Performance. Summer's rediscovered Christian faith was documented in the gospel song "I Believe In Jesus", for which she also received a nomination for Best Inspirational Performance. As a child Summer had sung in gospel choirs, so this song was a chance for her to go back to her roots. The album peaked at number 13 on the Billboard Album Chart - selling 600,000 US copies - and the title track hit number 3 on the US singles chart. However, two follow-up singles - "Cold Love" and "Who Do You Think You're Foolin'" - were not successful and barely reached the Top 40. The album and its singles attained limited success on the UK charts. None of the singles cracked the UK Top 40.
One is inclined to resist this package of self-conscious stardom concepts -- the LP version sported its own 1977 calendar featuring La Summer dressed up as winter, spring, summer, and Marilyn Monroe vamping on the subway grating (fall, presumably), and the four "seasonal" dancey suites promise more and say less than the typical Summer intimate "touch-me" would deliver without any hype. Fortunately, the music has a mind of its own. The rhythms push and go poof as delicately as ever; the horn section mutes and jazzes the melody; the beats stop, run, and stop again whenever they damn please; and Summer expresses private rapture in falsetto as she smooches, oohs, and ahs onto the mix like lipstick traces. Oh, rapture indeed.
Words: Michael Freedberg
Donna Summer and her liberators have created one audience and redefined another, and this record's four sides of dream worlds without end sometimes manipulate each audience. The candy-girl music of "Fairy Tale High," "Queen for a Day," and "If You Got It Flaunt It" explicitly recognizes her newly created gay audience, a daring acknowledgement coming from a mainstream pop star. As for her redefined audience of naïve young things who live in the suburbs and dream of romance, adventure, and sex while they search for identity, Summer works her music into a true-to-life Cinderella story staged as four acts of impatient pulse, delirious space noise, wish-upon-a-star voice monologues, and motion.
Words: Michael Freedberg
Donna Summer sounds younger here than on her previous studio album, 1991's Mistaken Identity, or just about any of the isolated tracks that surfaced throughout the previous 17 years, which is a good thing as frequently as it is a bad thing. Crayons benefits from Summer's effortless energy; she was clearly into making this album, and her voice is as able and flexible as ever. However, almost all of the material with which she has to work -- several stylistic angles are taken with the likes of Danielle Brisebois (Natasha Bedingfield, Kelly Clarkson) Greg Kurstin (Lily Allen, Nelly Furtado), J.R. Rotem (Leona Lewis, Trey Songz), and several others -- would make more sense on an album by a female teen pop group from the U.K. or, in some cases, a young adult catering to the coffeehouse market. One exception, if only from a lyrical standpoint, is "The Queen Is Back," where Summer refers to herself in the third person, as well as her past: "So many years ago on the radio/She crept into your soul and learned to love you." But it's really the type of move you'd expect from an aspiring diva on her second or third album. In-fashion vocal effects, which Summer certainly does not need, detract from a handful of these tracks, but as a whole, the album won't have trouble pleasing fans who just want to hear their queen have a blast and tear it up.
Words: Andy Kellman
"Love to Love You Baby"'s 16 minutes and 48 seconds of arousal and refill -- ticklishly sensitive rhythm and fusion -- threw disco into a tizzy overnight, but the tonally starved blues-of-isolation on the B-side isn't to be missed, either: the broken promises Donna Summer bemoans in "Full of Emptiness"; "Need-a-Man Blues," with its unrequitedly sexy guitar rhythm as out of range of Summer's voice as she of satisfaction; the imaginary seaside hold-me in "Whispering Waves"; and "Pandora's Box," where Summer and guitar scream icily at one another as they turn their backs on each other's body music. Hunger without recourse; essential disco.
Words: Michael Freedberg
Donna Summer's quizzical "Try Me, I Know We Can Make It" wings her nervous little falsetto from risk to dare and from dare to mad hope, and her rhythm section gropes from testy touch-beats to tightrope walkers' guitar figures and safety-net harmonies. The remaining four tracks substitute dances with imaginary lovers for her debut album's love starvation blues. Don't dismiss these subtle mood poems the way fans of "Love to Love You" sped right past the B-side of Summer's debut; the flightier Summer plays a rhythm, the dicier her resolution.
Words: Michael Freedberg
The follow-up to Donna Summer's first big Geffen album did reasonably well and proved to be the lull before the storm. "State of Independence" just missed being a hit, and "Woman In Me" cracked the pop and R&B Top 40, although it wasn't a smash. But the album mostly reaffirmed that Summer was back in stride and hadn't merely scored a fluke with her previous release.
Words: Ron Wynn
Donna Summer's brassy, matter-of-fact mezzo does not play the sexy sanctified diva, and her musicians' crisp, loud beats don't evoke rapture or delirium. Instead, she and her rhythm men live up to the title of "She Works Hard for the Money." Here's praise for a waitress' 12-hour workday that sums up Summer's own post-dance queen job status, as well as disco fans' own spotlighted lives and maintains the pressure, from the steel-and-synth riffs of "Stop, Look & Listen" to the impatient tenderness of "People, People." No one writes about love with as mesmeric a sense of wonder as Summer confesses in "Love Has a Mind of Its Own," "Unconditional Love," and "I Do Believe (I Fell in Love)."
Words: Michael Freedberg