*Donna Summer, who succumbed to cancer in Florida on May 17 at age 63, has said that she was initially shy about people hearing “Love To Love You, Baby,” her 1975 breakout hit, because of all the moaning she did on that record.
Born and raised in a religious Boston family, Summer didn’t want them hearing it. But back in the day, that kind of corn was considered provocative, and thus, in ’70s R&B, the thing to do.
I know she really didn’t, but it would seem that Sylvia Robinson started it all in 1973, the year she released her top 10 hit, “Pillow Talk.” The singer and businesswoman (she went on to form Sugarhill Records, which released the Sugarhill Gang’s landmark “Rapper’s Delight”) said she originally wrote “Pillow Talk” for Al Green, but he deemed it too risque. The year it came out, I was 18—still naïve enough that, during the song’s vamp, when Sylvia would start her moaning and purring, I’d always lean into the radio speaker, thinking I was really hearing something.
Back then, simulated sex records were all over the airwaves. Just three months before the release of Summer’s “Love To Love You Baby,” singer Major Harris hit with the soul ballad, “Love Won’t Let Me Wait.” The woman on the song’s fade sounds like she was really enjoying herself.
The more moaning, the bigger the hit. Accordingly, “Love To Love You Baby” was a global smash. However, “The First Lady of Love,” as Summer was quickly christened by her label, Casablanca Records, knew that to have a real career, she’d have to steer it away from the sex kitten persona.
Slowly she did just that, her music methodically transcending the disco genre. Sure, I wanted to shoot myself every time I heard Summer’s robotic “I Feel Love,” but with that record Summer and her longtime producers, Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte, unwittingly spearheaded the techno-dance music genre to come. Summer hits such as “Last Dance,” “Hot Stuff,” “Bad Girls” and “On The Radio” ended up more than anthems of a bygone cultural era; they’re simply great songs that will be heard forever.
I try to measure Donna Summer’s ’70s success in today’s terms and come up with Beyonce on steroids. Or Lady Gaga. Summer was huge. A five-time Grammy Award winner, she was the first artist to have three consecutive double albums reach number one on the Billboard pop chart. In little more than a year after her debut, Summer had four number one singles.
She was successful at a time in the ’70s when the music business was practically printing money. At the time, mainstream artists and their managers griped that disco acts got all the attention of the labels, but everything—rock, pop, country–was selling. Besides, all music you could dance to wasn’t disco. Artists like Stevie Wonder, Earth, Wind and Fire, Rufus featuring Chaka Khan, the Ohio Players, the Isleys 3+3 and Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff’s Philadelphia International label, which included the O’Jays and Teddy Pendergrass, were among those valiantly creating the musical blueprint that would define black pop today.
Meanwhile, Summer was so hot that Barbra Streisand, considered the gold standard in white pop, teamed with her to record “Enough Is Enough,” an uptempo “I-Will-Survive”-type duet. For both singers, the collaboration meant validation in the other’s fan universe. The record was particularly important to Summer: despite her good fortune, she’d hinted in interviews that she didn’t always feel musically respected by music critics and the music business at large.
That was true. It wasn’t well known, for example, that Summer co-wrote or wrote many of her hits. And unless they witnessed one of her down-memory-lane segments at her concerts, during which Summer would recall her childhood by performing a gospel song or two, people didn’t know how soulful a singer she could be.
In 1980 Summer and Casablanca Records went their separate ways, the culprit being “creative differences.” Label head Neil Bogart wanted her to continue in the dance music vein, and Summer wanted to explore other styles.
Though not in the public eye nearly as much in the years moving forward, Summer continued to perform on television and in concert, releasing new music for various labels that spanned rock, pop and soul. She recorded an album produced by Quincy Jones, in the midst of his white hot Michael Jackson success, that I’ll bet you never heard. She spent time with her husband, singer/songwriter Bruce Sudano, and their kids. She became an accomplished painter.
And she never left the shadow of disco. But ask Lady Gaga–who, if you ask me, vocally sounds more like Summer than Madonna–if that matters. Decades later, Summer made peace with it all. During an appearance on the “Today Show,” the iconic singer/songwriter, in fine voice and spirit while singing a set of her classics at Rockefeller Plaza, was asked by Matt Lauer if she still resented the “Disco Queen” title. Summer just laughed. “It’s good to be Queen of something, right? If I’m the queen of disco, then I’ll take it.”
Steven Ivory, journalist and author of the essay collection Fool In Love (Simon & Schuster), has covered popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio and TV for more than 30 years. Respond to him via [email protected]