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Music Friday: Donna Summer

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
Donna Summer "Queen of Disco"

Donna Summer was born on December 31, 1948. Summer is best remembered as the "Queen of Disco," but her career lasted for thirty years after the disco era ended. Summer was raised in Boston, and moved to New York after high school. She got her first big break fairly quickly, when she auditioned for Hair in 1968, and accepted a role in the German production of the show. She learned enough German to perform the show, and eventually became fluent in the language. She released a few singles in Germany under her birth name, Donna Gaines.

In 1971, she met Helmuth Sommer while they were both performing in a German-language production of Godspell; they were married in 1973. Even more important in the long run was meeting Giorgio Moroder in 1974. He produced her first album—a typo on the cover changed her last name to Summer, which she kept as a professional name—which was released only in the Netherlands, where it was moderately successful.

In 1975, Summer and Moroder wrote a song called "Love to Love You," which was intended for another singer Moroder was producing. Summer's demo recording of the song was so good, though, that Moroder decided it deserved to be released. Hoping for an American release, he sent a copy to the president of Casablanca Records, Neil Bogart. Bogart loved the record, and so did the guests at his Hollywood parties; they insisted on hearing it over and over. The song, now called "Love to Love You Baby," was the centerpiece of Summer's first American album.

It was a controversial record. Summer's passionate moans and groans kept some radio stations from playing it; in England, it was entirely banned by the BBC. But it was popular enough to reach the top of the US dance chart, and #2 on the pop chart. Summer's next few albums didn't sell quite as well, though "I Feel Love" was another successful single in 1977.

donna Summer Bad Girls album cover

But in 1978 and 1979, Summer had a magical year. Eight straight singles reached the top five of the pop chart, and four of them hit #1. She became the first solo artist to have two of the top three songs on the chart when "Bad Girls" and "Hot Stuff" hit simultaneously.

By the end of the 1970s, Summer was becoming frustrated with Casablanca Records. She wanted to branch out into other styles of music—there were already elements of rock working their way into her music—but the label wanted her to stick to disco. In 1980, she left Casablanca for Geffen Records, where she released The Wanderer, her most musically diverse album yet. She was preparing an ambitious double album called I'm a Rainbow, which was still in an early stage of production when David Geffen heard it in 1981. He had been incorrectly told that the album was nearly finished, and thinking that it was far too unpolished to be released, pulled the plug on the album. I'm a Rainbow was eventually released, but not until 1996.

Summer struggled a bit in the 1980s to find her musical footing in the post-disco era, but the title song from 1983's She Works Hard for the Money was a hit, and she would manage one last top ten record in 1989 with "This Time I Know It's for Real." Part of Summer's difficulties in the 1980s stemmed from a political controversy. It was early in the AIDS epidemic, and Summer was reported to have said that the disease was God's punishment for the immoral behavior of gay men. She always denied having made the comments, but a boycott did hurt her record sales for several years.

In the mid-1990s, Summer moved to Nashville, and recorded only occasionally for the next several years. She took part in a few tribute albums, singing "Are You Brave" on a Mr. Rogers tribute and "La Vie en Rose" on an Edith Piaf tribute. She made guest appearances on friends' albums, joining Liza Minnelli for "Does He Love You" and gospel singer Darwin Hobbs for "When I Look Up."

Summer's biggest project of the 1990s was a live concert special for VH1, Live and More: Encore. The album of the concert included a pair of new studio songs, both of which took Summer back to the top of the dance chart. One of them might have seemed like an improbable choice; "I Will Go With You" was an English-language version of a semi-classical Italian-language song that had been a European hit for Andrea Bocelli.

Summer released her final studio album, Crayons, in 2008. It was her first album of original material in 17 years, and generated three more #1 singles on the dance chart.

Donna Summer died on May 17, 2012, of lung cancer. A week later, it was announced that "I Feel Love" had been selected for inclusion in the Library of Congress National Recording Registry, an honor given to culturally or historically significant recordings. In 2013, Summer was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Her life story is told in Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, which is about to end an 8-month run on Broadway before beginning a national tour.

And deejays continue to be inspired by Summer's work. New remixes of her old songs continue to be popular in dance clubs, most recently "Hot Stuff 2018," which earlier this year became Summer's 28th #1 dance hit, nearly 40 years after the record was originally released.