May 18, 2012
Obituary: Donna Summer
Singer and disco legend Donna Summer has passed away, aged 63, after a battle with lung cancer. Her pioneering 1970s work is often cited as a major influence by many of the pop stars that materialised in its wake, and her passing came as somewhat of a shock to the music world due to the full nature of her illness being kept under wraps.
Born Ladonna Adrian Gaines in a poor suburb of Boston, 10 blocks from the affluent home of the Kennedys, Summer was brought up in the church and first got a taste of her future when filling as lead in the choir. After being forced to leave Boston for New York – Summer witnessed the murder of a family member and came under significant pressure from the perpetrators not to take the witness stand – she auditioned for the Broadway musical Hair.
Failing to make the cut for the American version, she was cast in the European production based in Munich. It was here, while performing session vocal work on the side, that Summer was introduced to prolific producer Giorgio Moroder, with whom she devised what would become her first major hit, ‘Love to Love You Baby’. Summer has often said that she recorded the vocal how she imagined Marilyn Monroe would have, requesting Moroder sat with her in a darkened studio while she performed the track’s seductive moans and groans.
‘Love to Love You Baby’ hit number one in the States while Summer was still etching out a scant living in Germany, while elsewhere it came as no surprise that its raunchy performance got it banned from the prudish BBC. The song’s success prompted Moroder to pursue further work with Summer, and the pair went on a successful collaborative run that included ‘Love’s Unkind’ and the timeless ‘I Feel Love’, a colossal work cited as one of the genre’s finest. The track served as the centrepiece for the conceptual I Remember Yesterday, an album on which Summer paid tribute to specific decades of 20th century music, with ‘I Feel Love’ representing her vision of music’s future.
Released in 1977, the ‘I Feel Love’ sat in perfect contrast to punk’s anarchistic reading of that musical future, cementing Summer’s elevated position in the pantheon of disco. Summer herself never fully embraced this position however – its decadent and hedonistic image conflicting with her more modest, family oriented background – and was a reluctant figurehead of the scene.
Breaking from Moroder into the 1980s, Summer began working with a wider range of producers, drifting ever further from the disco style. 1982’s Donna Summer saw Quincy Jones take the helm, producing hits like the star-studded ‘State of Independence’, while singles like 1983’s ‘She Works Hard for the Money’ experimented with a harder, synth-heavy sound. The common misconception that the song’s subject matter dealt with the working lives of prostitutes was a source of irritation for Summer, who vehemently claims it was inspired by observing a bathroom attendant working for tips in a New York restaurant.
Despite her unofficial status as disco queen, Summer’s relationship with the gay community that so lauded her work became strained due to alleged homophobic comments made by the now born-again devout Christian singer. The true nature of the remarks remained unclear, but rumours of their existence prompted a negative reaction from much of her fan base, many of whom returned their Summer records to her label in protest.
In the aftermath of the controversy, many were reluctant to work with Summer, until she was invited by the hit machine of Stock, Aitken and Waterman to record Another Place and Time, largely a commercial failure. Drifting out of the public consciousness, a new generation of fans were introduced to Summer’s work via the inclusion of her song ‘Hot Stuff’ in the blockbuster film The Full Monty.
Yet her lasting legacy remains that late ‘70s disco run, especially ‘I Feel Love’ – a track that can claim as much influence on the dance music world as anything Kraftwerk released around the same time. “I think we’ve lost a wonderful source of ‘feel good’”, Roberta Flack told The Guardian yesterday, as fitting a tribute as any of the hundreds that poured forth in the wake of the singer’s passing.
Summer is survived by her husband, Bruce Sudano, three daughters, and four grandchildren.
Read this obituary in context over at THE STOOL PIGEON