When I heard that disco queen Donna Summer had passed away from cancer at age 63, I felt a deep sadness, not because I was a fan but more because she dominated the music scene during the time in which I grew up, and I felt like yet another page had been turned in my book of life.
As a teenager I was deeply into rock and roll, wearing a leather jacket and Led Zeppelin T-shirts and growing my hair longer and having long sideburns and a mustache. I would be lying if I said I ever listened to any Donna Summer songs at home, but they were hard to avoid anywhere else. In 1975 it seemed Summer’s “Love to Love You Baby” was omnipresent in stores, on car radios, and at parties. I definitely heard the song and it seemed very different and had a catchy hook, but it was still disco and in my world disco was garbage.
When I got older and went to bars and clubs, Summer’s songs were always pounding through the speakers. Girls seemed to love to dance to her songs like “Hot Stuff,” “Bad Girls,” and “Last Dance.” Coming way before artists like Madonna and Lady Gaga, she certainly had an enormous impact on popular music and culture. Disco was everywhere and was evident in people wearing their spandex and glittery outfits, and the girls in their rabbit coats lined up outside Studio 54 here in New York City.
As disco seemed to become the predominant music of the era, we rock and roll boys dug our heels in deeper and fought back harder. Punk emerged as a rock and roll phenomenon largely as a response to disco, and my friends and I felt that Bob Seeger’s song “That Old Time Rock and Roll” was our anthem. I was determined to not ever go to a disco never mind going out on the floor. Ever!
Of course, as fate would have it, I started dating a girl who loved to dance and loved disco music in 1978. She wanted to listen to the old WKTU in the car, and I heard my share of songs that made me cringe, but what we do in the name of love is what I did. She dragged me to see Saturday Night Fever, and I even managed to enjoy that film despite the music that I loathed.
Through it all it seemed Donna Summer rose above all the other artists, especially by the strength of her powerful and distinctive voice. What I noticed about her songs more than any other artist (including the rock and roll ones that I loved) was the clarity of her singing: I could actually understand all the words, and they flowed beautifully with the music. That and the potent beat behind the lyrics defined her, but the song “Love to Love You Baby” with its erotic nature and driving bass made her a star. Once she rose above the rest she reigned supreme, and that was why many see her as disco royalty, a true dancing queen.
Now years later I still love that old time rock and roll. I listen to it when working in the yard, in the car, or in my home office. My daughter, a dance enthusiast who now ironically loves the new WKTU to death, will look at me with her head sideways and ask, “What is that stuff you are listening to, Dad?” I think for a second as a song like “Carry On Wayward Son” by Kansas pumps out of the stereo and say, “That’s rock and roll, honey.” She shakes her head, rolls her eyes, and walks away (my parents had a similar reaction thirty years ago). And that’s okay because the beat indeed goes on for me because I guess I will be a rock and roll boy until the day I die.
Still, today this rock and roll boy pauses to honor disco queen Donna Summer. Her impact on popular music was undeniable back in the ’70s and still resonates today. All the stuff that anybody dances to now has to be referenced back to the originator, the queen of dance who shook the world of shimmery dresses and leisure suits with her unique and sultry voice. Her music made her a legend and it will go on and on for her fans young and old, so her “Last Dance” will never stop being played as the last song of the night in bars and clubs all over the world. This is her legacy and she reigns supreme as the queen of disco forevermore.