When I think of Donna Summer, my childhood springs to mind. To many, her biggest sector of fans would appear to be club-goers who were already of age when the Queen hit her disco stride in the mid-1970s. But there was always much more to Summer than the kinetic beats behind her songs. That powerful set of pipes she possessed—capable of eliciting every emotion from sweet seduction to gospel fervor—ensured that listeners knew just who they were hearing every time she appeared “On the Radio.”
That applies even to kindergardeners like I was in 1983. That summer, appropriately, Summer gave a rousing concert for 18,000 avid fans in Costa Mesa, California. The show, searing with energy, was broadcast throughout America and subsequently released on videocassette as A Hot Summer Night. Although my original copy has long since worn out, the impact of its contents left an indelible impression in my mind and spirit which have never faded. Summer—in a stunning array of high-fashion ensembles—delivered the 12-song set in such a way as to seemingly convey the complete gamut of human experience. Whether crying out in despair with her rendition of “MacArthur Park,” throwing caution to the wind on the festive “Love Is in Control (Finger on the Trigger),” or revealing the painful quest for truth and belonging in a masterful interpretation of “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina,” the Queen of Disco treated every performance as equally important, disco or not.
At the tender age of five, I was unable to label all of the feelings emoted within the passionate performances of A Hot Summer Night. But during that early stage of my life, I was aware of feeling like an outsider. I had been immersed in music from toddlerhood, and didn’t easily relate to every child in my peer group. The warm tones, commanding phrasing, and true-to-life messages which Summer delivered consistently on her LPs ensured that I wasn’t “Full of Emptiness.” I was reassured when she channeled the benefits of “Unconditional Love.” Excited and motivated when she prepared her “Hot Stuff.” Intrigued and entranced with her narrative about the mysterious “Sunset People.” Moving on through the primary school years, her subsequent recordings continued to hold firm ground in my daily comings and goings.
Undoubtedly, the bona fide disco classics upon which Summer’s hit-making reputation were built played a big part in my growing up. My mom tells me that she listened frequently to the Queen while carrying me in her womb. So, it’s no surprise that “Dim All the Lights,” “Last Dance,” and “On the Radio” felt like intuitive channels of my soul any time I heard them. When I later discovered the cultural significance of these treasures—that Summer had written “Dim All the Lights” with Rod Stewart in mind, or the inclusion of “Last Dance” in the lastingly popular disco movie, Thank God It’s Friday—the songs held even more meaning.
Somehow, the many moments in which Summer reached beyond her disco glory have been the most moving for me. When I learned of her passing on May 17, 2012, the first experience which enveloped my mind was her awe-inspiring performance of Jon Anderson & Vangelis’s “State of Independence” on A Hot Summer Night. Upon its release as the second single from her eponymous 1982 LP, the atmospheric ragga-soul tune only climbed to number 31 on Billboard‘s R&B chart, while reaching number 41 Pop. But its message of universal oneness, made so truthful by the bold sensitivity with which Summer sang it, was a bigger event than any sales figures could add up to. For the 1983 live rendition, she was joined onstage by daughter Mimi, who sang the first verse. As Donna walked out to sing with her, what a proud mom she was became evident in her unaffected smile. Here were two musically gifted women of different shades and different generations singing about a deep spiritual bond. The multi-ethnic and multi-generational crowd which joined Donna and Mimi on stage midway through the song personified the healing power of music.