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.
Healing is a subject which Summer explored with grace and style throughout the 1980’s—a decade which many associate with materialism and excess. Whether in the understated beauty with which she sang of personal salvation in “I’m Free” or the crystal clear fervor displayed in “Voices Cryin’ Out,” concern for the well-being and unity of mankind resounded vibrantly on all seven of her ’80s LPs. Both of these tunes were co-penned by Summer: the former with husband, Bruce Sudano and producer Michael Omartian, the latter with Harold Faltermeyer.
With Omartian she also composed the aforementioned “Unconditional Love” and the groundbreaking anthem, “She Works Hard for the Money.” Thanks to its global premise, the tale of an everyday woman dutifully struggling through life to make ends meet resonated with listeners from all walks of life. (Omartian’s rousing production and a colorful electric guitar solo by Marty Walsh didn’t hurt!) On the full-length She Works Hard for the Money LP, Summer further plunged into the present state and future fate of mankind on two musical reality checks, “People, People,” and “Stop, Look and Listen,” observing, “Space age assures us life will go on/Everybody’s trying to be free/Forget the future, think about right now/Somehow seems to be the growing theme.”
Outside matters of the world at large, romantic love was another realm into which Summer delved and through which she portrayed soul and spirit time and time again. One need listen no further than the charging, self-penned “My Baby Understands,” from 1979’s double-platinum Bad Girls, for proof of her passion. The range of both her vocal output and the instrumental accompaniment opens from boldly reflective to an intensely heartfelt climax that can only be described as otherworldly in its dynamic melding of rock and soul.
Showcasing a softer, jazz-tinged approach, she tapped remarkably calmly into the dimensions of obsession on 1987’s “Fascination,” from the All Systems Go LP. At the dawning of her international success in 1975 with “Love to Love You Baby,” many had decried her as a one-trick vocalist limited to erotic whispers. She would disprove that theory repeatedly over the next decade with the wealth of vocal shades and flavors her material embodied. “Fascination,” although not nearly as commercially successful a single as “Love to Love You,” brought things full-circle artistically. Summer’s hushed phrasing at the song’s opening effortlessly glides into several bars of soaring strength during the mid-section, making her natural diversity clear without the need for any studio gimmickry.
The prowess with which Summer effected both the ecstasies and subtleties of amorous bliss is unmistakable. With cabaret savvy, she delightfully recounted the joys of new love on 1977’s “I Remember Yesterday.” Into the 1990s, she didn’t lose a hint of that spark, as evidenced by her spine-tingling delicacy on the ever-sultry “When Love Cries.” Just as she was tuned into those fine points of love’s doors opening, so too did she understand and bring to life the loss endured when they close. This was especially evident on 1989’s Another Place and Time, her Stock-Aitken-Waterman-produced “comeback” album. “The Hit Factory,” as the production team came to be known, was often criticized for manufacturing a brand of dance-pop which detractors claimed made each artist indistinguishable from the next. Summer’s commanding presence alone made that problem an impossibility for herself. Beyond her tone, however, the sensitive spin she put on the plaintive “The Only One” and cautiously encouraging “Breakaway” brought to light a greater depth.
When I think about Donna Summer, I think about life. How we’re all connected in a seamless circle. All too often, we feel disconnected after undoing the ties that we believe keep us from being fully free. When we take a closer look inside ourselves, it becomes clear that we have all we need as we go along “The Journey.” Behind the beat and beneath the flashing lights, Donna Summer was in the wings, bestowing passages of hope and guidance along the world’s heavily traveled highways. Now, as she soars through the celestial byways, we should continue to “Carry On,” heeding her eternal message that “Love Is the Healer.”