Nearly five years have passed since the untimely death of Donna Summer, and it’s still hard to fathom that she’s no longer on Earth dancing among her legions of loyal fans. Even though her most consistent hit-making period occurred within the span of one decade, the intensely profound effect she made on music at large during that time—and the further remarkable statements of song she delivered over the following 20-plus years—resulted in a striking body of work that feels larger than life now more than ever.
What’s so special about Summer’s discography is the harmonious blending of soul, funk, rock, and gospel in both her vocal performances and accompanying arrangements. No matter how many times certain skeptics proclaimed “disco is dead” in the 1980s, the lasting impact of a fiery tune such as 1979’s “Hot Stuff,” just as ripe with a dynamic rock guitar core as it was with an irresistibly driving, raw and funky drum groove, remained as proof that disco could, in fact, be timeless.
Few successful singers in the genre, however, could move from one style to another as fluently as Summer. One moment coyly seductive and breathless (as on her global breakthrough single, 1975’s “Love to Love You Baby”), the next elegantly impassioned (think her 1978 reading of “MacArthur Park”), yet another, no-nonsense and sassy (1983’s anthemic “She Works Hard for the Money”), her interpretational abilities and breathtaking range were limitless.
Crimson Productions’ new three-CD deluxe release of The Ultimate Collection (nicely complemented by a double-disc vinyl edition) is surefire testimony to all of these qualities. Packed with 58 tracks (20 on wax), this definitive set will undoubtedly provide hours of repeated sonic pleasure for hardcore fans while opening up a new world of musical discovery for the uninitiated (whatever their preferred sector of popular song might be).
Well over half of the material qualifies as essential Summer simply on virtue of commercial impact. But beyond the shining melodic, rhythmic, and lyrical elements that helped her shape gems like “Bad Girls,” “Last Dance,” “I Feel Love,” “This Time I Know It’s for Real,” and “State of Independence” into the kind of memory-making moments that don’t come on the radio (pun intended) every day, lies a plethora of sometimes overlooked treasures which accentuate further shades of her multi-hued canvas.
Of especially intriguing note are two pieces from her pre-disco European theatre career, both sung in German: “Wasserman (Aquarius)” from Haare and “Oh, Segne Gott Mein’ Seel,” from the Deutsch cast recording of Godspell. Fast-forward over 30 years, and there’s the criminally underrated, masterfully understated 2005 club/pop anthem, “I Got Your Love,” as well as her final single, 2010’s sultry and kinetic “To Paris with Love”—both appearing for the first time on any Summer collection.
Since Summer’s post-disco hits occured in spurts, pop music pundits tend to forget the number of hit records she churned out through the 1980s, ‘90s, and 2000s. After briefly revisiting the R&B charts in 1987 with the highly addictive, Brenda Russell-penned ditty, “Dinner with Gershwin,” Summer began a full-fledged resurgence out of the then-explosive Stock/Aitken/Waterman production house with the Another Place and Time album, which scored no less than five high-energy, radio-driven dance floor successes: “I Don’t Wanna Get Hurt,” “When Love Takes over You,” “Love’s About to Change My Heart,” “Breakaway,” and “This Time I Know It’s for Real”—all included on the deluxe CD edition of The Ultimate Collection.
In the ‘90s, although she only recorded two original full-length albums, she continued her streak of crossover appeal with club-goers and Top 40 audiences via memorable anthems such as 1999’s “I Will Go with You” (featured on the release) and her 1992 reunion with longtime producer Giorgio Moroder, “Carry On” (one of very few notable omissions). As the century turned, she soldiered on with a number of contributions to special projects and compilations before releasing what would be her final studio album, 2008’s Crayons. The Ultimate deluxe edition very satisfyingly contains popular mixes of three singles from that set, and makes a surprising dip into catalog territory with a promo-only remix of her 2005 rendition of Luther Vandross’ “Power of Love.”
Getting back to that seminal first decade of hit-making, the Ultimate CD set boasts Summer’s first European hits (never released Stateside): “The Hostage” and “Lady of the Night.” Produced by Pete Bellotte (who would go on to co-produce many of her disco hits), these 1974 recordings are in sharp contrast to Summer’s subsequent material in the pronounced folk elements of their rhythmic and harmonic structures.
What’s just as convincing in light of the tunes’ very colorful story lines is her eloquently convincing relaying of every line and each emotion inherent within. Clear and powerful, the candor with which she relays the complicated tale of a woman working with the cops to save her husband from criminals on the run is a million miles away from the sighs and purrs of 1977’s “I Feel Love” or the gusto and attitude of 1981’s “Cold Love,” but is every bit as believable.
Summer spent most of the ‘80s at Geffen Records, where an apparent lack of priority afforded to her translated to a less regular stream of releases than her fans had grown accustomed to. Nonetheless, she managed to display even more versatility with her five albums cut for the label.
From the atmospheric sway and spiritual vitality of 1982’s “State of Independence” (a cover of a 1981 Jon & Vangelis tune) to the new wave-tinged, hip-swayin’ pop of 1980’s “The Wanderer,” or the feisty nature of the assertive rock dancer “Romeo” (recorded for ’81’s then-unreleased I’m a Rainbow, but landing on the ’83 Flashdance soundtrack), Summer’s frequent absence from the higher echelon of trade charts most certainly couldn’t be blamed on a lack of highly merited, widely appealing repertoire. Similar was the case at the turn of the decade, when 1991’s subtly provocative “When Love Cries” stalled in sales despite considerable R&B airplay.
Key album cuts of Summer’s disco prime featured on The Ultimate Collection demonstrate just how full-bodied her work was early on. Nicely complementing the smashes, pearls such as “Once Upon a Time,” “Sunset People,” and “I Remember Yesterday” are but another asset of this package’s comprehensiveness.
The only possibly weak link is the inclusion of not one or two, but three, of her collaborations with Paul Jabara. “Shut Out,” “Something’s Missing,” and “Never Lose Your Sense of Humor” are all quality cuts, but considering her limited role in each, one would have likely sufficed … the remaining space would have been well filled by the aforementioned “Carry On,” or one of her more neglected late-1990s/early 2000s singles, such as “Whenever There Is Love” or “The Power of One.”
Ripe with stylistic diversity, unfailing vocal vigor, and steadfast compositional craftsmanship, the Donna Summer discography is distinctive, distinguished, and ageless. Accordingly, The Ultimate Collection comprises nearly all of the artistically and culturally quintessential elements of her musical story, with some surprises to boot.