When Love to Love You Baby (Casablanca, 1975) impacted, its ripples had a lasting effect on popular music and the woman who brought it to life. However, Donna Summer’s musical odyssey did not begin with the rhythmic erotica present on that long player.
Summer’s debut, Lady of the Night (Groovy, 1974), is still obscured in her discography, as music historians often confine the singer to her output from 1975 through 1979. Undoubtedly a pioneer in the disco style, Summer’s wider pop experiments are wrongly disregarded; Lady of the Night was a compass for the diversity encapsulated in her career. The album also evinced her stature as the birth mother of the transformative pop model that others followed (Madonna, Kylie Minogue).
Those chameleon tendencies of Summer’s were nurtured in gospel and later contemporary rock as a teen ― Summer was a member of the Bostonian based band Crow. Summer debunked to Munich, Germany in 1967 for theatre work where she’d sharpen her singing skills. After appearing in several successful productions, Summer recorded her first single ― a German version of “Aquarius” from the musical Hair. While singing behind Three Dog Night, Summer intersected with two up-and-coming talents, Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte.
A friendship/partnership was sparked and Summer’s first full-length recording commenced. Written and produced by Moroder and Bellotte, Lady of the Night was a succinct presentation at just 10 selections. Loosely conceptual, the titular piece focused on a tale of a refined streetwalker (a concept Summer revisited later) and her adventures.
Stylistically, the album was not dissimilar from what was happening Stateside with Summer’s peers. Consider, the year of Lady of the Night’s release, Summer’s debut managed to hang tough in quality with efforts from Linda Ronstadt (Heart Like a Wheel, Capitol) and Cher (Dark Lady, MCA). Both recordings by Ronstadt and Cher were lyrically driven, borrowing from various genres to house their stories.
Summer’s musical palette on Lady of the Night was just as savory. A zesty blend of rock ― both American and Krautrock (“Born to Die”) ― folk (“Sing Along (Sad Song)”) and pre-disco dance music (“Friends”), Lady of the Night hosted Summer as an astute performer. Summer was in full voice throughout the album, powerful, but not overbearing; it flew in the face of critics that dismissed her vocal approach when she broke America a year later.
Lady of the Night was released in Europe early in 1974; its two subsequent singles (the title cut and “The Hostage”) went on to become sizable hits there. Lady of the Night fell into the shadow of Summer’s subsequent recordings, remaining out of reach to non-European listeners for years. It later made its CD debut in the late 1990s.
Even today, after Summer’s passing in 2012, Lady of the Night retains its mystique. The album captured Summer before her songwriting days, but with no less of the pop promise she possessed to carve her own niche ― the record is worth a second listen.
Watch Summer perform “Lady of the Night” on Germany’s Starparade in 1976[amazon template=iframe image&chan=default&asin=B000026VKZ]