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Wednesday, March 13,2013

Endless Summer

More than the Queen of Disco, Donna Summer was a versatile vocalist who challenged her audience

by James Sanford
Thursday, May 17 — I cannot tell you where I was the first time I heard The Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” or Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” or Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” But I will always remember that day in May of 1979 when I was stuck at home with the flu, bundled up in bed and listening to WGRD-FM. The DJ excitedly announced he had just received the new Donna Summer single and promised something like “you’re gonna love this one!” Then he cued up “Hot Stuff” — and my little bedside radio practically exploded from the shock.

Who would put thundering guitars on a disco record? What kind of music was this? In short, it was quintessentially Donna Summer. Although she may have been hailed (and rightfully so) as the Queen of Disco, Summer was always willing to venture outside of her realm. Shuffle through her albums: You’ll find forays into jazz (“Lush Life” on the 1982 “Donna Summer” LP), big-band swing (the title track of “I Remember Yesterday”), Motown-inspired soul and New Wave. Whereas other artists were content to maybe dip a toe in the disco waters, Summer created entire disco song-cycles, including an ambitious, luxuriant two-disc pop-opera-with-a-beat, “Once Upon a Time.” She not only ruled the dancefloor, she expanded its boundaries again and again.

Summer died today at the age of 63.

When the Boston-born singer first cracked the charts, there was no reason to believe she would be anything more than a one-hit wonder, something disco produced a lot of. The sultry, slow-boiling “Love to Love You Baby” introduced her to the masses as an alternately purring and whispery chanteuse who punctuated her lyrics with lengthy, orgasmic moans. For 1975, that was highly erotic, even controversial material, but although Summer went back to the same well a few more times with “Try Me, I Know We Can Make It” and a surprisingly steamy cover of Barry Manilow’s “Could It Be Magic,” it turned out she had more on her mind than carnal knowledge.

With collaborators Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte, Summer revitalized the pop scene, bringing the churning, burbling synthesizers of European Kraftwerk-style dance music to American ears in songs like “I Feel Love” and “Down Deep Inside.” From 1977 to 1980, Summer, Moroder, Bellotte and Harold Faltermeyer created a stunning string of hits, several of which brought them Grammys: “I Love You,” “Last Dance,” “Heaven Knows,” “MacArthur Park,” “Hot Stuff,” “Bad Girls,” “Dim All the Lights” and “On the Radio.”

Even more impressive was Summer’s growth as an artist. No longer was she pigeonholed as the heavy-breathing siren; she had demonstrated genuine strength and versatility as a singer, even holding her own against Barbra Streisand on the chart-topping 1979 duet, “No More Tears (Enough is Enough).” Summer’s “Live and More” album showed she was not, like many disco stars, a creature of the studio — she could belt with the best of them, then turn around and deliver sweet interpretations of “I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good” or George Gershwin’s “The Man I Love.” Summer also wrote or co-wrote much of her material, including the four superb ballads (“On My Honor,” “There Will Always Be a You,” “All Through the Night” and “My Baby Understands”) that make up the third side of her 1979 “Bad Girls” album.

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“Bad Girls” remains an essential album of its time, right up there with Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours,” The Eagles’ “Hotel California” and the “Saturday Night Fever” soundtrack. But although it was Summer’s biggest seller, she would not attempt to duplicate its formula. After battling exhaustion and an addiction to prescription drugs, Summer wed Casablanca Records labelmate Bruce Sudano in 1980. Around the same time, she shocked the music world with the announcement that she was a born-again Christian and that she would not be making disco records any longer.

Instead, she moved to Geffen Records and began pushing her music toward rock and electronica. Her spiritual journey is chronicled in the underrated 1980 album, “The Wanderer,” in which she strips away the glamor of life in the fast lane to expose the angst and avarice beneath it in songs like the frenzied, hard-rocking “Running For Cover” and the eerie, ethereal “Grand Illusion,” in which her mezzo-soprano voice floats like a ghost through Faltermeyer’s forest of shivery synthesizers. Critics loved the record, but many of Summer’s fans were confused and Geffen executives were displeased with her change of direction: The label shelved Summer’s similarly adventurous follow-up album, “I’m a Rainbow,” which was finally released almost 15 years after it was recorded.

No stranger to controversy, Summer weathered a storm of negative publicity after a Village Voice concert reviewer charged her with making homophobic remarks at a show in 1983. She denied the allegations, telling a reporter from The Advocate that she had originally misunderstood the severity of AIDS before she lost many friends to the disease.

“A couple of the people I write with are gay, and they have been ever since I met them,” she said. “What people want to do with their own bodies is their personal preference. I’m not going to stand in judgment about what the Bible says about someone else’s life. I’ve got things in my own life I’ve got to clean up. What’s in your life is your business.”

Aside from occasional hits like “She Works Hard For the Money” and “Love is in Control (Finger on the Trigger),” Summer spent most of the 1980s in commercial limbo, making records that sold modestly and got passable reviews. As the decade drew to a close, she teamed up with the then-hot production team of Mike Stock, Matt Aitken and Pete Waterman for the “Another Place and Time” album, which featured her last major American radio hit, “This Time I Know It’s For Real.”

But Summer still had one more comeback to make. In 2008, after more than a decade away from the studio, she released “Crayons,” which hit No. 17 on the Billboard album chart and produced substantial club hits in “Stamp Your Feet,” “I’m a Fire” and “Fame (The Game).” Summer was reportedly working on more new music recently.

In the spring of 1989, I was on a business trip in Deptford, N.J. I remember getting in a cab, only to find the driver had the radio blaring. I was about to politely complain, until Summer’s “This Time I Know It’s For Real” came on. “Whaddya know?” the cabbie squawked. “Donna Summer’s back!” “She certainly is,” I agreed.

But for those of us who grew up in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Donna Summer had never gone anywhere. She was always around: on the radio, in the clubs, or in our hearts.

Follow me on Twitter: twitter.com/jamessanford

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