If we like our stars to be conflicted, Donna Summer certainly fit the bill.
As her career crested in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, the singer, who died Thursday at the age of 63, was one of the most “out” born-again Christians in the music business, forever reconciling herself with the fact that her career had been founded on a 17-minute musical orgasm.
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In the age of coke, mirror balls, a relentless 4/4 thump-thump and giving yourself over to absolute pleasure, Summer was a non-sensualist who just wanted to sing.
There were moments of tension with a fan base that wanted to preserve her as a disco icon — especially when she was accused (falsely, she said) of expressing her religious beliefs in a way that resulted in a rumor that one of the queens of gay music was a homophobe. But all was reconciled in the end.
Although the mass pop audience hadn’t given Summer a Top 10 pop hit since 1988, the club crowd continued to embrace her newer music, and she had four songs hit No. 1 on Billboard’s dance music chart in the last half-dozen years, the last chart-topper in 2010.
Perhaps more tellingly, she even started performing “Love to Love You Baby” in concert again around 2005 — minus the epic moans. Summer loved to love us loving the song that first brought her to the dance.
The preeminent diva of the disco era died Thursday in Florida, where she lived with husband Bruce Sudano after a stint as Nashville residents. Even some who worked with her weren’t aware of she had cancer, as she’d been making rounds in Los Angeles as recently as two months ago.
Summer first started recording in 1971, using her birth name, Gaines, for her earliest UK single in 1971. Her first album, three years later, wasn’t even released in the United States.
It wasn’t until “Love to Love You Baby” established her as an overt sex symbol that she broke through, much as she spent ensuing years trying to live down one of history’s most orgasmic songs (and the equally suggestive album cover art).
“If I’d known seven years ago that all I had to do was groan, I would have been groaning!” she joked to Rolling Stone.
As she recalled it in her autobiography, she tried to imagine herself as Marilyn Monroe during the recording, which took place in a candlelit studio with Summer prone on the floor (furthering the song’s legend, naturally). She had no idea all 17 minutes would come out as an LP-side-length track; she was just vamping to give the producers an extended idea of what they might do. Of course, innocent top 40 listeners didn’t necessarily know what all the hubbub was about, since the single version was shortened by 13 minutes and (about) 130 orgasms.
“I have so much more to offer,” she complained at the time – and indeed she did, as the woman who first made her name off the non-musical sounds she made on a record proved to be even better at singing than heavy breathing. And she did have breath control, mind you: “Dim All the Lights,” arguably the best song of her career, had her sustaining a note for 16 seconds, purportedly a record for a top 40 hit.
After 1975’s “Love to Love You,” it was another two years before Summer had another monster hit, in the form of “I Feel Love.” That might be the most influential of all her hits, though not so much because of anything she did as Giorgio Moroder’s electro textures.
“Last Dance,” the theme from 1978’s disco-sploitation picture "Thank God It’s Friday," had plenty of production and writing brilliance to spare, not least of all in the last-minute addition of a balladic opening that made the eventual transition to pure disco all the more exciting. But from here on out, it was Summer’s singing that made her smashes smashes.
The “Bad Girls” double-album in 1978, besides being her swan song for Casablanca Records, also marked the end of an era when it came to Summer being willing to position herself as a sex kitten.
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Her duet with Barbra Streisand, “No More Tears (Enough is Enough),” established her as a Class Act once and for all. But there would be commercial limitations to coincide with de-tarting her act so severely. “No More Tears” was her last No. 1 on Billboard’s pop chart, though that may have had as much to do with the “disco sucks” side finally winning in the culture – temporarily, anyway – as Summer’s cleaned-up act.
Summer fell in with a fellow evangelical Christian, producer Michael Omartian, for a run of synthy, less bass-heavy hits like “She Works Hard for the Money,” the theme song of ‘80s Day-Glo pop feminism. Not incidentally, it was her first music-video hit, in the dawn of the MTV era. Minor hits followed, including an unlikely take on the Jon Anderson/Vangelis mood ballad “State of Independence.” But a mojo had been lost.
A Wall Street Journal review of a poorly attended 2008 amphitheater show in New Hampshire describes a scene in which Summer is peopling half her set with songs from her “Crayons” comeback, which probably only dozens of audience members had bothered to buy, while withstanding cries for “Hot Stuff” and other oldies she’d barely have time to squeeze into even an all-hits set. Clearly she wasn’t resigned to being strictly a nostalgia act, which might have accounted in part for her long time away.
But maybe we should feel most nostalgic, in an age of divas who’d do anything to get ahead, that Donna Summer never met a discotheque she couldn’t class up.
(Photos by Getty Images)