RIP Donna Summer

24 May 2012

Hard to believe that Donna Summer has just died of cancer, aged 63.  The Queen of Disco was probably the first disco artist i was truly moved by, when she had a top twenty hit covering Jon & Vangelis’s 1981 tune, State Of Independence, in 1982.  She did this with the help of an all-star cast of backing singers, including Michael JacksonBrenda RussellJames IngramDionne WarwickKenny LogginsLionel Richie and Stevie Wonder, with the incredible Quincy Jones on production duties.  The overdubs of the backing vocals alone are absolutely massive and make it sound like an entire church choir has just filed into the studio to drop some gospel.  There’s some incredible live footage of that very session on youtube and this live version is even more incredible – it sent shivers down my spine and tears down my cheeks when i watched it (and big thanks to my friend, Matthew Cheney aka Arctic Circle, for hipping me to it).  This version was, and still is, a very big record and utterly timeless.

Of course, this isn’t the one everyone is talking about right now.  People will tell you about her international breakthrough hit (1975) with co-writers/producers Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte, Love To Love You, Baby.  Its sultry vocal makes it sound literally like the future disco diva was actually getting it on in the vocal booth, and the extended 12″ disco version of the song is, unsurprisingly, a killer.   Naturally, the BBC banned it, as did many US radio stations, and it caused a sensation and, in some cases something of a riot, when she performed it live.  The album shifted 400k units in six weeks – almost completely unimaginable today.

But the other tune people will undoubtedly still be talking about thirty years from now is the trio’s 1977 Number 1 hit, I Feel Love.  I was way too young to appreciate this record when it was released but, so evergreen are its qualities, so genre-defining, that it’s never gone out of vogue and continues to be regarded as a template for dance music to this day, as Hot Chip‘s Joe Goddard explains at the end of this recent eulogy in The Guardian.  It’s been a personal favourite for a long time (see also my post about Italo disco).  DJs Twitch & Brainstorm*, former residents at my favourite club in the Nineties, Pure**, used to play it a lot and this was the point (c. 1993-95) at which I properly fell for its unmistakable charms.

Bad Girls is the other one i would play.  It scored another Number 1 hit for the trio in 1979 and its ‘toot-toot, ahhhhh, beep-beep’ refrain has been sampled and re-edited countless times.  Check out the genius video for it, featuring fellow Seventies stars Twiggy and Debralee Scott plus cult New York figure Pat Ast, with Summer rocking a particularly wicked outfit and shades.

Donna Summer had loads of other hit records, though, and by this point she was the biggest-selling female artist in the world, truly earning her sobriquet as the Queen of Disco.  The biggest is undoubtedly Hot Stuff, for which she won a Grammy award for Best Female Rock Vocal Performance (the first woman as well as the first African American artist ever to do so). The record is also in Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs Of All Time (at #104, no less – I Feel Love is ranked #418), while Billboard lists it at #67 of their list.  This youtube live clip of Hot Stuff is poorly synched but includes some great original footage from 1979.  She Works Hard For The Money is also memorable – from that interesting time when disco-rock fusions, sax and electric guitar solos were properly in vogue, in 1983.  Hmmm, it’s definitely a time-and-a-place type of record now…..

Summer went through something of a spiritual re-awakening in 1979-80, having completely overdone it and come close to suicide at one point, also experiencing a very brutal backlash from some of her most ardent fans after allegedly making some rather inflammatory comments about AIDS and HIV being God’s punishment for the gay community.  Apparently, she’d always been very uncomfortable with her disco siren image – incredible when you see how sensually she could perform these songs.  With its heavy gospel overtones, State of Independence is clearly the result of this re-discovered spiritualism, though.  And, with disco going through its own crisis at much the same time, what emerged was no less thrilling, albeit in a completely different way and appealing to something arguably much deeper and loftier within, or at least not as base.

In total, Donna Summer won five Grammy Awards, six American Music Awards and charted three multi-platinum albums.  In the UK, 29 of her singles reached the Top 40. In America, she was the first artist to have three consecutive double albums reach No 1 on the Billboard chart.

There’s a very good obituary in The Daily Telegraph.

*Twitch is now better known as JD Twitch and one half of the Optimo (Espacio) duo, alongside JG Wilkes, while Brainstorm co-runs The Voodoo Rooms (where my monthly Limbo nights take place).

**Friday nights at Edinburgh’s Venue throughout that decade, initially every week and then fortnightly once all the rave euphoria had died down to a more, ahem, demure level…


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