Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Last Dance Never Ends...

When asked about the potentially limiting moniker of "Queen of Disco," the late Donna Summer shrugged and quipped, "It's nice to be the queen of something!"

And while Summer -- who won four Grammys in the R&B, Rock and Gospel categories before her fifth and final win for Dance -- undoubtedly felt that her creativity was sometimes stifled by the public's refusal to let her put her boogie woogie dancing shoes to bed, her undisputed reign over an entire genre of music must have been as gratifying as it was frustrating.

Stretching out from the disco to the speakeasy: Donna Summer's famous "My Man Medley"

Even distilling Summer's catalog to only her five year disco heyday of 1975 to 1980 reveals a surprising depth and versatility: the chocolate box sex-and-soul epic, "Love to Love You Baby"; the still-stunning, revolutionary, mother of all house, techno and electronica to follow, "I Feel Love"; the Broadway-esque sweep of "Last Dance"; the ingenious expansion of "MacArthur Park" from baroque pop to disco suite; the strutting funk of "Bad Girls"; the groundbreaking rock-disco mashup that is still "Hot Stuff"; the pop perfection of "On the Radio"; the New Wave-meets-rockabilly slickness of "The Wanderer."

When disco imploded overnight, Summer was one of the few artists inextricably tied to it who escaped relatively unscathed, at least initially. However, the next decade was dodgier in terms of commercial success, partially due to, and partially resulting in, Summer's startling left turns and defiance of expectations. The biggest hits -- "She Works Hard for the Money" (1983) and "This Time I Know it's for Real" (1989) -- both recalled her glory days under the disco ball, but Summer's more interesting experiments encompassed everything from world music influences (a stirring cover of Vangelis' "State of Independence") and Caribbean rhythms ("Unconditional Love") to full-on, Springsteen-endorsed rock and roll ("Protection"), slick electro-funk ("Eyes"), and Quiet Storm balladry ("Fascination"). She also revealed her Broadway bent with the inclusion of such material as "Don't Cry for Me Argentina," "Send in the Clowns" and "The Impossible Dream" in her live act; and in 1984, Summer even made a bow at the Oscars at Barbra Streisand's behest, singing her former duet partner's nominated song from Yentl, "Papa, Can You Hear Me."

By the dawn of the 1990's, Donna Summer was still a familiar name, but not necessarily a viable chart contender. But a funny thing happened on the way to the nostalgia circuit: disco, long declared dead, suddenly became hip. And if Summer never quite regained her status as a bona fide hitmaker, she earned something even more important: respect. It became okay to like -- heck, love -- Donna Summer, and not as a guilty pleasure, either; but to actually appreciate the power and elasticity of her voice (which, astonishingly, grew instead of diminishing with age), her unheralded songwriting abilities (including many of her biggest hits, as well as Dolly Parton's #1 country hit, "Starting Over Again"), and the genius of her very best recordings.

She writes the (country) songs: "Dim All the Lights" and "Starting Over Again"

For a few golden moments, Donna Summer was the biggest female pop star on the planet, and she rode the inevitable ebb and flow which followed with admirable grace. We saw Summer in concert a half-dozen times during the 1990's and early 00's, and we were continually impressed by her absolutely pitch-perfect vocals, her surprisingly dry and quirky humor, and her appreciation for her fans. She provided the soundtrack for an entire generation, and then some -- a regal legacy, indeed.

January 31, 1948 - May 17, 2012


  1. I think the thing that made Donna Summer special was that fact that she really did have vocal chops. Of all the disco one hit wonders and mechanically engineered tunes from the disco era, she was, without a doubt, an amazing singer. I am still in shock ... she was much to young to leave us. RIP Donna.

  2. I am sad that we won't be able to have "More, More, More" from Donna Summer.
    She was so very talented.

  3. More, More, More was by Andrea True Connection. Andrea True ex-porn star ... really.

  4. A lovely tribute to an individual who was indeed the soundtrack to the lives of thousaands... RIP. Jx

  5. One of the greatest voices ever. A true star.

  6. So the whole "AIDS is God's punishment for a sinful lifestyle" comment attributed to her (which caused so many of her gay fans to boycott her); fact or fiction? Even the NY Times obit was vague, noting the controversy as well as the fact that she denied having made the comment -- though who wouldn't?

    Any insights from you TJB, or from any from your subscribers? Not that it matters much now, but I'm interested in getting the real story. Urban legend, or major Diva faux pas?

    Another nice post, BTW.

  7. Neely - Here's what I understand about "the rumor," based on the most reliable sources. Also, a little backstory, which I think is important to the context, and may help explain why the rumor became so pervasive.

    After the stress of her meteoric rise to stardom as "Disco's Aphrodite," Donna became addicted to prescription drugs, suffered severe anxiety, and made several suicide attempts. What anchored her life and got her back on track was becoming a born again Christian in 1980, and she was quite public in her proclamation of her newly restored faith. There are absolutely no quotes or interviews I could find in which Donna was in any way judgmental of others; but she did renounce her "sex goddess" image. Despite the fact that Donna Summer never made any derogatory statements about gays in relation to her faith, I think her conversion to Christianity and her renunciation of her own hedonistic lifestyle was perceived by many in the gay community as some kind of betrayal, and there was a lot of wariness on their part. After all, along with Bette Midler, Donna was one of the few pop superstars who was truly "made" in the gay underground before being embraced by the mainstream. Gays discovered her, comprised a large part of her audience, and now she was symbolically turning her back on them -- or at least, that's the way they interpreted her actions.

    So by the time of "the rumor" in 1983, there was already a lot of wariness and suspicion from the gays towards Summer -- and I'm sure some felt distinctly uncomfortable when, in concert, she would include religious songs and enthusiastically describe her faith from the stage. These conversations about religion in a public forum are the main genesis of the rumor. According to the rumor, Donna made a statement about AIDS being God's retribution against homosexuals from the concert stage in 1983. Because of the volatility of the AIDS issue at that time, as well as the growing resentment of the gay community for the reasons I already spoke about, the rumor naturally took on a life of its own, to the point that it was being published and repeated as fact in major newspapers and magazines, without ever being fact-checked. It certainly made for good copy in those first, ugly years of homophobia-driven AIDS hysteria: the ex-disco sex queen denouncing the sinners who made her a star. The problem was, Donna never said it. Not one person who was at the concert in question could remember her making that statement. The true story, as best as can be pieced together by eyewitnesses, was that during one of Donna's well-intended, if misguided, attempts at talking religion with her audience, a gay man who said he had AIDS went on the offensive and seemed to be baiting Donna to say something against gays and AIDS. She didn't, and instead brought him up on stage, hugged him, and prayed for him. I think it's important to note that Donna did this at a time when people thought you could catch AIDS simply by drinking from the same cup, or by simple physical contact like a hug. Now, here's where the story gets sticky: although Donna did act compassionately towards this man -- who had been baiting her -- she put her foot in her mouth by suggesting that he abstain from being overly promiscuous in the future. That's where the rumor really started, and while that certainly was presumptuous of Donna, I honestly don't think it was judgmental -- and certainly nowhere near the hateful words attributed to her.

  8. Part 2:

    In the end, I do think that actions speak louder than words. Donna began headlining at AIDS benefits in 1984/85, long before it was considered politically correct -- and she did so without a lot of fanfare or publicity. If she had started doing them simply as damage control, I think more people would have been aware of them. She also always counted gays among her circle of friends, employees and professional associates, and all of them unequivocally state that she was not homophobic. Frankly, the fact that this rumor basically began with overzealous gays with major chips on their shoulders, and it was a major blow to Donna's career, makes it pretty impressive that Donna would be basically forgiving and serene about the whole series of events.

    1. Thanks TJB, I was sure you'd have the answer. And I especially appreciate your replying at such length, knowing how busy you are.

      All best...

  9. Off the AIDS comment topic, I would just like to say that I lived in Los Angeles during the 1970's at a commune high on top of the Santa Monica Mountains. We would have huge parties on the weekends with invited guests. After dinner, always the first song of the evening was Donna singing "Love To Love You Baby" and it was loud. You could hear it all over the canyon, and it went on and on, the house rocked! It is my favorite memory of the 70's. She was passion personified. That beat was unforgettable.

  10. As Patti Labelle once said, Donna Summer has "the voice of LIFE!" She was one-of-a-kind and every so-called dance diva should bow deeply in respect to the woman who made dance music an art form. She was also an incredible, powerhouse performer and I will truly miss the Donna Summer live experience.

    Thanks for the 411 on the anti-gay rumours, TJB. I always knew that the rumour was a gross distortion of whatever actually took place. So many of the so-called 'gay icon' divas have put a foot in their mouth at some point (i.e. Bette Midler's recent, dismissive comments re marriage equality) but it always seemed Donna was treatly more severely than the others. At least by other the 'girls' -- I ALWAYS loved her!

  11. I def lurved DS!