Inspired by the November 17 birthdays of The Byrds’ Gene Clark, Jeff Buckley, Gordon Lightfoot, Foxygen’s Sam France, RuPaul, Ronnie DeVoe, The Moldy Peaches’ Kimya Dawson, Girls Aloud’s Sarah Harding, and Martin Scorcese; and the November 16 birthdays of Odyssey’s Lillian Lopez, Chi Coltrane, Arrow, Color Me Badd’s Bryan Abrams and Count Five’s John Byrne.
Born LaDonna Gaines in Boston, Massachusetts on the last day of 1948, Donna Summer became a worldwide superstar in the 1970s. She earned the title “The Queen of Disco,” which is accurate and limiting at the same time. Sure, she scored over two dozen top forty hits on Billboard magazine’s Disco/Dance chart; however, her voice and repertoire were not bound by genre, and she placed entries on the Rhythm & Blues and Adult Contemporary charts and has 14 US top ten pop hits to her name.
The first of those pop hits was “Love to Love You Baby,” which reached #2 in 1976. Our playlist begins before that hit, with vocals she provided for a Peter Thomas recording around the beginning of the decade.
Performing musical theater, she joined the cast of a road version of Hair, which brought her to Germany, where she performed in that country’s language. You can hear her German version of “Aquarius” on the YouTube playlist that accompanies this post. (The YouTube playlist encompasses recordings that cannot be found on Spotify at this time.)
Two other significant things happened to LaDonna Gaines in Germany: She married fellow actor Helmut Sommer, and she met producers/songwriters Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte. Moroder and Bellotte signed her to their record label, and the trio began work on her debut album, on which her name was misspelled on the front cover, giving us Donna Summer.
Donna Summer’s debut album, Lady of the Night, produced the singles “The Hostage” and the title track, with the former going to #1 in Belgium and #2 in The Netherlands and the latter cracking the top 40 in Germany as well as being another top five single for her in The Netherlands.
Then came “Love to Love You Baby.” Initially released in The Netherlands as “Love to Love You,” the song was heard by Casablanca Records head Neil Bogart, who suggested they extend the song. The nearly seventeen-minute version was serviced to US clubs in September 1975. Record World magazine’s disco reporter Vince Aletti wrote it sounds “like nothing else I’ve heard before.” Clubgoers shared his enthusiasm, sending the song to #1 on the disco chart for four weeks beginning the month after its release.
While “Love to Love You Baby” was rocketing up the pop chart, Summer’s follow-up became her second #1 disco hit. “Try Me, I Know We Can Make It” is actually four songs: “Try Me,” “I Know,” “We Can Make It,” and “Try Me, I Know We Can Make It.” Those four songs encompassed side one of Summer’s A Love Trilogy album, with side two providing three more top ten disco hits: “Could It Be Magic” (a cover of Barry Manilow’s pop hit from the previous year), “Wasted” and “Come with Me.”
Later in 1976 came yet another album from Summer, Four Seasons of Love. Billboard listed every cut from the album as #1 on the disco chart, where they remained for six weeks. A few months later she released I Remember Yesterday, where once again, all cuts were listed in the #1 position on the disco chart. From that album came the classic “I Feel Love,” about which Brian Eno said to David Bowie “This single is going to change the sound of club music for the next fifteen years.” Bowie agreed.
You may think all this product in quick succession would create a glut from which the public would want a break, but the stats show the exact opposite. Summer’s “Theme from The Deep” (on the YouTube playlist) became a disco hit. “Last Dance” became a disco and pop hit. The double album Once Upon a Time went to #1 on the disco chart (again with all cuts listed). She followed this up with another double album, Live and More (which includes “MacArthur Park” and “Heaven Knows”). Then came another double album, Bad Girls, her commercial and artistic pinnacle.
An interesting piece of trivia for chart geeks: Up to this point every Donna Summer single serviced to dance clubs hit the disco top ten, with her spending 29 weeks at #1 on the chart between 1975 and 1979. Her first entry to make the disco chart but miss its top ten? “Dim All the Lights,” which peaked at #54. Go figure. You may know that song. It performed way better on the pop and rhythm & blues charts.
Let’s pause for a moment and consider not only the quantity of material Summer released and struck gold with. Let’s also look at the quality. These are great records. (Okay, the Live part of Live and More is good, not great.) Disco was predominantly a singles medium, yet Summer cranked out albums that sustained interest throughout. Double albums at that.
A double greatest hits album wrapped up her tenure at Casablanca Records, producing what would be her final #1 on the Disco/Dance Club chart for 15 years, “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough),” a collaboration with Barbra Streisand.
Her star cooled a bit when she released her first post-Casablanca record in 1980. Several factors contributed to this, including the (US) backlash against disco and disparaging remarks attributed to her about gay people, a core and loyal audience until that point. (In 1989 she denied making this comments, saying she would have addressed the controversy earlier but her publicist shielded her from any negative press, so she was unaware. I’m not saying I buy that; I am glad she addressed it.) Also, at the request of her new label’s head, David Geffen, she split with producers Moroder and Bellote following her 1980 album The Wanderer (actually, following that album’s follow-up, I’m a Rainbow, which was shelved until a slim-downed version’s release in 1992).
Despite the dip in popularity, she was far from over. In the eighties she hit the pop top ten with “The Wanderer,” “Love Is In Control (Finger on the Trigger),” “She Works Hard for the Money” and “This Time I Know It’s for Real,” all of which also made the dance top ten. Her pop chart success in the US ended with 1989’s “This Time I Know It’s for Real.”
While she never again hit the US pop top forty, back in the dance clubs she returned to the apex again and again, scoring seven #1s and three additional top tens between 1995 and her death in 2012.
The Donna Summer playlists below include her pop hits, her dance hits, the best non-singles from her studio albums, cuts from compilation albums, songs from soundtrack albums, and some of her guest appearances on other artists’ albums. It may be Labor Day weekend, but Summer never ends at Tunes du Jour!
The YouTube playlist: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLTkV-h9qkYAyB3JvP5yiWJC6Kf8Lknvc0
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Fame! I’m gonna live forever! Baby, remember my name!
Though she hasn’t had a hit song in more than thirty years, people still remember Irene Cara’s name. Between 1980 and 1984, she had more hit songs than the two you can name off the top of your head.
First came the song “Fame,” taken from the movie Fame, in which Cara played Coco Hernandez. “Fame,” written by Dean Pitchford and Michael Gore and featuring backing vocals from Luther Vandross and Vicki Sue Robinson, hit #4, and won the Academy Award and Golden Globe Award for Best Original Song. In addition, Cara’s performance in the film earned her a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress.
Also vying for the Academy Award for Best Original Song that year was “Out Here on My Own,” written by Michael Gore and his sister Lesley. Also performed by Cara in the film, it became her second consecutive top 40 single.
She didn’t appear in the movie Flashdance, but her theme song, “Flashdance…What a Feeling!,” was #1 in the US for six weeks, and won Cara, one of its writers, the Oscar for Best Original Song. “What a Feeling” also won Cara the Grammy for Best Pop Vocal Performance – Female and a nomination for Record of the Year, which she lost to Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” (fair enough!). The single topped charts around the world.
Given the song’s massive success, Cara found it odd that per her record label, her royalties from sales of the record amounted to $183. In 1985, following a few more hit songs (“The Dream,” from the movie D.C. Cab, in which she played Irene Cara; “Why Me?,” and “”Breakdance”), she sued the head of that label (which had since gone under) for $10 million for breach of contract. Eight years later, a jury awarded her $1.5 million. By then, her time in the spotlight was long over. She never hit the charts again after filing her lawsuit.
Take your passion and make it happen, but make sure you have people you trust looking after your affairs.
Today, Irene Cara turns 57 years old. Tunes du Jour’s weekly dance party kicks off with “Flashdance…What a Feeling!”
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I don’t know if Donna Summer made those comments. You know the ones. “God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.” “I have seen the evils of homosexuality; AIDS is the result of your sins.” “I’ll pray for you tonight.” “Now don’t get me wrong; God loves you. But not the way you are now.” Those quotes were attributed to her by Jim Farber in the Village Voice writing about a concert Summer gave in Atlantic City in 1983. That was the year she hit with “She Works Hard for the Money,” her biggest hit in four years. Her biggest hit since becoming a born-again Christian.
I don’t know if Donna Summer made those comments. I remember them being reported, but I don’t remember reading about her saying anything like them before or since that evening.
I don’t know if Donna Summer made those comments. Though I don’t remember her doing so, she apparently sent out a press release in 1984 that read, in part, “It is a source of great concern to me that anything I may have said has cast me as homophobic … all I can ask for is understanding as I believe my true feelings have been misinterpreted.”
I don’t know if Donna Summer made those comments. Still, the story about her alleged comments continued to circulate. Many gay clubs wouldn’t play her records. After “She Works Hard for the Money” hit and the comments were allegedly made, her sales faltered. There were no top ten hits for her in 1984. In 1985. In 1986. In 1987. In 1988. In 1989, she teamed up with gay production trio Stock, Aitken and Waterman for the album Another Place and Time that produced the top ten single “This Time I Know It’s For Real.” The story of the comments got louder. ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power, picketed her concerts.
I don’t know if Donna Summer made those comments. I know she sent a letter to ACT UP in 1989 in which she wrote “I cannot force you to believe what I tell you, so if you choose to continue on with this fighting and arguing, that’s up to you. I did not say God is punishing gays with aids, I did not sit with ill intentions in judgement over your lives. I haven’t stopped talking to my friends who are gay, nor have I ever chosen my friends by their sexual preferences. We have too many good memories together to live in this state of unforgiveness. I never denied you or turned away, but in fact you turned away from me. If I have caused you pain, forgive me. It was never my intention to reject you but to extend myself in love.” Her record label sent a statement from the singer to the Village Voice and gay news magazine The Advocate in which she said “It is very difficult for me to believe this terrible misunderstanding continues. Since the very beginning of my career, I have had tremendous support and friendship from many in the gay community. It is a source of great concern to me that anything I may have said has cast me as homophobic. My medium of expression is music, all I can ask for is understanding as I feel my true feelings have been misrepresented. As a Christian, I have nothing but love for everyone and I recognize it is not my place to judge others.” Of course, being a Christian and making homophobic statements are not mutually exclusive. Quite the contrary. Many of those who claim to be Christian use their religious views as excuses to make hateful remarks and discriminate. However,…
I don’t know if Donna Summer made those comments. She went on to tell The Advocate “I’ve lost a lot of friends who have died of AIDS. I’m hurting as much as anyone else at the amount of people who are gone. Last year was an incredible year in terms of friends of mine who died – people who ran my first album, who were really close to me, beautiful guys, and I mean beautiful guys. It is devastating. In the past two years, I’ve done several AIDS benefits, but I’m not going to do AIDS benefits to prove to something that I’m not antigay. Some of the most creative people in this country are gay and have given great things. I have people on my family who are gay. I have people in my life, who have been in my life before any of this stuff went on, who are gay. A couple of the people I write with are gay, and they have been ever since I met them.”
I don’t know if Donna Summer made those comments. In 1991, New York magazine repeated the comments and reported them as fact. Summer filed a $50 million against the magazine for libel. The suit was settled out of court.
I don’t know if Donna Summer made those comments. I do know that she has a fantastic catalog of music. I get so much joy from her records and I’m not going to let horrible comments that she may not have said take away that joy. It’s not a matter of forgiving her – she’s the Christian, not me. I just choose to not malign the woman over comments I have no proof she made. I choose to focus on the positive things she bought to my life, for life is too short. Summer was only 63 when she died in 2012.
I don’t know if Donna Summer made those comments, but I do know that making a playlist of only twenty of her songs (okay, twenty-two – one is a medley) was a challenge for this big fan. Here is what I came up with. Enjoy it! However, you choose to celebrate Donna Summer’s birthday this evening, do it safely. Have a happy!
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