Donna Summer changed pop music. In an industry where stardom is ephemeral and great singers can struggle to be heard, Donna ensured she would always be remembered by breaking new boundaries and creating iconic songs that still influence music four decades after they were first released. There are no shortage of powerhouse soul divas, so what made Donna stand out from the crowd? Her career had its ups and downs, but she was always seemed able to create another cool pop moment and reclaim the spotlight. When I heard the sad news about her death, like many people I reached for my Donna records and needed to hear my favourite song. It was then I realised the quiet impact she had made on me over the years. I couldn't choose just one, there were just too many brilliant songs that I love. So here is my personal top ten countdown celebrating the gifts of music given to us by the truly legendary Donna Summer.
10 - Love To Love You Baby (1975)
The song that started it all for Donna, she was a struggling newly-signed artist when she approached producer Giorgio Moroder with an idea for this song, which she planned to sell to another artist. He recorded her demo version, where she channelled Marilyn Monroe to create the sultry, sexy vibe she wanted. Moroder was so bowled over with her version he urged her to release it. Donna was signed to the ultra-cool Casablanca label and the 17-minute version of the single became one of the first big hit 12" singles, while the single edit soared up the charts, despite many radio bans owing to its racy moans and groans. For me this marks the dawn of the disco era, Donna had brought sex into the pop charts, onto the dancefloor and into your home. She would never repeat the vocal style she utilised on this track, which ensures it remains a unique moment in pop. Iconic.
9 - Love Is In Control (Finger On The Trigger) (1982)
Donna recorded a whole double album in 1981, called I'm A Rainbow, which was shelved by her new record company, Geffen, who could not see any hits on it. They arranged for Donna to work with super-hot producer Quincy Jones, who was coming off the huge success of Michael Jackson's Off The Wall album. This was the first single off the album they made, called simply Donna Summer, and it succeeded in returning Donna to the charts in a big way. It has all the Quincy hallmarks and Donna puts in a strong vocal, even if it now conjures up images of legwarmers and wet-gel perms. Who cares, it's poptastic! Funky.
8 - This Time I Know It's For Real (1989)
Donna's career took a dive in the mid-eighties when it was claimed she said that AIDS was God's punishment for the immoral lifestyle of homosexuals. She later vehemently denied that she ever said this, though her many gay fans were angered that it took her a few years to set the record straight. Mass burnings of Donna Summer records were a frequent sight in gay neighbourhoods for a while, but us gays are nothing if not forgiving. Donna's next comeback would be a tough one in these circumstances and she opted to work with Britain's latest hit factory, Stock Aitken Waterman. They were at the peak of their success when Donna signed on and they created a whole album for her from their one backing track. There was a true gem on the album, the first single which returned Donna to the top ten on both sides of the Atlantic. Again her vocal shines and this was definitely one of the finest SAW compositions. Man it sounds dated now, but I still love it, a sing-a-long classic. A second album was planned before Donna fell out with the SAW boys, if you want to know what we missed, check out Lonnie Gordon's SAW songs, I would have loved to hear Donna do Happenin' All Over Again, oh well. Effortless.
7 - She Works Hard For The Money (1983)
Donna famously got the idea for this song when she met a bathroom attendant and had the thought, "boy, she works hard for the money". She and her producer then immediately wrote out the idea for the song on toilet paper and the rest is pop history. Donna's ability as a songwriter is often overlooked, but this track proved she had a good ear for a pop tune and was more than just a pretty voice. This was the first Donna single I owned, I'd previously had her On The Radio: Greatest Hits Volume I & II out on permanent loan from Great Yarmouth Public Library, but I now had my own cash. I worked hard for that money. That's why I liked this song! It is one of Donna's more rock moments, she could turn on the rock growl with the best of them, just check out Hot Stuff if you doubt me. It was a huge US hit for Donna and is another iconic moment. Heartfelt.
6 - I Feel Love (1977)
This was the song that changed everything. It was the first hit song to feature an entirely synthesised backing track, created by the electro-maestro Moroder. No less a visionary than Brian Eno heard it and proclaimed "I have heard the sound of the future". However, for me it is not just the innovative backing track that makes this song a game changer. Donna provided the template for creating profound human connections, despite the machine-made music. Her vocal is amazing, it takes the hypnotic groove of the track and lifts it to a state of euphoria. Every singer that followed her owes her a debt for her performance on this song. Donna created the idea of a pop diva on this track and in my mind nobody has ever taken that crown. Definitive.
5 - No More Tears (Enough Is Enough) (1979)
I've already paid homage to this track in my Barbra blog, but for comedic reasons I didn't give sufficient credit to Donna's contribution to this phenomenal song. Hers is a very different voice to Barbra's, yet they meld together beautifully on this track. Many songs get labelled as anthems, but this is the real deal. There's nothing so awe inspiring as two killer vocalists trying to outsing each other and while Barbra undoubtedly steals some of the key moments, Donna is more than a match for her and delivers some less-showy, but equally spine-tingly sensations. The best pop duet ever. Anthemic.
4 - Dinner With Gershwin (1987)
Donna's time at Geffen records was bumpy to say the least, with neither artist or label happy with the working relationship. In such an atmosphere it's understandable that Donna's career was a bit hit-and-miss throughout that period, which is a crying shame. Her final Geffen album, after they foolishly decided to pass on the SAW collaboration, would end up being 1987's All Systems Go. The album was a hotchpotch of styles and songs recorded over the previous few years. An undoubted highlight though was this Brenda Russell penned track, where Donna lists a number of impossible things she would like to do, including getting next to you. It is a one of Russell's best songs and quirky in all the right ways. Donna sings it with just the right amount of humour and sexiness and the backing still sounds fresh. I played this record to death and it shows what Donna could have achieved given the right support. Superb.
3 - On The Radio (1979)
This is vintage Donna Summer, it has everything you could ever ask for: a great lyric, fantastic backing track, perfect pop hook and that miraculous voice. I love a good story song and this is one of the best, it takes the great idea of a lost letter being read on the radio and weaves it into a break-up and make-up. It also has one of the most addictive choruses, you can't help but join in on the "whoa-oh-oh"s. It is a real showcase for Donna's vocal gifts, the transcendent mix of clarity, strength, tone and vibrato that she makes seem so effortless. Glorious.
2 - State Of Independence (1982)
It was a close call for the top spot in this countdown, as this is as close to pop perfection as can be. It shouldn't work; it is a New Age track from Jon & Vangelis, produced by Quincy Jones and sung by the Queen of Disco. That it does is primarily due to Donna's simply beautiful vocal, where she wrings true passion and meaning out of the super-odd lyrics. Quincy does a great job on the backing track, which though very early eighties still sounds somehow timeless. The wonderful choir lifts the song to the point of making this an almost religious experience. You might have heard of some of the backing singers, Michael, Stevie, Dionne and Lionel, for example. Classic.
1 - MacArthur Park (1978)
Well, it seems like I have decided on my favourite Donna Summer song after all, though it's been a tough choice. And all the ones that I had to leave out, Bad Girls, Hot Stuff, Could It Be Magic, The Last Dance, I could go on. So why MacArthur Park you ask me? Have you heard it? It's crazy! Cakes melting in the rain, green icing, what is it all about? Who cares, it's bloody brilliant! Written by one of my very favourite songwriters, Jimmy Webb, it is the weirdness of the lyric that makes it magical. It's a break-up song of course, and whose head is really on straight in a real break-up? It captures the pain of lost love perfectly as far as I'm concerned. Donna delivers one of the all-time brilliant vocal performances on this track, it truly is sublime. It is totally over-the-top in the best way possible, forget the cakes, the kitchen sink and everything else has been thrown into this mix. The 17 minute MacArthur Park suite is a must-hear moment for anybody who loves disco and if you don't, why are you reading my blog? Epic.
Although Donna rightly deserves to be acknowledged as the Queen of Disco, her legacy goes far wider and much deeper than that. Like all great singers, Donna could sing anything in any genre at any time. Donna Summer is part of the fabric of our lives, the music she created is interweaved in our memories and our hearts. Sleep well Miss Summer, you will never be forgotten.
If you enjoyed reading this blog, please consider forwarding it or linking to it from your Facebook or Twitter account. Also you can hear the tracks mentioned in this week's blog on my Spotify account at the following link: Remembering Donna Summer