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Donna Summer, 12/31/48 - 5/17/12

Posted: 05/17/2012 3:01 pm

Donna Summer died at 63, after a long battle with cancer. More than any other performer of the mid-70s through the 80s, her recordings pushed the envelope of dance music in two ways. On the one hand, she took the underground disco scene out of the clubs and onto the streets, earning some of the earliest pop hits in the genre. On the other, using her pop success as a fulcrum, she moved dance music in a variety of directions -- electronica and dance rock would have been poorer, and might not have existed at all, if it weren't for songs like "I Feel Love" and "Hot Stuff." As a singer, she managed to walk the high-tension wire between sexuality and her gospel roots. And she had a powerful, gospel-infused voice that radio loved.

She also had good taste and good sense in collaborators. She met Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte when the three were working on a Three Dog Night Album. She became a significant artist in parts of Europe (where she lived at the time, having traveled there from New York in a company production of the musical "Hair") with her song "The Hostage," but it was the 1975 song "Love To Love You Baby" -- especially the epic, side-long, 18-minute, remix Moroder did for the album of the same name -- that made her an international sensation. The song, one of the most artistic renderings of the sex act on record, exploded at clubs worldwide, topped the Billboard Dance Music and Disco charts, and hitting #2 and #3 on the Pop and R&B charts respectively.

The song and the album still used the disco conventions of heavy orchestration and production, as did several subsequent songs, which topped the disco charts, but didn't fare as well on the radio. In 1977, Summer, Moroder and Bellotte broke with tradition. They stripped down the track for "I Feel Love" to the relatively new combination of synthesizers and sequencers. It became the first totally electronic dance hit, a forerunner to modern electronica. Like her previous records, it topped the dance charts. However it also broke the pop and R&B top 10, one of the first non-novelty, all-electronic records to this.

After another spate of club hits, Summer started concentrating on the pop market, moving out of the still proudly underground dance music scene. The song "Last Dance," resplendent with the strings and heavy orchestration of disco, but with an un-mixable slow opening, broke the pop and R&B top Ten, followed by an unlikely version of "McArthur Park" that topped the charts.

Moving fully into pop, Summer, Moroder, and Bellotte tapped into the burgeoning new wave with the album Bad Girls, with the title track and "Hot Stuff" topping the pop charts (the latter topped the club charts as well). The former would win a Grammy award for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance in 1978, while the latter went on to win a Grammy for Best Female Rock Vocalist the following year. The album also produced the top ten hit "Dim All the Lights."

While she would not really innovate again, Summer became a hit-making juggernaut through the 80s collaborating with unknowns like Brooklyn Dreams on "Heaven Knows" and Barbra Streisand on "No More Tears (Enough is Enough)." She would land over a dozen more pop hits through the 20th century. She would later go back to her roots, recording several gospel records, winning Best Gospel Other: Incl. Sacred, Religious or Inspirational Recording, Musical or Non-Musical Grammy awards in 1983 and 1984.

By the mid-90s, Summer began to fade from the pop charts, but continued to be a strong performer on the club scene through the Oughties. In 1997, she won a final Grammy award for Best Dance Recording, but continued to place chart topping singles on the club charts through 2008. While she may have slipped from the pop charts, she remained The Queen of Disco through the rest of her life.


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  • Donna Summer

    Singer Donna Summer performs during the David Foster and Friends concert at the Mandalay Bay Events Center October 1, 2011 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

  • Donna Summer

    Singer Donna Summer and musician/producer David Foster perform onstage during the 'Great Performances: Hitman Returns - David Foster & Friends' panel at the PBS portion of the 2011 Winter TCA press tour held at the Langham Hotel on January 9, 2011 in Pasadena, California. (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

  • Donna Summer

    Singer Donna Summer performs onstage during the 'Great Performances: Hitman Returns - David Foster & Friends' panel at the PBS portion of the 2011 Winter TCA press tour held at the Langham Hotel on January 9, 2011 in Pasadena, California. (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

  • Donna Summer

    Singer Donna Summer performs during the David Foster and Friends concert at the Mandalay Bay Events Center October 15, 2010 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

  • Donna Summer

    Singer Donna Summer performs during the David Foster and Friends concert at the Mandalay Bay Events Center October 15, 2010 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

  • Donna Summer

    Donna Summer arrives at the Louis Vuitton Bond Street Maison launch on New Bond Street on May 25, 2010 in London, England. (Photo by Samir Hussein/Getty Images)

  • Donna Summer

    Donna Summer performs at the Nobel Peace Prize Concert at Oslo Spektrum on December 11, 2009 in Oslo, Norway. Tonight's Nobel Peace Prize Concert is hosted by Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith and honours this year's Nobel Peace Prize winner US President Barack Obama. (Photo by Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

  • Donna Summer

    Donna Summer and Will Smith attend the Nobel Peace Prize Concert Press Conference at Plaza Hotel on December 11, 2009 in Oslo, Norway. (Photo by Sandy Young/Getty Images for Nobel Peace Prize)

  • Donna Summer

    Musician Donna Summer performs on stage at the 14th Annual Race To Erase MS 'Dance to Erase MS' charity event at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza on April 13, 2007 in Century City, California. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)

  • American Idol 2008 Grand Finale - Press Room

    Singer Donna Summer poses in the press room during the American Idol Season 7 Grand Finale held at the Nokia Theatre on May 21, 2008 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

  • Donna Summer

    Donna Summer sings God Bless America in the seventh inning stretch of game two of the World Series between the Boston Red Sox and the St. Louis Cardinals on October 24, 2004 at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

  • Donna Summer

    Artist/recording artist Donna Summer attends the opening of her Art Rock exhibit at the Entertainment Gallery in the Farmer's Market complex on October 18, 2003 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

  • Donna Summer

    Donna Summer poses during an in-store appearance to promote her new book 'Ordinary Girl' at Book Soup on Sunset Blvd October 17, 2003 in West Hollywood, California. (Photo by Giulio Marcocchi /Getty Images)

  • Donna Summer

    Recording artist Donna Summer performs May 29, 2003, at the Partnership for Public Service Inaugural Gala at Ciprianis Fortysecond Street in New York City. (Photo by Lawrence Lucier/Getty Images)

  • Donna Summer

    Donna Summer performing on the VH1Diva's 2000: A Tribute to Diana Ross at the Theater Madison Square Garden, April 9, 2000.

  • Donna Summer

 

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