It was never just disco with Donna Summer. A unique trailblazer that defied categorization, she had one of the great voices that mattered. Thankfully the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame realized this with her 2013 induction.
In a career spanning 34 years of albums, Summer (born LaDonna Adrian Gaines in Boston, Massachusetts) effortlessly glided from rock (Hot Stuff), R&B (Finger On The Trigger), pop (On The Radio), dance (Last Dance), the theatrical (MacArthur Park), and beyond. She was also a great songwriter, and was the sole writer of Dim All The Lights. I Feel Love changed the face of club music, predating the synthesizers of new wave and helped birth all electro-pop to come. The musical heiresses to the Bad Girls album are countless (Madonna, Beyonce, Rihanna, Katy Perry, Shakira, etc). She Works Hard For The Money was the first music video by a black female artist put into heavy rotation on MTV. With a new Donna Summer album (sometimes double albums) released once or twice a year from 1975 - 1984, selling a total of 130 million albums worldwide, she worked VERY hard for the money.
While Summer's anthems remain pop culture staples, there's a world of her music that most may not be familiar with. In honor of her induction, and what would've been her 64th birthday on December 31, here are 20 of Summer's best singles that missed the Billboard Top 10 including some incredible lesser known tracks. I compiled this list (in no order) with Donna Summer-ologist and songwriter, Mark Nubar, one of the musicians interviewed for the new book, Donna Summer: The Thrill Goes On, A Tribute.
If There Is Music There (1999)
This showstopping live number from the as-yet-unproduced musical "Ordinary Girl" based on Summer's life was taped for VH1's "Live & More Encore" concert.
"I Love You" (1977)
Summer gave her all when singing about love. I Love You (#37 pop) is the magnificent climax of her Once Upon A Time fairy tale concept album.
"Sunset People" (1979)
Summer immortalized West Hollywood's Sunset Strip with this 130 beat per minute (abnormally fast for disco) finale from the Bad Girls album; a forerunner for today's Electronic Dance Music (Black Eyed Peas, David Guetta, Skrillex).
"State Of Independence" (1982)
Produced by Quincy Jones, State of Independence (#41 pop) featured a who's who choir of 1982's finest including Michael Jackson, Michael McDonald, Dionne Warwick, Stevie Wonder, Christopher Cross, Lionel Richie, Kenny Loggins, James Ingram, and others. Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie were inspired to write We Are The World during a break on this session.
Quincy Jones and his choir of stars record the backing vocals:
"The Way We Were" (1978)
From her first #1 album, Live And More, this heartwrenching vocal showcase was arguably richer and more affecting than the Streisand original.
"Spring Affair" (1976)
The 12 inch single was invented for Donna Summer, and hits like "Spring Affair" are why. Her third #1 dance song (#58 pop charts) was groundbreaking, beautiful and expansive, and not what the average pop artist was recording in 1976.
"Our Love" (1979)
The inspiration for New Order's Blue Monday, Our Love featured an irresistible vocal over lean electronica, and would've probably scored Summer another major hit had it been released as a single.
"The Woman In Me" (1982)
This slow burner (#33 pop) ranks as one of Summer's best ballads. Incidentally, this was covered years later by Heart, who are also a 2013 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee.
"Unconditional Love" (1983)
Summer's collaboration with Musical Youth (fresh from Pass The Dutchie) was a delightful reggae-lite confection. (#43 pop)
"Could It Be Magic " (1976)
The first time the public really heard her sing in full voice, Summer recorded this lush melody (based on Chopin's Prelude in C Minor) one year after Barry Manilow's original reached the Top 10. Summer's version peaked at #52 pop, #3 dance.
"Dinner With Gershwin" (1987)
Written by Brenda Russell, this slice of sophisticated, late '80s adult pop was considered a flop (#48) but that was simply because Geffen never really knew how to promote Summer. Inventive musically and lyrically, this lost gem was a highlight of her underrated All Systems Go album.
"I'm A Fire" (2008)
Deservedly returning Summer to #1 on the dance charts, "I'm A Fire" is a sonic, layered journey. The Queen returns in the new millennium sounding as strong than ever.
"Fame (The Game)" (2008)
Summer's powerhouse manifesto of hip hop, rap, dance and arena rock plays like a bold reimagining of Bowie's "Fame," giving her a fifteenth #1 dance single in the process.
"Now I Need You/Working The Midnight Shift" (1977)
A haunting suite that laid the groundwork for generations of electro and trance artists from Aphex Twin to Pet Shop Boys to Goldfrapp, "Now I Need You/Working The Midnight Shift" is an 11-plus minute medley of the most hypnotic, pulsating disco ever put to record.
"Try Me, I Know We Can Make It" (1976)
This was actually three Summer tracks seamlessly strung together into one ethereal dance single; a building block for the disco sound to come. (#1 dance, #80 pop)
"Tearing Down The Walls" (1987)
Recorded during the All System Go sessions, this buried treasure reminiscent of Starpoint's "Object Of My Desire," could have set radio ablaze in 1987, but was never released.
"I'm A Rainbow" (1981)
Another buried treasure. Astonishingly, at the height of her popularity, Donna Summer's double album "I'm A Rainbow" was squarely rejected by Geffen as lacking commercial appeal, and was subsequently shelved until its belated release in 1996. The title ballad was a highlight.
"There Goes My Baby" (1984)
Summer's 1980s output is often overlooked next to her 70s disco classics, but this Drifters' classic percolates with a rich vocal by Summer over a backdrop of Yaz-like synths. (#21 pop)
"When Love Cries" (1991)
Shades of "Love To Love You Baby" framed in an early 90s Lisa Stansfield-esque house-lite beat, Summer's final Hot 100 hit (#77 pop) smoldered.
"I Do Believe (I Fell In Love)" (1983)
The mesmerizing final track from the "She Works Hard For The Money" album shows Summer creating a blueprint for the Mariah Carey's and Whitney Houston's that were to follow.