March 13 2013 12:00 AM

More than the Queen of Disco, Donna Summer was a versatile vocalist who challenged her audience

Thursday, May 17 — I cannot tell you where I was the first time I heard The
Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” or Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” or
Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” But I will always remember that day in May
of 1979 when I was stuck at home with the flu, bundled up in bed and listening
to WGRD-FM. The DJ excitedly announced he had just received the new Donna
Summer single and promised something like “you’re gonna love this one!” Then he
cued up “Hot Stuff” — and my little bedside radio practically exploded from the

Who would put thundering guitars on a disco record? What kind of music was
this? In short, it was quintessentially Donna Summer. Although she may have
been hailed (and rightfully so) as the Queen of Disco, Summer was always
willing to venture outside of her realm. Shuffle through her albums: You’ll
find forays into jazz (“Lush Life” on the 1982 “Donna Summer” LP), big-band
swing (the title track of “I Remember Yesterday”), Motown-inspired soul and New
Wave. Whereas other artists were content to maybe dip a toe in the disco waters,
Summer created entire disco song-cycles, including an ambitious, luxuriant
two-disc pop-opera-with-a-beat, “Once Upon a Time.” She not only ruled the
dancefloor, she expanded its boundaries again and again.

Summer died today at the age of 63.

When the Boston-born singer first cracked the charts, there was no reason to
believe she would be anything more than a one-hit wonder, something disco
produced a lot of. The sultry, slow-boiling “Love to Love You Baby” introduced
her to the masses as an alternately purring and whispery chanteuse who
punctuated her lyrics with lengthy, orgasmic moans. For 1975, that was highly
erotic, even controversial material, but although Summer went back to the same
well a few more times with “Try Me, I Know We Can Make It” and a surprisingly
steamy cover of Barry Manilow’s “Could It Be Magic,” it turned out she had more
on her mind than carnal knowledge.

With collaborators Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte, Summer revitalized the pop
scene, bringing the churning, burbling synthesizers of European Kraftwerk-style
dance music to American ears in songs like “I Feel Love” and “Down Deep
Inside.” From 1977 to 1980, Summer, Moroder, Bellotte and Harold Faltermeyer
created a stunning string of hits, several of which brought them Grammys: “I
Love You,” “Last Dance,” “Heaven Knows,” “MacArthur Park,” “Hot Stuff,” “Bad
Girls,” “Dim All the Lights” and “On the Radio.”

Even more impressive was
Summer’s growth as an artist. No longer was she pigeonholed as the
heavy-breathing siren; she had demonstrated genuine strength and versatility as
a singer, even holding her own against Barbra Streisand on the chart-topping
1979 duet, “No More Tears (Enough is Enough).” Summer’s “Live and More” album
showed she was not, like many disco stars, a creature of the studio — she could
belt with the best of them, then turn around and deliver sweet interpretations
of “I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good” or George Gershwin’s “The Man I Love.”
Summer also wrote or co-wrote much of her material, including the four superb
ballads (“On My Honor,” “There Will Always Be a You,” “All Through the Night”
and “My Baby Understands”) that make up the third side of her 1979 “Bad Girls”

“Bad Girls” remains an essential album of its time, right up there with
Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours,” The Eagles’ “Hotel California” and the “Saturday
Night Fever” soundtrack. But although it was Summer’s biggest seller, she would
not attempt to duplicate its formula. After battling exhaustion and an
addiction to prescription drugs, Summer wed Casablanca
Records labelmate Bruce Sudano in 1980. Around the same time, she
the music world with the announcement that she was a born-again Christian and
that she would not be making disco records any longer.

Instead, she moved to Geffen Records and began pushing her music toward rock
and electronica. Her spiritual journey is chronicled in the underrated 1980
album, “The Wanderer,” in which she strips away the glamor of life in the fast
lane to expose the angst and avarice beneath it in songs like the frenzied,
hard-rocking “Running For Cover” and the eerie, ethereal “Grand Illusion,” in
which her mezzo-soprano voice floats like a ghost through Faltermeyer’s forest
of shivery synthesizers. Critics loved the record, but many of Summer’s fans
were confused and Geffen executives were displeased with her change of
direction: The label shelved Summer’s similarly adventurous follow-up album,
“I’m a Rainbow,” which was finally released almost 15 years after it was

No stranger to controversy, Summer weathered a storm of negative publicity
after a Village Voice concert reviewer charged her with making homophobic
remarks at a show in 1983. She denied the allegations, telling a reporter from
The Advocate that she had originally misunderstood the severity of AIDS before
she lost many friends to the disease.

“A couple of the people I write with
are gay, and they have been ever since I met them,” she said. “What people want
to do with their own bodies is their personal preference. I’m not going to
stand in judgment about what the Bible says about someone else’s life. I’ve got
things in my own life I’ve got to clean up. What’s in your life is your

Aside from occasional hits like “She Works Hard For the
Money” and “Love is in Control (Finger on the Trigger),” Summer spent most of
the 1980s in commercial limbo, making records that sold modestly and got
passable reviews. As the decade drew to a close, she teamed up with the
then-hot production team of Mike Stock, Matt
Aitken and Pete Waterman for the “Another Place and Time” album, which featured
her last major American radio hit, “This Time I Know It’s For Real.”

But Summer still had one more comeback to make. In 2008, after more than a
decade away from the studio, she released “Crayons,” which hit No. 17 on the
Billboard album chart and produced substantial club hits in “Stamp Your Feet,”
“I’m a Fire” and “Fame (The Game).” Summer was reportedly working on more new
music recently.

In the spring of 1989, I was on a business trip in Deptford,
N.J. I remember getting in a cab, only to find the driver had the radio
blaring. I was about to politely complain, until Summer’s “This Time I Know
It’s For Real” came on. “Whaddya know?” the cabbie squawked. “Donna Summer’s
back!” “She certainly is,” I agreed.

But for those of us who grew up in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Donna Summer had never
gone anywhere. She was always around: on the radio, in the clubs, or in our

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