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Empowering pop diva defined the disco era

May 18, 2012|August Brown and Todd Martens
  • As a disco icon, Donna Summer projected an empowering African American femininity that would influence artists from Grace Jones to Beyonce and Rihanna.
As a disco icon, Donna Summer projected an empowering African American… (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles…)

In 1975, Donna Summer released a pop single unlike any before it.

The singer, then an unknown in the U.S., was living in Germany and working with Italian producer Giorgio Moroder and lyricist Pete Bellotte. Together they came up with a breathy, minimalist number that sounded flagrantly sexy.

Summer's coos acted as musical erotica atop a simple, four-on-the-floor drum beat. "Love to Love You Baby," all 17 minutes of it, set a template that would ignite Summer's career, and a style that defined an era: disco.

She became the face and voice of one of the most powerful music and cultural movements in America. As a disco icon, she projected an empowering African American femininity that would influence artists from Grace Jones to Beyonce and Rihanna, and help make her a figurehead of gay club life. As an artist, her music was incalculably influential.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, May 22, 2012 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
Donna Summer: The obituary of singer Donna Summer in the May 18 LATExtra section described her self-titled 1982 album as her first for the Geffen Records label. Her first Geffen album was 1980's "The Wanderer."

Her singles with Moroder like "I Feel Love" are considered early electronic dance music, now a defining sound of today's top-grossing pop. And she survived the disco backlash of the late 1970s and early '80s to remain one of pop's most pioneering artists, whose legacy can still be heard in Lady Gaga, the Electric Daisy Carnival and countless nightclubs around the world.

Summer, 63, died Thursday at her Naples, Fla., home after a long struggle with cancer. In a statement, her family confirmed her death.

One of seven siblings in a churchgoing family that encouraged spirituality and singing in equal measure, she was born LaDonna Andrea Gaines in suburban Boston on New Year's Eve in 1948.

An early fan of gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, Summer sang in a psychedelic rock band called Crow in the late 1960s. She left home for New York City at 18 and quickly landed a role in a touring production of the Broadway show "Hair."

She spent the next three years living and touring in Europe. While there she met and married singer Helmuth Sommer, and took a variation of his last name as her stage name. In Europe she also met Moroder, whose early dance tracks were making an impact there.

"Love to Love You Baby" was their first hit together. A shortened version of it that was released in 1975 by Casablanca, then a hot label, peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard singles chart.

"Those groans and moans were the hardest things I ever had to record," she told The Times in 1976. "At first I couldn't play the song at home because I couldn't cope with hearing myself groan. It made me very uneasy that I was making something public out of feelings and sounds that should be private."

The song was the first of a string that not only helped bring disco to the mainstream, but predicted the rise of techno and house music. Among them were "I Feel Love," "Bad Girls," "She Works Hard for the Money," and "On the Radio."

"She was never happy being associated as a sex image with 'Love to Love You Baby,' " said Larry Harris, who co-founded Casablanca Records with Neil Bogart. "She had a religious background, so that made her uncomfortable. People always talked about the sex song, and she wanted to be remembered for more than that. She will be. She never stopped."

Her work with Moroder bridged sexually adventurous pop with early synth experimentation and the soul and R&B music Summer was raised with.

"Donna Summer set a template for the dance diva," said Jason Bentley, DJ and music director at KCRW-FM (89.9). "Her unique pairing with Giorgio Moroder's techno sensibility set her apart and was an early example of electronic music influencing pop. Everything was sexually charged and she served up a lot of timeless anthems."

Summer's decadent outfits and empowering image helped make her one of the first pop musicians embraced by gay and straight audiences alike.

"With a song like 'Love to Love You Baby,' she did something culturally important too," said Robert Santelli, executive director of the Grammy Museum. "She bridged the gap between the gay and straight audiences in disco. She crossed over into pop as well, and when a Donna Summer song came on, she would bring both straight and gay out there dancing."

Summer broke down musical borders as well. In 1979, she was paired with Barbra Streisand, already a veteran star of the stage and screen, for the duet "No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)." And when Summer released the double album "Bad Girls" in 1979, her song "Hot Stuff" won a Grammy for best rock vocal performance.

After giving birth to her daughter Mimi in 1973 and divorcing Sommer shortly thereafter, she married her musical collaborator Bruce Sudano in 1980, and had two daughters: Brooklyn and Amanda. Her husband and three daughters survive her.

In 1980, Summer left Casablanca to join the newly formed Geffen Records. Her self-titled 1982 debut for the label featured Bruce Springsteen on guitar in "Protection," a song he also wrote. Summer moved from Los Angeles to Nashville in the mid-1990s, bolstering a lifelong interest in country music; she co-wrote Dolly Parton's country hit "Starting Over Again."

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