The Guide to Getting into Donna Summer
The Queen of Disco's career is much more diverse than you probably realize. Here's how to begin.
Illustration by Efi Chalikopoulou
Before she passed in 2012, Donna Summer's career spanned decades. Though she's most commonly associated with the disco boom of the late 70s, Summer's career actually began in rock music. Starting her music career in the 60s in a rock band named Crow, Summer moved to New York City, joined a touring production of the musical Hair and ended up in Europe where she met her longtime collaborators Pete Bellotte and Giorgio Moroder. Her first album, Lady of the Night, was recorded in Munich and it had influences of rock, folk, and dance pop. It wasn't until 1975's recording of the erotic, pulsating "Love to Love You Baby" that Summer became the reigning queen of disco music.
When disco music's popularity waned, Summer continued to release material that was less high-profile than her disco records, but her experimentation in new wave, 80s rock, hip-hop, R&B, gospel, and reggae produced some of Summer's best music and much of it still isn't well-known to casual fans. So how does one dive into Summer's vast music career when there's so much available and so little writing about her non-disco eras? Here's a dive into seven different sides of Summer.
So you want to get into: Mainstream Donna Summer?
By mainstream Donna Summer, I mean the disco hits you probably already know and love so well. Her first big hit "Love to Love You Baby," full of 22 simulated orgasms according to Time, is probably her best known. It's been used in commercials, inexplicably covered by the Brady Bunch, and also sampled by Beyoncé in the hit single "Naughty Girl" from her debut album. "Hot Stuff" and "She Works Hard for the Money" are also songs that have been used heavily in pop culture, the latter of was used to sell Whoppers in 90s Burger King commercial.
It's easiest to dive into Summer's mainstream, radio-friendly hits with her first greatest hits album On the Radio. The album debuted the single "On the Radio," written for Adrian Lyne's directorial debut Foxes starring Jodie Foster, which quickly became another one of Summer's popular hits. These songs being radio-friendly aren't a knock against them. Summer's ability to craft dancefloor hits that as well in drug and booze-filled clubs as they did on the radio was the power of her frequent collaborations with Moroder and Bellotte.
Playlist: "Love to Love You Baby" 12" Version / "I Feel Love" / "She Works Hard for the Money" / "Hot Stuff" / "Last Dance" / "On the Radio" / "Bad Girls" / "I Love You" / "MacArthur Park"
Apple Music | Spotify
So you want to get into: Disco Goddess Donna Summer?
Donna Summer was known mainly for her disco hits. But most people only know the singles that played on the radio. She has a full catalog of songs that dominated the club scene in the late 70s, even if those songs never fully crossed over to radio. In particular, her concept album Four Seasons of Love is a disco masterpiece. Telling the story of a love affair through the four seasons, she took inspiration from Marilyn Monroe and Scarlett O'Hara for a series of sultry songs like "Spring Affair" and "Autumn Changes."
Of course, if you want a disco deep dive you'll need to listen the 12-inch single versions of many of her singles, like "I Feel Love." These were the records DJs played in clubs, and many of Summer's extended singles were released on these. Another of these includes Summer's duet with Barbara Streisand, recorded for Streisand's album Wet and for Summer's compilation album On the Radio. The women never performed it live after it was record, but Streisand included it in her 2012 tour after Summer's death.
Playlist: "I Feel Love" 12" Version / "I Remember Yesterday" / "Journey to the Center of Your Heart" / "Queen for a Day" / "Rumour Has It" / "I'm a Fire" / "Dim All the Lights" 12" Version / "Walk Away" 12" Version / "Now I Need You" / "Working the Midnight Shift" / "Spring Affair" "Autumn Changes" / "No More Tears (Enough is Enough)" 12" Version
Apple Music | Spotify
So you want to get into: Erotic Donna Summer?
After the success of "Love to Love You Baby," Summer's became known as the "First Lady of Love." Her subsequent disco songs became eroticially charged, with plenty of simulated orgasms over her beats. Summer abandoned these types of songs in 1979 when she became a born-again Christian, but for several albums in the late 70s her records were borderline pornographic.
A Love Trilogy is probably her most erotic album. It displayed her as an angel on the cover with wings, but the album's content was much more sinful. On the track "Prelude to Love," she coos the lyrics, "I want you to come… come… come… come into my arms." On "Try Me, I Know We Can Make It" she revels in being in her lover's arms so she can share his love. These are the songs that catapulted Summer to the head of the pack in the disco scene.
So you want to get into: Eurovision Donna Summer?
When Summer joined Geffen Records in the 80s, she was forced to part ways with her longtime collaborators Moroder and Bellotte. This opened the door for Summer to experiment in other genres, like the synth heavy music that ruled the pop charts in that decade. Though Moroder was European, he never really crafted songs for her that sounds like she could advance to the final rounds of Eurovision. He was strictly a disco, electronic man. In the 80s, Summer began to embrace full-on stadium synthpop and it's pretty damn good.
Cat Without Claws dabbles in the pop genre with "Oh Billy Please" and the titular track, but when Summer released 1989's Another Place and Time, she was a full on Europop goddess, ready to compete with the likes of Kylie Minogue. Which was to be expected, since the album was produced by Minogue producers S/A/W, who also worked with Bananarama, Dead Alive, and Rick Astley. "This Time I Know It's For Real" sounds like a follow-up to Astley's "Never Gonna Give You Up" and rocketed to the top of the dance charts. While the album is now relatively obscure, it's a must if you want to hear Summer embody everything you love about 80s pop.
Playlist: "This Time I Know It's For Real" / "Lady of the Night" / "There Goes My Baby" / "Oh Billy Please" / "I Don't Wanna Get Hurt" / "The Only One" / "Love's About to Change My Heart" / "All Systems Go" / "Love Shock" / "Supernatural Love" / "Cats Without Claws"
Apple Music | Spotify
So you want to get into: R&B Diva Donna Summer?
In the 80s and 90s, Summer took more advantage of her soulful voice and began to dabble in R&B and soul. It began with her self-titled album Donna Summer, which was produced by Quincy Jones. She would continue the trend on All Systems Go, though her career took a bit of a downturn in the mid-80s due to rumors that she was homophobic. In her new born-again state, Summer was accused of saying that gays were sinners and that the AIDS crisis was a "divine ruling," which led to picketing of her concerts and burning of her albums in San Francisco.
As Summer prepared to release 1991's Mistaken Identity, the rumors that she was homophobic surfaced again, fueled by an article in New York Magazine. She sued New York for $50 million, but eventually settling out of court. The bad press was responsible for Mistaken Identity tanking, which is a shame, because Mistake Identity is great simply because it's the most R&B-laced record of her career, with flourishes of 90s hip-hop and beats that C&C Music Factory would die for. If you're looking for a Summer that could've competed with the likes of Paula Abdul and Jody Watley if given the chance, then R&B Donna Summer is the playlist for you.
Playlist: "Love is in Control (Finger on the Trigger)" / "The Woman in Me" / "Dinner with Gershwin" / "Get Ethnic" / "Crayons" / "Only the Fool Survives" / "Fascination" / "When Love Cries" / "Work That Magic" / "Body Talk" / "Mistaken Identity" / "Mr. Music" / "The Queen is Back"
Apple Music | Spotify
So you want to get into: Gospel and Inspirational Donna Summer?
Part of Summer's faith awakening in 1979 was a return to the church, where she had her first singing debut in Boston at the age of 8. Throughout her career, she would attempt to sing more gospel music, but her past as an erotic disco singer gave gospel circles pause as to whether or not she was really down with Jesus. Unable to release a full gospel album, Summer instead interspersed gospel and inspirational songs on her albums.
She was awarded two Grammys in the '80s for Best Inspirational Performance, an award given out from 1976 - 1986, originally called Best Gospel or Other Religious Recording when it debuted in 1962. She won back to back with "He's a Rebel," a song about Jesus from She Works Hard for the Money and for "Forgive Me" from Cats Without Claws. She only has a handful of these songs, but if you want to look deeper into how Summer expressed her faith in music, look no further.
So you want to get into: Rock n Roll Donna Summer?
One of Summer's best genres she experimented in outside of disco was rock music. In 1980, she won the Grammys' first award for Best Female Rock Vocal Performance with "Hot Stuff." Most of the album Bad Girls was a mix of rock and disco, but it wasn't until the album The Wanderer where she, Moroder, and Bellotte fully embraced '80s synth rock. Alongside their usual disco hits, Summers had songs like "Cold Love," "Nightlife," and "Running for Cover." She won another Grammy for Best Female Rock Vocal Performance with "Cold Love."
Her initially shelved final album with Moroder, I'm a Rainbow, also featured a couple of rock hits on it. But one of her surprise entries in the genre is "Protection," a song Bruce Springsteen wrote for Summer's self-titled album. Originally planned as a duet between them, their vocal styles didn't really end up sounding good together, so Summer performed the song herself. It's one of her best songs and a great, underrated 80s rock jam.
Ira Madison III is a culture writer for MTV News, GQ, and The Daily Beast. Follow him on Twitter.