Saturday, May 19, 2012

Remembering Donna Summer

Today we have a bit of sadness to mark this edition of Seventies Saturday.

To paraphrase from the title of her 1979 song that featured the Brooklyn Dreams, Heaven knows that this week it welcomed an angelic voice to its eternal chorus. LaDonna Adrian Gaines, best known across the globe by her stage name of Donna Summer, passed away on Thursday at age 63 following a battle with cancer. She is survived by her husband Bruce Sudano, their daughters Brooklyn and Amanda, and her daughter Mimi from a previous marriage.

When I got the news, from reading my Twitter feed that morning, I was very much taken aback. We've lost so many great contributors to music over the past few years, some to tragic accidents but others to such terrible disease and illness. Very often they are passing at, what I feel, is a very young age. It seems like lately not a week goes by without the news of someone passing on. These were the people who contributed to the soundtrack of my life from the mid 70's to the late 80's, the time when I really developed most of my taste in music. It really makes one pause.

As so many readers of this blog know, my love of dance music was born out of the embers of the disco inferno. No one turned up the heat of the dance floor more than its reining queen Donna Summer. On my way home from work, I switched over my van's Sirius/XM to channel 15 - the Studio 54 Radio channel. Between the up-tempo, feel good music was listeners calling in to share their thoughts and stories of the beloved entertainer.

Did you know that she actually got her start by singing backup for Three Dog Night and recorded a number of non-album singles from 1971 to 1974? I learned that while I was researching this post. Her career really skyrocketed though when she hooked up super-producers Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte, and Casablanca Records president Neil Bogart.

Her first big hit was "Love to Love You Baby" (which you have not truly known if you've only heard the single cut; the nearly seventeen minute album version is an orgasmic experience not to be missed) and the rest is history. From "I Feel Love" to "Last Dance" (from the film Thank God It's Friday which featured Summer as part of an all-star cast) to "MacArthur Park", her music was all over the radio when I was growing up. 1979 was a huge year for her with the releases of the aforementioned "Heaven Knows", "Bad Girls" and "Dim All the Lights".

It was late in 1979, on Christmas Day in fact, that I got my first Donna Summer album. I've mentioned before how I often got albums from family members as gifts during my teenaged years. It was always exciting to tear off the wrapping paper on those large, square shaped, thin gifts. You knew it was an album, and for a second you hoped it was the one you'd been waiting for. That Christmas, it was indeed the collection I had been looking forward to - the double-record vinyl release On the Radio: Greatest Hits Volume 1 and 2. This one had all her dance classics as well as two all-new tracks: the title cut "On the Radio" and an extended version of "No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)", a duet with the legendary Barbra Streisand. I don't have to tell you that I really loved this album. I would put it on my bedroom stereo and work out dance steps, getting lost in the combination of beats and Summer's powerful, confident voice. When my turntable died and I converted over to CDs, this was one of the albums I quickly replaced.

I added to my collection The Casablanca Records Story, a four-disk CD collection with a number of fantastic extended disco hits. Donna Summer, of course, was largely represented in this set with tracks on each of the disks.

Needless to say, I remained a fan of hers throughout the 80's as well by picking up various singles on 45 through my high school years: "The Wanderer", "She Works Hard For the Money" and so many more.

Besides the music, though, what always struck me was how beautiful of a person Donna Summer appeared to be, both in appearance and personality. When I think of her, the first image that comes to mind is her long, black hair with a flower pinned into it on one side and the lights from behind framing her like a halo. That image is so fitting today, I guess. Whenever I would see her on the talk shows (Dinah Shore, Merv Griffen, Mike Douglas, Entertainment Tonight), variety shows, or music programs (like American Bandstand, Soul Train or Solid Gold), she always carried herself with an approachable poise and glamour. She seemed like a genuinely friendly person. That's the way I'll remember her too.

I've already earmarked some of her classic albums from the 70's for download in the very near future. I really want to further explore the depth of her musical legacy; I am confident I will find enjoyment in those tracks as much as I do the hits.

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