Donna Summer Saw and Sounded Bliss
Donna Summer

Photo: Echoes/Redferns

In his September 20, 1975 dance music column for Record World Magazine, writer Vince Aletti bore witness to it, like one of those video cameras that capture the true strength of Mother Nature. He was writing about the phenomenon of a new singer on the collective psyche of the New York Disco Pool, which counts everyone from David Mancuso to dozens of East Coast club DJs among its body. A sidelong track was cued up, the orchestral strings heaved as they were wont to do, a synth soared, but then a sylph purred out: “Ohhh, love to love you baby.” Everyone at the Pool rushed to the booth to ask: “What is that?”

“Summer saw and sounded bliss, conceived of a future not just full of love but full of feeling.”

‘It’ was the voice of LaDonna Adrian Gaines, and within the month, everyone in discotheques ranging from Hollywood, Florida to Chicago to New York City would know her by her stage name, Donna Summer. Within the year, like a heroine in a fairy tale, Donna Summer would rise from failed Broadway star to become disco’s reigning queen, a title she never relinquished until a new generation of similarly sensuous female artists like Madonna and Whitney Houston rose to the top of the pop charts in the next decade. Even the news that Donna Summer lost her battle with lung and breast cancer at the age of 63 yesterday does little to diminish that voice. It was a clarion, lush, transcendent thing, a force of nature and of humanity that can still send dancefloors around the world to rapture.

Ladonna Gaines was born in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston to a butcher and schoolteacher and sang in the church choir, where at one point (as she recounts in her biography) while singing during mass, she had an epiphany: “At some point after I heard my voice come out I felt like God said to me, ‘Donna, you’re going to be very, very famous.’ And I just knew from that day on I was going to be famous.”

Such success did not come right away, as in the late ’60s, Summer lost out in her audition for the role of Dionne in the original production of Hair to another future disco diva, Melba Moore. But she was offered the part in the German production of the musical and soon moved to Munich. She sang in other German productions, married, became a mother, divorced and anglicized her new surname, Summer. And while singing backup for Three Dog Night, she met the acquaintance of producers Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte. They cut an album of folk pop together in 1974 before Summer approached them with another song idea she had. Here’s the story of “Love To Love You Baby,” as recounted in Alice Echols book Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture:

Summer agreed to record a demo of the song—in a blackened studio, on the floor, without any crew members to embarrass her as she pretended to give herself over to orgasmic ecstasy. Summer saw herself as a theatrical singer, and she later revealed that she had gotten through the experience of recording the song by acting a role: she imagined that she was Marilyn Monroe in the throes of passion.

Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder

Donna Summer with Giorgio Moroder. Photo: Echoes/Redferns

By that point, the side-long disco song was not necessarily a new innovation, nor was the aural equivalent of a sexual soundtrack much of a novelty either. And years before, Serge Gainsbourg and his lover Jane Birkin had simulated ‘le petite morts’ on their banned 1969 single “Je T’Aime (Moi Non Plus).” But the idea of a woman seeking her own pleasure (seen scratching her own seven-year itch on the album cover) and climaxing again and again and again (Time counted 22 orgasms, BBC 23) for seventeen sumptuous minutes was something new. She had hit not just her own g-spot, but an entire nation’s.

A fully liberated woman, God’s word and her voice held true and Donna Summer became very, very famous, whether she was releasing weighty albums like A Love Trilogy, or an album based upon the four seasons, or updating Cinderella for disco dancers, while making them all seem effortless and featherweight. Such was Summer’s golden touch during that belle époque that she even made the cumbersome “MacArthur Park” into yet another number one hit. And songs about hookers, waitresses, Sunset Strip sixteen year-olds and other bad girls continued to give Summers platinum hits even at the end of disco’s run.

But it was on another concept album, 1977’s I Remember Yesterday, that Summer attained the absolute zenith of dance music. There were songs that dressed up in period dress and brought back nostalgia for the 1940s, the 1950s or the early ’60s, but it was when Summer and Moroder-Bellotte conceived of the future of dance music with a song simply called “I Feel Love” that they revolutionized the form. By that point in the decade, with examples running the gamut from Planet of the Apes, Soylent Green, The Omega Man, and Logan’s Run to the Dark Star looming in Star Wars, who in their right mind conceived of the future as anything other than abject and total dystopia?

And yet Summer saw and sounded bliss, conceived of a future not just full of love but full of feeling. Is there anyone in the 21st century imagining more love and feeling emanating from any of their social networks? Nevermind that she was dueting with Moroder’s merciless modular Moog programming that pounded out a machinistic arpeggiated beat for eight glorious minutes, Summer felt love. And such serotonin floods the ears of whoever hears it, from here to eternity. Or, as another classic Donna Summer song puts it: “Our love will last forever.”

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