Consider the possibility that Gaines, now reborn as Summer after marrying Austrian actor Helmut Sommer, might have spent the rest of her life as what Bette Davis' Margo Channing disparagingly called a fifth-rate vaudevillian. On occasion, after a few glasses of wine and coaxed by friends, she'd belt "Piece of My Heart" at cast parties. At home, meanwhile, she chewed at the bits of her thwarted ambitions—"standing on the outside not the inside where I wanna be," as she put it later in "Love's Unkind," one of her best early songs and a concise summation of how lust and loneliness play out on the dance floor.
But this wasn't the career that Summer chose upon dumping the Austrian and hooking up with Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte. I'm not sure to what these men responded—the appetite and restlessness of a black American woman émigré?
In the nine albums they recorded that would define years of dance music (and thinking about dance music), Summer the amateur stage actress embodied every feminine archetype conceived by man: princess in her own storyland fantasy (Once Upon a Time), whore (Love to Love You Baby), streetwalker (Bad Girls), sophisticated demimondaine (I Remember Yesterday), flâneur looking for a good beat (The Wanderer). On "Hot Stuff" and about half of 1980's The Wanderer the Janis Joplin belter rocked out, deliriously to a new group of fans on the former, desultorily to her old ones on the latter. And when, at the apex of her power she had had enough of these roles, she said she believed in Jesus. Not even Al Green delivered such a coup.
"Love to Love You Baby," the 1975 international disco smash which stopped one place short of hitting number one on the American singles charts, was the first music commensurate with Summer's protean gifts. The famous orgasm—the coos, moans and sighs—isn't all that sexy by itself; the song's genius is using it as the hook, the chalk mark from which the arrangement sprints forward. Actually, make that arrangements plural. In its 17-minute form "Love to Love You" serves as a tour through every R&B permutation of the '70s to that point: What's Going On atmospherics, Shaft wah-wah guitar, the electric piano noodles of the Michael McDonald-led Doobie Brothers.
In Summer's near wordless performance, voice and music, signifier and signified, fuse. This innovation is especially important in light of the "Queen of Disco" moniker from which Summer herself recoiled during career low points: for being such a queen she didn't mind subsuming her personality. At this stage in her career Summer was content to let the beats be her personality. Listen to Diana Ross' contemporaneous "Love Hangover" and you hear a star performance; listen to "Love to Love You Baby" and you hear a good stage actress letting the text speak through her.
Moroder-Bellotte perfected this form in their next big hit, 1977's "I Feel Love," whose impact was such that Brian Eno, recording his own interpolations of synthesizers and funk in Germany with David Bowie, said, "This single is going to change the sound of club music for the next 15 years." In its phase-shifting thud-thud metronome, it finds the link between gospel and dance music, finding transcendence in submission. A year later Harvey Fuqua and Sylvester were listening, speeding up the electronics on "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)" to match the lust in Sylvester's vocal.
There's not a guitar, bass or drum in sight on "I Feel Love." Just synthesizers and sequencers keyed to a Summer vocal whose higher register could barely articulate the spare lyrics; it's the first time in dance history that backing track and singer worked in such perfect tandem. At the time only Kraftwerk and Neu! made music like this, and like Kraftwerk, "I Feel Love" is often praised, incorrectly, for sounding cold and machine-like. Listen again to the point at which the percussion fades and all that's left is the sequencer. The possibilities of recorded music have rarely sounded this numinous. The adjective applies again to "Working the Midnight Shift," a track from Once Upon a Time which found electronic correlatives for singer-songwriter concerns as old as Woody Guthrie: this time a full Summer libretto depicts the 9-to-5 struggle, the percolating atmospherics like a time clock.
From I Remember Yesterday onwards, Summer abandoned the cog-in-the-machinery approach and began to assert herself as a singer and songwriter. By the time she scored her biggest pop hits off Bad Girls, she had begun to edge closer to Aretha Franklin or Bonnie Raitt—an interpreter and occasional songwriter whose control over the product is never in question. Any one of the millions who bought this1979 smash knows it's got deep cuts that still divide listeners, such as a sidelong ballad sequence on which Summer makes her solo songwriting debut.
For those in search of "I Feel Love" sequels, Side Four is the killer, famous now for "Our Love," in which a pounding drum machine substitutes for a woman's chorus in foiling Summer's yearning vocal. New Order ripped off the programming wholesale for "Blue Monday," a track in whose vocal sounds imperious and "detached," serving as an '80s response to Summer's warmth. The killer here is "Sunset People," whose plodding beat is a match for a Steely Dan-worthy lyric about rich zombies in Hollywood.
After the career-capping triumph of the On The Radio comp (she was the first and probably last artist in history whose three consecutive double albums topped the charts), Summer pursued a rock-oriented direction whose timing coincided with the collapse of disco. Call it reaching for a lifeboat. Or call it piloting her own ship. In truth, the records were no better or worse than during her peak. Summer's particular problem was that she had outgrown cult status; no one has revived, say, 1984's Cats Without Claws as a repository of hidden gems but no one has returned to the album to investigate whether it's true either.
The material on 1980's The Wanderer of most interest to followers of Summer-Moroder-Bellotte (as we must now call them) points the way towards the loudest of the decade's sonic wallops. The pitch-bending "Grand Illusion," the oddest track of her career, distorts Summer's voice into an instrument of unlimited fungibility. "Night Life," on which the trio reconfigure "Working the Midnight Shift" for Pat Benatar fans, substituting power chords for keyboards, invents the Top Gun soundtrack. On her 1982 Quincy Jones-produced eponymous album, Summer's more forcefully articulated religiosity found a vehicle on "State of Independence," marrying New Age drivel with "I Feel Love" sequencers and in a Stevie Wonder, Dyan Cannon, et al. backing chorus, a proto-"We Are The World" approach to dance music.
Summer gradually faded from popular consciousness, becoming a certified VH-1 diva and Queen of Disco towards which her embryonic post-'60s career pointed; no better example of her iconicity existed than the continued airplay of her '70s masterworks and the mainstream ignorance of the hits she still scored on the dance charts. In 1999 her number one with an Andrea Bocelli number called "I Will Go with You" played beside the Thunderpuss remix of Whitney Houston's "It's Alright But It's Okay" in gay clubs. 2008's Crayons, her first full-length album since 1991, found her vocal chops undiminished as she traipsed through genres again as if Bad Girls was a year away. One wonders what she could have done with Andy Butler on a Hercules & Love Affair single.
The 2003 autobiography finally released under Summer's own name, Ordinary Girl: The Journey, is aptly titled. Hollywood banalities share a pew with spiritual leanings; the words are not so much written as typed in the tone of a massage therapist discussing The Celestine Prophecy with a friend over lunch. To dismiss her for thinking shallowly about love and loss and Jesus is to miss the point of her most lasting songs though. As the first dance artist to conceive of a career as a rock one, "evolving" and such, Donna Summer was bound to make missteps and to be overpraised for her non-dance moves. But she, Moroder, Bellotte and countless other collaborators knew: ordinary girls feel extraordinary on the dance floor when the music plays.