15 Donna Summer Songs You Better Have…Or Else

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Posted May 21, 2012 by J Matthew Cobb in Features
15songs-donnasummer

Dim all the lights: J Matthew Cobb creates the ultimate Donna Summer playlist

Gloria Gaynor was first to take the crown of Queen of Disco. She was the first diva to understand the genre’s power, its sensational rhythms and to broaden its boundaries. Give her that. But it is Donna Summer, while surrounded meticulously by Giorgio Mordoer and Pete Bellotte’s wise studio craftsmanship, who redefines the genre by breaking down those boundaries to include rock, funk, opera epics and adult-contemporary lyricism. By the time she delivered nine Top Ten hits from 1978 to 1980, disco was fading into a tragic coma instigated by rock-hating purists. Thankfully, Summer rebounds and pulls off a stunning re-invention that continued from 1981 up to her unfortunate, untimely death from lung cancer on May 17, 2012.

Summer’s greatest hits are almost always uptempo. But she loved to sing it all. She grew up singing gospel music in her home church in Boston and started singing in off-Broadway productions in Munich, Germany. And her appreciation for most genres and styles proved to be endless. “I can sing ‘Love to Love You Baby,’” she tells Ebony magazine in 1977, “but I can also sing ballads, light opera, things from musical comedies, church hymns – all kinds of songs.”

Choosing fifteen of her greatest songs is something of a challenge, since Summer proved time after time to be a stick of dynamite on the disco floor. The mix of sexiness and her approach to melody was usually a surreal combination for disco’s otherworldly environment. Some of her unsung contributions like the gospel-styled “Christmas Spirit,” the fifteen-minute disco odyssey “Try Me, I Know We Can Make It” and the half-ballad, half-disco design of “On the Radio” are well deserving of mass attention, but the final choices on this “best-of” list should be enshrined on almost every Donna Summer playlist.

These are the Donna Summer songs you better have…or else.

 

15

“I’m a Fire”
#1 Hot Dance Club Play; 2007
from the album Crayons

2010’s Crayons unveiled Donna Summer on 21st century disco. Her aged vocal, which possesses a Roberta Flack grit and finesse, burns through the rubber of Sebastian Morton’s electro-house. Not bad for a disco queen whose last full-length studio album appeared seventeen years ago.

 

14

“Dim All the Lights”
#2 pop; 1979
from the album Bad Girls

Despite being crowned a dancing queen, Donna Summer proved she could also work magic on ballads. On the opening segment of “Dim All The Lights,” her voice is tapered on a Quiet Storm slow grind. But the song’s tempo shuffles into disco time and – well – she’s back to being the disco diva she is.

 

13

“Love Is in Control (Finger on the Trigger)”
#10 pop; 1982
from the album Donna Summer

A Michael Jackson-sounding production, supplied with rubber bass and ‘80’s synths, is just enough action to get Donna Summer out of the slump followed by the disco crash in 1980. This was more a Quincy Jones track than it was Summer’s, but it still felt good to have her try a sound that wasn’t entirely hers.

 

12

“Wasted”
not charted/B-side of “Try Me, I Know We Can Make It”; 1976
from the album A Love’s Trilogy

Still riding on the waves of “Love to Love You Baby,” Donna Summer’s breathy vocals is suspended in midair with succulent strings and Chic guitar funk. Ironically, the song has nothing to do with being sloppy drunk, but has everything to do with regret on a love affair turned sour: “I used and abused him/And laughed when he threatened to walk out/But now he’s done it.”

 

11

“She Works Hard for the Money”
#3 pop; 1983
from the album She Works Hard for the Money

Call it “Bad Girls” redux. Donna Summer’s religious values were starting to get the best of her. But on this ‘80’s dance-pop gem, she pens a lyric that could be interpreted in any direction – both good or bad. But the moral of the story still speaks to the women’s rights, as if it was Aretha’s “Respect” for Generation X. Summer cleared the air about the song’s misinterpretation when she featured its inspiration on the album’s back cover. It was about a bathroom attendant. In the music video, Summer added a different narrative that focused on the trials of a miserable diner waitress.

 

10

“This Time I Know It’s For Real”
#7 pop; 1989
from the albumAnother Place and Time

Summer’s last Top 10 hit proved to the throng of doubters that she had more shelf life than first imagined. The transatlantic smash gives Summer an upbeat synthpop track culled in the style of Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up,” while her strong belting on the feelgood chorus mimics the freedoms of her earlier highlights.

 

9

“No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)” with Barbara Streisand
#1 pop; 1979
from the albums On the Radio: Greatest Hits, Vol. I & II and Wet

On the surface, matching the two divas – now at the peak of their powers – seemed like a match made in heaven, even though it felt so paradoxical. Streisand was an AC goddess, Summer was a disco ambassador. Plus the recording process didn’t go down so easy. “Barbara and Donna were both intimidated by the other, and couldn’t understand why the other person should be intimidated,” said songwriter Paul Jabara. “It was crazy.” But the song came together in the end, with a slow introduction leading into an uptempo shuffle decked out with a spirited chorus and lively background vocals, which included Luther Vandross. To sum up the song’s energy in one sentence: It feels like “Fame” on steroids.

 

8

“Could It Be Magic”
# 52 pop; 1976
from the album A Love’s Trilogy

“Donna Summer touching a Barry Manilow track? How absurd.” That might’ve been the reaction at Studio 54, but the reworking of the AC-friendly 1975 tune into a Philly-spun four-on-the-floor movement proved that Summer’s interpretive skills superceded most of her contemporaries . Manilow might have “wrote the songs that make the whole world sing,” but Summer knew how to make the whole world dance.

 

7

“Love To Love You Baby”
#2 pop; 1975
from the album Love To Love You Baby

Sex sells. And Donna Summer sold it with this orgasmic masterpiece. Before Summer sold the idea of breathy groans and sexual moans on this twelve-minute firecracker, Sylvia Robinson unveiled the blueprint of seduction with her 1973 proto-disco pop/r&b hit, “Pillow Talk.” Apparently, Casablanca president Neil Bogart wanted Summer to take things to the next level. Add another level and another level.

 

6

“MacArthur Park”
#1 pop; 1978
from the albumLive and More

Lyrically speaking, “MacArthur Park” may be one of the most ambiguous pop songs ever created. Songwriter Jimmy Webb wrote the song as the climax to a 22-minute cantata he planned to give to The Association, but was quickly rejected. It later became a pop hit for Richard Harris back in June 1968 and has been covered successfully by Waylon Jennings and The Four Tops. But it is Donna Summer’s popera-meets-disco version that endures as the song’s greatest rendition. Harris’s version zoomed to number two pop, Donna Summer’s four-minute radio edit flew to number one pop and stayed there for three weeks.

 

5

“Heaven Knows” (with Brooklyn Dreams)
#4 pop; 1979
from the album Live and More

On the Fighting Temptations motion picture soundtrack, contemporary r&b darling Faith Evans tries to reinvent Donna Summer’s “Heaven Knows,” now swirling in Chicago house beats and mighty bass. It’s a satisfying take, but it somehow lacks the heavenly beauty of Summer’s grace and the passion heard in the duet with Brooklyn Dreams’ frontman. The two ended up marrying in 1980.

 

4

“I Feel Love”
#6 pop;1977
from the album I Remember Yesterday

Producer Giorgio Moroder uses prehistoric electronic matter and Moog synths to design what some music critics dub as being the first big anthem of techno. Kraftwerk had already experimented with these sounds, but Moroder’s sleazy disco became the future of dance music. The song appeared on Summer’s concept album I Remember Yesterday, but it sounded like the memories of tomorrow.

 

3

“Bad Girls”
#1 pop; 1979
from the album Bad Girls

If “Love to Love You Baby,” was Donna Summer at her naughtiest, then “Bad Girls” was Donna Summer at her most rebellious. Here she works up some justification for the hard-working prostitute. As the call-and-response marinade works its way through the melodic disco number, the sympathy for nightwalkers builds up. Beep-beep- huh-huh.

 

2

“Last Dance”
#3 pop; 1978
from the album Thank God It’s Friday Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

The big finale captured in the Casablanca Filmworks motion picture Thank God It’s Friday actually is the film’s only highlight. What was purported to be an alternate to Saturday Night Fever ended up looking like a shriveled bootleg. But Summer’s half-waltz, half-disco roller coaster proved to be the perfect anecdote for disco titans thirsty for dancefloor romance: “I need you by me, beside me, to guide me/To hold me/scold me/’Cause when I’m bad I’m so, so bad/So let’s dance.”

 

1

“Hot Stuff”
#1 pop; 1979
from the album Bad Girls

“Hot Stuff” may have been the perfect temptation for rockers and New Wave innovators to tackle disco. It blends in Jeff Baxter’s guitar riffs, appealing disco rhythms and some heavy Rolling Stones’ spunk. The song was a good-enough excuse for rockers like Blondie and Queen to jump on the disco bandwagon before its time ran out.


About the Author

J Matthew Cobb

Managing editor of HiFi Magazine.


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