The (Other) Shades of Donna Summer’s Rainbow

Summer, circa 2011

Summer, circa 2011

In the year since her death, to say that Donna Summer has been a hot topic is an understatement. Subjects from Summer’s impact on popular music to inner-race relations have percolated. With her acceptance into the (often) unjustly bias Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year, Summer’s music has been closely scrutinized. Enter “the lists.” In this media-soaked age we dwell in, everyone and their opinion about Summer has had a say. Case and point, lists such as these, though well-intentioned, are usually obvious. It isn’t that the songs contained in the hyperlink aren’t deserving, but just boring. Who wants to read a list with the same songs that people pick all the time? Especially with it becoming, if slowly, more apparent that Donna Summer’s work was bountiful in its styles. I often, and with love, use the expression that Summer was the “Empress of Pop”; but the full range of her powers remains misunderstood and rarely mentioned. It ain’t all about the dancefloor with Summer.

To prove my point, I have selected my own collection of 10 songs culled from Summer’s four decades in music. Please understand, due to the vast nature of Summer’s discography, I couldn’t include everything. An honorable mention must go out to the contents of her 1984 opus Cats Without Claws. Open your ears, minds, and hearts and vibe to the rainbow of Donna Summer’s musical journey.

Down_Deep_Inside_(Germany)10. “Theme from ‘The Deep’ (Down, Deep Inside)”* from ‘The Deep’ Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (1977)

Thoughts: Lost to the tides of this thriller film from the 70’s, “Theme from ‘The Deep’ (Down, Deep Inside)” has become something of a rare disco classic for Summer. Released as a single in 1977, the song combined Summer’s lyrics to elements from the movie score under direction from the late John Barry. Yes, that John Barry known for his work on countless Bond themes. Regrettably Barry and Summer never got around to doing a Bond theme themselves; this sensually dark trip replete with otherworldly guitar allowed Summer to channel her classic “Love to Love You Baby” vocals over one of the most dynamic arrangements she’d record.

[Listen to “Theme from ‘The Deep’ (Down, Deep Inside)”]

DonnaSummerCrayons9. “Crayons”** from Crayons (2008)

Thoughts: This tangy morsel was from Summer’s first album of original material since 1991’s Mistaken Identity. Never one to rest on her laurels, Summer threw herself into the island-flavor of the titular cut. She even brought along reggae royalty with a feature from Bob Marley’s son, Ziggy. The results were one of Summer’s patented social commentary numbers that grooved the head and heart. Spirited and (as ever) in fantastic form, Summer sounded recharged and ready for the pop landscape in 2008.

[Listen to “Crayons“]

ladynightsing8. “Lady of the Night”* from Lady of the Night (1974)

Thoughts: Often, many omit or forget about Summer’s first hit album Lady of the Night. While it wouldn’t find itself in print on our shores for many years, it was the album that got Summer her start in Europe. The title song made a case for Summer’s European romance. A lush collision of accordion, Moog synthesizer and dramatic flair helped “Lady of the Night” become one of those larger-than-life jams that are impossible to sit through without moving along to its sweet music.

[Listen/Watch “Lady of the Night“]

DonnaSummer-OnceUponATime-Front7. “A Man Like You”** from Once Upon a Time (1977)

Thoughts: This smooth slow dance was one of Summer’s straight-ahead R&B tracks. Complete with robust brass and a solid, soulful vocal from Summer, the song slightly stuck out among the chillier pop that lined the remainder of Once Upon a Time. “A Man Like You” was a neat break in the Euro-pop disco model that suggested Summer, as always, was more than meets the eye, in this instance ear.

[Listen to “A Man Like You“]

DONNA SUMMER  The Wanderer6.“Breakdown”** from The Wanderer (1980)

Thoughts: Some were blindsided by the  “sudden” shift into rock ‘n’ roll Summer pulled with The Wanderer. Bad Girls (1979) this wasn’t. However, The Wanderer’s music was so accomplished and potent it just couldn’t be denied. “Breakdown,” one of the funkier moments on the album, was a lost opportunity to be selected as a single. Here, Summer confesses her philandering ways and how her recollection of the act has caused her “breakdown.”

[Listen to “Breakdown“]

donna-summer-a-love-trilogy5. “Come With Me”** from A Love Trilogy (1976)

Thoughts: Spicy and sexy, “Come With Me” drew the perfect close to the steamy A Love Trilogy project. From its rattling rhythm section, to its varied hues of Summer’s voice, “Come With Me” brought pathos and desire into a wonderful gestalt. While “Try Me, I Know We Can Make It” and “Could It Be Magic” are often what this platter is remembered for, “Come With Me” platforms that the album sides had plenty to offer as well.

[Listen to “Come With Me“]

Allsystemsgo4. “Fascination”** from All Systems Go (1987)

Thoughts: Oh, imagine this. Had “Fascination” been lifted as a single and serviced to the “Quiet Storm” formats, it would have further reinvented Summer. Sadly, it languished as an album side on All Systems Go, the final record of Summer’s stormy, but creatively fulfilling Geffen Records tenure. Here, Summer was restrained and emboldened by her emotion; using the nuance of her abilities she gave an excellent read to the lyrical material housed on this soulful sapphire.

[Listen to “Fascination“]

I'm_A_Rainbow3. “To Turn the Stone”** from I’m a Rainbow (1981/1996)

Thoughts: A breathtaking, almost funereal hymn, “To Turn the Stone” was a ballad that hummed on that same spiritual frequency that some of Summer’s most revelatory numbers did. Over a canopy of soft bagpipes and ethereal synths, Summer’s rhapsody of life was beyond supernatural, it was from another dimension. It, and the rest of her opus I’m a Rainbow, were shelved shrewdly by label-head David Geffen. Summer’s version wouldn’t see the light of day until its reissue in 1996. However, Anni-Frid Lyngstad of ABBA fame covered the song in 1982 on her third solo set, Something’s Going On. Debates still rage today between ABBA and Summer fans of which version of “To Turn the Stone” is definitive.

[Listen to “To Turn the Stone“]

2prhflg2. “Melody of Love (Wanna Be Loved)”* from Endless Summer (1994)

Thoughts: Lifted from the single-disc distillation of the superior two-disc Donna Summer Anthology (1993), “Melody of Love” was one of two new recordings utilized for Endless Summer. One of the most powerful and convicted performances from Summer is here; it’s uplifting in that “Dim All the Lights” fashion. Its slow-to-fast transition marked how Summer’s past disco gems were piloted. Moving back to Summer’s vocal take-down of the song, she worked the track with an energy that begged for Summer to service a new record. There was still another 15 years ahead before that transpired.

[Listen/Watch “Melody of Love (Wanna Be Loved)“-Single Edit]

Donnasummer821. “Lush Life”** from Donna Summer (1982)

Thoughts: The ennui classic created by jazz great Billy Strayhorn has had reads from Nat King Cole, Linda Ronstadt and Queen Latifah to name some. Summer took a stab at it in 1982 on her eponymous album helmed by the production wizard Quincy Jones. Evoking some of the jazz fusion her peer Chaka Khan was cooking at the same time with albums like What Cha’ Gonna Do For Me (1981), Summer displayed a whole new side to her personae. If anything, “Lush Life” was axiomatic proof that Summer could handle any genre with the same level of dedication and artistry she lended to her past experiments.

[Listen to “Lush Life“]

[Editor’s Note: *-denotes single, **-denotes album cut. Crayons, Lady of the Night, Once Upon a Time,  A Love TrilogyEndless Summer are all in print. The remaining albums the other songs were pulled from are not in print at this time. Please see physical and online retailers for further details. For information on Donna Summer, please visit Donna Summer Tribute.-QH]

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37 Comments

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37 responses to “The (Other) Shades of Donna Summer’s Rainbow

  1. LaMusicLovr

    Very fitting tribute and memorial to Ms. Donna Summer. I loved the selections and understand that space prevents more adds. But perhaps, there will be a Part 2 one day soon!!

    -LaMusicLovr (last.fm)

  2. Great read! My top ten of unsung Donna classics not included on this list, off the top of my head would be “Work That Magic”, “Oh Billy Please”, “I Need You”, “Grand Illusion”, “People Talk”, “Love Is Just A Breath Away”, “Running For Cover”, “All Systems Go”, “One Night In A Lifetime”, “Sweet Emotion”, and “Melanie”.

  3. FrankB

    Let’s not forget Protection with Bruce Springsteen, Highway Runner, Looking Up, He’s A Rebel, Breakaway, When Love Cries, I Will Go With You, Love is a Healer, Dreamweaver, Stamp Your Feet, and Romeo. Just to name a few more of the many many awesome Donna Summer songs.

    • FrankB

      I meant Dreamcatcher, not Dreamweaver!!

      • lol, I got ya.”Romeo” is one of my favorite Donna moments ever. I used her live performance of it from her ’83 show “A Hot Summer Night” in my memorial write-up of her last year. She really does have a huge collection of work that is fun to play in. The reception to this piece has been beyond expectations. Thanks for all the support and conversation. Q.

  4. Glad to see someone do an alternative Donna Summer playlist.. For as much attention as her material gets nowadays, not a lot of it goes into some of the 80s albums, which even though were not always as successful and in some cases a bit inconsistent, all of them have some worthwhile gems..

    • I just think Donna has such a collection of work, there really is something here for everyone. I hope you do your own list Tommy, I’m sure you’ve got some ace selections as we’ve discussed many times. Thanks again for the support. Q.

  5. James

    Yes finally someone recognized Donna’s other material especially Lush Life. Thank u for this list and others list as well; ill throw in On My Honor written by Ms Summer, My Baby Understands, the Caribbean flavored I’m Free, the Brazilian flav Drivin Down Brazil, Sometimes Like Butterflies, Looking Up and I Believe In Jesus to name a few. I also loved Protection and wish it would have been a duet with The Boss along with a video. Thanks again James

  6. SERGIO SILVA

    WOW I AM SO SAD THAT I WILL NEVER AGAIN SEE THE GRANDEST, AMAZING, BELOVED, & BEAUTIFUL DONNA SUMMER LIVE SHOW AGAIN!

    HOWEVER, I THANK YOU LORD, GOD ALMIGHTY, FOR GIVING US HER, & HER BEAUTIFUL BESTOWED GIFT FROM YOU; SO THAT ALL OF US COULD BE TOUCHED BY HER AMAZING GORGEOUS VOCALS.

    PS: I LOVE YOU ETERNALLY, UNTIL I SEE YOU AGAIN DEAR, & BEAUTIFUL DONNA SUMMER… IN THE NAME OF JESUS CHRIST’S MIGHTY NAME I PRAY! AMEN.

    SERGIO,
    IN LOS ANGELES, CA

  7. LaMusicLovr (last.fm)

    I was feeling a little left out once I saw many of the other “commenters” had added their own Donna Summer “minor” songlists, so I decided to come back and add my own — I call it the LUCKY THIRTEEN:

    1. Tokyo
    2. Walk Away
    3. Try Me, I Know We Can Make It
    4. Spring Affair
    5. Love Has A Mind of Its Own
    6. Power of Love
    7. When Love Cries
    8. (If It) Hurts Just A Little
    9. I Remember Yesterday
    10. One Night In A Lifetime
    11. There Will Always Be A You
    12. Night Life
    13. Lucky
    Now, I feel like I can rest easier…

    • This piece has caused so much conversation about Donna and her music. I truly do feel vindicated because so many people want to confine her to just disco. She really was a pop dynamo. Thanks to all that have replied with their own lists and come aboard The QH Blend.-QH

  8. will

    As Donna’s greatest fan 🙂 only I can list her greatest RECORDED moments!
    1. I Do Believe (I Fell In Love)
    2. Take Heart
    3. Be Myself Again
    4. Cry of A Waking Heart
    5. Our Love (tie) Dim All The Lights
    6. State of Independence (way over produced, but…)
    7. Running For Cover (tie) Cold Love
    8. Could It Be Magic (w/ Prelude to Love)
    9. Breathe of Heaven
    10.Now I Need You (tie) Dance Into My Life
    11. I Will Go With You (tie) Love Is The Healer (BONUS)

    Now this will change tomorrow, but this is the Playlist of the day.

  9. Ken

    Here is my recorded Donna song list:

    1.) Voices Cryin’ Out
    2.) When The Dream Never Dies
    3.) You To Me
    4.) Fascination
    5.) Love’s About To Change My Heart
    6.) The Power Of One
    7.) Christmas Spirit
    8.) Mystery Of Love
    9.) On My Honor
    10.) Only The Fool Survives

    Bonus Live Songs:

    1.) If There Is Music There
    2.) Celebrate Me Home
    3.) In A New York Minute
    4.) Super Star
    5.) Part Of Your World
    6.) I Love You
    7.) Pearls
    8.) Starting Over Again
    9.) Anything For You
    10.) Love Is The Healer

  10. My Favorite Donna Songs Have Always Been
    ‘Looking Up’
    ‘The Woman In Me’
    ‘Grand Illusion’
    ‘Dream-a-Lot’s theme’
    ‘Forgive Me’
    ‘Breakaway’
    ‘I Love You’

  11. david usndek

    Great selections all. I will not make a list as it is too hard to narrow it done but I love Grand Illusion, The Cry of a Lonely Heart, Lucky, and Not the Way from Cats Without Claws. I think that could have been a hot if it had been given a chance.

  12. Thanks to everyone who has responded with such enthusiasm for this entry. It proves that Donna’s entire catalogue is worthy of examination, not just the hits. 🙂

  13. Sebastiao Brito

    I love all Donna´s songs. The early materials are all great, such gems like “Queen for a day”, “Working the midnight shif”, “Looking up”, and incredible songs like “Work that magic” , “You´re so beautiful” and “I got your love” could be a world wide hits. Sebastiao Brito (from Brazil).

  14. Thanks to all who have recognized the versatility of the greatest singer of all time. “Cry of a Waking Heart,” “Cold Love,” “Melody of Love,” “I Love You,” “Only the Fool Survives,” “On My Honor,” “Protection,” “That’s Not The Way,” “Christmas Spirit,” and “Forgive Me” to just name a few. Glad to hear these great ones mentioned!!

  15. spookyelectric

    Like you say QH – it’s good to have info out there beyond the ‘standard’ Summer songbook summaries. If you read some of the obituaries you’d think she only ever recorded ‘I Feel Love’! Interesting to see you picked the Crayons title cut – that’s one I never connected to, I’ll have to revisit – and read everyone’s responses.

    I’d like to add one more (I don’t think that’s been mentioned) – and gorgeous piano and voice ballad she wrote called ‘Sometimes Like Butterflies’. Sadly it was hidden away on the bside of ‘Love Is In Control’ so has been lost a little (sadly it wasn’t added to the Quincy /Donna album when it was reissued last).

    Happy you chose ‘Lush Life’ as your no 1 pick – one of the best versions ever of the classic. Nice story about that song. I interviewed Donna many years ago when she was in London promoting ‘Anthology’ and asked that recording. She told me it was the hardest vocal session she ever did – partly because she was pregnant at the time but mainly because Quincy made her do vocal takes on specific lines over and over again. She was used to working with Giorgio and Pete and had developed an easy working relationship so I think being in the studio with a pro like Q was a bit of a shock. The results were so worth it – I would say its Donna’s best album track for track, and a real showcase of what she could do vocally. I got the impression it wasn’t such a great time for Donna.

    She was a lovely lady – full of humour and surprisingly honest. And gone far too soon.

    • Thanks so much for your comment! Yeh, I love “Crayons” because the vocal has a really nice flavor & the words have a really nice meaning to them, it felt very natural from her. I enjoy the Quincy project & I am familiar with SLB, I really keep hoping for a proper reissue treatment for her overall catalogue. I have to say that one of my favorite recordings of Donna’s is “Cats Without Claws” which has some amazing middle eights. Thanks again for the support!-QH

      • spookyelectric

        ‘Cats Without Claws’ is a pretty underrated album in her catalogue I think – probably because it pretty much bombed commercially and didn’t have any big hits that get any recurrent love. I don’t think it’s great (like the Quincy album or ‘I Remember Yesterday’) but I honestly don’t think, track for track she released any album after that bettered it. ‘Forgive Me’ is a bonafide Summer classic, a pivotal track in her songbook. The intro to ‘There Goes My Baby’ still stops me in my tracks every time. I love ‘Maybe It’s Over’ too – even though it’s basically ‘I Do Believe I Fell In Love’ Part 2. Generally the set suffers from the 80s overproduction that hasn’t aged well, but I’d say there’s 6 or 7 solid tracks on there and a handful of essential Summer gems too.

      • I like the QJ LP, but overall it is overproduced. The fact that you can barely hear Donna’s voice in the chorus of LICFOTT (a point you brought up with “Ross”) I always found annoying, but the verses are so infectious. But it is a good straight ahead R&B recording.

        In terms of the production techniques of CWC, some that have come back in that ironic way in recent years, I enjoy the energy and vibe of “It’s Not the Way”. But more than anything, the island feel of “I’m Free” is both a musical, vocal and lyrical when, “Oh Billy Please” is nice to in that vintage ballad-to-dance transition Donna sort of made her own. The title track is also big fun in hearing Donna really flex her muscles. I challenge that “All Systems Go” wasn’t a worthy successor, that was one of the first Donna records to bewitch me!-QH

      • spookyelectric

        We’ll have to agree to disagree about the Q album I guess QH!

        Your effusive words about ‘Cats’ has made me want to pull out the album again actually. I think I need to give “Oh Billy Please” another spin.

        I didn’t mean to imply I disliked all the post-Cats albums – actually “Systems” in particular I think has some essential Donna moments – “Dinner with Gershwin” of course, “Thinkin Bout My Baby” and, as you said above, “Fascination”. What a tune!

      • Don’t get me wrong, I like that LP a lot (“Mystery of Love,” “The Woman In Me,” and “(If It) Hurts Just a Little”). But I think other records get a rougher time than the one that did actually have a song with a buried Donna in the chorus, :p

  16. spookyelectric

    Let’s not go there again!
    Did you know by the way that “The Woman In Me” was covered by Heart?
    It’s on youtube somewhere.

  17. Sebastião Brito

    I already post a coment, but it´s nice to read the coments of other fans. As a great fan I like all Donna´s songs… I like to hear her albuns, and Once Upon a Time is wonderful to appreciate her voice in different styles. Of course, my predilect son is “I Feel Love”, but there are many possible hits.

  18. spookyelectric

    Lots of great Donna catalogue choices here so I thought I’d add some that haven’t been mentioned in the lists above..
    1 Pandora’s Box
    2 A Man Like You
    3 Black Lady
    4 Need-A-Man Blues
    5 Can’t We Just Sit Down
    6 Sunset People
    7 Brooklyn
    8 Friends Unknown
    9 My Man Medley
    10 Breath Of Heaven

  19. I could do a whole diatribe in defense of the Geffen-era material, the commercial failure of which I will blame David for until my dying day (he screwed Deborah Harry over on a couple of key tunes too to be fair), but the good stuff of it ranks with her best: ‘Oh Billy Please” (oh what would have been if it had gotten to be a single), ‘Fascination’, ‘Runner With The Pack’, ‘I Believe (In You)’ – among the many great tracks that ‘shoulda been’ great ’80s radio fare. Her effortless grace with any genre of music is her greatest legacy.

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  21. V.E.G.

    Well Donna. Rest in peace.

  22. V.E.G.

    Well done, Donna Summer. Rest in peace.

  23. Tassie Nelson

    Some interesting choices here. Just goes to show how broad range her appeal is/ was 🙂 Here are my ten which I chose from her 1980’s non-singles (excluding APAT and in no particular order):

    Breakdown
    People Talk
    Brooklyn
    You To Me
    (If It) Hurts Just A Little
    People, People
    It’s Not the Way
    Oh Billy Please
    I’m Free
    Voices Cryin’ Out

    On another note, I am loving a ten track version I have made for I’m a Rainbow. I think this could have really worked, with People Talk as first single, True Love Survives and 2nd, Brooklyn as 3rd and You to Me as the 4th single. My 10 track album is in this order:

    People Talk
    Melanie
    True Love Survives
    Brooklyn
    You to Me

    Romeo
    Highway Runner
    Back Where I Belong
    Walk On
    I’m A Rainbow

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