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.
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)”]
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“]
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“]
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“]
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“]
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“]
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“]
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“]
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]
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 Trilogy, Endless 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]