R.I.P. Donna Summer

Tom Breihan | May 17, 2012 - 12:22 pm

This one hurts. TMZ reports that the legendary singer and dance-music innovator Donna Summer has died of cancer in Florida. She was 63.

A native of Dorchester, Massachusetts, Summer started singing gospel in her church. She also spent some time fronting the psych-rock band the Crow and singing in stage musicals like Hair while living in Germany. But her collaborations with the Italian disco producer Giorgio Moroder are the real reason that Summer might be the most important and influential vocalist in all of disco history — maybe dance-music history in general as well.

Summer met Moroder and British collaborator Pete Bellotte while singing backup for Three Dog Night, and they scored a massive hit together with the boundary-breaking single “Love To Love You Baby,” which laid Summer’s orgasmic coos over a stretching-into-infinity electro-funk squelch-pulse from Moroder that applied Kraftwerk’s wheels-within-wheels rhythmic sensibility to something more direct and populist, working as a pop song even in its spaced-out 17-minute disco edit. The two pushed that sound even further on the 1977 single “I Feel Love,” one of the single greatest tracks ever recorded, in any genre, at least in this writer’s estimation. “I Feel Love” rode a merciless tick-tock beat so hard and so repetitive that it transformed into something hallucinatory — an effect only helped by Summer’s beyond-euphoric swoops and sighs.

Summer continued working with Moroder and Bellotte for the rest of the ’70s, cranking out an absolutely ridiculous number of classics: “Our Love,” “Hot Stuff,” “Bad Girls,” “Heaven Knows,” “Last Dance,” “Sunset People.” She released two consecutive double albums that both hit #1, a historic first. One of those, Bad Girls, was a conceptual affair that gently moved Summer away from disco and toward a sort of electro-rock fusion, but the tracks worked as dancefloor monsters all the same. Her 1979 mixed-for-dancing greatest-hits double-album On The Radio is an absolute straight-through killer.

In the early ’80s, Summer broke from disco completely, working in the pseudo-genre that the great critic Chuck Eddy called “flashdance” — a sound that existed at some intersection of rock, dance, and synthpop, and which scored a whole lot of inspirational montages in the movies of the time. She continued to notch hits, like 1983’s “She Works Hard For The Money,” but they weren’t the world-changers she’d previously been releasing. But she still continued to tour and record for the rest of her life, and there are plenty of unheralded nuggets of awesomeness in her later material.

Below, watch some videos of Summer performing: