The Last Dance
by: Diego Martínez
May 18, 2012
As if music lovers haven’t suffered enough with the passing of such legendary performers as Etta James, Davy Jones, Whitney Houston, Levon Helm and Adam Yauch, the news on Donna Summer’s untimely death at 63 have resulted in yet another blow for at least three generations of listeners everywhere. The Boston native wasn’t just some artist; she was the undisputed Queen of Disco. The little girl raised on church, who challenged the principles of her own faith and embodied the “me” decade, captivated the world over with songs that changed the face of dance music altogether.
Born in New Year’s Eve 1948, LaDonna Adrian Gaines was one of seven children raised by devout Christian parents. From the very beginning, she always knew music was her gift, being influenced by Mahalia Jackson’s gospel and the secular beats of Motown greats like The Supremes and Martha and the Vandellas. When the hippie revolution hit stateside, it also left traces in the Gaines household. Donna was soon drawn to Janis Joplin’s records with Big Brother and the Holding Company before dropping out of school and joining a short-lived psychedelic rock group as their lead singer. Her first big break was when she moved to Germany and took part in a production of the famed Broadway musical “Hair,” which opened in 1968 in Munich.
Enter the 1970s. Donna married (and later divorced) Austrian actor Helmuth Sommer, and with a child under her wing found her creative match when she met Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte. After two singles that were received with little fanfare in Europe (“The Hostage” and “Lady of the Night“), Summer approached Moroder with an idea for a song she and Bellotte were working on for another singer. The 17-minute tune had little words to begin with, but the soulful production and her bedroom moans a-la Marilyn Monroe helped to really compensate. “Love To Love You Baby“, released in 1975 via Casablanca, was eaten alive by discothèques in Europe and the US, elevating the heat in an underground Dance movement that would find its way into mainstream. Subsequent releases “Try Me, I Know We can Make It“, “Could It Be Magic“, “Spring Affair” and “Winter Melody” firmly established her as “the first lady of love,” a lable she’d later have a hard time living with.
1977 saw the team of Summer-Moroder-Bellote push boundaries even further with the futuristic and pioneering “I Feel Love,” included in the concept album I Remember Yesterday. The single, recorded with an entirely synthesized backing track, was nothing short of groundbreaking. ‘The sound of the future’ as Brian Eno screamed to David Bowie in Berlin. Another concept album (the Cinderella-themed Once Upon a Time) preceded her first and only foray into motion pictures, as the aspiring belter Nicole Sims in the movie Thank God It’s Friday. The film’s peak moment was her performance of “Last Dance,” written by Paul Jabara. Not only did “Last Dance” become her third Top 10 hit, but it won an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for Best Original Song. In the midst of her Live and More LP (which featured her chart-topping version of “MacArthur Park“) and the epic trifecta of “Hot Stuff,” “Bad Girls” and “Dim All The Lights,” Donna was troubled by confusion and anxiety, leading her to an almost suicidal path. She then turned to God and Bruce Sudano for rescue, and to top it all a cheestastic ode to radio and a duet with Barbra Streisand.
Eventually disco went out of fashion, and Donna suffered. Though she’d never reach the dizzying heights of “Love to Love You Baby,” she demonstrated versatility and thus, the records kept on coming: 1980′s New Wave-filled effort “The Wanderer,” moderate hits like “Love Is In Control (Finger On The Trigger),” “State of Independence” and “The Woman In Me” (off her selftitled 1982 release on Geffen), the 1983 Grammy-nominated “She Works Hard For The Money” and 1989′s “This Time I Know It’s for Real,” her last top 10.
She remained a fixture on the dance charts in the years that followed, appeared on TV, in concert and bared her soul on a memoir she called “Ordinary Girl.” By the time her seventeenth and final studio album Crayons was released in 2008, her faithful fans had even forgotten about the controversy that almost killed her career, when she allegedly made anti-gay remarks regarding AIDS. The Queen was indeed back in form and yet, the cancer that later claimed her life was kept outside the public eye.
The world has lost a queen, not just for a day, but for all times. She represented the soundtrack to the lives of millions who danced, had sex or reflected through her amazing soundscape. Donna Summer’s extraordinary life and legacy has gone beyond the boundaries of disco and into infinity. Ten years from now, guys and dolls will be bumping to her sound, while up-and-coming performers and producers will find more respect and admiration in the work she made throughout the years. Flawless, upbeat and moving. Ahead of her time, ahead of the dance floor, ahead of anybody’s game.
LaDonna Adrian Gaines (Born December 31, 1948, Boston, Massachusetts; died May 17, 2012, Key West, Florida)