Donna Summer was the biggest star to emerge from the mid-70’s disco explosion and went on to pursue a successful pop career. She sang in Boston churches as a child, occasionally as a lead vocalist. In 1967 she made her professional debut at Boston’s Psychedelic Supermarket. Later that year, at age 18, she landed a role in the Munich, Germany production of “Hair”. While in Germany, she married Austrian actor Helmut Sommer, later divorcing him but keeping the Anglicized surname. For a time she sang in a Vienna Folk Opera version of “Porgy and Bess”. Working as a backup singer at Munich’s Musicland Studios, Summer met producers Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte. Together the trio created a string of European pop hits for Moroder’s Oasis label. In 1975 Moroder licensed Oasis to America’s Casablanca Records.
The orgasmic 17-minute title track from “Love to Love You Baby” (#11 pop, #6 R&B 1975) became a major disco hit, and by year’s end had crossed over to pop and R&B charts as well (#2 pop, #3 R&B). Many thought Summer would be a typical one-hit disco act, but Moroder, Bellotte and Casablanca president Neil Bogart were determined to give her hits and longevity. “A Love Trilogy” (#21 pop, #16 R&B, 1976) solidified her disco following, while “Four Seasons of Love” (#29 pop, #13 R&B, 1976) and “Spring Affair” (#58 pop, #24 R&B) expanded her pop audience.
With 1977’s “I Remember Yesterday” (#18 pop, #11 R&B), Moroder expanded the music’s stylistic range. The album yielded the influential synthesizer pop hit “I Feel Love” (#6 pop, #9 R&B). For the disco fairy-tale concept album “Once Upon a Time” (#26 pop, #13 R&B, 1977) Summer contributed lyrics to most of the material. “Live and More” (#1 pop, #4 R&B, 1978) provided Summer with her first pop #1 (#8 R&B), a cover of Jimmy Webb’s “MacArthur Park. That year she also appeared in the disco film “Thank God It’s Friday”. ‘Last dance” (#3 pop, #5 R&B, 1978) from the soundtrack album won two Grammy Awards – one for Summer, one for songwriter Paul Jabara and an Oscar for Jabara. The double-platinum “Bad Girls” (#1 pop and R&B, 1979) broke down any lingering critical resistance to Summer. “Hot Stuff” (#1 pop, #3 R&B) and the rocking title track (#1 pop and R&B) made her popular with disco, pop and rock fans. That year, Barbra Streisand duetted with Summer on “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)” (#1 pop, #20 R&B). Two other crossover hits rounded out Summer’s biggest year: “Heaven Knows” (#4 pop, #10 R&B) and “Dim All the Lights” (#2 pop, #13 R&B).
But success also brought problems. In 1980 she sued her manager, Joyce Bogart and husband Neil for $10 million for mismanagement. She was thus able to end her Casablanca contract and to sign with Geffen Records. “The Wanderer” (#13 pop, #12 R&B, 1980) was her first Geffen release, the title track becoming a strong-selling single (#3 pop, #13 R&B), although the album didn’t live up to sales expectations. “The Wanderer” also included Summer’s first born-again Christian message song, “I Believe in Jesus”. It was around this time that rumors began circulating that Summer had said the emerging AIDS epidemic was God’s revenge on homosexuals for living a blasphemous lifestyle; Summer later denied the rumors, but her large gay following dwindled. In 1980 she married Bruce Sudano, lead singer of Brooklyn Dreams, with whom she recorded “Heaven Knows”; they named their daughter Brook Lyn. “Donna Summer” (#20 pop, #8 R&B) was released in 1982. The Quincy Jones produced album was a replacement for an LP Giorio Moroder had produced but Geffen Records had rejected. A track from that unreleased album appears on the “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” soundtrack. She then had her biggest hit album since “Bad Girls” with “She Works Hard for the Money” (#9 pop, #5 R&B, 1983), which yielded a massive hit single in the title track (#3 pop, #1 R&B, 1983), a video for which was played heavily on MTV. The album also contained a more modest hit in the reggaeish “Unconditional Love” (#43 pop, #9 R&B, 1983), with backing vocals by Britain’s Musical Youth. “Cats Without Claws” (#40 pop, #24 R&B, 1984) contained a cover of the Drifters classic “There Goes My Baby” (#21 pop, #20 R&B, 1984); the track “Forgive Me” earned Summer her second Grammy, for Best Inspirational Vocal.
While “All Systems Go” went nowhere (#122 pop, #53 R&B, 1987), yielding only a minor hit single in “Dinner With Gershwin” (#48 pop, #10 R&B, 1987), “Another Place and Time” (#53 pop, #71 R&B, 1989) was produced by the British team of Stock, Aitken and Waterman, who’d had synth-driven dance hits with Bananarama and Dead or Alive. They brought Summer back to the Top 10 singles chart with “This Time I Know It’s for Real” (#7, 1989). But as the album’s follow-up, “Mistaken Identity” quickly sank, Summer then embarked on another dry spell. Summer started performing live again in 1996 and that same year she sang a duet on Liza Minnelli’s “Gently”. In 1997 “Carry On”, a collaboration with Moroder, won a Grammy for Best Dance Recording. In 2000 she was nominated again, this time for “I Will Go With You (Con Te Partiró)” (#79 pop, 1999), off the VH1 special “VH1 Presents Live & More: Encore!” (#43 pop, #33 R&B, 1999).
In 1995 Summer and Sudano moved to Nashville, where they have been writing songs for the likes of Dolly Parton (they co-wrote “Starting Over Again”) and Reba McEntire. The couple has also been busy working on “Ordinary Girl”, a musical they hope to bring to Broadway.