In the past I have written about celebrity deaths. Michael Jackson’s death turned out to be more painful for me than I anticipated. Teena Marie was a shocker and I didn’t really know where to begin so I just wrote what came to mind. But Donna Summer? Like Michael Jackson, this entertainer was particularly integral to my experience growing up in Chicago where house music ruled the eighties and in some circles still does.
My mother owned the record for the original motion picture soundtrack, Last Dance. It was the first time I heard Donna Summer. I would eventually learn it was her breakout hit that introduced her to the mainstream world. It also introduced me to one of my favorite actors, Jeff Goldblum. The funny thing about all those singers back in the late 70s is that they would be singing like their lives depended on it, but when you saw them on shows such as Soul Train, they were dressed like school teachers on Sunday and barely moving. But back then I guess that’s all they needed. The power was in their voice and the story was in their songs. And their lives? Who really knew or cared.
After Last Dance there was “Bad Girls,” a song my mother didn’t want me to really listen to for fear that my perceptive mind would begin to hear past the police whistle and the chanting to understand what she was really talking about: the pained lives of ladies of the night. But who can forget that intro to Solid Gold? That’s right, Solid Gold.
And then there was “Love To Love You”"”all 10+ minutes of it. Legend has the actual studio recording at 17 minutes. I was in high school and hanging out with friends who were DJs at the time. They were fast becoming the music historians of my time. One in particular had recently snatched up a treasure in the form of a single on vinyl that was nearly ten years old. He paid a pretty penny for it and was beside himself when he showed it to me while I was over his house one day.
“Have you heard the uncut version of this?” he asked.
I read the label and saw that it was “Love to Love You” and shook my head.
If I recall correctly he cursed joyfully at me, as most boys do while growing up, and followed with something like, “Wait ’til you hear this!”
He excitedly slipped the record out of the sleeve and placed it on one of the two Technics 1200 turntables connected to his Numark mixer and turned up the volume as high as what would get the cops called on us. And then I heard the intro of slow strokes on guitar strings followed by a slow, rolling moan that sounded too real to be contrived. Then Donna sang in a high pitched tease and a low gurgle that let you know she meant it when she said, “”...do it to me again and again”...” I would never forget that sound and that experience and always recognized it from that day forward.
“Bad Girls” and “Hot Stuff” were great but it was then that I understood what this woman was truly capable of. I felt my flesh melting off me and my heart began to race. She wasn’t singing to me, she was singing through me, telling me, “When you lay here so close to me, there’s no place that I’d rather you be than with me-e-ooohhhh”.....” Even though the song was released a decade before I actually heard it in its entirety, I thought I knew what I was supposed to know about the fairer sex. Donna Summer quickly alerted me to the fact that I knew nothing. That there were women out there able to render men helpless and hopeless with nothing more than a song. Since then she became a patch in the quilt that is my life.
When I hear her music I claim her as mine, not personally but for the music she created, the music that I loved and that I would eventually spin as a DJ for pleasure rather than profit. Since the rise of the iPod, listening to her was just as potent but not nearly as intimate because I couldn’t hold her in my hands the way I once did as a young’n. I couldn’t slow her down or speed her up based on the song before and the song I wanted to play afterwards while mixing. She’s been duplicated numerous times via samples and covers. Other performers don’t even come close.
Rest in peace, Donna Summer (1948-2012), the Queen of Soul.