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Donna Summer (1948 - 2012)
A Tribute To The First Lady Of Love
Queen Of Disco
Recommended Recordings By Claude Lemaire
Part One
Review By Claude Lemaire

 

  Back in 1967, Aretha Franklin won the respect of the public and press, accordingly crowning her Queen of or Lady Soul. As disco slowly supplanted soul in the middle of the following -- discothèque -- decade, two contenders competed for the corresponding royal heritage: glorious Gloria Gaynor and diva-esque Donna Summer. Chronologically speaking the former would win out but in sheer terms of chart hit numbers, musical creativity and lasting influence, the latter comes out on top. As we shall soon see her success story was one of cosmopolitan confluence.

Born LaDonna Adrian Gaines in Boston Massachusetts, after first honing her skills in the church, followed by some rock 'flirting', she then left for Munich in the late 1960s to pursue a singing career taking the lead in the German version of the counter-culture rock musical Hair. In the early 1970s she moved to Austria and was briefly married to Austrian actor Helmut Sommer, after which she kept his last name but replaced the 'o' for a 'u'. In 1973 things started to get brighter when she hooked up with German-based composers-producers - Italian Giorgio Moroder and British Pete Bellotte -- at their MusicLand Studios in Munich. The trio collaboration would last seven years, creating beautiful original music while dominating the dancefloor throughout the second half of the disco decade.

Her very first album in February 1974 was a European release-only titled Lady of the Night [Groovy LGR 8301] but contrary to expectations it is not a disco album. Spawning only two minor hits - "The Hostage" and the title track, there is no hint whatsoever of the genius to be of Giorgio nor that of the future Queen. In fact the single "Lady of the Night" [Groovy GR 1208] is best described as a mediocre 'B-version' of a Phil Spector-style 1960s girl group sound with 'wall to wall' reverb; while the other above single [Groovy GR 1207] is quite frankly, poorly composed, idiosyncratic, pop. Both 7-inch imports sound thin and highly compressed. As such they are essential strictly for completeness' sake and should be ignored by any audiophile standards. Mind you that even though the word disco was used in Germany for a music TV series since 1971, the music genre arrived later on the scene there than in America. To my knowledge the only such song adhering to that category before 1975 remains Silver (Bird) Convention's "Save Me" [Jupiter 13 705 AT] in late 1974.

"What a Diff'rence a Day Makes" Esther Phillips used to sing in 1975 and what a difference a year makes could be applied in the case of Summer, Bellotte and Giorgio. Initially Donna's idea, "Love To Love You" - as originally titled - was inspired by the 1969' Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin French hit "Je t'aime...moi non plus" [Fontana MF 260 241]. The extremely sensual and sexual - for the time - French original was loosely 'translated' or transformed into an English orgasmic slow-pulsing dancefloor favorite in the summer of the same year. Bellotte and Moroder cleverly 'borrowed a page or two' from the Maestro of Sensuality a.k.a. The Icon of Love, Mr. Barry White. Taken from his 1973 debut I've Got So Much To Give [20th Century T-407], the symphonic soulful single "I'm Gonna Love You Just a Little More Baby" with its slow groove 16th note semi-quaver hi-hat pattern, muted wahwah guitar and sweeping violins can be heard in the European's song composition and arrangements. Add to that, Martin Harrison's heavy emphasis on a 'fat' close-miked kick drum previously only hinted at in the intro of B.T. Express' 1974 funky-disco hit "Express" [Scepter SPS 5117] and a few months later with Crown Heights Affair's 1975 "Dreaming a Dream" [De-Lite DEP 2017]. Not to forget either is Dave King's cyclic bass-guitar riff wonderfully blending in. The original 3 minute European single [on Groovy] came to the attention of Los Angeles based Casablanca Records' head honcho Neil Bogart. Rumors has it (no pun intended) he kept playing it over and over at a wild private party, later convincing Giorgio to extend it substantially and citing Iron Butterfly's landmark 1968 acid rock hit "In-A-Gotta-Da-Vida" [Atco SD 33-250] as model.

The subsequent 17 minute full-side version 'sealed the deal' with Casablanca providing North American distribution of his Munich based Oasis label. Love To Love You Baby [Groovy DGR 8501 or Oasis OCLP 5003] and its title track represent the first and one of the finest masterpieces of Eurodisco ever produced. The extended (album) version makes all the difference between a good song and a great one. Keep in mind that when released in late August 1975, historically this was the first disco song to go over the 10 minute mark and utilize an entire LP side to itself. It is crafted loosely like a 19th century classical piece or an early 1970s progressive album 'formula' with intro, main theme, softer passages, quasi-breaks, several alternate recurring themes and finale. This became the basis upon which several Eurodisco artists and producers would later 'construct' and 'de-construct' their multi-layered compositions. Recording engineers Mack and Hans Menzel did a remarkable job capturing the many acoustic instruments with fine realistic timbres. The multiple sound layers, perfectly arranged and mixed-down by Giorgio and the low compression, tonally balanced mastering are a delight to the ears. An absolute must for music and sound in any serious record collection. If you limit yourself to only one Donna Summer release (which you should not), then make it this one.

Now that the 'dream team' hit gold, they more or less repeated the winning formula for the next release, A Love Trilogy [Groovy GR 9001 or Oasis OCLP 5004] in March 1976. This third album introduces or hints at the 'concept album' as chosen model. The main disco track "Try Me I Know We Can Make It" is in fact an uninterrupted suite of four acts: 'Try Me', 'I Know', 'We Can Make It' - thus the initial love trilogy - and its concluding finale 'Try Me, I Know We Can Make It' integrating the above three. Compared to "Love To Love You Baby", the tempo is quite faster (nearly 30 BPM higher) and includes more synthesizer in the composition and arrangements, thus we start to perceive more input from Giorgio than the previous efforts. That said we are still in Eurodisco territory and not yet in full electro-disco. Occupying the entire first side, it clocks in close to 18 minutes long, just over a minute longer. The kick drum is quite upfront in the intro and during the breaks though not as 'fat' as the previous hit but of particular interest is the very original and subtle use of a -- short duration -- delay and panning effect on the kick in the first break and some subsequent choice spots as well as panoramic 'call and response' instrumentation, making headphone listening quite attractive. Creative also is the use of 'percussive' piano, gong and marimba-like musical ornamentation.

Musically it is another Eurodisco masterpiece and while -- not as overtly - sensual but completely different in feel, it remains on par with "Love To Love You Baby" and many DJs and disco fans place it near or at the top of Summer's catalogue. Sadly the sound is not up to the same high quality being less full bodied and a bit more compressed yet still quite acceptable. Perhaps a German or Italian cutting and pressing could yield superior results, for the original mix appears well balanced. Side two comprises another fine trio of -- unmixed -- disco songs. Opening track is the "Prelude to Love" which acts as the intro to a superb cover of Barry Manilow's 1973 ballad "Could It Be Magic". The complete musical metamorphosis is stunning because it is a total transformation in style and also did well as a second disco single extracted from the LP. Finally "Wasted" and the closer "Come With Me" are what I call 'sleeper' tracks in the sense they were both excellent and good respectfully but did not get the radio or club exposure they merited.

In October of 1976, Four Seasons of Love [Groovy GR 9002 or Casablanca NBLP 7038] - the first release sporting the new U.S. label - made full use of the concept album format. Just as Vivaldi presented the baroque violin concerto 'tour de force' Le quattrostagioniway back in 1723, here Bellotte and Moroder bring some European heritage inspiration to the ever evolving disco canvas. This time around - and in keeping with tradition - we open with "Spring Affair" which segues to perfection into "Summer Fever". Flipping sides, it continues with the musically original "Autumn Changes" after which through blowing wind, segues into the ballad single "Winter Melody" and finally coming full circle we segue into a reprise of "Spring Affair" forming a perpetual renewable life cycle. There are no 'bad seasons' but side A showcases the stronger material with the opening track single, remaining the most inspiring of the four, even integrating a sax during a break while the following track displays some mighty articulate syncopated kick. The music and resulting ambiance are distinct from what the trio had done before and also from other prior disco releases. The sound quality is midway between the two previous albums. It has a more prominent bass line in the mix than the previous LP and the tonal balance reflects a certain slight descending spectrum with a minor lack of top end airiness and moderately low compression. Although I do not consider this LP as essential or musically outstanding as the previous two, I can still heartily recommend it as an excellent disco and Donna Summer record and also for its historic concept album relevance to the genre. Note that original pressings included a calendar depicting The First Lady of Love in different settings.

Reverting back to A Love Trilogy as LP format with four tracks mixed on A and four unmixed on B in May 1977 with I Remember Yesterday [Groovy GR 9003 or Casablanca NBLP 7056]; this was another concept album. Instead of exploring seasons, this release focused on time periods in popular music and according to Bellotte was supposed to be titled A Dance to the Music of Time based on Anthony Powell's 12 novels and inspired by Nicolas Poussin's 1636 painting. The first side is a triptych suite consisting of "I Remember Yesterday", "Love's Unkind" and "Back in Love Again" representing the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s respectively plus the reprise of title track elegantly wrapping things up. The latter seems influenced not only by the big band sounds of the period but also from Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band's 1976 self-titled debut LP [RCA APL1-1504] containing the hit singles "Cherchez La Femme / Se Si Bon", "I'll Play The Fool" and "Sour and Sweet". Donna's dynamic singing and scatting accompanied by Thor Baldursson's superb big band arrangements allow her ample room to 'free' herself from the previous 'sex object' confines she felt so ill at ease with. The second track does not sound that much like the 1950s but the third one does recall a lot the Motown style of the 1960s. In general the sound quality is excellent, well balanced with just the right blend of warmth in the brass and detail in the swinging hi-hat and percussive spoons. In addition, compression is moderately low placing this side pretty much in line - in audiophile terms -- with Love To Love You Baby but with a touch less bottom, perhaps due to the faster pace. The strongest composition of the album is last but certainly not least the lone track representing and successfully predicting the future...

"I Feel Love" is without doubt one of the most influential songs of the 1970s and also shares a historically important place in 20th century music. It is rightfully considered to be the 'birth' of the subgenre called electro-disco that would heavily influence synthpop, EDM, Hi-NRG, house, techno, tech house, trance and all things electronica in the following decades. Combining the 'colder' sounds of synthesizers and sequencers with the warmer ones of a Disco Diva created a kind of paradox within the song structure, sound envelope and even - for the period -- the discothèque; the resulting atmosphere akin to some sensual robotic cyber-sex. German cosmic music existed as far back as the beginning of the decade with Tangerine Dream and Klaus Schulze both capitalising on the latest Moog synthesizer and purely by chance, pioneering its hypnotic sequencer option beginning on 1974s Phaedra [Virgin 81 761 IT] while later refining their style on subsequent albums. Robotic mannequins' Kraftwerk also contributed their historic part through synths, drum machines and vocoder in 1973s Ralf und Florian [Philips 6305 197], 1974s Autobahn [Philips 6305 231D]and 1977s "Europe Endless" / "Trans-Europe Express"+"Metal On Metal" [Capitol SPRO-8637 / SPRO-8638]. Of course France was also instrumental in synthesizers early 'in the game' with space disco-rock pioneers Les Rockets' 1975 single "Future Woman" [Decca 86.063] or the 1977 12-inch version [Decca 78.001] along with Space's "Magic Fly" [Vogue VGJ10 SDRM or 45.V-G 01] and Kebekelektrik's own Canadian cover version originally titled "Journey Into Love" [Les Disques Direction DD-8004] but in this last subgenre the musical sequencer was not exploited; as such they cannot be considered as a direct link or influence to Giorgio's famed track.

Whereas French counterpart Jean Michel Jarre also made great use of analog synths and sequencers such as the Arp series exploring complex sound textures and fine rhythmic interplay on his breakthrough Oxygene [Les Disques Motors 2933 207] in December 1976. Even the Italian keyboard 'genius' himself had released just a few months earlier the single-only "Let The Music Play" [Oasis 17 879 AT] that was a precursor to his electro-disco style albeit not yet refined to 'one hundred percent purity'. By borrowing, altering and speeding up Stevie Wonder's intro to "I Wish" from his 1976 double LP Songs In The Key Of Life [Tamla T13-340C2], Giorgio tampered down the organic funk and increased the more sterile 8-note sequencer pattern. When it came time for "I Feel Love" - astonishingly considered a 'filler-up' tune at first - he repeated the same recipe with Diana Ross' 1976 "Love Hangover" [Motown PR-15 or PR-16] during the long funky riff break, T-Connection's 1977 12-inch single intro to "Do What You Wanna Do" [T.K. Disco 24] as well as Celi Bee & The Buzzy Bunch's Superman [T.K. Disco 37]. Being situated at the very end of the album may make sense artistically but unfortunately the laws of - vinyl - physics dictate that it is not the ideal 'spot' for sonic bliss. As such I strongly recommend to get the one-sided 12-inch single [Casablanca NBD 20104] that came out not long afterwards which not only has the superior groove spacing but also happens to be an extended (8 minute) version comprising a second longer break that does not exist on the original LP cut. The sound on this maxi-single is quite excellent with fine tonal balance, interesting left-right panning and appropriately moderate compression for the genre. 

Robbie Wedel installed the huge Moog modular system, synching it directly to a Studer A-80 16-track deck plus the classic Neumann U87 for Donna, through a 32/32 Harrison mixing desk and finally mastered and edited on 1/4 inch analog tape; all recorded in less than 3 hours! As a bonus, a second track -- "Theme From The Deep (Down, Deep Inside)" -- is also worthy and differs from three other versions found on the John Barry motion picture soundtrack [Casablanca NBLP 7060]. Like its title suggest, this track does indeed go down deep in the bass with lots of weight which is pleasant but on the minus side it lacks top end airiness and suffers from some mild and progressive distortion on Donna's vocals, either due to mic/input saturation and/or inner-groove cutting distortion.

As touched upon earlier, the French song that originally served as inspiration for her first disco hit was 'recycled' in the fall of 1977 in a newer discofied 16 minute version. "Je T'aimeMoi Non Plus" [Casablanca NBD 20105 DJ] was initially only available as a 12-inch single DJ promo copy. It would later reappear in the Thank God It's Friday -- 3 record set -- soundtrack in May 1978 under the slightly altered titled "Je T'aime (Moi Non Plus)”. The arrangements are done 'de bon goût' and fit right in the Eurodisco style with light violins and keyboard, melodically taking center stage. Like the majority of the Casablanca 12-inch singles, I would expect that the sound is quite good and well balanced (unfortunately I do not own a copy to verify for sure) whereas the one from the TGIF soundtrack - like the rest of the album - is lacking in bottom and top end, making the latter fair but definitely not 'audiophile' impressive.

  

Part Two next month

 

Discography ratings - based on vinyl editions:

 

Lady of the Night [Groovy LGR 8301] - (1974)

Enjoyment: ;Sound Quality:

 

Love To Love You Baby [Groovy DGR 8501 or Oasis OCLP 5003] - (1975)

Enjoyment: ;Sound Quality:

 

A Love Trilogy [Groovy GR 9001 or Oasis OCLP 5004] - (1976)

Enjoyment: ;Sound Quality:

 

Four Seasons of Love[Groovy GR 9002 or Casablanca NBLP 7038] - (1976)

Enjoyment: ;Sound Quality:

 

I Remember Yesterday [Groovy GR 9003 or Casablanca NBLP 7056] - (1977)

Enjoyment: ;Sound Quality:

 

"I Feel Love" 12 inch single[Casablanca NBD 20104] - (1977)

Enjoyment: ;Sound Quality:

 

"Je T'aimeMoi Non Plus" [Casablanca NBD 20105 DJ] - (1977)

Enjoyment: ;Sound Quality: (probable)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
 

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