I have a few words about Donna Summer, but first, I recommend Ann Powers’ piece, “The Many Voices of Donna Summer”. Ann does so many things well, but she really shines with her obituaries, which are not easy to write, and, of course, you hate when the need for one arises.
When I think of disco, I think of one-hit wonders. This is a bit myopic, mostly demonstrating that my experience with the music was limited to crossover hits and whatever they played at the roller rink around 1980. The Johnny-come-lately types like The Rolling Stones and Rod Stewart don’t count here. I’m thinking more of someone like Thelma Houston, who sang my favorite disco song of all time, “Don’t Leave Me This Way”. Houston wasn’t really a one-hit wonder … she had been recording for seven years before her big hit, and she’s still active today. But “Don’t Leave Me This Way” is the only song she recorded that I can name, off the top of my head. It’s such a great record, not just a great disco record, but a great record, period. It was her peak.
In this world of one-hit wonders, there was Donna Summer. One of her albums alone (Bad Girls) had four Top-40 singles, including two #1 and one #2. And the non-single tracks, like “Sunset People”, were just as good. Her 1979 Greatest Hits album, dominated as expected by Bad Girls, was also full of great stuff … not all of it was to my taste, but there’s no denying “I Feel Love”, “On the Radio”, and even “Love to Love You Baby”.
While all of those hits are the first thing that comes to mind when I look back on Summer’s career, it was her work in the early-80s that really got my attention, for that was when she made her “rock move”. First came The Wanderer, a fine album, although not as popular as her more disco-oriented music. Then, in the midst of a less-interesting self-titled 1982 album, Summer recorded a Bruce Springsteen song! It’s pretty good, too, written by Bruce around the time he was working with Gary U.S. Bonds. Finally, there was the undeniable “She Works Hard for the Money”. Summer, in her early-30s, created a different version of her music that was arguably as strong as the disco music for which she was most famous.
So you’ve got a woman who recorded a classic disco album, had many disco hits, easily filled a hits compilation, all in a genre full of “one-hit wonders”, and then made some excellent sides with a more rock flavor. It’s a unique career from a talented artist.
Here are a few of her songs, pop music at its finest. First, “On the Radio”:
“She Works Hard for the Money”:
And finally, here’s a link to “Protection”, complete with sizzling gee-tar solo by Bruce: