Donna Summer (1948-2012)

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I found out that Donna Summer had died this week in the same way as millions of others did; on an online news site.  My first reaction was sadness that someone had died so young but there was much more to it than that.  We all have songs and artists that we link to events in our lives and Donna Summer’s work intersects my lifeline on a couple of very important occasions.

The controversy around “Love to Love You Baby” didn’t quite pass me by but I wasn’t losing any sleep over it; I was studying for my mock “A” levels and “Bohemian Rhapsody” was impossible to ignore at the time.  18 months later, things were very different; I was a DJ at a students’ union (thanks to my old mate Steve J)and things were going a bit disco (again thanks to Steve).  I was playing songs by Tina Charles, Heatwave and Billy Ocean, but nothing had convinced me that this wasn’t another short-lived fad; then I heard “I Feel Love”.  Game-changer doesn’t do it justice; the synth sounds that Giorgio Moroder had been playing with for the last 5 years for novelty value finally came of age in support of Donna Summer’s mezzo-soprano vocal to create a massive chart-topper in the UK.

This single was the starting-point for a series of dance-pop hits worldwide.  Over the next 3 years, you couldn’t escape from Donna Summer as the stream of dancefloor-friendly pop songs showed no sign of slowing down.  If you listen to any of the greatest hits packages, half of the tracks come from this period of about 3 years.  Although she had a steady stream of hits, there were a few misses as well, and I loved one of the epic misses.

“Never Lose Your Sense of Humor” was a duet with her songwriter/collaborator Paul Jabara which was released in 1979 and failed to chart anywhere in the world.  2 years later, I had a DJ gig at a fun pub (the concept was basically gay club aimed at straight punters) in the East Midlands and my boss turned up with an import Casablanca 12” of this track.  I loved it and we played it virtually every night for about 2 years as a late-night anthem.

Donna Summer went on to release even more classics in the ‘80s including the highly-acclaimed but commercially tepid “State of Independence” but the hits were sporadic after 1980 as new fashions and divas came along.  The controversy over allegedly anti-gay sentiments expressed in the mid-80s didn’t help, although that particular wound seems to have healed over time as she went on to attain Hall of Fame status and achieve the” legend” tag which her work so richly deserved.

There are no stories of drug dependence or abusive relationships; just a story of a singer who made us feel happy and sad in turn and who, more importantly, made us dance.  A singer who found happiness in her faith rather than in a bottle or a needle and who died with dignity after a long battle with illness.  She will be remembered for her music rather than her private life and that says everything you need to know.  Remember her by listening to your favourite Donna Summer song; I’ll be listening to “Never Lose Your Sense of Humor”, waiting for the second chorus and the first appearance of that wonderful voice.

RIP