Mourning Disco’s Glittering Star

In an era of forgettable one-hit wonders, Donna Summer will always be the genre's one true icon.

Richard E. Aaron/Redferns

(The Root) For music fans who experienced the club-hopping ’70s, Donna Summer will long be remembered as the quintessential diva of disco, the oft-derided genre that rose and quickly faded within the span of a decade.

While many of her contemporaries were one-hit wonders, Summer was one of the few artists of the disco era to become a genuine star. “There was no question I would be a singer; I just always knew,” Summer said in a 1989 interview with the Associated Press. “I had credit in my neighborhood; people would lend me money and tell me to pay it back when I got famous.”

Born LaDonna Adrian Gaines on Dec. 31, 1948, right outside Boston, Summer honed her vocal chops singing gospel in church and dabbling in psychedelic rock during the ’60s. But by the middle of the following decade, she had emerged as the undisputed disco queen.

Summer parlayed her considerable singing and songwriting skills into a fruitful career that is notable for the release of the 1975 stereo-erotica hit “Love to Love You Baby.” Co-written by Summer, the stunningly sinful track was produced by Euro-synth wiz Giorgio Moroder, whom the singer met in Germany while touring with the musical Hair.

Signed in the States to Casablanca Records, where her labelmates included George Clinton and Kiss, Summer took the advice of the imprint’s visionary boss, Neil Bogart, who suggested that the tune needed to be remixed. Both its three-minute radio edit and an extended club version that ran nearly 17 minutes became monster hits.

With its seductive grooves and Summer’s hot-and-heavy breathing, “Love to Love You Baby” was an aural pleasure for the era’s dance-floor devotees, even as it shocked airwaves across more than a few nations. The BBC banned it completely.

“I actually found it very hard to sing,” a 26-year-old Summer told Blues and Soul magazine in 1976. “When we first started, there were no words other than ‘Love to Love You Baby,’ so I made it up as it went along, in the hope that what I was saying fitted the mood of the music. It took four-and-a-half hours in all just to put my vocal track on — and I ended up handling it the way it is … It got me to such a point that I threw everybody out of the studio except my producer, and he calmed me down by telling me just to sing it the way I felt it, rather than the way I felt it should be sung. Let’s face it: It’s in every woman to be seductive — whether she is a teacher or a whore.”