As a white girl growing up in the 1970s South, I loved Donna Summer.
It was a place that was still segregated – as much as people wanted to pretend it wasn’t – but Summer’s music bonded black and white kids. We’d stand at the Big Banjo’s juke box and play “Hot Stuff” and “Bad Girls.” As kids, we probably shouldn’t have even been listening to such racy lyrics, but it was carefree disco after all. That music allowed us to dance together even if we didn’t hang out at school together.
Summer, a five-time Grammy winner, died Thursday of cancer at 63.
Donna Summer was the quintessential diva of disco, a genre that gets a bad rap because it wasn’t necessarily political or edgy. It was simply fantastic funk that forced people to have fun. But disco was neither easy to play, with its fast-paced bass lines, nor easy to sing, with its various high and low notes.
Summer had a mezzo-soprano range and began her singing career in her church’s choir, like many black musicians. But in the sexy ’70s, she forgot about religion and plunged into temptation. She made men stop dead in their tracks and women want to be her when she sang her 1975 hit “Love to Love You Baby.” Her breathy, orgasmic singing was beyond seductive, and every little girl in my neighborhood tried to emulate her voice as we sung along to the 45. (It didn’t work.)
By the time her seventh studio album, “Bad Girls,” landed in 1979, she had already garnered the nickname of the “First Lady of Love.” She never liked the title, but it helped her to sell a gazillion records. In fact, she was the first artist to have three consecutive double albums reach number one on the U.S. Billboard chart.
“Bad Girls,” a themed-album about prostitution, sold more than 2 million copies in the United States. Suddenly, every girl wanted to be a bad girl and walk on the Sunset Strip. We bought satin disco pants and skated under sparkling lights at the roller rink, pretending we were stars at Studio 54 in New York. Donna Summer offered escape from cliques and homework.
Summer influenced me to love music. From that 8-track of “Bad Girls” that my parents bought me, Summer led me to bands that loved synthesizers, such as Blondie and pop icons Duran Duran.
On Thursday, Duran Duran keyboardist Nick Rhodes said on the band’s Web site, “[Summer’s music] was certainly a key influence on my work with Duran Duran. Together with producer Giorgio Moroder, Donna pioneered the use of electronic sequencers in dance music.”
But it wasn’t just synthesized dance music that made Summer a house-hold name.
Her 1983 hit “She Works Hard for the Money” became a mantra for women. According to music lore, Summer wrote the song after an encounter with a bathroom attendant. The song’s video showed a downtrodden waitress who gave up her dreams as a dancer to raise two children and deal with life’s trials. No girl growing up in the 1980s wanted to end up like that, scrubbing floors and dealing with unruly kids.
Like many artists who peaked in the ’70s, Summer failed to sustain massive hits in the ’90s. She became a devout Christian, dismissed her sexy image and branched into various types of music, recording new jack swing and gospel albums. She continued to record dance music that was popular, especially in Europe and American nightclubs.
A younger generation also discovered Summer. She performed on “American Idol” and even recorded a song, “The Power of One,” for a Pokemon movie. Don’t laugh. Former Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain often quoted the song during his run for president last year.
On Dec. 11, 2009, Summer had, perhaps, the highest honor of her career when she performed in honor of President Obama at the Nobel Peace Prize Concert in Oslo, Norway. But Obama did not attend the concert. He certainly missed out. Summer sang several of her hits, including “Bad Girls,” “MacArthur Park” and “Last Dance.”
Heaven knows, Summer gave us plenty of dances as the Queen of Disco. Thanks for the glittery memories, Donna.
Suzi Parker is an Arkansas-based political and cultural journalist and author of “Sex in the South: Unbuckling the Bible Belt.” Follow her on Twitter at @SuziParker.