April 7, 2018

Donna Summer's Colorful Life the Basis for New Broadway Musical

Born on December 31, 1948 and raised as LaDonna Adrian Gaines, the disco and pop diva known as Donna Summer grew up as one of seven children.  She was a native of Boston, specifically the Mission Hill area which is located between the much larger neighborhoods of Jamaica Plain and Roxbury Crossing.

Sadly, she passed away at age 63 at her home in Naples, Florida on May 17, 2012.  The official cause of death was lung cancer, although her family made a point to tell the press that Ms. Summer was never even a smoker.  But Donna Summer's legacy looms very large in the music business, and now its on Broadway.  NPR had a relevant clip on her passing, which can be listened to below, or by visiting https://n.pr/JCSTGW:

Playbill from the Broadway musical "Summer" 
After a trial run at San Diego's La Jolla Playhouse, now "Summer: The Donna Summer Musical", which is a jukebox musical featuring her songs, has opened at Broadway's Lunt-Fontanne Theater.  Three different actresses play Ms. Summer at various points in her life, depicting her Boston upbringing, her burgeoning success with the producer Giorgio Moroder and her later years.  Similar autobiographical subjects for musical shows have followed a similar pattern.  Summer has received mixed reviews so far, although that will not necessarily limit its success (or failure).

Donna Summer began her music career back in the late 1960's, when she left home and joined a blues/rock band.  Although the band was commercially unsuccessful, her time with the band took her to New York where she made a name for herself with her vocal talents (notably, record labels did not want the band she was in, but several expressed interest in her talent as a solo singer).  Ms. Summer found work singing as a backup singer for 1970's trio Three Dog Night.

While in New York, Donna Summer auditioned for a role in the counterculture musical "Hair" (a movie version would later be released co-starring a young Beverly D'Angelo who is perhaps best known for her role as Ellen Griswold in several "Vacation" movies).  Donna Summer landed the part of Sheila in "Hair", and she agreed to take the role in the Munich production of the show, moving to Germany.

Move to Europe Changes Donna Summer's Career Trajectory

She spent several years living, acting, and singing in Europe (and she learned to speak German while there).  In 1973, she met her first husband, Austrian actor Helmut Sommer, and she gave birth to their daughter (Mimi) Natalia Pia Melanie Sommer.  During her time in Europe, she also first met European music producers Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte, who would later loom large in her career as a singer as her fellow songwriters, producers, arrangers and managers.  Her married surname of Sommer was supposed to be the name used on her recordings, but a typo at her first record label dubbed her as Donna Summer, which is the stage name that stuck.

State's "Hit Parade" podcast had an excellent overview entitled "The Queen of Disco" worth listening to in its entirety below, or by visiting http://www.slate.com/articles/podcasts/hit_parade/2017/11/donna_summer_s_three_decade_chart_reign.html.

Following her successful stage role in the musical "Hair" playing in Europe, she would later land a record label contract as a solo singer.  In 1975, the record-label known as Casablanca Records signed the then-new solo artist Donna Summer and the following year, released her album entitled "Love to Love You Baby" which was certified gold.  Casablanca enjoyed a brief period of big-time success in the mid-to-late-1970's, and Donna Summer was big part of that.  The Casablanca label also featured Kiss, Cher (for a time, anyway), Player, Lipps Inc., Tony Orlando, Dusty Springfield (for a time), and Captain & Tennille (see my blog post on that duo at https://goo.gl/9WdWG5 for more), The Village People and many other hit artists during the record label's initial heyday.

Donna Summer's breakout hit song "Love to Love You Baby" was over 17 minutes long, and Casablanca released the song in its entirety as a single (a much shorter version was promoted to radio stations).  In releasing the 17-minute version as a single, Casablanca would help popularize a format that would become known as the 12-inch (the diameter of the vinyl record that contained the extended-play song).  The single became a big disco success during the era when clubs like Studio 54 dominated the time in which younger Baby Boomers' were becoming young adults, and fueling the nightlife and disco era (by going out to boogie on weekends) perhaps best typified by the 1977 hit movie (and corresponding hit movie soundtrack) "Saturday Night Fever".

22 Orgasms in the Single Love to Love You Baby

As noted, the single "Love to Love You Baby" was written by Donna Summer herself, as well as her collaborators Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte.  That song featured Ms. Summer seductively moaning and groaning (as if she was having sex), and that caused the single to be banned by some American and European radio stations.  According to one tally by Time magazine, Ms. Summer could be heard having 22 orgasms in this track (the BBC's own censors reportedly counted 23, but hey, what's one more orgasm?), although she later told Rolling Stone magazine and other media outlets that those sound effects were simply acting.  We know that lines of recordings can be played repeatedly in singles as a refrain, although that mainly applies to lyrics, so its unclear exactly what an orgasmic moan qualifies as in a recorded song.  That can be listened to below or by visiting https://youtu.be/4C4j6q6PQc0.

But, as it turns out, efforts to try and ban the song for being too sexually explicit actually had the opposite effect, and helped to make it a smash hit.  The single went to #2 on the U.S. Hot 100.  Not surprisingly, around the same time, pornography was also going mainstream, with a 1973 movie release named "Deep Throat" gaining a reputation as a "must-see" movie, eventually earning more money than any film had previously (and so far, since) -- I blogged about the mainstreaming of porn at https://goo.gl/9FG5K for more on that topic.

Ms. Summer would quickly release an impressive sting of other chart-topping disco hits in the next few years including "I Feel Love", "Last Dance", "MacArthur Park", "Heaven Knows", "Hot Stuff", "Bad Girls", "Dim All the Lights", and "On the Radio".  Ms. Summer would also record a hit duet with Barbra Streisand.

All told, Donna Summer earned a total of 32 hit singles on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 chart in her lifetime, with 14 reaching the top ten.  She claimed a top 40 hit every year between 1975 and 1984, and from her first top ten hit in 1976, to the end of 1982, she had 12 top ten hits (10 were top five hits), more than any other act during that time period.  She returned to the Hot 100's top five in 1983, and claimed her final top ten hit in 1989 with "This Time I Know It's for Real".

Casablanca Records: Hit-Machine During Disco Era, Known for Excess

Her first record label Casablanca Records was best known for excess.  The Los Angeles-based record label was bringing in millions of dollars from a string of radio hits (including those by Donna Summer).  Casablanca Records' fall began when the 1980's began. The label was known to spend lavish amounts of money on parties, events, and promotion. There were even rumors of free-flowing cocaine at its parties and headquarters.  As a result, profit margins suffered due to the carefree spending by the label. Casablanca also spent lavish amounts of money on promoting its releases, which made its artists very happy, but not necessarily PolyGram, which later owned a 50% stake in the label.  It would eventually suffer from "accounting irregularities" leading to its eventual sale to the much bigger PolyGram record label which distributed its records anyway.  When Casablanca's lavish spending habits were realized by PolyGram, it quickly made an offer to purchase the other half of Casablanca it did not already own in 1980, but the "good old days" at Casablanca Records were effectively over.

Summer's Move to Geffen Records, And Later, to Atlantic Records

Donna Summer herself left Casablanca Records in 1980 when she signed with another startup known as Geffen Records, then a new record label started by David Geffen.  But she still released the hit single "She Works Hard For The Money" under her old contract with Casablanca.  But because Ms. Summer wanted to go into a different direction with her music; while Casablanca wanted her to keep recording disco and nothing else, she decided to find a different record label, and David Geffen made her an offer she could not refuse.  Ms. Summer also filed a 10-million-dollar suit against Casablanca; but the label counter-sued. In the end, although Ms. Summer did not receive any money, she did win the rights to her own lucrative song publishing.  Her decision to change record labels and focus away from disco proved to be a good move.  With Geffen, she would release the hit single "The Wanderer" although it was still more disco than she wanted.  By that time, she was growing tired of constant recording, touring, etc. so she was ready when to take a break from music.  She would re-emerge in at the end of the decade with a single "This Time I Know It's for Real" (which went to #3 on the U.S. Hot 100) in 1989 which was released on Atlantic Records, then a division of Warner Bros. Records.

Ms. Summer also did some minor acting roles on TV in the mid-to-late 1990's in sitcom "Family Matters" playing the role of Aunt Oona Urkel in two episodes.  However, she will likely always be remembered for her huge role in the popular disco era, with incredibly danceable tracks that were popular in their day.

Although there is no guarantee it will remain available, the Viacom-owned cable network's series "Behind the Music" ran an interesting bio of Donna Summer, which seems particularly relevant in the years since her death.  That can be viewed (for the moment) by visiting https://youtu.be/ZrXepibp22Y.

There was also an interesting interview with Donna Summer done by BBC Radio.  Although BBC Radio no longer has the interview online, another blog/ website has retained it which can be listened to below, or by visiting http://www.musiclikedirt.com/2012/05/18/donna-summer48-12/:

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