Thursday, April 18, 2013

Donna Summer, Rock 'n' Roll & the Lost Music Archives

Photo by Gun Rose

It’s pretty easy to see why Donna Summer is revered as the Queen of Disco.  
Beginning in 1975 with the release of her breakthrough Love to Love You Baby album, Summer churned out a string of one concept disco albums after another. A Love Trilogy, Four Seasons of Love, I Remember Yesterday, Once Upon a Time were all certified gold domestically and internationally. Then in 1979 with Bad Girls arguably her masterpiece, which went double platinum, she peaked commercially and artistically.
What’s tragically underplayed and nearly lost in the Donna Summer narrative are her varied rock accomplishments. Only us true fans know this.
Long before her disco days, she was the lead singer of The Crow, a Boston-based psychedelic rock band in the 1960s as a teenager. Her first chart-topping recording was from her Lady of the Night album, recorded in Europe in 1974. The single, “The Hostage,” was a rock-infused pop tune that went to #1 in Belgium and #2 in the Netherlands.
Just as the disco beat ended in the late 1970s, Summer’s career took an unexpected, surprising turn. In 1980, she beat out Bonnie Raitt, Rickie Lee Jones, Cindy Bullens and Tanya Tucker, becoming the first woman to win the Grammy’s rock for “Hot Stuff” electric guitar riff-layered rock anthem. Go back and listen to it. Summer always performed it live as a more of rock than dance song.
Clearly, Summer viewed this Grammy as a way to pull back from the disco crown that had so defined her artistry. Hoping to build on this success, or the next decade Summer included at least one rock song on her albums.
For The Wanderer her first album for Geffen Records, she reteamed worked with Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte in 1980 with whom she had been so successful. The Wanderer amazed and impressed critics with its eclectic mixture of rock, rockabilly, new wave and gospel influences. “Cold Love” the second track released, reached Number #33 on the Billboard charts. The opening drum and power guitar riff sounded like the beginning of a Journey track The song was clearly a nod to “Hot Stuff” minus the disco beats. It garnered her another Grammy nomination for Best Female Rock Vocalist.
Next, Summer again teamed with Moroder and Bellotte for more experimentation and went back to the studio laying down vocals for I’m a Rainbow. Summer’s power vocals on “Leave Me Alone” are more reminiscent of Pat Benatar or Joan Jett than a disco diva. Every time I’ve played the song for friends, they looked bewildered before saying, “Is that Donna Summer?” Apparently record label executives at Geffen weren’t feeling it either, shelving the entire project. Various singles rock-infused singles like “Highway Runner,” and “Romeo,” came out on movie soundtracks. It eventually the entire “I’m a Rainbow” CD came out in the 1990s almost as a novelty disco.
In another bold artistic statement, Summer teamed with New Jersey rocker Bruce Springsteen who wrote and recorded “Protection” for Summer. They laid down the tracks as a duet. It’s an amazing rock anthem that has Summer grunting “ugh! ugh! ugh!” to blazing guitars. But when the self-titled Donna Summer album was released in 1982, Springsteen’s vocals were reduced to the background. Again, for a little-known song Summer received a Grammy nomination for Best Female Rock Vocalist.
The following year brought Summer’s most commercially viable pop/rock song from the 1980s with “She Works Hard for the Money.” Recorded for Mercury/Polygram, it was one of the biggest records of 1983. The rock track on that one was “He’s a Rebel,” with its splendid guitar-picked opening. Although not released as a single, it won Summer the Grammy for Best Inspirational Performance.
For the rest of her time on under the Geffen contract, she continued to drop rock songs – hard edged and ballads such as “Oh Billy Please” from Cats Without Claws and “Love Shock” from All Systems Go. But this new more experimental Donna Summer wasn’t as commercially viable as the disco diva had been. She parted with Geffen in the late 1980s. When Atlantic released Another Place and Time in 1989 the album was a return to Euro dance and pop tracks. Gone was the rock experimentation.
In the 1990s the Geffen recordings came out on CD. Obsession for those like me paid off. I grabbed copies of them all. Summer’s entire Geffen catalogue is now out of print along with all those rare rock recordings - scarcely played on the radio and heard by too few people.
Today, after five tries and death, Donna Summer is rightfully being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at a ceremony. It’s not an empty symbolic gesture for an undeserving artist. She earned it with rock Grammy nominations and recordings that went unnoticed. Sure, she was disco’s reigning diva but in her heart of hearts Donna Summer was a rock and roller.
Maybe some day those highly creative Geffen recordings, which includes rare rock music and are owned by the Donna Summer estate, will be re-released. 

NOTE: For a much more personal take on Donna Summer check out "The Tongues of Angels" in the spring 2013 issue of literary magazine.