Thursday, May 17, 2012

Donna Summer: Black Gypsy Extraordinaire

Summer, circa Donna Summer era

"... And that's why I like to make a lot of different types of songs. Because I want to reach a lot of different types of people... I'm a rainbow. We're all rainbows, you know. We're made up of...we're complex. We're made up of a lot of different colors, and to say I'm only green, or only red, or only yellow is wrong."

I'm not much for labels. In the strictest sense that is. I believe that labels can be a positive thing on one hand, because knowing who and what you are is important. It is a step that allows for you, me, or whomever to then shatter all preconceived notions that a label may hold. That was Donna Summer's strength, her contribution, and her legacy shared through her music.

While many will, and especially in the wake of her shocking passing, associate her with one decade and genre, Donna Summer at her core was a pop singer. When I say "pop" I don't mean "popular music," but the genre of pop which is marked by dramatic, stylistic departures on each record. The popularity of the artist may not hold up in a commercial sense, but the artistic license of the description I just stated doesn't expire.

It was Summer's pop frippery and dedication that caught the ears of this young, awkward teenager in the early 2000's. It took at least two years for me to understand the magnitude of Summer's gift, the scope of her sound. It has continued in an enduring love affair that has seen me collect every record of hers I could, write about her to expose her underrated moments to larger audiences, and just revel in the charge her music gives me.

Summer, circa Live & More era
Her beginnings could mislead the uninitiated. The Bostonian, one of seven children, may have gone directly into the traditional soul vein with her heavy church rearing. Summer confessed to hearing the voice of God telling her that she would one day be famous, but her journey was not to be the average one. Possessing a powerful instrument (that voice), Summer easily could have become another Aretha Franklin inspired imitator and how boring would that have been?

Instead she ended up in Europe after high school, becoming something of a theater circuit darling. Living there, she landed on the road to her debut recording Lady of the Night (1974). Scoring her first international hit with the high drama of "The Hostage," Summer quickly unveiled her second album Love to Love You Baby (1975) to American success. Its title track has gone on to eternal legend status.

After returning to the arms of her native America, Summer slowly built on the growing movement born from black music with a touch of European sophistication: disco. Her stream of underground classics swelled on albums like A Love Trilogy (1976), Four Seasons of Love (1976), I Remember Yesterday (1977), and Once Upon a Time (1977). With the soundtrack ruby "Last Dance" for the film Thank God It's Friday (1978), Summer had a timely segue into the mainstream disco explosion of the late '70's.

We all know the hits. The requisite four-on-the floor jams and even the revolutionary number "I Feel Love," the latter which gave birth to electronic dance music. Summer's best sides from this mentioned cluster of early recordings included the boogie woogie twister "I Remember Yesterday," the straight ahead soul of "A Man Like You," or the chilly chant of "Now I Need You".

My further digging unfurled Summer's '80's discography which revealed an electric selection. The Wanderer (1980), a brazen, defiant about face to her dance roots was jaw dropping. Its personal thematic precision set the standard for albums like Impossible Princess (1998) and Ray of Light (1998) by two women influenced most by Summer: Kylie Minogue and Madonna, both of whom I adore.

Summer, circa 2011
Her masterpiece cover of Jon & Vangelis' "State of Independence," under direction of maestro Quincy Jones for her tenth platter Donna Summer (1982) is what made me the fan I've been since 2001.

I heard the raw gypsy spiritualism ensconced in the song. It rang through my psyche and heart. Donna Summer spoke to me in that song. I listened to her singing of places and ideas that could be conceived, I knew I could do and be what I wanted. I could explore the unknowns of the world. My romance continued, spurned on by the character driven approach Summer used when she sang. She never bludgeoned you into submission with her voice. Summer knew how to read and let the emotion, the narrative, the idea of the song lead her voice. Breathy, pulsing, staunch, vital any adjective you could think of Summer occupied. The sky writing heights of "All Systems Go," the title track to her 1987 album, still makes me smile. The immediacy of Another Place and Time (1989) and the joyful patches on Crayons (2008) found Summer fearless.

I've learned that this versatility draws the ire of standard black female singers, their fans and historians. Many quickly attempt to niche Summer into "disco" despite her abilities on display. It has made for fascinating study, especially when Summer had a nice number of R&B hits. While those black charters didn't outnumber her larger pop scores, when Summer was with her people, she always seemed genuine and enthused.

In addition to her songwriting skills, Summer remained unafraid to push boundaries visually as well. Whether posing as the black version of Marilyn Monroe on the inner jacket sleeve to Four Seasons of Love, or donning a blonde wig and leather bomber on Mistaken Identity (1991), Summer didn't prescribe to antiquated racial lines of beauty on either side.

Summer Performing "Romeo" 
From "A Hot Summer Night" T.V. Special 1983

I've had singers I've enjoyed pass away and any loss of life is a tragedy. Today was the first day I felt my heart truly break at the reception of the news of Donna Summer's death. To a fellow black gypsy like myself, Summer was more than just a mere disco legend. She was someone palatable that through her music connected with me, and others, who looked for acceptance outside of the smaller circles we were (and are) forced to (sometimes) move within. She made it okay for me to be an African-American who knew who he was, but not content to be boxed in by his own people.

She stayed true to her muse and often made efforts to share her journey. Sometimes this made her feverishly unpopular with fans, but those hip knew the deal and respected her directions. Donna Summer's love of expressing the human condition will be missed in her untimely removal from this Earth. Revisionism will continue to be Summer's worst enemy, and it is a shame, because her music has so much to give. The adventure, integrity, and spirit of the woman will be missed greatly too. Goodbye Donna, thanks for everything, I love and miss you girl.-QH


justvox said...

You candidly captured her musical and spiritual essence. Kudos on a respectful and fluent tribute!

rhythmic said...

beautiful read Q...this really captured your love for her...her love for her art and the love her music exuded... I've recently became a big admirer of her music as you know and im still being wowed and floored by how great and vast her sound and voice is