Donna Summer has died. I rarely comment on celebrity death here on this blog, unless they had particular significance to me personally, or our industry. Donna Summer had her career peak in the years from 1976 to 1983 so many younger readers might think of her just as one of the pop musicians of a bygone era. For me, those were the years I grew up from being a boy to being a man. From 1978 I was old enough to go to 'grown-up' discos and restaurants and clubs in Finland (ones that served alcohol). That year I moved away from my parents' home and set off to living on my own. The year 1980 I spent serving in the Finnish army doing my military service, many in Finland say this is where boys grow up to become men, haha. And in year 1983 I left Finland to go to America to study at University. The time from 1976 to 1983 is really the time I grew up from being a boy to being a man. And as I today thought back to Donna Summer, and her role in my life, I noticed that there was no other artist who was as closely the sound track of my life for that period.
So a few thoughts from the archives of DJ Tommy T (someone remarked on Twitter that everyone in Finland has been a DJ at some point in their lives haha). In the 1960s I did not differentiate between 'rock' music and pop music and whatever was on the radio. A good song or bad song to me was not part of some kind of music genre. I didn't think the Beatles or Monkees were any different from Tom Jones or Engelbert Humperdink. In the early 1970s I started to understand there was music for young people - pop music or rock music - and started to identify some songs and some bands. At this time it was bands like The New Seekers (the guys who created the Coca Cola song, I'd like to teach the world to sing). Then the first time I was hooked onto a 'band' and liked their current songs - and actually waited for their next song - was British Glam Rock band The Sweet. Soon I was buying all the pop magazines and was a fan of the Glam Rock era pop bands like Gary Glitter, Suzi Quatro, Mud, Slade, David Bowie and T.Rex. Meanwhile the big thing in Finland was not this pop glam glitzy stuff, it was heavy metal music like Uriah Heep, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, Nazareth, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Status Quo etc. I heard a lot of that and liked it too.
A funny thing happened in 1975. We had a couple of girls in our class who thought the boys all danced very badly. So they decided they would teach all the boys to dance. And the song they used was KC and the Sunshine Band's Thats The Way (I Like It). That was soul music, not rock. And it was kind of pre-disco era dance music. We learned to dance, and soon girls not from our class, but other girls, like from other schools etc, would remark that we boys danced well. This dancing skill was very good for picking up girls for an insecure teenager haha.. So my music preferences soon went from glamrock with lots of heavy metal, to Kool and the Gang, Silver Convention, MSFB, Hues Corporation, The Three Degrees, Gloria Gaynor.. and yes Donna Summer.
Yes, I gave in to the dark side. I left the reliable solid music foundations of rock, especially heavy rock music, and went all soul music. This soon transformed into that hated word, Disco. We got into T-Connection and Chic and Michael Zager and all those over-played songs that should be banned from all radios, weddings and clubs - Village People, Sister Sledge, Weather Girls, Bee Gees etc. Yes, Saturday Night Fever came and really spoiled this type of music. So for me, I was ever less happy with 'Disco' in the style of say Olivia Newton John and Michael Jackson etc. My musical tastes evolved during this time towards a more funky direction. One was rap, from 1979 Sugarhill Gang's Rapper's Delight. (Hello. T-Dawg!) Another favorite music form took a longer time to develop, a more 'jungle' sound to me, initially a strange departure from the soul-disco dance music I liked, as it was often of slightly slower beat count. But it was, when the song was right, truly 'funky'. I don't mean James Brown funky. I mean Parliament. I mean George Clinton. I mean Zapp. I mean Gap Band. I mean Rick James, Cameo, Slave, Teena Marie, SOS Band, Midnight Star etc. And the third direction where my dance music evolved, was .. techno. Euro-techno very specifically. A sound that was pioneered by the producer Giorgio Moroder on a magnificent dance anthem, I Feel Love - by Donna Summer.
So today I look back at my musical evolution. I found dance music to be delightful in the mid-1970s but it was not then my only type of music I preferred. By the turn of the decade, from 1970 to 1980, I was discovering finer points of dance music, funk, rap and techno - and they have since been my fave music forms ever since. And when I look at the artists that played dance music in the mid 1970s, those bands didn't really make it past the Disco phase. And those bands that I discovered at the turn of the decade, some of them did have hits in the mid 1970s but I never knew of them back then. So of the bands I liked in the late 1970s that made it well into the 1980s, yes Queen, David Bowie - both did some dance tunes but they were more serious rock acts. Abba did also dabble in dance but they were a light-weight dance band, mostly a pop quartet. Blondie came from punk and also did its share of dance music (even a rap tune) but again, they were not predomiantly a dance band. And of the more serious dance bands of the era, they tended to be one-hit wonders. Kung Fu Fighting. Car Wash. Boogie Oogie Oogie. Ring My Bell. Funky Town. The only really over-arching musician whose sound track lived with me through that whole transition, from mid 1970s all the way to mid 1980s was.. Donna Summer.
As I today sent a few Tweets about Donna Summer's death, and posted some links to some videos of her live performances that are on YouTube, I was vividly reminded how powerful her hits were at the time I first heard them. Almost every one of her dance tunes (as distinct from her ballads) were my favorite song of that time when the hit was released. Could It Be Magic, Spring Affair, I Feel Love, I Remember Yesterday, I Love You, Fairy Tale High, Once Upon a Time, Rumor Has It, Last Dance, MacArthur Park, Heaven Knows, Hot Stuff, Bad Girls, Dim All The Lights, No More Tears (Enough is Enough), On The Radio, The Wanderer, Love Is In Control (Finger on the Trigger), She Works Hard for the Money, This Time I Know Its For Real.. I can't believe that. Thats 20 hit dance songs, most of them so huge, they were the number 1 hit dance song of the week, and many being the number 1 dance song of the year. In my life of preferring dance music, I don't think there have been more than two other artists who had more of my fave songs in such a long period of time in their respective careers - Prince and Madonna - in dance music long legacies are very rare.
And Donna Summer had that trademark style of very often her song started very slow, undanceably slow. They it would shift at some point - and we DJ's knew to mix the song in at this point - so often when you heard a new Donna Summer song for the very first time you thought it was not going to be a dance tune, it would be a ballad. Then she'd surprise you, and the song would be massive, but maybe 45 seconds into the track or more.
Now as I've sampled again those favorite Donna Summer songs, I am powerfully reminded that these were those songs that totally whipped dance floors to a frenzy. She was electrifying. With that magnificent voice and for its time, very advanced musical arrangements - you had to listen to her songs on earphones with the volume turned to the max. Try something like I Feel Love on your iPod or your home HiFi and play it loud and listen to the way the song was designed, and then listen to Donna's voice coming in and growing on you.
Many pop stars are good singers but not really song-writers. Donna penned most of her hit songs herself. That adds to the professional respect she had. And she quit the Disco Queen image and shifted to more gospel oriented music and helped lots of causes and was pretty much universally loved by the music industry. She won major awards for her work.
On one of her last and minor hits, Donna sang of having Dinner with Gershwin. It was like most of her songs, a love song (not about being in love with Gershwin, it was about being in love with you the listener)and dreaming of all the impossible things she'd like to do, with dead people, as a metaphor of how much she missed you the listener. I think its appropriate now to take a few lines from that song, and think that Donna Summer now gets to meet some of her personal idols up there in heaven as she sings and dances with the angels tonight.
I want to have dinner with Gershwin,
I want to watch Rembrandt sketch,
I want to talk theory with Curie,
(Impossible I guess)
I want to talk moods with Picasso,
On a rendezvous,
I want to fly double with Earhart
(I want to get next to you, next to you)
Donna Summer, thank you for teaching me about techno-dance music, and for being the consistent soundtrack for those years I grew up from being a boy to being a man. Your dance music has brought out some of the most exhilirating moments I've ever felt on the dance floor, and when DJ'ing, your songs would always pack the floor. Thank you for the memories. Enjoy your dinner discussions with Gershwin, Curie and Picasso. Say hello to Rembrandt and Earhart. I hope to have a few chats with you too; Donna, when my turn comes to join you in Heaven and here on Planet Earth, DJ Tommy T will spin one more Last Dance for our Donna. Rest In Peace Donna Summer.