“So…why did you write a book on Donna Summer?” It’s a frequently asked—yet not particularly surprising—question for me. But it's how the question is posed that always elicits a varied emotional response in me.
Typically, there’s an almost unintentional incredulity in the tone of the person asking the question. I’m careful not to assume that the individual is trying to be willfully ignorant in relation to Donna Summer’s larger legacy. Rather, like so many people, they’ve fallen victim to being conditioned to only know, or seek out, one particular facet of her history. Usually, I'll softly chuckle while returning their stare with my own cool, steady gaze. I smile, then explain, “Because it’s a story that needs to be told outside of what you may think you know about her.”
Record Redux: Donna Summer, the third and latest installment of my 14-book “Record Redux” series is meant to “reset” the Donna Summer narrative. It isn’t a dismissive swipe at her disco years. Make no mistake, this area of Summer’s tale is rightfully lionized in my project. But, I also draw attention elsewhere. That latter tip is where I lead my reader back to the early days of her pre-Love to Love You Baby stand-alone singles and back around to her heady, experimental epoch at Geffen Records.
As with my previous two books on the Spice Girls and Carly Simon, Record Redux: Donna Summer creates a conversation on the artist in focus that should be happening, but isn't. It's my greatest desire that readers will walk away with a better grasp on Donna Summer's legend.
Album: Donna Summer
Release Date: July 1982 (US, UK) | July 19, 1982 (DE)
Label: Geffen (US) | Warner Bros. (DE, UK)
Singles: “Love Is In Control (Finger on the Trigger),” “State of Independence,” “The Woman in Me,” “Protection”
Chart Placement: US (#20), US R&B (#6), DE (#37), UK (#13)
Certification: US (gold), DE (did not certify), UK (did not certify)
Songwriters / Producers: Jon Anderson (w^), David Batteau (w), John Bettis (w), Michael Clark (w),David Foster (w), Quincy Jones (w/p), John Lang (w), Steve Lukather (w), Bill Meyers (w), Richard Page (w), Evangelos Odysseas Papathanassiou (w^), Merria Ross (w), Dan Sembello (w), Michael Sembello (w), Bruce Springsteen (w), Billy Strayhorn (w^), Donna Summer (w), Rod Temperton (w) [^ Denotes writer credits on the original recording.]
1. Love Is In Control (Finger on the Trigger)
2. Mystery of Love
3. The Woman in Me
4. State of Independence
5. Livin’ in America
7. (If It) Hurts Just a Little
8. Love Is Just a Breath Away
9. Lush Life
Synopsis: Upon being presented with I’m a Rainbow, a manifold double album, label head David Geffen allegedly heard no “hits” on the LP and promptly shelved it. At Geffen’s insistence, Donna paired with the musical magus Quincy Jones for labor on the record that would replace I’m a Rainbow. At the time, Jones had already been working on what would become Michael Jackson’s 1982 landmark Thriller—sessions for it and Donna Summer intersected.
Prior to work on this eponymous record, Donna had grown close to the cadre of songwriters and producers from her last three records. Suddenly, she was thrust into a collective of strangers, accomplished as they were. Geffen felt this “fresh start” was needed, and Donna acquiesced for the sake of business civility, but it raised tensions, exacerbated by the reality of Donna’s pregnancy with her third daughter. Jones set the mood of the record—slick, cordial, post-disco rhythm and blues comprised from live session play and contemporary production technology.
Examples of such techniques are heard on the record’s first single, the busy but danceable “Love is in Control (Finger on the Trigger)”; further application of these sonic strategies are glimpsed on “Livin’ in America” and “(If It) Hurts Just a Little.” Jones was aware of Donna’s interest in (and successes with) the rock-pop format and facilitated two songs that would appeal to her, “The Woman in Me” and “Protection”—albeit with the commercial Jones lacquer.
Though agreeable to a point, Donna still had clout in what material she chose to record as a trade-off for her decreased writing input here. Donna shines on the mentioned pair of “The Woman in Me” and “Protection,” but the struggle for control is palpable on the LP. Donna pushed for more abstraction with the worldbeat cover of Jon & Vangelis’ “State of Independence” and the mock-Baroque bite of “Mystery of Love.” The record’s closing entry is a rendition of Billy Strayhorn’s jazz staple “Lush Life.” Donna had not been too enthusiastic to record it, but at Jones request, Donna committed herself to the song. Her take of this song is required listening.
Though the LP was certified gold stateside, its numbers at home weren’t too far off from The Wanderer. Donna Summer came to be known as “that difficult R&B album” in fan circles. It wasn’t (and still isn’t) uncommon for pop acts to garnish their music with soul touches, but often when courting the genre head-on, the results could be mixed—commercially, critically and creatively. This proved to be true of Donna Summer, an LP that has split her base among racial lines with white listeners not being too affectionate toward it, whereas black audiences saw it as a cultural affirmation of Donna’s “blackness.”
Several months into the record’s promotional campaign, Donna gave a radio interview on October 17th, 1982, recounting her struggle with R&B and racial perception: “I’m an instrument, and there is some impulse in my brain that says ‘How do the elements in my psyche and my person relate to this language?’ I don’t dictate the color of the song, it dictates itself to me, and I try to give it back as it is. And that may be in form of sounding very white to some people or sounding very black to other people, or sounding neutral. I tend to want or rather assume the personality or character that is neutral to myself, unless it is necessary not to be.”
Donna Summer found the singer at her most chart conscious, caught between label pressure and the identity politics of pop and R&B music. But, the album had Donna making the best of a challenging situation, unafraid to color within the lines in her own distinct way. Donna Summer signaled an expansion in distribution at Geffen Records too, thanks to cooperation from Warner Bros.; they stepped in to handle the international dispersal of her music during this era.
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