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Date: 17/05/12

A Diva Departs

Photo of Donna Summer

Donna Summer (LaDonna Adrian Gaines)
Singer, songwriter
b. 31 December 1948, d. 17 May 2012

It's getting to be quite a depressing yet inevitable phenomenon; the deaths of people who played some prominent part in your growing up.

I was thirteen when Donna Summer first impinged upon my consciousness, with the release of Love To Love You Baby. The sound of a woman - obviously a very sexy and sensual woman - faking orgasms over a slightly cheesy soundtrack was alluring almost to the point of being disturbing for a gently-nurtured adolescent. The BBC refused to play the track, but the commercial stations I was listening to at the time had fewer qualms about airing it, at least late at night, which was when I tended to listen to them.

She then followed it up with a similarly climactic rendition of Barry Manilow's Could It Be Magic (both tracks were to cause a certain degree of embarrassment to her later, when she became a born-again). But then it went a bit quiet, until the release of her 1977 album I Remember Yesterday.

This was that thing much dreaded by music lovers in the seventies; a concept album. Or at least the first side was, recreating as it did the musical styles of the forties, fifties and sixties with a by-then-standard orchestral disco backing.

But it was the last track on the LP (that means 'Long Player', kids: a piece of black plastic twelve inches across with a hole in the middle; ask yer granny) which made such a huge impact. Indeed, it was what would now be called (by people with no sense of shame and Van Gogh's ear for language) a 'game changer'.

There had been electronic music in the charts long before. I had some of it: Hot Butter's recording of Gershon Kingsley's Popcorn and Kraftwerk's astounding Autobahn for two. But it was still regarded as a novelty. Disco too had been around for a couple of years or more, although it could be characterised mostly as a form of light soul set to bombastic orchestral backing.

There were other hindrances; 'real' musicians didn't regard those who worked with synths and the like as being themselves 'real' musicians; an attitude which was so prevalent that the Musicians' Union in the UK actually tried to get electronic instruments banned from use altogether, fearing that it would yank the crusts out of the mouths of its members (a position which seems ludicrous today, until you remember that that's exactly the position taken by the whole of the entertainment biz in connection with the internet).

Donna Summer - working once again in partnership with producers Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte (who had also been involved with Chicory Tip's hits a few years previously) - changed all that in less than six minutes of playing time.

I Feel Love was entirely electronic, with programmer Robbie Wedel getting a Moog to do things even Bob Moog didn't know it was capable of doing, most particularly with the ability to synchronise synth lines with each other by referencing each of them with a pulse signal on one of the tracks. The strong rhythm and arpeggiated bass line which resulted was just raw dance energy. With Summer's multitracked vocal over the top of it, what was regarded even by its producers as just a filler at the end of the album - a little glimpse at a possible future - became an all-time solid-platinum classic, reaching No.1 in the UK. It also had a pioneering 12" mix and has been remixed almost to banality ever since.

Summer later went on to do more conventional material - such as covers of Jimmy Webb's over-the-top-and-the-best-of-luck Macarthur Park, and Jon & Vangelis' State Of Independence (although this latter was strongly electronic) - and never fully recaptured the impact of I Feel Love. But her voice was special and distinctive, and her presence strong. A true diva.