R.I.P. Donna Summer, the Queen of Disco, 1948-2012

Categories: R.I.P.

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While previous diagnoses of the death of disco have come off as somewhat premature in the wake of countless rivals, it now seems we're a step closer to a definite end. Donna Summer, the vocalist known as the "queen of disco," has died of cancer at the age of 63. A five-time Grammy award winner, her work comprises much of the backbone of disco and, by extension, techno and house.

Summer's ascent began in the early-'70s while working on a production of Hair in Munich. The American-born singer was introduced to the young production team of Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte. In 1975, this collaboration would result in the game-changing "Love to Love You Baby," a 16-minute disco gesamtkunstwerk scored for orchestra, orgasmic moan, and drum machine. The track was an immediate success, topping out at #2 on the Billboard Hot 100, while simultaneously giving the finger to the moral majority with its unsubtle sexual overtones.

The following years were fruitful for the trio, with a string of hits embraced by the emergent global disco scene. Songs like "Try Me, I Know We Can Make It," "Spring Affair," and her cover of Barry Manilow's "Could It Be Magic," all helped to establish Summer as the main diva of disco (which, considering the amount of divas in disco, is no mean feat).

Yet, it wouldn't be until 1977, with the release of "I Feel Love," that Summer's influence was truly established. Working in the wake of Kraftwerk, the trio incorporated a wall of Moog Modular synthesizers to create one of the first popular electronic disco hits. At the time, producer Brian Eno said of the track, "This is it, look no further. This single is going to change the sound of club music for the next 15 years." Change things it did -- the song's relentless beat, hypnotic bass arpeggios, and Summer's disembodied wail all but ushered in the age of electronic dance music.

While the world was coming to grips with the ramifications of "I Feel Love," Summer continued her domination of the club and radio charts. The late disco years would see the arrival of such now-canonized dancefloor staples as "Macarthur Park," "Last Dance," and "Heaven Knows." Her fame now at its peak, she would even find her way into film with a supporting role in Thank God It's Friday, a cult favorite that's since found popularity on the midnight movie circuit.

The dawning of the '80s would see Summer maintain relevance. Again working with Moroder, in 1979 she would begin to distance herself from disco by incorporating aspects of rock in her music. Paradoxically, this would result in two of her most popularly remembered disco songs, "Bad Girls" and "Hot Stuff."

Today she's fondly remembered, her work the soundtrack to countless memories and entire decades spent on the dancefloor. Without her sultry vocals, and the bed of electronics beneath, one wonders what kind of music we'd be dancing to today. Summer is survived by her husband and three daughters, along with one of the most prolific back catalogs in dance music history.

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