The Donna Summer Anthology (P0lygram 1993)
With three studio albums in my Essentials list it is no surprise that I am recommending a career retrospective for all the Donna Summer I have so far missed out. There are quite a number to choose from but I have gone for the double CD Anthology which appeared in 1993 and was the first up- to -that point complete career collection with 34 tracks spanning 17 years.
Donna Summer was born LaDonna Adrian Gaines in 1948 and as a teenager won a part in the German production of “Hair”. She married Austrian Helmuth Sommer and anglicized his surname to become her stage-name. The marriage lasted three years, the name much longer. In Europe she began working with Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte leading to her first smash hit “Love To Love You Baby”, one of my all-time favourite Disco tracks which I covered when I reviewed her first essential album “A Love Trilogy” which was released in 1976. The version on this album is the US single version, which is not actually my favourite. The British single mix is harder to find but feels more of a complete track. From “Love Trilogy” we get the single versions of “Could It Be Magic” and “Try Me, I Know We Can Make It”, which really demands to be heard in its entirety. “Spring Affair” is taken from “Four Seasons Of Love” and was the track which attracted the most attention in the discos but in the UK the ballad “Winter Melody” became the hit.
From 1977’s “I Remember Yesterday” we get the 60’s girl-group pastiche of “Love’s Unkind” and her only UK number one, the phenomenal I Feel Love”, which really was the sound of the future and is probably one of the most significant dance tracks of all time, propelling electronic dance music to the forefront, a position it still occupies today, over forty years later. There’s three tracks from the essential “Once Upon A Time” album.
By this time Disco was huge and her Casablanca record label joined forces with Motown to put together a disco movie starring Donna and featuring a double album soundtrack. The music was at times over-produced and grandiose but the film was actually a rather understated piece which also starred Jeff Goldblum and The Commodores but it was the music that made the most impression with the best , sung by Donna, getting an Oscar , the sublime “Last Dance”, which was written by her co-star Paul Jabara. This is a track which has grown in reputation over the years but I have always loved it. It’s changes of pace were deemed a little confusing at the time which might explain why it did not even make the Top 50 in the UK. In the US it became her second Top 3 hit.
The double album “Live And More” became a huge seller in the US, giving Donna her first number 1 album. A lot of these sales were fuelled by the “studio” side which comprised three tracks put together in a non-stop close- to- eighteen -minute medley, of which two are included here. “The MacArthur Park” suite took a distinctly weird Jimmy Webb song which had been a hit when growled by actor Richard Harris and turned it into something fabulous. It is here in a lengthy six and a half minute promotional single version which gives it a chance to show its epic sweep and once again the changes of pace which were to be a feature for Donna in the latter disco years. Her first US number 1 single (“I Feel Love” had inexplicably stalled at #6) it got to number 5 in the UK. This eases into, as it did in the original album, the almost as good “Heaven Knows” in which Donna sings with fellow Casablanca signings Brooklyn Dreams. This got to number 4 in the US but a lowly 34 in the UK. This was a significant track in Donna’s life as the following year she was to marry lead singer Bruce Sudano, with whom she would spend the rest of her life.
The first CD has really peaked here as far as I am concerned but is rounded off by four tracks from the huge “Bad Girls” album. Two of the tracks most associated with Donna are the title track (US#1, UK#14) and “Hot Stuff (US#1, UK#11) both here in their full 12” version. There’s more changes of pace in “Dim All The Lights” (US#2,UK#29). Of the tracks from this US double platinum #1 album, the biggest seller in her career I have always preferred the more electronic European feel of “The Anthology’s” closing track on the first disc, “Sunset People”.
CD 2 opens with a real tour-de-force which topped off Donna’s most commercially successful year with her third US number 1 single of 1979. More of a singing contest than a track it paired the Disco Queen with the Showtunes Queen- Summer vs Streisand. It’s incredible to think that at the start of Donna’s hit career many people thought that she could not even sing and here she is matching one of the most celebrated singers note for note. In the UK this became Donna’s third Top 3 hit. Her final hurrah to disco came with “On The Radio”, another song which has become more familiar in the UK over the years, at one time it was a regular choice for competitors on TV talent shows and soap star turned pop star Martine McCutcheon significantly bettered Donna’s original number 32 placing when she took it to number 7 in 2001. In the US it reached number 5, which was her lowest chart placing for a couple of years. It’s a song with a slightly odd narrative, I never understood how a letter which felt out of a pocket in an old brown overcoat ended up being read out on the radio, but then Donna had been convincing when she left her cake out in the rain. It’s a great vocal but lyrically just a little strange.
And then in the US, disco was over. The response from Summer, Moroder and Bellotte was to release an album with a distinct rock-chick feel. Summer had moved away from Casablanca Records with its strong disco emphasis and signed up to Geffen Records. It was a new start but I, for the first time, didn’t really buy into it. As someone who had always preferred her more European sounding tracks it was a step too far into the rock arena. Donna was keen to get away from the sexy disco siren image not least in part because she had become a born-again Christian. Commercially, her UK fans agreed with me as it became her lowest selling album to date. The title track reached number 3 in the US but follow up “Cold Love” stalled at 33, although did garner Donna a Grammy nomination for best female rock vocal. Her next album was not even approved for release by her new label. From it we get the title track “I’m A Rainbow” and her version of “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” played straight, which became a staple in her live shows. It was not released until 1986 and it marked the last album in the ten year partnership of the artist with Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte.
The next album had more than an element of reinvention about it. It is unusual for an artist this far on in their career to release an eponymous album- 1982’s “Donna Summer” being set out as a new start. Producer Quincy Jones did a very good job, the songs have a range of style from jazz standards, to ballads, to rock tinged tracks. From this we get US#10, UK#18 “Love Is In Control” and the odd but fascinating version of a Jon & Vangelis song “State Of Independence” which put Donna in front of an all-star gospel choir including Michael Jackson and Dionne Warwick. This became the big hit track in the UK reaching number 14 and giving Donna her highest UK studio album chart placing since “I Remember Yesterday”.
There wasn’t too much that was great about the next couple of album releases, “Anthology” cherry-picks the most worthwhile tracks from “She Works Hard For The Money” and “Cats Without Claws”. The very good title track from “All Systems Go” is here. Her one album dalliance with Stock Aitken and Waterman brought about one of her (and their) best ever recordings. I consider “Another Time And Place” (from this we get “This Time I Know It’s For Real” and “I Don’t Want To Get Hurt) to be an Essential CD. The magic didn’t carry on for her next album “Mistaken Identity” but two of the better tracks are here.
This CD does end with a good enough reason for the Summer fan to purchase “Anthology” as in 1992 Donna guest vocaled on a track by old friend Giorgio Moroder on a project called “Forever Dancing”. This track “Carry On” seemed to turn back the years and I I wish it could have led on to more recordings with the producer and his greatest muse.
Post “Anthology” Donna made the occasional single -the best being her number 21 UK hit “Melody Of Love” from 1994 and a fairly breath-taking version of “I Will Go With You (Con Te Partiro)” from 1999 which took the song better known as “Time To Say Goodbye” out of the funeral services, for which it has become a staple and into the dance clubs. I thought this would be a huge hit for her but it wasn’t. Her final album “Crayons” released in 2008 after a 14 year gap after her previous very worthwhile Christmas album was a strong attempt at giving Donna a contemporary club edge and healthy sales seemed like it could be the beginning of a new phase in her recording career.
Her death in 2012 came as a complete shock and was one of those passings that makes you feel that a phase in your own life has come to an end. Her final illness was kept quiet as lung cancer claimed her. It was Donna’s belief that this was brought on by toxic dust she inhaled by being in the proximity of New York on 9/11. She was the artist I felt that I had grown up with and even when some of her recordings in the mid 80’s did not inspire me greatly I was always delighted when her music was in the charts and she was in the public eye.
I’ve gone for “Anthology” because it does have a number of those tracks on CDs which I never made the transfer from vinyl to. There are omissions, especially with tracks which hit bigger in the UK (no “Winter Melody”, no “Down Deep Inside” no “Dinner With Gershwin”). If you are looking for these tracks I suggest you go for “The Journey – The Very Best Of”, which got to number 6 in the UK charts in 2004 (but still no “Winter Melody”) or the three disc “Ultimate Collection” (2016 UK#30) which has all of the above, some of Donna’s German pre-hit recordings as well as tracks that I have never owned and which the completist in me is telling me to purchase. 58 tracks, I’m sure it’s only a matter of time…………………………
Donna Summer in a live tribute to David Foster from 2008 bringing the show to a resounding close with “Last Dance”.
The Donna Summer Anthology now only seems to be available on Amazon UK as a used import with prices ranging from £1.95 to £700.38 (you make your choice!). In the US it is more readily available new currently for $29.99 and used from $1.98. There are many other Donna Summer compilations available.