“She works hard for the money,
So hard for it, honey,
She works hard for the money,
So you better treat her right…”
In the royal court of disco, there was never really any mistaking that Donna Summer was the Queen. Many have tried to copy her passionate vocal abilities but few ever came close. With style and grace, and plenty of hard work, she adopted the genre as her own and left her mark with a catalog of endearing hits beloved by her many fans.
Donna spent her early years singing gospel music in her hometown of Boston, Massachusetts, before moving to NYC at 18 to try out for the Broadway production of Hair. Unable to land a part, she didn’t give up; she just tried again for the German production, relocating to Europe, and landing numerous roles in musicals, including Godspell and Showboat.
Eventually her path led to producers Pete Bellotte and Giorgio Moroder and the three would make a formidable trio. In 1975, she released what would become her first hit – the sexy and steamy “Love To Love You Baby.” When an American record exec requested a longer version of the track, Moroder responded with a 17-minute version that filled an entire side of an album. The longer version got plenty of play in the discos, and the shorter version became a substantial hit.
The following year, Summer released two albums of material, A Love Trilogy, which featured a veritable disco symphony called “Try Me, I Know, We Can Make It” consisting of a number of intertwining motifs that took up as much vinyl real estate as her previous hit. The other album was Four Seasons of Love – a collection of four songs, each representing both a season of the year and a particular stage of a love affair. “Spring Affair” would prove popular in dance clubs across the country.
Her next album, I Remember Yesterday, was another creatively unique endeavor, this time with each song performed in an entirely different genre. One song harkened back to the days of boogie-woogie, while another reminded of the girl groups of the 60s. And for the final track, Donna decided to flash forward to the future, with an ethereal orchestration of futuristic synth sounds and drum machine for the song “I Feel Love” which reached #6 on the charts. Many agree that the origins of electronic dance music can be traced to this song.
1977 brought the release of Once Upon a Time, a conceptual double-album which took the Cinderella story to an urban environment, and featured tracks that were a hybrid of film orchestrations and electronica. The album produced the Top-40 hit, “I Love You.” The following year, the film Thank God It’s Friday was released, featuring Donna singing “Last Dance” which would win an Academy Award for Best Song and become one of her major hits. She also received a double-album called Live and More, which consisted of three sides of live recordings and one side that featured an extended mix of her version of the odd Jimmy Webb-penned song about cakes in the rain, “MacArthur Park.” It provided the singer with her first #1 hit. And there were more to come.
In 1979, Donna Summer truly emerged as a disco diva with the release of the album, Bad Girls. Another concept album, this time the story revolved around a woman trying to survive on the unforgiving streets of Los Angeles. The title track went to #1, as did the rock-laced pulse of “Hot Stuff.” Another single, “Dim the Lights,” made it to #2. Donna finished out the prosperous 70s by matching vocal athletics with none other than Barbara Streisand on the hit duet, “No More Tears (Enough is Enough).”
As the 80s rolled in, Donna was rested and ready for more and came out of the starting gates with more hit material. She released a compilation called On The Radio, which included a title track that went to #5 on the charts. Shortly after, she signed a new deal with Geffen Records and released The Wanderer. This time, the title track went to #3. She then teamed with the producing powerhouse of Quincy Jones and their collaboration led to a self-titled album in 1982. “Love is in Control (Finger on the Trigger)” placed in the Top-10 and the album included a couple of other notable songs – “Protection” written by Bruce Springsteen and “State of Independence” in which Quincy called upon two of his lesser-known buddies, Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson, to provide background vocal tracks. And the following year, she hit the jackpot again with “She Works Hard for her Money.” The #3 hit, which blended a rock and roll attitude with a hypnotic synth pulse, paid tribute to the working woman.
And true to form, she rounded out the decade with another major hit called “This Time I Know it is Real.” She started the next decade as the proud owner of her very own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and with a new compilation of hits called Endless Summer in 1994. The included new single “Melody of Love” would become the Billboard #1 Dance Record of the Year. And when the Grammy Awards decided to include a new category for “Best Dance Recording” in 1997, it seemed only fitting that Donna Summer would take the first award with her song, “Carry On”.
Donna continued to tour and add to her numerous accolades into the new millennium. In 2008, she released her first album of new material in 17 years. If there was any doubt as to whether she still had hit making power, it was quickly put to rest as two singles, “Stamp Your Feet” and “I’m on Fire” both became #1 Billboard singles on the dance charts. And with this accomplishment, she became the first artist to ever have #1 dance hits across four decades.
Sadly, Donna Summer passed away on May 16, 2012, after a long bout with cancer. Her legacy is certain to endure for many years to come, thanks to her formidable voice that kept fans dancing and singing along for forty years and counting. And, if ever there was a pop star who worked hard for her money, few would disagree that Donna Summer fit that bill.
If you are a fan of this soulful songstress, we hope you will share your memories and recollections of her in our comments section, as we tip our hats to the Queen of Disco and thank her for the wonderful music she left us with.