The death of Donna Summer on Thursday (May 17) at age 63 after a long battle with cancer has many reflecting on the impact the disco legend had on music.
While many may not realize it, Summer is the foremother of, well, just about every pop song on the radio today. Her iconic 1977 anthem “I Feel Love,” which peaked at #6 on the Billboard singles chart (one of 14 top 10 hits), was the first mainstream song to be produced using an entirely synthesized backing track. Until then, most disco recordings had been backed by acoustic orchestras, and the reception to the song revolutionized music.
“One day in Berlin, [Brian] Eno came running in and said, ‘I have heard the sound of the future,’ ” David Bowie famously wrote in the liner notes to Sound and Vision. “He puts on ‘I Feel Love,’ by Donna Summer. … He said, ‘This is it, look no further. This single is going to change the sound of club music for the next 15 years.’ Which was more or less right.”
Indeed, imagine the music of Lady Gaga, Britney Spears, Rihanna, Katy Perry and countless others minus their ubiquitous glittering synths. You can’t. Without what was at the time a risky and bold move, modern dance music might not exist as it does today.
Summer’s impact on music is so vast it’s nearly incalculable, but in memory of the disco diva, we’re looking back on some of the ways her music has survived through the years, has been brought to life by other artists and how many of music’s biggest names counted themselves as fans of the Queen of Disco.
» The refrain from Summer’s 17-minute 1975 breakthrough “Love to Love You Baby” is sampled on Beyoncé’s hit “Naughty Girl” from her debut solo album Dangerously in Love.
» For the elaborate opening sequence of Madonna’s 2006 Confessions Tour, a 2-ton, $4 million disco ball was lowered onto the stage at the end of the runway and then opened to reveal the star, who started into her own synth-heavy “Future Lovers” before the song dissolved seamlessly into Summer’s “I Feel Love.”
» Summer’s “Starting Over Again” was transformed into a #1 country hit for Dolly Parton in 1980, and even reached the top 40 on the Billboard Hot 100, a rare feat for a country track at the time. Fifteen years later, another country superstar, Reba McEntire, named her 1995 album after the song, and her version was a hit country single the following year. In the set’s liner notes, McEntire dedicated the song to both Summer and Parton, saying she admired both immensely.
» Summer’s classics were go-to songs for films looking to capture the late-’70s/early-’80s era and are featured in, among many others, “Frost/Nixon,” “Charlie Wilson’s War” and “Splash.”
» “Hot Stuff” and “MacArthur Park” are go-to songs for reality singing contestants looking to prove their range — Summer was a mezzo-soprano with a powerhouse delivery — while keeping things upbeat. Both songs have been performed on “The X Factor” and “American Idol.”
» “She Works Hard for the Money” was covered by Kris Allen during an episode of “American Idol,” and his performance was so well-received that the season-eight winner recorded the track for the American Idol Season 8 CD.
» Summer herself appeared as Aunt Oona from Altoona on two episodes of the hit sitcom “Family Matters.”
» Bruce Springsteen was a big Summer fan and wrote two songs for her. The first one, “Cover Me,” he ultimately recorded for his own Born to Run, but Summer recorded the second, “Protection,” and Springsteen and the E Street Band supplied the track.
» Keri Hilson portrayed Summer in her music video for her 2010 hit “Pretty Girl Rock.”
» Summer is easily one of the most sampled artists in the history of music. “I Feel Love” has been sampled by some of the biggest artists in dance, from Madonna and Britney Spears to David Guetta and Moby, and covered by artists as diverse as the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Kylie Minogue and Blondie.
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