Donna Summer, RIP: Hear Her Legacy in 15 Tracks

Donna Summer / Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty
Donna Summer / Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty
WRITTEN BY
Douglas Wolk

Donna Summer, who passed away today after a lengthy battle with cancer, was best known as a disco singer, of course, but she had a remarkable and very long career. She had dance hits in five straight decades; she hit the pop Hot 100 32 times. And her biggest songs altered the course of pop music permanently. Here's an overview of the best of her music, and some of the songs she inspired.

THE FIVE MOST IMPORTANT TRACKS

"Love to Love You Baby" (1975)
Summer had already been recording for four years with no particular success outside the Netherlands when she collaborated with producers Pete Bellotte and Giorgio Moroder on this epic 17-minute song. It's an impossibly lush disco track, in which Summer's Marilyn Monroe-inspired pillow talk (some of it improvised) alternates with her orgasmic groans and laughs and with surges of orchestration. An enormous international hit, it set the template for the next few years of her career, and for the grand aspirations of late-'70s disco.

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"I Feel Love" (1977)
"I have heard the sound of the future," Brian Eno told David Bowie on encountering "I Feel Love" for the first time. "This single is going to change the sound of club music for the next 15 years." It turned out to be a lot longer than that — its infinitely looping riff is still the great wellspring of electronic dance music. Giorgio Moroder's all-synthesizer production was a stroke of genius: inhuman, mechanized, glistening, and — with Summer's harmonized, breathy vocal floating weightlessly atop it — unbelievably sexy.

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"Hot Stuff" (1979)
In the late '70s, it occasionally seemed as if dance music and rock were mortal enemies. Summer had ambitions beyond the discothèque, though, and this platinum-selling hit is a rock song that also happens to have a disco beat — it's even got a flashy guitar solo by "Skunk" Baxter of the Doobie Brothers. "Hot Stuff" made Summer the first African-American to win a Grammy for Best Rock Vocal Performance. Fun fact: it was co-written by Harold Faltermeyer, who'd go on to perform the hit instrumental "Axel F" a few years later.

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"She Works Hard for the Money" (1983)
The early '80s were a turbulent time for Summer: as disco faded away, she split with her longtime label Casablanca and stopped working with Giorgio Moroder. So this #1 R&B hit was both a comeback and a major change of direction. Co-written with producer Michael Omartian, it's a deliberately unsexy song, with a sound that owes more to the new wave and hard rock of its time than to dance music; the video, in which Summer plays an overburdened waitress, became an MTV staple for a few months.

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"This Time I Know It's For Real" (1989)
Summer co-wrote her final Top Ten pop hit with its producers, the British team of Stock, Aitken and Waterman. It's very much in the vein of SAW's other hits of that era — Rick Astley's "Never Gonna Give You Up" and Dead or Alive's "You Spin Me Round," for instance — but Summer gives its chorus a desperate ferocity that sends the song soaring over the fences. Its lyrics are also a sly rejoinder to the airy fantasy-figure role Summer had played in the early years of her career.

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