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Sunday, May 20, 2012

Working Hard For Her Money

It’s Sunday today, which means that we’ll be sticking another quarter into the jukebox to listen to another classic from years ago.  And, today’s artist was someone very special indeed.

This blog entry is going to be a celebration of the life of Donna Summer, who passed away on May 17, at the age of 63. 

To a lot of people, Donna Summer was first and foremost a disco artist, whose heyday was during the late 1970s.  And, yes, it’s true that Donna Summer’s music influenced the disco scene heavily.  But Donna Summer was more than just a disco diva, and as this blog entry will hopefully showcase, Donna Summer ended up finding that there really was life after disco, despite some controversy and some dry spells along the way.

First, let’s take a look at the life and times of Donna Summer.

Donna Summer was born LaDonna Adrian Grimes, on the last day of December, 1948 in Boston, Massachusetts.  She was one of seven born to Mary and Andrew Grimes, and according to Donna’s mother, Donna learned how to sing at a very early age.

Although Mary Grimes often talked about how Donna would sing all around the house, it wouldn’t be until Donna was ten before she made her public singing debut.  It was at her church, and Donna ended up replacing another vocalist who was a no-show.  The priest invited Donna to perform in front of the congregation, thinking that it would be a cute performance.  But, little did everyone realize that out of the small frame of that ten-year-old girl came a huge and powerful voice.  Everyone was stunned at the spectacle, including Donna who started crying right there and then. 

And after that powerful performance, Donna came to the conclusion that she wanted to share her voice with the rest of the world, and aimed to become a star in the recording industry.

In high school, Donna performed in school musicals, and was very well-liked in school, but she was also in trouble at home for purposely violating her curfew.  Just weeks before graduating high school, Donna left for New York City, joining a band by the name of “Crow”.  The band would later break up after failing to get a record deal, but Donna soon found herself auditioning for the Broadway musical “Hair”.  Unfortunately for Donna, she lost the part she was auditioning for to Melba Moore, but when the opportunity came for her to play the same role in the Munich, Germany production of the musical, Donna made the choice to move halfway across the world to pursue her dream.  During this time, she learned German, and participated in several German productions in both English and German.  Right around this time, Donna released her very first single, a song called “Sally Go ‘Round The Roses” in 1971, but it failed to make an impression on the charts.  Nevertheless, Donna was thrilled to have even one single released, and she was determined to release more.

Between 1971 and 1974, she continued to record sporadic singles, and sang back-up for the successful rock band, Three Dog Night.  She also married a man named Helmuth Sommer, and gave birth to a daughter, Mimi, in 1975.  But the marriage soon broke up after Donna had an affair with someone else.  Donna left the marriage but ended up keeping Sommer’s name, anglicizing it to become Donna Summer.

Shortly after giving birth to Mimi, Donna would end up releasing a rather controversial hit.  The song was called “Love To Love You Baby” (inspired by a lyric that Donna had come up with), and the song immediately reached #2 on the Billboard Charts.  The song would eventually become one of Donna’s best known singles, but it didn’t come without controversy.  The BBC reportedly banned the song from airplay due to Summer moaning and groaning throughout the song.  Despite this, the song helped put Summer on the map, and was just the first of many disco releases by her.

TRIVIA:  A sample of “Love To Love You Baby” appears on Beyonce’s smash single “Naughty Girl”.

Really, with songs such as “I Feel Love”, “Hot Stuff”, “Last Dance”, and “Bad Girls”, it wasn’t long before Summer soon found herself at the height of fame in discotheques all across the country.  She even managed to turn the melancholic tale of a cake sitting out in the rain into a number one hit when she covered the song “MacArthur Park” in 1978!  Now THAT’S talent!

(No, seriously...Donna Summer made MacArthur Park easier to listen to...I have always hated that song...but that’s another story altogether.)

So, you’d think that when the “disco sucks” movement of 1979 effectively made disco sales plummet to obscurity that the career of Donna Summer was finished for good.

You would think wrong.

Certainly, with disco becoming the most hated genre of music as the 1970s turned into the 1980s, a lot of artists who thrived during that period soon disappeared into obscurity. 

But Donna Summer was never one of those people.  If anything, Donna continued to grow as an artist with the new decade.

The reason why was because Summer was never afraid of changing or adapting to new styles of music, and in 1980, Summer made the decision to try her hand at other genres of music other than disco.  This change caused Donna to part ways with her old record label, Casablanca.  Soon after, she joined the roster of artists at Geffen Records, where her first post-disco album, “The Wanderer” was released in late 1980.  The album successfully fused the new genre of “New Wave” with classic rock, a mixture that proved successful for Pat Benatar, and other similar artists.  The title track soon reached #3 on the Billboard Charts, and her following album “Donna Summer” also did quite well on the charts.

However, Donna Summer’s recording contract with Geffen would hit a snag in late 1982 when she received the news that she still had to fulfill one more album released under her Casablanca contract.  By this time, Casablanca Records had become a wholly owned subsidiary of Polygram Records, so Summer recorded the album “She Works Hard For The Money” in 1983 to finish up her original contract.

Ironically enough, that album would end up netting Summer another smash single.

ARTIST:  Donna Summer
SONG:  She Works Hard For The Money
ALBUM:  She Works Hard For The Money
DATE RELEASED:  May 27, 1983

I specifically wanted to spotlight this song for three reasons. 

Firstly, the song was one of Donna’s highest charting singles.  It received a lot of airplay back in 1983, and although it didn’t make the top spot on the generic Billboard Charts, it did peak at #1 on the R&B charts in the summer of ’83.

Secondly, the song happens to have a fantastic message that the music video portrays brilliantly.  The basic gist of the song deals with the workforce, particularly with the women in the workforce, and just how hard they worked to earn every last penny.  In our video, we see a woman who had dreams of dancing on stage at a ballet, but instead traded in her leotards and ballet slippers for an apron and a notepad for taking orders.  She puts in a full day of work each and every day for complaining customers, her ungrateful children, and her equally overworked co-workers.  Eventually, the stress of keeping it all together gets the better of her, and she suffers a mini-breakdown.  But, towards the end of the video, our exhausted protagonist (and all the other women on the street) launch a bit of a revolution, dancing in the middle of the street as Summer herself watches from a distance.

Okay, so the video is kind of cheesy to watch now, but back in 1983, it was very popular.  It quickly became a video played on “heavy rotation”, one of the first videos by an African-American female artist to accomplish such a feat. 

TRIVIA:  Summer was inspired to write the song after meeting an overworked bathroom attendant while she was on tour.  In fact, if you take a look at the back cover of the album that the song appeared on, her picture is featured there (she’s standing to the left of Summer).

And the third reason why I chose this song was because it’s the perfect example of Donna Summer breaking out of her mirrored glass cocoon to find life after disco, and proving to the world that her powerful voice could thrive in any musical genre.

Shortly after Summer released “She Works Hard For The Money”, her success in the United States slowed to a crawl, especially after it was reported that Summer allegedly made anti-gay comments in response to the AIDS epidemic that was widely reported on in the 1980s.  Summer quickly denied making these comments, and claimed that it was a terrible misunderstanding, and actually filed a lawsuit against New York magazine in 1991 after they reprinted the rumours as fact.

In Europe, on the other hand, Summer’s career was still “Hot Stuff”.  Teaming up with Stock, Aitken, & Waterman, she released her 1988 album “Another Place In Time”, which spawned three Top 20 songs in the UK, including the 1989 song “This Time I Know It’s For Real” , which peaked at #7 in the United States, Summer’s final Top 10 hit in North America.

In Summer’s later years, she would release several albums that covered a wide variety of genres, including gospel, dance, and new jack swing.  She also had a few guest appearances on the sitcom “Family Matters” as Steve Urkel’s Aunt Oona.  She never stopped making music, and continued to release albums and perform in concert.

That is until she passed away three days ago from lung cancer...and with her passing, ended the life of a fantastic performer, a skilled songstress, and all in all, a lovely woman.

Donna Summer

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