Donna Summer was more than just her dance hits

Donna Summer, pictured at Bank of America Pavilion in 2008. She died May 17 at age 63.
Donna Summer, pictured at Bank of America Pavilion in 2008. She died May 17 at age 63.

When Donna Summer played the Bank of America Pavilion in August 2010, she explained to the audience how much she loved those early iPod commercials. They featured silhouettes of people listening to music and dancing with wild abandon. “That’s the way music makes me feel inside,’’ she said.

That’s the way Summer’s music made many of her fans feel, too: safe in a bubble of beats and beauty, and moved to dance like no one was watching.

The first record I bought with my own money was “On the Radio,” Donna Summer’s 1979 double greatest hits album. Everything about the Boston-born singer’s collection of songs was captivating: The shimmer and throb of the pure disco hits like “I Feel Love,” full of ethereal promise; the hallucinatory majesty of the truly bizarre “MacArthur Park” and its melting cake; the astonishing length with which she held the notes in “Dim All the Lights”; the restless rock ’n’ roll red-light district strut of “Hot Stuff” and “Bad Girls.” (I even loved the cutesy cover that literally situated Summer “on” an old-fashioned radio.) Summer and Barbra Streisand engaging in an insanely melodramatic sing-off about trifling men — “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)” — in which they seemed locked in a vocal cage match to prove who was the true diva? Count me in.


Fortunately, I didn’t know much about romantic frustration or bringing “a wild man back home” but I knew that big voice was something special, and those melodies were irresistible. And when a song like “On the Radio” — with its layers of chimes, horns, strings, and hand-in-glove harmonies — moved from a melancholy piano ballad to a churning backbeat, I somehow understood that pathos and getting down were not mutually exclusive routes to catharsis. In fact, they were a great team.

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“On the Radio” lured me to Summer’s back catalog and propelled me to buy the releases that followed. Some were better than others — sometimes by a lot — but none were outright duds, even if they weren’t huge commercial successes. I had gotten on board young enough to not understand (or care) that dance music might not be cool to some, and hung on long enough and expanded my musical horizons wide enough to realize there was no reason to feel guilty about music that brought me joy.

Beyond the big radio hits, Summer recorded a treasure trove of tunes that did just that, especially on the trio of albums she released between 1982 and 1984.

She helped introduce me to the Great American Songbook — a love affair that continues — with her gauzy, pulsating version of Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” on her 1982 self-titled album. Her fevered desperation on “Protection,” penned by Bruce Springsteen, perfectly encapsulated that “I want to stay/ I want to run away” feeling of a volatile relationship. And, also on the same album, her beatific rendition of “State of Independence,” by Jon Anderson and Vangelis, exuded her sense of bliss. On her 1983 album “She Works Hard for the Money,” she soared in tandem with Matthew Ward on the ecstatic pop ballad “Love Has a Mind of Its Own.” And “Forgive Me” from 1984’s “Cats Without Claws” was Summer at her inspirational best, going back to church, head bowed, voice raised in poignant surrender.

In 2008, Summer returned with her first album in 17 years. There was no reason to expect that “Crayons” would be anything special, it would just be nice to hear from an old friend; but much about it was special.


Teaming with contemporary songwriter-producers and brimming with exuberance, Summer was in great form vocally and as a songwriter. And nowhere was that more evident than on the cheeky, self-referential “The Queen Is Back,” co-written and produced by Evan Bogart — son of her long ago Casablanca record label boss Neil Bogart — and J.R. Rotem, with a keen ear for the dance floor. It was fun to hear Summer sing “so many years ago/on the radio/ she crept into your soul/ and loved to love you oh-oh.” It was a whimsical love letter to all of us, and to her own legacy.

That inner radiance Summer spoke of a few years back was visible that night as she opened with that song and moved effortlessly through a career-spanning show with a voice of impressive resilience. It’s a voice and spirit that many of us will carry as we turn up the old Victrola and dance the night away.

Sarah Rodman can be reached at