Donna Summer’s ‘Love to Love You Baby’ Album Set the Standard for the Modern-Day Singing Sex Kitten
A good curator is well aware of the old adage that sex sells. A great curator is one that is able to package it and present it to the public in a provocative, yet tasteful manner. While sex being a magnetic force traces back to the beginning of time, few have been able to sell it on wax quite like Donna Summer.
Having passed away on May 17, 2012, the late sensuous singer left behind a legacy that helped shift the paradigm in the way women made music. Born LaDonna Adrian Gaines on Dec. 31, 1948, Summer was drawn to singing at an early age. "From the time she was little, that's all she really did," her mother recalled. "She literally lived to sing ... She used to go through the house singing, singing. She sang for breakfast and for lunch and for supper."
Summer's talent would be put to the test at the age of 10 during an impromptu performance at her church -- a singer was scheduled to perform but missed the engagement. Although it was her first time performing in front of a crowd, her powerful voice belied his miniature frame and had a recognizable effect on all in attendance who marveled at her ability to move the people. "I started crying, everybody else started crying. It was quite an amazing moment in my life and at some point after I heard my voice come out. I felt like God said to me, 'Donna, you're going to be very, very famous.' And I just knew from that day on I was going to be famous," Summer stated.
With a successful debut performance under her belt, Summer became addicted to the stage, participating in musicals and other creative activities as a student at Jeremiah E. Burke High School in Boston. She also became a member of a blues rock band called Crow as the group's lone female and African American singer, but would ultimately break ties with the group after moving to New York and failing to land a record deal. She decided to parlay her experience in the performing arts into a ticket to the big stage. Summer auditioned for a role in Hair as Sheila, a impassioned political activist from NYU.
Selected to replace Melba Moore in the role, Summer packed her bags and headed over to Munich, Germany, where she would quickly take to the cities culture and learn to speak fluent German within a matter of months. She also made her recording debut with a German version of the song "Aquarius," a selection from the play that was a marginal hit among locals. Opting to stay in Germany after the run of Hair ended, Summer performed in a number of plays, including appearances in productions of Showboat and Porgy and Bess, among other plays, during her time with the Vienna Folk Opera. The singer married Helmut Sommer, an Austrian actor whom she had met while the two worked together in a production of Godspell. She then became pregnant and gave birth to her daughter, Mimi, in 1973.
The marriage was short-lived, but it was the period where she regained her hunger for making music and landed a gig as a back-up vocalist, which would prove to be life-changing. During a session with Three Dog Night in 1974, Summer met Pete Bellotte, an English songwriter and record producer and Italian record producer-songwriter Giorgio Moroder. They were so impressed by her talent that they took her under their wing and signed her to their Oasis record label. Getting to work immediately, the trio quickly churned out a song called "The Hostage," which was a big hit in France, but failed to crack the German market after it was removed from playlists due to its controversial subject matter.
Watch Donna Summer's "Love to Love You Baby" Video
Following the release of her Lady of the Night album, Summer, who assumed the name after a record company misspell, would accidentally stumble upon her ticket to the big-time while recording a demo version of a song titled "Love to Love You Baby." Co-written by Summer and produced by Bellotte and Moroder, the song was intended for another artist, but the producers were blown away by Summer's version that they made the judgment call to polish it and unleash it to the world, which they did in late 1974.
It wasn't long until Neil Bogart -- an American record executive -- heard the track and licensed it to his record label, Casablanca, that it truly grew legs and made its way to the U.S., where it became one of the biggest hits in the New York club scene. "Love to Love You Baby" would skyrocket to No. 2 on the Billboard charts, setting the stage for Summer's introductory album of the same name.
Released on Aug. 27, 1975, Love to Love You Baby was a smash success, peaking at No. 11 on the U.S. Album Chart and would be certified gold within a year of its release. But ironically, the song that made Donna Summer a household name wasn't initially an artistic achievement for the singer. "I didn't want to hear it," Summer said in a1976 interview with Rolling Stone. "I heard a couple of oohs and aahs once and I -- black people don't get red -- I was blue! I love the music, I just wished that I hadn't sung it. But it doesn't bother me anymore."
She also expressed a bit of trepidation of being pigeon-holed as a one-dimensional artist. "I have so much more to offer. You can only be trapped by something that's stronger than yourself," Summer stated. "And I don't consider it to be stronger than myself. I don't intend to let an image make me."
Summer's fears aside, "Love to Love You Baby" was a monster of a record and dominated much of 1975. Helping to cement disco as a force to be reckoned with after the release of the nearly 17-minute extended version that was all the rage at parties across the country and beyond. With the entire A-Side of the album dedicated to the racy production, "Love to Love You Baby" may leave your heart-pumping with passion and desire by the song's end, but the following cut, "Full of Emptiness," serves as a change of course sonically and is the polar opposite of a disco record. Lyrics like "Full of emptiness / Broken promises /And love turned out so sad / The hurt goes on and on" are delivered with an underlying air of despair that gives the song a certain air of authenticity.
Listen to Donna Summer's "Pandora's Box"
Listeners drawn in by the lead single get thrown for a loop when they're met with somber piano keys and vocals full of melancholy and heartache, but most won't be complaining as the track is an effective ballad that proves Summer is far from a mere sex kitten, but a refined vocalist that is equal parts style and substance.
The departure from the dance floor is a brief one as the singer gives us a reason to boogie with the deceptively titled heater, "Need a Man Blues," one of the more exuberant selections on the album. "Another Monday morning / Another five day week ahead / Such a lonely weekend / Sleeping in a half-filled bed / Got those need-a-man blues / I need a man so bad / Got those need-a-man blues / And it's driving me mad," she sings. Summer shines bright and hits all cylinders on this effort.
Written and produced by Bellotte and Moroder, the song may lack the "it" factor that makes "Love to Love You" such a transcendent number, but is quite the treat and wins you over with its infectious soundbed and Summer's luscious vocals. Deciding to leave the moans and groans at home for this one, the bombshell gives the disco DJs more ammo for their club playlists with a superb offering that helps solidify the album's staying power in a big way.
Love to Love You Baby slows down the tempo again with the serene offering, "Whispering Waves," a ballad that is as soothing as the most tender lullaby and features Summer's airy vocals over the guitar-laden track, sending listeners into a zen-like state. "Love to Love You Baby" and "Need a Man Blues" are the LP's bread and butter, but the jamboree that is "Pandora's Box" is a hearty affair in its own right. "If I had known of what would come / I might have walked outta here a lot less harmed / But I'm no lady of the glass / And I can't foretell what will pass," Summer sings over rollicking live instrumentation. The Disco Queen laments a love lost and the effects of "pandora's box," making for a noteworthy selection.
This sophomore album made Donna Summer a household name and a vanguard in terms of helping pave the way for women across all genres to be able to let their sexual frustrations and desires out on wax. Listening to "Love to Love You Baby" is a tame experience in comparison to tracks from the artists of today, but 40 years ago, Donna Summer set the standard with her sophomore effort. She would go on to enjoy an illustrious career filled with many awards and milestones, earning the tag as the undisputed Queen of Disco and legendary status.
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