The Stories Behind Donna Summer's Biggest Hits


© JONAS CUNHA/dpa/Corbis

Disco Queen Donna Summer has passed away after a battle with lung cancer at age 63. Even though her name is always automatically entwined with disco, it was a sobriquet that she was never fully comfortable with. And rightfully so; unlike so many studio-manufactured singers of that era, Summer possessed a pure, sparkling mezzo-soprano voice and felt that she performed her best on ballads and show tunes. Here are a few stories behind some of her biggest hits.

"Love to Love You Baby"

Her first international hit is remembered mainly because Summer’s vocals were reminiscent of Meg Ryan’s restaurant scene in When Harry Met Sally. After touring Europe with a road company of Hair, Summer ended up in Germany where she found steady employment as a background vocalist at Musicland Studios in Munich. Producer Giorgio Moroder and his assistant Pete Bellotte were recording a jam session with some studio musicians in 1975 when suddenly a very infectious four-on-the-floor bass drum rhythm coupled with a unique hi-hat pattern emerged. The pair wrote “Love to Love You Baby” around that rhythm and hired Summer to perform the overtly sexual vocals. Summer stated at the time that she was so embarrassed at the moans she was encouraged to create, she asked for the studio lights to be dimmed so she couldn’t see anyone in the booth.

Neil Bogart, the head of Casablanca Records in the US, received a demo tape of the song and excitedly phoned Moroder a few weeks later raving about it; he’d played it at a party at his home and his coked-up guests proceeded to get naked and amorous and kept requesting that he play the song over and over. So his brainstorm was to release an extended 16 minute long version of the song that filled up one whole album side. Moroder was skeptical but complied and the Love to Love You Baby album sold 400,000 copies in six weeks.

"I Feel Love"

No one involved in creating “I Feel Love” back in 1977 had an inkling that it would be groundbreaking, that 20-plus years later it would be referred to as the first “house” song, or that the synthesized beat would spark an entire new genre of music called “electronica.” At the time he composed the melody, Giorgio Moroder simply envisioned the song as part three of a musical trilogy, a journey through time – the two songs preceding it on Summer’s I Remember Yesterday album were in the style of Motown and disco, representing the past and present of popular music respectively.

Having all the instruments created on a synthesizer for “I Feel Love” was intended to present the music of the future. A studio engineer named Robbie Wedel was an inveterate tinkerer and had discovered a way to program four different Moog synthesizers to simulate the different instruments while staying in perfect sync. Even Robert Moog himself had to ask Wedel how it was done. Donna Summer and Pete Bellotte wrote the lyrics and when Summer’s sweeping vocals were placed on top of Moroder’s ethereal, hypnotic synthesized beat and instrumentation, the result was an immediate smash. Even today professional DJs keep this 35-year-old hit on their playlists because it is a guaranteed crowd pleaser.

"Hot Stuff"

Three years before Michael Jackson had Eddie van Halen add a smokin’ guitar riff onto “Beat It,” Donna Summer combined dance music and rock and roll with her 1979 smash “Hot Stuff.” Doobie Brothers guitarist Skunk Baxter played the driving riff that helped Summer to become the first female to win a Grammy for Best Female Rock Vocal Performance. Fresh off of a Doobies tour, Baxter was rife with ideas when he was hired for the “Hot Stuff” session. He played four guitar solos (using a used Burns guitar he’d bought for $20), eight rhythm parts, and two synthesizer parts in four hours. The resulting tune hit number one and remains the most-played song of Donna Summer’s catalog.

"She Works Hard for the Money"

Summer’s biggest hit of the 1980s was inspired by (according to her) a real-life incident. When she took a bathroom break while dining at LA’s famed celebrity bistro Chasen’s she startled the ladies’ room attendant who’d fallen asleep in her chair. The woman, Onetta Johnson, apologized for being caught napping on the job and explained to Summer that she had a full-time job during the day was just plain exhausted. Summer thought to herself “she works hard for her money” and jotted down the name “Onetta” on a piece of paper when she returned to her table. The video filmed to accompany the song garnered Summer an MTV VMA nomination, the first by an African-American woman.

The Star-Spangled Banner

No particular story behind this performance, other than to illustrate the amazing power and range of Donna Summer’s voice as she sang the National Anthem live, a capella, not miming to a pre-recorded track, just the way Nature and Francis Scott Key intended.