Donna Summer Defined Disco Culture Of 1970s

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Disco queen Donna Summer has died of cancer at the age of 63. For many music fans, Summer's soaring voice and glittering style epitomized the excess and electricity of the 1970s. Host Michel Martin takes a look back at her music and her legacy with Mark Anthony Neal, a Duke University professor of black popular culture.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And now, we want to offer a tribute to a great voice in American music who died this week. Donna Summer passed away on Thursday of cancer. She was 63 years old.

Born LaDonna Adrian Gaines, Donna Summer became the queen of disco in the 1970s, winning five Grammys. With her big voice and glittery style, she defined disco for many fans and anybody who's been to a wedding or school dance over the last 30 years knows at least one of her songs, including hits like "Hot Stuff," "On the Radio," "Love to Love You, Baby," or "Last Dance."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LAST DANCE")

DONNA SUMMER: (Singing) Last dance, last chance for love. Yes. It's my last chance for romance tonight.

MARTIN: That was "Last Dance" from Donna Summer in 1978. We wanted to talk more about the disco diva, so we've called Mark Anthony Neal. He is a professor at Duke University's African-American Studies Department. He teaches black popular culture.

Welcome back. Thanks so much for joining us.

MARK ANTHONY NEAL: How you doing, Michel?

MARTIN: So what makes a Donna Summer song a Donna Summer song?

NEAL: It's a couple of things. It's sex and it's disco. She was, as you mentioned, the queen of disco and with her very first single, at least here in the United States, with Giorgio Moroder, you know, "Love to Love You, Baby," that combination came together. And, you know - and folks forget, when she enters the scene in 1975, you know, Aretha Franklin is kind of passing the torch off to Natalie Cole and Donna Summer comes from out of nowhere and she came with that kind of Euro-disco sound, which was a little impersonal and a little tinny and a little machine-like and she went to the top of the charts with that.

MARTIN: You know, it's interesting. You pointed something out that I was wondering about. As we reached out on Facebook and asked people if they wanted to tell us memories of Donna Summer, we got comments from people as far away as India and there are people from, literally, all over the world, all ages. Let me just play one and then you can tell me what you think. Here it is.

NEAL: OK.

MARTIN: This is a comment from listener, John Book(ph).

JOHN BOOK: To me, Donna Summer had a very strong voice and could bring on any emotion into what she sang. If she wrote it, people felt it. If she didn't, she made you believe she lived those experiences. On one end, she could talk about being a bad girl who was all about the hot stuff, but turn around and speak of her independence.

MARTIN: OK. John Book. Well, what do you think?

NEAL: It was a classic pop voice. You know, she didn't have the kind of gospel power that we heard from folks like Aretha, but her voice was actually much more stronger than someone like Diana Ross and she was malleable. I mean, she could sing all kinds of music. I mean, that was the thing that's actually a kind of detriment to our memory of her. When she decided to leave disco alone as America left disco alone and she tried to branch out into other forms of music, you know, folks kind of lost track of her, but she could sing anything.

You know, at the time of her death, she had talked about she wanted to do an album of standards and she clearly had the talent and skill to be able to pull that off.

MARTIN: Is there a song of hers that you wish more people knew and appreciated?

NEAL: I think of "Dim All the Lights." It's a song that was on her incredible double album "Bad Girls." It comes out in 1979 and it's a song that's kind of a - harks back to an R&B roots in her career. We don't think of her as a soul and R&B artist, but "Dim All the Lights" is a song that gets closest to that aesthetic, you know, for folks listening to her in the 1970s.

MARTIN: OK. Well, we'll play a little bit of that, but this is from her 1999 live album from VH1 Presents. Mark Anthony Neal is a professor in the African-American Studies Department at Duke University. He has a particular expertise in black popular culture. He was with us from member station WUNC in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Professor Neal, thanks for joining us.

NEAL: Thank you, Michel.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DIM ALL THE LIGHTS")

SUMMER: (Singing) Dim all the lights, sweet darling, for tonight is on its way. Hey, Baby, turn up the old Victrola. Gonna' dance the night away. Keep on dancing.

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