The Gayness of Disco
Disco is gay.
Everything about it is gay.
And not “gay” in the sense some might use the word today as a euphemism for “lame” or “stupid” (as in, “Justin Bieber is super gay!”) but straight up gay, as in homosexual male with the stupid bristly upper lip, leather, etc..
Disco was born of gay culture, and by gay culture I mean homosexual male gay culture (lesbians haven’t really given us anything except the Indigo Girls, Doc Marten boots, and flannel shirts).
Gay men in the mid to late 20th Century were party animals. In a society where being “open” was not condoned (and in the wrong set of circumstances could get a gay man killed), they led underground lives, socializing in the bathhouses of New York and San Francisco. In an age where indoor plumbing was in every home the need for a bathhouse in modern times was a complete anachronism—it wasn’t necessary. The only reason bathhouses survived that long is because gay men used them as meeting places to socialize and to hook up for casual sex.
Many of today’s mainstream artists got their starts playing for gay men in bathhouses and gay clubs.
Gay men love Bette Midler, and she embraced them as a core audience early in her career. A true gem of the pre-AIDS era is a film of her playing a gay bathhouse circa 1973 or maybe 1974. In this film, she is braless and wearing a sleeveless, frowsy blouse so loose that her independently swaying, pendulous udders threaten to flop out all over the place any second.
What makes this grainy home-made film clip more entertaining, though, is the geeky-looking guy sitting behind her playing the piano. Her back-up player? None other than Barry Manilow! [And Barry—his sexuality questioned almost from the beginning of his career, with some critics referring to him as “Barely Man-Enough”— finally came out in a big way in early 2015. It was revealed he had married his male manager in a secret ceremony in 2014—1970s’ TV icon, Suzanne Somers, was the “best man”.]
Similarly, gay parties evolved into dance fests, where ’mos could strut and preen in front of potential partners. Drag shows and cross-dressing fashion-modeling events became big social to-dos in the world of gay men. Dance clubs began hosting these gay parties. [“Vogueing” from the 1980s, as immortalized in Madonna’s song “Vogue”, is gay. It comes from “houses” of gay men in New York who dressed up and did posing like one sees in a K-Mart circular. When Vogueing broke in New York—before Madonna’s song—some fashionista in Los Angeles snottily claimed, “That’ll never catch on here. LA is too hip to Vogue!” No, LA was not too hip to Vogue—fortunately, Vogueing was a mercifully brief dance craze.]
Dance music has always been with us, but most dance tracks up until about 1973 or so clocked in at around three or four minutes. Arguably, some people may point to the 1974 Hues Corporation tune “Rock the Boat” as the first true “disco” song (up-tempo, mid-timed, heavy on the beat).
But, as in rock ’n’ roll, there is debate. I could argue that George McCrae’s “Rock Your Baby” from the same year is not only a better song, but more disco than “Rock the Boat”. McCrae’s tune (written by Harry Wayne Casey, better known as “K.C.” of K.C. and the Sunshine Band) clocked in at 6:20—very long for pop radio, but it got airplay both in its original length and as an edited single. It is one of only about 40 songs to globally move 10 million units in sales as a single.
Regardless of which song one looks to as “first”, the year 1974 was a watershed for what became disco. That same year the Philly soul-dance group MFSB (which stands for “Mother-Father-Sister-Brother” and nothing else, so don’t let anyone lie to you) broke out a dance tune called “TSOP” (“The Sound of Philadelphia”). This was mostly an instrumental with a disco beat and a brassy horn section. Oh, and some non-word, doodley “vocals”.
Of these three songs, “TSOP” had the basic ingredients that would gel about six months later into true “disco”—the goofy histrionics, the heavy horns, the repetitions of rhythm and a hook ad nauseam. This music was meant for discothèques. The club scene was where gay men met and partied. It’s where they spent their money. Gay men adopted this music, and where there’s a hole, something will fill it. And that something became the throw-away known as disco.
LaDonna Adrian Gaines was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on New Year’s Eve day, December 31, 1948. She was one of seven children in the household. Little LaDonna attended her local church. She claims when she was eight years old she received a “calling” of sorts to sing. She then forged ahead with that avocation where she could, singing in choirs, performing in school plays, and singing with pick-up girl groups. LaDonna’s rock aspirations were first realized when she joined a psychedelic group called The Crow. This was short-lived, but it helped her hone her rock chops.
Like many a Sixties’ performing aspirant LaDonna migrated to New York City to realize her dreams. She dropped the “La” from her first name and schlepped around town auditioning and singing where she could. She landed an audition for the huge Broadway hit Hair and, although she presented well, the part went to another rising star, Melba Moore.
However, her fine showing led the producers to offer her a part in a German production of the musical. Donna signed on, and moved to Munich. She remained there for a few years, working in not only Hair, but in Godspell, Showboat, and Porgy & Bess. She moved to Vienna, Austria, and managed to squeeze in some time performing as a vocalist with the Viennese Folk Opera.
In 1971, Donna (under the name Donna Gaines) cut her first record, a flukey song choice called “Sally Go ’Round the Roses”. This tune was a #2 hit in the US for the Jaynettes in 1963. It’s a strange song. On the surface the lyrics tell a simple story (admonishing a girl not to go downtown because her boyfriend’s there with another girl), but there seems to be a darker, unspoken malevolence to its undercurrent.
This single allowed her access to other European sessions. In Austria in 1972, while working in Godspell, she hooked up with one of her co-stars, Austrian actor Helmuth Sommer. In 1973 they married. Donna worked as a backing vocalist as often as she could while still nurturing a solo singing career. Her first child (a girl named Mimi Sommer) was born in 1974.
Also in 1974, she met music producers Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte. Pete Bellotte was a musician/lyricist/producer.
Moroder, however, was a powerhouse Italian expatriate living in Germany. He was a Renaissance man in European music. In Munich he started recording (in Italian!) in 1966, releasing singles and LPs (something he did throughout his career). He started his own record label, Oasis Records (later, a subsidiary of Casablanca Records in America). He was an early synthesizer ace (in an era when playing a synthesizer meant more than stroking a few keys—it required electrical engineering experience as well). He later founded Munich’s Musicland Studios where ELO, Queen, Led Zeppelin, and Elton John (among others) would record. His career in the 1980s saw him working with Blondie and The Human League on dance-able, synth-driven music.
By 1975 her marriage to Helmuth Sommer was over. Donna retained his last name, and altered it to “Summer”. Under the new “Donna Summer” brand, she approached Moroder and Bellotte with a song-lyric idea she’d had. Moroder, after hearing it from her, decided to cut a demo of the tune. He liked it as a vehicle to capitalize on the European dance-music trend.
Donna did a half-assed vocal for it because she really thought the song would be used as a rough cut for other artists who might need an idea of what it should sound like. In several spots, her demo vocal floundered as she ad-libbed lyrics (forgetting some of them as she went along).
The track went down in history, however.
Donna Summer created the first record of audio sex.
The interesting thing about this song, and how it would transform little LaDonna Gaines into the savory sex-goddess Donna Summer, is the sexually charged persona on record is completely at odds with Donna Summer, real woman. She was a mommy and a fairly conservative person off-stage. She did the track in the sing-song girlish voice with the fake orgasms as a lark.
Making it musically meant breaking in the United States. Moroder and Donna shopped the song to various labels, and rejections were common. A tape of the European single version of the song was sent to Neil Bogart (whose Casablanca Records featured KISS as its only true success up to then).
Bogart liked the song. He played it repeatedly at a party one night. He, too, smelled the disco trend cooking. He agreed to work with Donna and Moroder if they would beef up the track to something closer to 20 minutes! Neil Bogart, in that moment, had envisioned the extended dance single with this track.
Moroder and Donna returned to the studio and worked up a longer version of the song. To set the mood for her, the studio lights were dimmed.
The track was renamed “Love to Love You, Baby”, and the final version clocked in at over 16 minutes (filling the entire first side of her Casablanca début LP, Love to Love You, Baby, released in August 1975).
The tune is technically in sections with minor differences in stride and feel in its four suites. The core tune is what opens the track (and is what was used for the truncated singles’ version for radio play); the balance is fleshed out with strings, extended drum breaks, and it ends with backing vocals on an extended fade out.
Simply put, it’s a brilliant piece of pop music history.
An edited version (for time, not content) of the song was released in America in November 1975 and made it to the Number 2 spot on Billboard’s Hot 100 in early 1976.
Suddenly, the woman behind the recorded orgasms was everywhere. And she was denounced from some quarters. Some critics panned the tune as prurient. Some radio stations banned it outright because of her explicit vocalizing. A tongue-in-cheek nickname was appended to Donna by the press: “The First Lady of Love” (the press really meant “lust” because that’s where the record lived).
The second side of the album included four R&B/soul-flavored originals and a reprise of the second side’s opening track (a song called “Full of Emptiness” that actually featured on her European début, Lady of the Night). The record sold respectably, and was certified gold. It hit the US and UK Top 20 album charts.
In the beginning it seemed Donna was unsure of her stage self. I had seen her lip-synch the edited single version of “Love to Love You, Baby” on TV wearing a very demure floral print dress, her hair done just so, and barely swaying to the music.
Other times, Donna Summer was a sexy tigress on-stage, and this bronze beauty turned many heads. [I have a clear memory of seeing her live on a show in 1977 or 1978 wearing a pair of painted-on purplish lamé or spandex disco tights. A quick-thinking cameraman got me a nice crotch shot featuring my first glimpse of camel toe on TV. As a 14-year-old, I was mighty intrigued by Donna Summer—so were all my male school pals. We loved Donna although we hated disco (I had already discovered Sex Pistols by then.]
Disco changed that to a degree. Many black women got a break in disco (Grace Jones is a great gay fave who got her start in that form). But black women were generally not regarded as sex symbols.
Donna Summer, however, was magnetic, and she was an instant sex symbol. She was black, and very beautiful.
During the height of her reign as The Queen of Disco (a title she probably deserves to a degree, but which maybe killed her chances as a rocker), Donna was a totally hot package. At 5’7” tall, and a fully fleshed out 34 ½”-25”-36” she was pure sex, an estrogen-fueled engine. She was sensual. And coy, and nasty, and adorable. She was a walking Every Woman in the mid to late 1970s, and there really was no one like her. On stage, she could either meow or roar. And she developed into a real dynamo, working a mic stand until you were sweating just watching her.
The steamy, sexually charged Donna Summer on record and on stage was almost diametrically opposed to her off-stage persona.
Under the spotlight, Donna Summer could be either demure and innocent, or lusty and raunchy, taking Tina Turner’s sleaze queen act to amazing levels of lasciviousness.
Off-stage was a different story. In interviews, she was erudite and pleasant, charming and funny (and her speaking voice had a beautifully musical timbre to it).
And she was serious about her music. Unlike most of the ’droids created on the punch-press of disco, Donna was actively engaged in the making of her songs as a lyricist and as an arranger. Giorgio Moroder was not her Svengali. She, Moroder, and Pete Bellotte worked as a team (a very successful one at that—by the decade’s end she had sold more records and had more back-to-back hits than any of her peers).
Donna Summer was the first real disco superstar. Disco did not produce any superstars in its entire lame history other than her. It spewed out many one-off acts that recorded a hit-of-the-moment and then disappeared. The longer-lived acts from that era were already established stars who had recorded before doing the obligatory, pandering disco song (Rod Stewart, Bee Gees, Patti LaBelle, etc.).
What disco had, though, was a bunch of “personalities”. [Sort of like that gay guy Jm (sic) J. Bullock. I’ve seen him on TV now and then, but—like Paris Hilton—I don’t really know what he does.]
Disco was a breeding ground for those off-kilter “personalities”. One of the best examples was a cross-dressing singer named Sylvester (real name Sylvester James, 1947-1988). He was chubby and wore drag remnants most of the time.
But for whatever reason Dinah Shore (the Big Band canary from the 1940s) loved this guy. She had a daytime talk-show and featured him as a guest and performer on multiple occasions. I don’t know if Dinah knew he was gay, or if she just thought he was “flamboyant” like Little Richard. [Also gay. And flamboyant.]
I’m guessing Dinah was clueless, but as far as star “personalities” went that’s what you had in disco for star power: a cross-dresser and Donna Summer.
Disco made her a star, but even in some of her earlier records in the mid Seventies Donna was stretching.
In 1977, she cut the great song “I Feel Love” which presaged so much dance music of the 1980s that you could almost say Donna Summer invented Madonna. [In fact, Madonna sampled “I Feel Love” on her 2000 single “Music”.]
“I Feel Love” was definitely a harbinger of things to come. Iggy Pop, the Granddaddy of Punk, was working with David Bowie at the time of its release. He heard it and claimed the song was “the future of music”—he wasn’t joking, either.
Everything Donna Summer did was magically blessed: “Bad Girls”, “Hot Stuff”, “Dim All the Lights”, “On The Radio”.
She had back-to-back hits, her albums blew out multi-million unit sales (three double-albums reached Number One consecutively, a feat not matched by any performer male or female).
She dredged up an obtuse late 1960s’ tune, “MacArthur Park” (sung by Irish actor, Richard Harris (!), written by the great Jimmy Webb), and killed with it as a remake. It was her first Number One single.
Donna Summer had her share of depressed periods. She also suffered from chronic insomnia.
About the time of her break out with “Love to Love You, Baby”, she tried to kill herself in a fit of despondency:
“It sorta snuck up on me, and I think it’s because I had my daughter, and during that period, my marriage broke up, and I was alone, and I was staying up at night, and I would go out and work and then, I would be getting 2 to 3 hours a sleep a day. It was scary, and so I couldn’t deal [with] another minute of it, and I was on my way out the window, I was sticking my foot out, I was shifting my weight, and I got caught in a curtain and the maid opened the door, exactly [at] that time. I was literally shifting my weight, and I was looking at my curtain, the chain rattled on the door and I look after I saw the maid looking at me, and I thought, ‘Oh, my God!’ It really kind of shook me, it woke me up . . . and then I let her in, and I got on the phone, and I think I called somebody [and] said, ‘I need help,’ and thank God that lady came, because I'd be gone today.”
Donna starred in a forgettable 1978 movie called Thank God It’s Friday. Her song from this flop, “Last Dance”, won an Academy Award®for “Best Song”, and snagged her a Grammy Award®, too. Also in 1978 she cut a side called “Heaven Knows”; the co-lead tapped to back her on the track was a guy from a New York Guido rock band called Brooklyn Dreams. One of the other Guidos in Brooklyn Dreams was a guy named Bruce Sudano, and he met Donna Summer then. [Their relationship blossomed from there, and in July 1980 they married.]
By early 1979, the constant “go” was too much for Donna. She had suffered from anxiety attacks periodically after her first real stardom in 1977. She attempted suicide again and became addicted to prescription medications.
In early 1979 she had a complete breakdown. She retreated to her Los Angeles home to rest. One of her sisters got her to attend a church service with her during this time, and Donna reacted by becoming a “born again” Christian (she had always been a “believer”, but had let her faith lapse).
Disco was dying; in the wake of the foundering Studio 54’s decline the middle-class abandoned and turned its nose up at disco. New Wave (born from the ashes of punk with some of Giorgio Moroder’s synth savvy thrown in) reigned in the Eighties.
Donna was tired of Casablanca Records (particularly Neil Bogart) telling her what to record. Bogart, though friends with Donna (his wife Joyce was her manager), insisted she keep up the sex-toy image of “Love to Love You, Baby”. Her renewed religious convictions made her more uncomfortable with that image. She wanted to branch out musically, too. Casablanca refused to let her work on some of her compositions that featured religious themes and that were stylistically closer to New Wave.
Donna quietly searched for a new label, and David Geffen (also gay; Cher, another gay culture icon, “bearded” for him in the Seventies occasionally) had just started Geffen Records. He signed Donna Summer as his first artist on his new label.
Meanwhile, she and Casablanca became embroiled in litigation (which was not completely resolved until 1982). Free of Casablanca’s restraints Donna’s need for some sense of a new direction led her to record perhaps her most ambitious project, The Wanderer, in 1980.
This disc is what proves Donna can rock. It also proves the woman was on the edge of what was coming (the hybrid of hip-hop, rock, and pop that was Prince and almost all the Minneapolis Sound he spawned). The ingredients are all there.
Unfortunately, despite how great this album is, the name “Donna Summer” was on it—she already had the taint of disco holding her back. The record was critically well-received, and sold reasonably well, but was not the smash her earlier efforts had been. It is brilliant, though, and it shows an experimental musical expansiveness on her part that her disco brethren and sisters could never have mustered. It also showed she was willing to take chances.
Donna squeezed out Sudano’s kids, one in 1981, the other in 1982. Then, in 1983, just in time for the video age, she cut “She Works Hard For the Money”. The video was a good concept piece about female empowerment; Donna, however, did not “star” in it as the main character of the narrative, though she did appear in the video. It was a hit, stylistically like Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”, more power pop and R&B with nary a hint of disco.
And it brought Donna to the attention of a lot of newer fans.
Donna’s religious conversion (or “reversion”) in the late 1970s led her to question some things.
She distanced herself from the perceived “filth” of “Love to Love You, Baby”, and refused to sing the song live for 26 years.
She also (in one of the truly rare moments of off-stage
Like many religious bigots, she openly opined that AIDS was “God’s retribution” on gays.
Dinah Shore’s favorite gay cross-dressing disco artist, Sylvester (who died of AIDS complications in 1988), had stated in 1987, “I don’t believe that AIDS is the wrath of God. People have a tendency to blame everything on God.”
This about-face with respect to her gay fan base truly hurt her career. Understandably, there was a backlash against her, and gays publicly burned her records in protest. Thousands of her records were returned to her record companies by angered fans.
Worldwide, her music was boycotted in dance clubs. The gay community had supported Donna Summer early on, embracing her as a glamorous icon even before she achieved her seemingly overnight international success. She was a favored drag subject, right up there in the old queen shows with faux Tina Turners, Chers, and Diana Rosses.
Donna realized the error of her ways soon enough, however; she claimed that she had been
In 1989, she parted with Geffen Records and signed with Atlantic.
Off-stage she kept her nose clean of controversy (except for that slam at gays back when). She took time off from recording (for several years) beginning in about 1991.
Donna’s art is an amalgam of abstraction with folk art elements, and a bit of outsider art thrown in. Her work has been surprisingly well received, and since 1989 she has sold over a million bucks’ worth. Her subjects cover portraiture to emotional landscapes of faces. She has a raw talent that shines through on her canvasses.
In 2003 Donna co-wrote her biography called Ordinary Girl: The Journey. To coincide with the release of the book, a new compilation was put together, The Journey: The Very Best of Donna Summer. This set features all of her original hits plus two new tracks, and for people unfamiliar with Donna Summer’s stylistic and vocal capabilities you can’t do better than this as a starting point.
She and her old man moved to Nashville, Tennessee, in the late 1990s. She paints and draws, she tours, and she still records (even cutting some Country tunes).
Donna Summer is no longer the svelte ride she used to be (I always wanted to put my mouth on her thighs every time I saw them).
But you know what? I don’t care. The woman can still sing, and yeah, maybe she can’t ride a mic stand the way she used to, but she is aging gracefully. I like that, after 30 years, she is still married to the same guy (even though it’s not me), or that she can cut a Christmas album and make it sound good.
Donna has a massive résumé.
Globally, her unit sales exceed 130 million records.
She was aRock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame (and if you don’t think she belongs there I want you, among other songs, to take another listen to “Bad Girls”, and hear that funk/rock guitar underneath the whistles and the “toot-toot” backing vocals). In late 2012 it was announced that Donna Summer would be an inductee into the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame class of 2013 (alongside Rush, Public Enemy, and Randy Newman).
Billboard Magazine, for its 50th Anniversary edition, listed Donna Summer at #24 in its Hot 100 Artists of All Time.
She has several Grammys under her belt, multiple Top 40 and Number One singles and albums, and a back-catalog to be rather proud of (even her most “disco” records contained rock and funk elements which put them light years beyond the crap of the era).
All that, plus she put out 22 orgasms in less than 17 minutes on record—that’s why I am madly in love with Donna Summer.
Author’s note: Since I brought it up, the first rock ’n’ roll record is “Rocket 88” recorded in early March 1951 by Ike Turner’s Kings of Rhythm. It was released in April 1951 under the fake band name Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats. [Jackie Brenston was real: he was Ike’s sax player, and he did the vocal on the record. The Delta Cats were the fake.]
Ike and the Kings of Rhythm were pretty well-known as straight-up chittlin’ circuit R&B grinders at that time in their careers; Ike even had a local St. Louis TV show in which he featured regularly (pre-Tina Turner). To get record play the Kings of Rhythm “faked” up a “hep-cat” name on the disc to fool Whitey.
Author’s update (May 17, 2012): Sadly, this talented, beautiful, wonderful woman died in her Florida home, aged 63, in the morning hours of Thursday, May 17, 2012. A losing battle with lung cancer was the cause of death. She is buried in Harpeth Hills Memory Gardens in Nashville, Tennessee (her permanent city of residence), under the name Donna Summer Sudano (with a polished stone and a ground plaque marking the spot).
I really was crazy about her, and if you have not given her music any listens lately, maybe check out some of her material from the late 1970s and early 1980s and hear just how far ahead of what was happening this brilliant performer was.
We all love to love you.
Donna does it!
Amazon Price: $11.98 $8.61 Buy Now
(price as of Jun 12, 2015)
Over a quarter-century old now
Amazon Price: $19.99 $11.14 Buy Now
(price as of Jun 12, 2015)