Donna Summer’s first studio album was entitled Lady of the Night, after its retro-styled galloping pop song composed by Giorgio Moroder and the album’s producer Pete Bellotte. Following the release of her next LP, Summer would own the night as an international superstar. But there was much more to the so-called Queen of Disco than just the remarkable string of hits that crossed over from the dancefloor to the mainstream pop consciousness, among them “Love to Love You Baby,” “I Feel Love,” “Last Dance,” “MacArthur Park,” “Heaven Knows,” “Hot Stuff,” “Bad Girls,” “Dim All the Lights,” “On the Radio,” and “She Works Hard for the Money.” A mammoth new box set from Crimson Productions and the Summer estate’s Driven by the Music is the most exhaustive examination of the Summer legacy to date. This impressive Encore boasts a whopping 33 CDs, encompassing all of the late vocalist’s studio and live albums plus eight bonus discs filled with 7- and 12-inch mixes, rare edits, non-album tracks, and extended mixes. It reveals the scope and breadth of the Boston-born Summer’s artistry as it tracks her unusual journey from America to Germany, where she performed as an ensemble member in German companies of Hair and Godspell, and back, all the way through her final recordings.
The original albums on Encore can be considered in three eras: the Moroder/Bellotte years; the subsequent Geffen, Mercury, and Atlantic recordings (previously addressed on Crimson/Driven by the Music’s 2014 Donna box set of expanded editions); and the final years of limited activity. (Note that the double albums are presented on two CDs to mirror their original presentations.) With its panoply of pop styles from girl-group to country-and-western, 1974’s Lady of the Night hinted at what was to come for the singer via such dramatic tracks as the pulsating “The Hostage.” But that album – recorded in Munich, as most of her subsequent Moroder/Bellotte productions would be – originally didn’t even see release in Summer’s native United States. Enter Neil Bogart of Casablanca Records, who had a vision for a modestly successful single released only in Europe, “Love to Love You Baby.” Bogart asked for an extended, album side-length version of the smoldering disco cut, so revelers wouldn’t have to keep interrupting their bacchanals to move the needle back to start. Summer, Moroder, and Bellotte delivered, with the vocalist passionately moaning and groaning over the lavish backdrop. While the rest of the album was primarily cobbled together from extant material, Love to Love You Baby and its Billboard No. 2 Pop single became the de facto beginning of Summer’s extraordinary rise.
II. Could It Be Magic?
The Casablanca LPs are, of course, at the beating heart of the box set. Love to Love You Baby earned the artist her moniker as The First Lady of Love, but it was sex that propelled the outrageously erotic title track to immortality. Both factors would come into play on her subsequent, often high-concept LPs for the label. Like Love to Love You Baby, 1976’s A Love Trilogy featured a side-long track, the uptempo floor-filling suite “Try Me, I Know We Can Make It.” It topped the Billboard Dance chart, but had limited success crossing over to Pop. Another memorable highlight of the album was Summer’s sexualized, disco-fied reinvention of Barry Manilow and Adrienne Anderson’s classically-inspired ballad “Could It Be Magic.” The musicians of Moroder and Bellotte’s Munich Machine, working with arrangers including Moroder and Thor Baldursson, had established a rich orchestral sound that carried on the tradition of groups like MFSB and The Salsoul Orchestra on sophisticated yet carnal tracks like “Magic.”
A Love Trilogy and its follow-up later in the year, Four Seasons of Love (with one song for each season, plus a reprise of Spring) both conveyed the image of Donna Summer as a mysterious and unattainable figure of fantasy – even going so far as to depict her in the heavens (on clouds and on the moon, respectively) on the covers. She wasn’t “accessible” or as familiar as the two contemporaries with whom she’s most often identified, Barbra Streisand and Diana Ross. Summer tied with Streisand and Ross for the most No. 1s of the 1970s among female artists (four), and bested them with the most weeks at pole position (13). She was an angel of the nightlife, with suitably ethereal vocals. Audiences connected with Summer’s high-gloss sound and her innately soulful spirit.
The string of concept albums continued with I Remember Yesterday (1977), a multi-genre romp melding disco with effective pastiche of 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s pop styles all sung with conviction by the versatile Summer. One track, “Can’t We Just Sit Down and Talk It Over,” came from the pen of hitmaker Tony Macaulay (“(Last Night) I Didn’t Get to Sleep at All,” “Build Me Up Buttercup”) and returned Summer to the top 20 of the R&B countdown. But its success was eclipsed by the album’s closer, “I Feel Love,” aimed to represent the future with its use of a Moog synthesizer and sequencers. It took Donna – also, significantly the song’s co-writer with Moroder and Bellotte – back to the Pop top ten and influenced such unlikely artists as David Bowie and his then-collaborator, Brian Eno. With its steely electronics and hypnotic, spare vibe, “I Feel Love” upended the prevalent orchestrated disco sound and presaged the direction dance music would take.
After I Remember Yesterday, Summer returned to fantasy mode for her most expansive recording project ever, Once Upon a Time. Over four sides (or four acts) of a double album, Summer, Moroder, and Bellotte crafted a “disco opera” beginning, appropriately, with “Once Upon a Time” and concluding with “Happily Ever After.” Bob Esty handled the arrangements for the orchestra while Moroder contributed the prominent electronics, again incorporating the Moog. The theatrical rags-to-riches story failed to yield any major U.S. hits (“I Love You” reached the top ten in the U.K.) but the album was another Disco chart-topping smash.
Her second consecutive double LP arrived in 1978 with Live and More. The three sides of “live” were recorded at the Universal Amphitheatre in Los Angeles, and showcased the many sides of Summer. In addition to a number of then-fresh songs from Once Upon a Time, she revisited Four Seasons of Love and I Remember Yesterday, and embraced chic cabaret for a bluesy medley of the standards “The Man I Love,” “I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good),” and “Some of These Days.” Summer even took on “The Way We Were,” a song then and now closely linked with Barbra Streisand – not knowing that she would soon be sharing the studio with her. The live side culminated in “Last Dance,” the studio single of which had arrived in stores just a couple of months before Live and More. Paul Jabara’s Academy Award-winning classic from the film Thank God It’s Friday (in which Summer also acted) would net Donna a Grammy Award.
The fourth side of Live and More was dedicated to “MacArthur Park Suite,” a dazzling nonstop mix of the Jimmy Webb classic with the new songs “One of a Kind” and “Heaven Knows.” (Within months, the shimmering pop of “Heaven Knows,” featuring the group Brooklyn Dreams, would ascend the charts itself.) Greg Mathieson arranged the bravura suite, expertly threading the thunderous brass of “MacArthur Park” throughout. The suite was the apotheosis of the Summer/Moroder/Bellotte collaboration, with a commanding vocal, powerful arrangement and production, and infectious beat. Live and More went to No. 1 on the Billboard 200, and the edited “MacArthur Park” became her first of four No. 1 hits on the Hot 100.
Summer would release just one more studio set on Casablanca. 1979’s Bad Girls, helmed by Moroder and Bellotte but recorded in Los Angeles rather than Munich, once again saw the team looking forward. A more aggressive edge was incorporated into the double album, reflected on its first two tracks which both became No. 1s: “Hot Stuff” and “Bad Girls.” The former was authored by Bellotte with album arranger Harold Faltermeyer and Keith Forsey while the latter was penned by Summer with Bruce Sudano, Eddie Hokenson, and Joe “Bean” Esposito of Brooklyn Dreams. It was a solo composition by Donna, though, that helped earn her another spot in the history books. When the sexy entreaty to “Dim All the Lights” entered the top three of the Hot 100 alongside her Streisand duet “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough),” she became the first female artist of the Billboard era to have two songs in the top three. Bad Girls reaffirmed Donna as disco queen while positioning her to soar in the rapidly-changing musical landscape of a new decade; she even took home a Grammy for Best Female Rock Vocal for “Hot Stuff.”
One more Casablanca double album followed. On the Radio: Greatest Hits Volumes I & II was a thrilling look back at a relatively short period of blazing musical activity for Donna Summer. Even four sides of vinyl couldn’t fit in all of her chart entries, and many of the tracks were given unique remixes or edits. Two new songs premiered on a Summer record. “On the Radio” (heard in two versions) was a classy pop-disco amalgam in the vein of “Dim All the Lights” and “Last Dance.” It would appear in the Casablanca coming-of-age film Foxes not long after its LP debut. The second new cut was an extended version of the Streisand duet, Paul Jabara and Bruce Roberts’ showstopping “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough).” Summer’s third multi-platinum No. 1 record in a row, it made her the first artist ever to take three consecutive 2-LP sets to the top spot.
With Casablanca in financial straits and Donna reportedly at odds with the label over her musical direction, she became the first signee at music mogul David Geffen’s new Geffen Records. Although she desired to explore a new sound, she stuck with the producers who had brought her so much success in the past: Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte. The Wanderer was released in 1980 as Geffen’s first LP and built upon the rock foundation of Bad Girls. Unsurprisingly, the diva’s instincts proved correct. It continued Summer’s streak of success going Gold in the US and spawned a No. 3 hit with the title song. “Cold Love” and “Who Do You Think You’re Fooling?” made it to the top 40. Summer also affirmed her born-again Christian faith with “I Believe in Jesus,” proving that she was now moving on from the image of “Love to Love You Baby.”
In 1981, Donna returned to the studio to begin work on the follow-up album with her longtime producers. Yet before it could be completed, it was cancelled by David Geffen who believed that the material wasn’t strong enough. Though a handful of tracks trickled out over the years, it would remain on the shelf until 1996 when, in a full circle moment, it was released by Universal Music Group on the reactivated Casablanca label as I’m A Rainbow. The album was so named for a song by Summer’s new husband, Bruce Sudano; it would also contain an ode to their daughter, “Brooklyn.” The released album is somewhat disjointed, both due to the fact that some of the tracks were unfinished and that the LP was never finalized by its creative team. But its eighteen tracks – likely all wouldn’t have made the original cut – open a window onto Summer and her collaborators’ creative process of the period.
For Summer’s next effort, Geffen brought in the already-legendary Quincy Jones to produce. The result was self-titled, perhaps to indicate a creative rebirth. Donna Summer was released in 1982 after a six-month recording period in which Jones brought on an array of his frequent A-team of musicians including David Foster, Michael Sembello, Greg Phillinganes, Ernie Watts, Jerry Hey, and Rod Temperton. The latter had authored “Off the Wall” and “Rock with You” for Michael Jackson, and he gifted Donna with the top 10 single “Love Is in Control (Finger on the Trigger).” James Ingram was tapped to add vocals to “Mystery of Love” (he provided backgrounds elsewhere on the album, too) but the guest spots didn’t end there. Bruce Springsteen wrote and played guitar on “Protection,” and a star-studded chorus joined Donna on “State of Independence.” Christopher Cross, Dionne Warwick, Lionel Richie, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Michael McDonald, Brenda Russell, and Kenny Loggins all supported Summer with their participation. A cover of Billy Strayhorn’s art song “Lush Life” harkened back to Jones’ jazz roots. Donna was rewarded with a gold record for Donna Summer.
Summer and Geffen were then informed by Polygram (Casablanca’s then-parent label) that she still owed them an album to complete her previous contract. She Works Hard for the Money turned out to be no mere “contractual obligation” album. Its indelible title track, written by Donna and producer Michael Omartian, became her biggest hit (No. 3 U.S.) since “No More Tears” four years earlier, in 1979. Geffen was unhappy with the album’s success but wanted to capitalize on it, so he enlisted Omartian, to helm Summer’s next album for his label: Cats Without Claws. Unfortunately for Summer and Geffen, the album did not match Money‘s success and failed to go gold in the U.S., her first album in the U.S. to fail to make that certification. It also did not yield a top 10 single, with its highest chart entry being a cover of The Drifters’ “There Goes My Baby” stalling at No. 21. It was not all bad news though: Summer earned a Grammy for Best Inspirational Performance for “Forgive Me.”
All Systems Go was released three years later in 1987. Harold Faltermeyer (then best-known for the score to Beverly Hills Cop, including the hit “Axel F”) was back as one of its producers, providing a connection to the Moroder/Bellotte days. The objective of the album was to move Donna in a contemporary pop-R&B direction, but audiences failed to latch onto the record despite her typically strong vocal and distinctive performances. The beguiling single “Dinner with Gershwin,” produced by Richard Perry in cool, electronic fashion and penned by Brenda Russell, peaked at No. 48 in the U.S., but did rise to No. 13 in the United Kingdom. Starship’s Mickey Thomas guested on the soaring power ballad “Only the Fool Survives,” which became a top 20 AC entry.
With her next album, Summer’s tenure at Geffen came to an end. The producing team of Mike Stock, Matt Aitken and Pete Waterman (collectively known as “SAW”) were the pioneering hi-NRG producers had who scored a No. 1 hit with Bananarama’s “Venus” in 1986; Geffen brought them in to oversee Summer’s Another Place and Time. Even though SAW felt the album, produced in their signature style, contained some of their best work, Geffen did not agree and decided once more not to release a Donna Summer album. Undeterred, she brought the record to Warner Bros., who had been distributing her albums in Europe since 1982, and it was released there in 1989. “This Time I Know It’s for Real” climbed the charts in several countries and Warner’s sister company, Atlantic Records, signed Summer in the U.S. and released the album stateside. “This Time” peaked at No. 7 in the U.S. and became her last top 40 American pop hit. (Another Place and Time was reissued last year by Crimson as a 3-CD set with 31 bonus tracks.)
1991’s Mistaken Identity paired Donna with Keith Diamond, who had worked with Billy Ocean on several of his hits. He and Donna collaborated to create a more urban sound for the record. Unfortunately, the LP couldn’t crack the Billboard 200, although “When Love Cries” hit No. 18 on the R&B chart. While consistently turning out solid work in every genre she attempted, Donna had never carved out a new image that could compete with the classic disco “bad girl” fantasy figure – and that was an image that no longer reflected where she was, musically and personally.
IV. Hot Stuff
The studio portion of Encore continues with her three, final post-Atlantic albums. Michael Omartian produced 1994’s Christmas Spirit, a warm, festive collection combining secular favorites (“White Christmas,” “I’ll Be Home for Christmas”), traditional hymns (“O Come All Ye Faithful,” “O Holy Night”), and newly-written material (“Christmas Is Here,” “Christmas Spirit,” “Lamb of God”). Donna’s faith also informed her tender, deeply felt rendition of “Breath of Heaven” from contemporary Christian-turned-pop-superstar Amy Grant. Five years passed before the release on Epic Records of VH1 Presents Live and More Encore!, a “sequel” to the original Live and More that tied into a special on the music network. A relaxed, elegant Summer gamely revisited her hits (by this point all bona fide classics) and in keeping with the spirit of its predecessor, a couple of studio tracks were showcased. One of these, “Love Is the Healer,” went to No. 1 on the Dance survey. Another standout was a duet of “Enough Is Enough” with Tina Arena filling in for La Streisand. The Live and More Encore! album was reconfigured by Epic parent Sony Music on 2013’s Playlist: The Very Best of Donna Summer, which jettisoned the studio cuts and added four live songs not on the original CD (“If There Is Music There,” “Riding Through the Storm,” “Don’t Wanna Work,” “Nobody”). Those bonus tracks have not been carried over to this box set.
But while Donna continued to record for a number of one-off projects, she didn’t return with a full-length LP until 2008’s Crayons on Sony’s Burgundy imprint. Indeed, she utilized all of the colors in her crayon box for this vibrant set which was produced by Greg Kurstin and a host of others. The energetic album was very much of the moment, and Donna proved she could still fill the dancefloor with the chart-topping “I’m a Fire.” She co-wrote every one of its 13 tracks (including the international bonus track “It’s Only Love” which is on this edition), bringing a personal quality to the album that was missing on some of her 1980s output. Sadly, this energetic, powerful “comeback” would prove to be Donna’s final album. It wasn’t her final hit, though. “Fame (The Game)” and “Stamp Your Feet” would follow “I’m a Fire” to the top of the Dance chart, and in 2010, a reunion with Bruce Roberts yielded her final solo single, the Gallic-flavored “To Paris with Love.” It, too, went to No. 1. Donna passed away from cancer in 2012 after a courageous battle with the disease. Her star never stopped burning brightly, however; in 2018, she was back at the top of the Dance chart with a remix of “Hot Stuff.”
Four additional collections, each with two discs, comprise the bonus material in Encore. The first, 7″ Single Versions, has 39 such single sides from her first collaboration with Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte (1974’s “Denver Dream” b/w “Something’s in the Wind”) to edits of the tracks from Crayons. The companion volume of 12″ Single Versions has 21 extended mixes. The third bonus volume, Remixes, offers another 21 vintage remixes from top DJs. Finally, Non-Studio Album Singles and Extended Mixes rounds up many of the odds and ends from Summer’s discography: one song each from the German cast recordings of Hair and Godspell; the theme from John Barry’s The Deep; duets with Liza Minnelli, Bruce Roberts, and Giorgio Moroder; a guest spot with Paul Jabara; non-LP singles and flipsides; and more 12-inch and extended versions.
These eight discs add up to a worthy Summer rarities box; Encore has never proclaimed to be “complete” and it isn’t; collectors should hold onto their previous Driven by the Music sets (Donna, Singles, and Another Time, Another Place: 30th Anniversary, The Ultimate Collection) as all contain audio content not on Encore. Most notably, instrumental and dub mixes haven’t been carried over from those sets, as well as various other remixes and, in the case of Singles, a promotional interview. No outtakes or alternates have been selected for the box, and material from Summer’s as-yet-unreleased Sony album reportedly entitled Angel remains on the shelf.
Encore does boast one previously unreleased track: Junior Vasquez’s remix of “My Life” – the original version of which has still not yet seen release. Some omissions of released material over the years, presumably due to licensing restrictions, include the early Donna Gaines single sides which remain unavailable on CD; the full-length, non-suite “MacArthur Park;” “The Power of One” from the Pokémon: The Movie soundtrack; the chart-topping “Hot Stuff 2018;” duets with Paul Jabara, Dave Koz, and Westlife; the original, longer 12-inch version of “She Works Hard for the Money;” and other one-offs. (It’s also been reported that certain single versions are not, in fact, the original single mixes but rather new or alternate edits.)
V. The Queen Is Back
The 33 discs are accompanied by a handsome and glossy hardcover book of 40-plus pages. The book has one credits page for each of the original albums plus one page for each of the bonus volumes. One crucial aspect is missing, though: Encore has no discographical information whatsoever for its more than 300 tracks. Especially when it comes to the abundance of singles and remixes (some of which have been mis-labelled over the years), the lack of annotation as to catalog number and original release date is wholly puzzling. The book’s heavy lifting is accomplished by Casablanca historian Christian John Wikane, who’s turned in a lengthy, loving, and comprehensive essay leaving no stone unturned in Summer’s history. Wikane’s essay is a “worth the price of admission” component, with insights from numerous key players plus Summer herself. (Her commentary has been drawn from archival interviews with the author.) One does wish that the designer of the set had chosen to present the essay in a more readable format, punctuated by art and images, rather than as three columns per page of text only. Other than the original album covers, there are no photographs of the artist anywhere in the book or any memorabilia (i.e. single sleeves, etc.). But the text is choice. Giorgio Moroder has provided a foreword, and Summer’s husband Bruce Sudano has offered a footnote/afterword. Liza Minnelli, Nile Rodgers, and David Foster are part of the illustrious array of talent called upon for tribute quotes.
Everything is housed in a giant, LP-sized slipcase. The box itself has a foam insert with four stacks of CDs (the book rests comfortably on top) in mini-LP jackets. While these aren’t lavish Japanese-style jackets, they do boast protective inner sleeves. Phil Kinrade has mastered the audio here, and the sound is comparable to that of Driven by the Music’s previous projects.
It’s impossible to adequately sum up the legacy of Donna Summer in one collection, but Encore comes closer than any previous attempt. Chronicling her discography as a singer, songwriter, concert performer, creative in-studio collaborator, and perennial artist, this treasure chest is filled with riches sure to keep your spirits high and your feet moving. Dim all the lights, darling, ’cause tonight it’s all the way.
Donna Summer: Encore is a limited edition release, with only 1,500 copies pressed. Copies may still be available from third-party sellers at Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K. / Amazon Canada. Remember: as a result of COVID-19, Amazon U.K. is not currently shipping to North America.