BEFORE MADONNA, THERE WAS DONNA, THE sultry, 70's siren who didn't so much sing about sex as ooze it into the grooves. On the 1975 hit "Love to Love You Baby," a 17-minute opus of pounding rhythms and orgasmic moans, Donna Summer and the producer Giorgio Moroder changed the complexion of disco from romantic to erotic. Though the song barely plumbed the depths of Ms. Summer's huge, soulful voice, its provocative sensuality brought her instant notoriety in a genre dominated by one-hit wonders.
Two years later, Ms. Summer and Mr. Moroder forged the template for 80's new-wave dance music as well as 90's techno with the equally sexy synthesizer pop of "I Feel Love." If these innovations were milestones, they would also turn out to be millstones, casting this stage- and opera-trained singer as something she never set out to be: the comely Queen of Disco.&
It's nice to be the queen of something," Ms. Summer, now 47, says with a laugh. "They can call me what they want as long as they pay me." Take this as determination, not bitterness. Last year, Ms. Summer dusted off her crown and hit the road (she appears at Radio City Music Hall on Wednesday) for the first time in the 90's. Like other pop confections before her (from the Monkees to the Go-Go's), she has discovered that her appeal is now multigenerational. For today's teen-agers and young adults, she is a part of the giddy celebration of all things 70's, a symbol of the distant, cheesy glamour of the era. For the adults who grew up with her, she simply is disco.
Dismissed as a fad by the critics, demonized by rock fans, disco has always been and will always be no place to be somebody. (Though the music endures, the egregious disco has been replaced by the more generic dance music.) By nature it is a producer's medium, dependent on rhythmic grooves and studio technology. Vocalists are pretty much interchangeable, and few make the leap from club appearances to international concert stages. While many singers -- Diana Ross, Tina Turner, Aretha Franklin, even Ethel Merman -- dabbled in disco during its heyday, Donna Summer remains the only superstar to be formed in its image.
As such, her career has been defined by transgression and transcendence, breaking sexual taboos and rising above the expectations of the music industry. Success forced her on the hit-record treadmill that is symptomatic of global pop stardom: a relentless grind of recording, promotion and touring. And while most of her hits relied on propulsive disco, she was unwilling to lapse into formula, performing songs by Barry Manilow ("Could It Be Magic") and Andrew Lloyd Webber ("Don't Cry for Me, Argentina") and conceiving the first disco concept LP ("Once Upon a Time").
When disco began to fade, she adapted, integrating rock and funk on the 1979 hits "Hot Stuff" and "Bad Girls." If she took to these somewhat raunchy songs convincingly, it was as an actress to a role. It was not her style to advance a political or emotional agenda the way Madonna and Alanis Morissette do today.
By the mid-80's, after hits with the producers Quincy Jones ("Love Is in Control") and Michael Omartian ("She Works Hard for the Money"), her career was in decline. The industry had changed: Disco slunk back underground to re-emerge later as house music; new wave ruled the charts; Madonna reinvented dance music; rap was now the sound of young urban America. And the bad girl Donna Summer had become a born-again Christian.
While pop music zigged, she zagged. In 1984 and '85, she picked up Grammys for gospel recordings, but her albums and singles floundered. In concert, some of her born-again pronouncements alienated gay fans, who had been among the first to buy her records in the 70's. In 1989, she staged a brief comeback to the top 10 in America by recording the frothy dance number "This Time I Know It's for Real." By 1991 she had adopted a black leather jacket and blond wig for the aptly titled LP "Mistaken Identity." The record bombed.
THREE YEARS AGO, WHEN POP CULTURE seemed to be paralyzed, looking over its shoulder to the past for inspiration, Donna Summer made a leap of faith in the material world. She returned to Polygram, where her career began, in a deal that brought together under one label her entire catalogue. Seizing the moment, the company released the 1993 double CD, "The Donna Summer Anthology." The next year, she recorded two new tracks to augment another greatest-hits package, "Endless Summer." One, a canny blend of classic disco and house called "Melody of Love," was named Billboard's No. 1 dance single for 1995. Though Polygram plans to issue her unreleased 1981 LP "I'm a Rainbow" this year, the label has not picked up its option for a new Donna Summer LP.
So she waits. As a co-writer of most of her hits, she can afford to do things on her own terms. She tours with a 10-piece band, and, in some cases, a 20-piece orchestra. She has recently settled in Nashville and has had her songs recorded by Dolly Parton and Reba McEntire. She performs a duet on Liza Minnelli's forthcoming album. Someday Donna Summer will make a new record. And it wouldn't be the least bit surprising if it has a good beat, and you can dance to it.