When Michael Jackson died a few years ago, I took a special time out to comment on this blog at what a sad waste of talent the end of his life was, and how he seemed to throw everything away. This year of our Lord 2012 we have lost several musical icons already--Etta James, Levon Helm, Whitney Houston, Adam Yauch--and while I could take the time to comment on every one, let me just say that, while some were harder to believe than others (Yauch in particular), others like Houston seemed like it was just a matter of time. I guess what angered me the most about Houston's sad death was, similar to Amy Winehouse and Michael Jackson, these artists still had gifts to give, and they threw their talents away. In Houston's case, I suspect she realized her voice was gone forever and sank into a depression spiral there was no recovery from.
The passing of Donna Summer this week is an incredible loss, and unlike a Houston or Winehouse, Donna never threw her talent away, and generally took care of her asset (her voice), sounding much more vibrant and alive on her 2008 album Crayons, recorded at age 59, than Houston did on her final album, I Look to You, recorded when she was just 46. I will never forget how Donna's music changed my life as a child of the 70's growing up in a remote prairie town, where the extent of my popular music listening had been soft rock duos like the Carpenters and Captain & Tennille, light female pop singers like Dionne Warwick, Helen Reddy, and Cher, and inoffensive fare like the Fifth Dimension, Herb Alpert, and random Beatles records. I remember absolutely loving "Last Dance" as a 10-year old, then "MacArthur Park", culminating in my first purchases of 45's for "Dim All the Lights", "Hot Stuff", and "Bad Girls" (I didn't have the money to buy the full Bad Girls double LP, so I bought an ABBA LP, Super Trouper, instead).
Had it not been for the influence of Donna's music, I would have probably continued down the path I had begun to walk with Styx, Journey, and Kansas (living in Kansas, being a fan was a given). Sure I had the odd ELO and Billy Joel record, but most of my records were sending me straight to 80's hair metal heaven. Donna made me realize it was possible to cover a whole range of styles while staying a strong and soulful singer (the Pointer Sisters did this too, although not in such a direct way). Her records had elements of dance, rock, pop, new wave, electro, swing...even a little country. She didn't oversing her ballads, but gave them just the right amount of poignancy and heft. She made me think about music from around the world as well, especially Europe, as her past connections drew her there through the time she had spent overseas. Without Donna, I may never have discovered Grace Jones, Madonna, or Eurythmics, whose Annie Lennox probably had a bigger influence on me as a budding teen musician than any other artist of the time in the way she combined a certain British detachment infused with an incredible soul voice. Others like Lisa Stansfield and Billie Ray Martin would later follow, and even pop girls like Olivia Newton-John and Kylie Minogue have a certain connection to the dance music Donna produced, and that is why all roads then lead back to Donna. I knew I would never really be able to sing like Donna (being a man and all) but her style did lead me to discover lots of incredible male singers who operated in a similar style like Martin Fry or Green Gartside. Even bands like Duran Duran owe some of their beats-meet-sequencer construction to songs like "I Feel Love".
I cannot help but feel a certain part of my childhood has died this week. Donna made some great videos like MJ ("She Works Hard for the Money"), could hold long notes like Whitney ("Dim All the Lights" in particular), and had an ability to reach a large audience similar to a Beyonce or Rihanna. She was a diva but never seemed cold or mean like Christina Aguilera or Mariah Carey could sometimes be. Listen to a greatest hits album (Gold is quite good), and you will realize that Donna's music will continue to keep her alive through its energy and heart. As someone who knows almost every word to every major song of Donna's, her music is arguably more timeless and groundbreaking than any of the aforementioned icons listed above, and for a prairie kid growing up in the 70's, what more could you have wanted?