Advocate? Yes. Summer was a preacher for those whom she knew so well, the street girls and hookers of "Bad Girls," the waitresses of "She Works Hard for the Money," the love triangles of "Love's Unkind," her own horny hunger (in "Need-a-Man Blues," an almost entirely overlooked gem on the B-side of her first album), love in all its glory ("Our love . . . will last forever," she proclaimed) and, in "On the Radio," the music medium itself. And for her own improbable life story, as an ordinary girl become an icon, as written and sung in the utterly autobiographical Once Upon a Time double album, as singular and powerfully hooky a studio work as anything released in the 1970s, or since.
Yes, her career began with some false starts — anyone who has heard her 1974 work "The Hostage" will be glad that it wasn't released in the US. And yes, after her five years of glory, from Love To Love You Baby through the 1980 release of "No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)," her most controversial duet (with the equally powerful but utterly different voice of Barbara Streisand), and including Four Seasons of Love, I Remember Yesterday, the double set Live and More, she found it difficult to recapture the genius or the revolutionary sound of those five glory years. Like Little Richard, whose career hers so strongly resembles, Summer became unstoppable when she began collaborating purposively with Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte. Just as Richard — backed by Dave Bartholomew's New Orleans band on those glorious Specialty label 45s — completely remade how a pop song should sound, so Summer and Moroder/Bellotte made the synthesizer-and-voice duet the idiom of a decade, and ever since. Beginning with I Remember Yesterday especially, Summer's machine-and-voice combinations, above all that album's "I Feel Love," tackled and conquered the era of machined music, of computers, of processed everything and assured that human passion, and not devices, would remain the arbiter of human life.
Of course, you had to dance Donna Summer's music. She came into a gathering disco scene that already had its queen, Gloria Gaynor, and simply took over. Her music was sexy, celebratory, ethereal, but also fleshed out; youthful but also knowing; worldly wise but also full of idylls and dreams. She made disco her own personal idiom, its scene her clique, its gay guys her devoted acolytes, its DJs her remix engineers, its radio jocks her missionaries — to an extent no other artist of the 1970s, of any genre, even approached in magnitude.
It could have been nobody else. Anybody who has any doubt that Summer's voice was truly special need only listen to the tracks that Giorgio Moroder did with other voices. Even his one Debbie Harry hit, "Heart of Glass," feels momentary and light compared to almost any of Summer's work with him.
Still, without his productions, Summer's voice sounded less striking. After "She Works Hard for the Money," she still often conquered the dance-music charts — with "I'm Afire" especially — but at times she sounded like Janet Jackson, at others like generic urban radio, at others unfocused. But the long aftermath cannot in any way taint the glory. From 1975 to 1984, Donna Summer — born LaDonna Adrian Gaines in Dorchester, to Josephine Gaines, who was herself famed and respected for her community work in the 1960s and '70s — gathered millions of fans who today mourn her passing. As do I.