Donna Summer, Dorchester born and always Boston-loyal, died last week, reportedly of lung cancer. She was 63 years old and was working on yet another album of music, an album that may now never be heard. But who can complain, when her years of glory, during which the albums came out in rich abundance, flaunt the voice and sound of an entire generation?
Hers was also my generation, and like millions of my contemporaries, I was and always will be a fan. How not? In 1975, I did the first interview that she gave, upon returning to Boston from Munich, in triumph; there she sat, answering my questions, telling me about her high-school years (at the Jeremiah E. Burke, class of 1967) where she was in a rock band called the Crow, and as she talked, she had her fingernails painted, each hand attended to by one of her sisters, as if she were Cleopatra.
So? She was Cleopatra, to all of us. To the gay guys who wanted to make love like her and, in some cases, look like her; to the occasional disco goers, who found their limbs lifted lightly by her exultant music; and to the DJs who could not get enough of her 12-inch discs and who remixed them over and over again — she was the first artist ever to have remix versions of her songs become radio hits.
By 1978, Boston especially poured out its heart. At Summer's concert in the then Music Hall, the music began, and from the rafters-full crowd a great cheer arose up and did not come back down again. Her family then joined her on stage; the cheering swelled some more, and it was a homecoming never to be forgotten.
For a voice to elicit that degree of loyalty — of awe, even — is no common thing. Donna Summer sang in two voices, each unmistakable, each full of urgency, and candor, expressed in an accent all her own. In her earliest hits — "Love To Love You Baby," "Spring Affair," "Try Me" — she used a high, falsetto-like soprano learned from variete francaise, not unlike Jane Birkin, as heard on her "Je t'aime . . . moi non plus," the 1969 hit that's every bit as bedroom-y a monologue as Summer's own "Love To Love You Baby." (In 1978, Summer did her own version of "Je t'aime.") Then, in 1977 she unveiled the other voice, her church voice. It made her world-famous and world-adored: a strong, upsweeping contralto that pronounced words with a roll of R's and a thick tongue — almost a Scottish burr — that no other singer of her time had anything like. The fullness of it carries the day on everything it sings: "Bad Girls," "Hot Stuff," "Last Dance," "Our Love," "Working the Midnight Shift," "Sunset People," and her marvelous ode to working women, "She Works Hard for the Money." Songs in which Summer means every word, every syllable — many of which she wrote herself — and which make the listener, too, care vividly about the people whose lives she observes and advocates for.