There have been many bands and singers said to have provided “the soundtrack of our lives” — Sinatra, the Beatles, the Stones, Dylan, Led Zeppelin, Elton John, Johnny Cash and a few others. Acts whose music was unavoidable when they were at their peak and is still listened to today — and not just by old-timers. Donna Summer’s heyday (the late ’70s and early ’80s) was not as lengthy as theirs, but her songs were every bit as inescapable — and enjoyable.
In an era and genre where many “artists” could barely sing or play their instruments and in which recording-studio artistry reigned supreme, Summer could actually sing. And so what if her first two big hits (“Love to Love You Baby” and “I Feel Love”) were more sensual moaning than melody? The ones that followed proved she had no equal as a vocalist in her day, and few equals of any era.
If you came of age in the mid-to-late ’70s through the early ’80s, you did so for the most part to a disco beat, like it or not. You could jam out all you wanted to rock on your bedroom stereo or in your car, but if you went out, good luck finding anything but disco being played at a club or bar.
Though pigeon-holed in popular memory as just a disco singer, Summer had the chops to excel in a variety of genres. Her later, rock-driven disco hits like “She Works Hard for the Money,” “Hot Stuff” and “Bad Girls” paved the way for Michael Jackson’s rock-underpinned and supposedly ground-breaking “Thriller” album just a few years later.
What used to be called “disco” is now just known as dance music, and most of today’s dance hits are as mindless as most of their disco-era predecessors were. A lot of disco music was mind-numbering and close to gag-inducing, but never Donna Summer’s. The woman could flat-out sing and her records rocked — even if they were driven by a disco beat.
As Elton John pointed out this week, Summer’s absence from the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is a travesty.
So why am I writing about disco music, of all things? Because Donna Summer died Thursday. Though she reportedly had been fighting cancer, she had done so quietly. Her passing came with no advance warning to the public. The Disco Generation, The 1970s “Me Generation”: Call it what you want, but it is steadily getting grayer. We’re trending, but in the wrong direction.
Ironically, at least from a navel-gazing local perspective, Summer’s death came on the eve of what was expected to be the biggest and funnest disco-related event in Cobb County since, well, probably ever: Saturday’s “Disco Night” at The Earl Smith Strand Theatre on Marietta Square. The Strand is to be transformed that night into “Studio Strand.”
I’m sure that there will be many a Donna Summer disc rocking the house last night.
IF YOU LIVED in or near Atlanta in the disco era and were not a hermit, the chances are good that you darkened the dance floor of The Limelight on a few occasions. Well, let me rephrase that. The Limelight’s dance floor was never dark. Ever. It was not just the biggest and loudest dance floor in the Southeast, filled with thousands of people at a time, but was unquestionably the most dazzlingly illuminated, with more flashing, pulsing lights than a whole Strip full of Las Vegas casinos.
And in a reversal of the usual pattern, in which everyone apes what’s popular in the big city, in this case it was The Big Apple that copied The Big ATL. The Limelight was so popular, so hip, so hard to get into (waits of four hours out front were not uncommon at what had become known as “The Studio 54 of the South”), that a knock-off Limelight was opened in New York City and became an instant hit. How bout them apples?
Your humble columnist will admit to having done his small part to help the bottom line of the Atlanta version of the Limelight back then. And now, in case any other former denizens of the club need to have their memories jogged, former Limelight “resident photographer” Guy D’Alema of Marietta has released a book about his four years there as the staff paparazzo. To learn more, go to his web site, www.limelightbook.com or email email@example.com.
The Limelight was on Piedmont Road just off Peachtree Road in Buckhead and is now an art supply store. But D’Alema’s book will take you back to the club’s glory days — and maybe to yours as well.
Joe Kirby is Editorial Page editor of the Marietta Daily Journal.