No singer evoked nights in black satin more spectacularly than Donna Summer. Her first single “Love to Love You Baby” (1975) seemed to beam down from a floating boudoir, casting a global spell of dreamy undulation. Originally intended as a four-minute track, it was extended into a prolonged and wavy moan of ohs and oohs which, as Albert Goldman wrote in Disco, “passed beyond the climax to a post-coital trance that reflected back on the whole experience and transfigured it. It was pop Wagner.”
A tough feat to follow but Summer’s 1977 erotic seance “I Feel Love” was even more shimmery and celestial, an act of sonic levitation that raised the dance floor into an altar. Summer went on to rack up a more conventional string of top 40 hits—“Bad Girls,” “On the Radio,” “She Works Hard for the Money”—only for her career to undergo a self-inflicted injury when she made a dumb homophobic joke on stage (the old one about Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve), provoking justified anger, grief, and a sense of betrayal from the fervent gay following that had made her the “Queen of Disco.”
Summer denied other, more virulent comments attributed to her about homosexuals and AIDS, but the damage was done. Since Donna Summer’s death in 2012, from lung cancer, her personal story and the ecstatic salvationism of her music have reasserted themselves onstage (Summer: The Donna Summer Musical) and in the HBO documentary (Love to Love You, Donna Summer).
And now, re-certifying her diva status, Christie’s is holding an online auction—“The Collection of Donna Summer”—that will include handwritten lyrics, personal Polaroids, lavish stage costumes, gold records, and a number of her own paintings. Portions of the proceeds will go to the St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital. The exhibition is also on display at Christie’s Rockefeller Center sale room for those who want to pay their proper disco respects.
Bidding for “The Collection of Donna Summer” begins on June 15 on the Christie’s Web-site
James Wolcott is a Columnist for AIR MAIL. He is the author of several books, including the memoir Lucking Out: My Life Getting Down and Semi-Dirty in the Seventies and Critical Mass, a collection of his essays and reviews