Donna Summer

Ravinia, August 9

In the summer of 1979, Steve Dahl hosted the notorious “Disco Demolition,” in which thousands of white rockers converged on the outfield of Comiskey Park and blew up a huge box of vinyl dance records. Despite efforts by riot police to remove the crowd, drunken revelers remained on the field, and the second game of a doubleheader had to be forfeited. White straight middle America had had enough of this alien rhythmic boogying that had been conceived in the underground club scene by a peculiar alliance of urban blacks, gays, and Latinos. Disco sucked, they decreed, and they weren’t going to put up with it anymore.

Obviously they were not alone in proclaiming the death of disco. Almost overnight disco became a deadly word used to describe the corny (“Gee, those are some serious disco shoes you got on”) and those poor lost pathetic souls who seemed trapped in a time warp (“I think he’s cute you know, but he’s kinda umm, well, disco”).

Unlike previous transitions from one era of American pop to another, the move away from disco was hostile and abrupt. This, I believe, had to do with one major factor: disco delivered to the mainstream a delicious multicultural blend of sensual funky rhythms wrapped in the showmanship of urban gay extravagance.

Disco also brought to the music industry some heavyweights who created the protorhythms for the dance tracks we sweat to today. One would be hard-pressed to disavow the soulful R & B influences of producers and artists such as Niles Rogers (Chic), who produced most of Sister Sledge’s albums, and the husband and wife team of Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson, who, along with their own hits, wrote and produced “Love Hangover” and “The Boss” for Diana Ross and “I’m Every Woman” for Chaka Khan. But composer and producer Giorgio Moroder, the Italian synthesizer maestro, discovered the ethereal chanteuse with the classically trained voice who would reign supreme throughout the era: the universally acclaimed queen of disco, Donna Summer.

Twenty years after the 1975 release of “Love to Love You,” Summer’s first collaboration with Moroder, a somewhat matronly but still very beautiful Summer calmly strode onstage at Ravinia and sang her ass off.

Summer’s repertoire of songs for the evening, classic disco hits that she recorded in the 70s and early 80s, seemed almost eerily up-to-date. Because of the renewed popularity of 70s fashion and music, Summer’s material came off as being timely and hip.

But no matter how in the now Summer’s material is, she’s still an icon of a musical era that dates back two decades, to a time that Summer had no problem re-creating for the evening. Alternating stage backdrops and sometimes less-than-flattering costumes borrowed from her heyday (including those colossal “that can’t be her real hair” wigs), she vividly reminded the audience of the ostentatious but nonetheless seductive glamour and alluring theatrics of the disco era.

Summer ran the risk of creating an embarrassing parody of her music and self. At times looking a little silly in too tight a dress and too big a wig, Summer managed to pull it off by sheer charisma and a tongue-in-cheek rapport with the audience. Get over it, she seemed to be saying as she effortlessly glided from one octave to the next. With her sister and husband singing backup, Summer’s voice, untouched by time, seared through a soulful, elongated “MacArthur Park” that brought the house down. Now a born-again Christian, she included in the evening’s set an outstanding a cappella rendition of “Amazing Grace.”

In the early 80s, after she became Christian, Summer got a lot of flak for supposedly denouncing homosexuality. She denies ever doing so, but the gay community that was considered her core audience at the height of her fame boycotted her records. Whether her career suffered from this is unknown, but even after recording three critically acclaimed albums in the mid-80s, she never regained the momentous support she enjoyed earlier in her career.

Her finale was the ever popular closing song at disco clubs, “Last Dance,” which Summer has said is her all-time favorite from the disco era. Lost in the schmaltzy overture of the song and memories of disco days gone by, the mostly fortysomething audience finally struggled to their feet and spilled into the aisles dancing and panting–as they should have been doing from the moment Summer walked onstage. After all, most of her material is dance music, good dance music. The conservative folks under the pavilion at Ravinia cheated Summer of the rousing reception she deserved. Had the disco diva instead performed directly to the hipper, more diverse crowd that was blanketed out on the lawn (or in another venue altogether–like the Chicago Theatre) the concert might have been a big fat primal sweaty “shake your booty” groove fest.