Summer and Gibb: the True Deaths of Disco

Robin Gibb, 1949-2012. Co-founder of the Bee Gees

There was a time in the 1970s when disco music was both king and queen of pop. It was also fashionable for hard rockers to “diss” disco and all of its accompanying frivolity of flared white pants and vests, dance floor posturing and glittering mirror balls hanging from the ceiling. Add to that the wretched excesses of New York’s Studio 54 and the West Coast glitz, glitter and glam and you’ve got yourself a cultural history.

In Georgetown, as we watched the lines snake outside Tramps discotheque at Billy Martin’s Carriage House on Wisconsin Avenue and other places, we said disco was just too theatrical. It was like some magic show that damped heavy duty guitar riffs and the grit and echo of Dylan, Credence and Joplin.

Some of those feelings probably stemmed from high schoolish resentments at not making the doorman’s cut at disco clubs around the country—and you had to know how to dance as opposed to just strike a pose. Knowing where your local coke dealer lived probably helped, but it had nothing to do with the music.

But the music, as it turns out, was pretty good.

The death of two disco legends this past week, just two days apart, reminded us that there were big talents in disco with voices and figures that transcended the glitz and made a lasting impression on our musical landscape, lending proof to disco’s anthem, Gloria Gaylor’s “I Will Survive.” Last week saw the passing of the chanteuse, rangy Donna Summer, and Robin Gibb, the clearest highest voice in the Bee Gees, which turned the soundtrack album to the iconic “Saturday Night Fever” into a worldwide sensation.

Robin Gibb, suffering from both pneumonia and cancer, managed to rise from a coma, only to succumb to his ailments at the age of 62. He and his brothers, Maurice, Barry and Andy, all collaborated at various times, broke up and hooked up again, the last time an occasion which produced the music of the “Saturday Night Fever” soundtrack. Success didn’t sit well with the group, though you’d never know it by their music: they produced hits like “Jive Talkin,” “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart,” “To Love Somebody,” “I Started a Joke,” “How Deep Is Your Love” and more.

The brothers, who had done Beatles-like music in the 1960s, followed “Saturday Night Fever” with the disastrous soundtrack to the 1978 film, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” loosely inspired by the 1967 album by The Beatles. From then on, they suffered a backlash, sort of like disco. Theirs was a strange and tragic career—young brother Andy died shockingly of myocarditis in 1988. Robin’s twin Maurice died of a heart attack in 2003. Now, Barry Gibb is the only surviving Bee Gee.

Summer had an equally huge disco career. Some called her the queen of disco, but she hardly cared about such notions. She was a terrific singer, by reputation both sweet and tough, as well as level headed. She was a woman who looked like a diva but didn’t act like one. Her voice had range, and it carried her material, which both defined and transcended the genre. While much of the content of her songs were erotically and sexually driven—it had the kind of longing and drive that you could do more than just dance to—her strength was strength itself. “She Works Hard for the Money” was a song, upbeat, but powerful, that paid tribute to working-class working women, while the hard-charging “Hot Stuff” was, well…hot stuff. She delivered hit after hit in the 1970s, like “The long “Last Dance,” “Dim All The Lights.”

Summer shone like a disco star—she was slender, with a big bouquet of black hair, leggy and beautiful. And she had the singing chops to match the image, which is why she continued to perform long after disco died.

Disco—of which Summer and the Bee Gees were two of its leading lights—didn’t last. But the songs do, and the power of the performers provide vivid memories. The Bee Gees were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but Summer, as Elton John critically pointed out after her death of cancer last week, did not.

She deserved to be in there, to say the least. In that pop-rock-disco-all-genre-music hall of fame that swirls in our minds and memories, she’s already there and will never leave.

She worked hard for her fame: One last dance for Donna Summer.

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