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R.I.P. Donna Summer

The first thoughts that flashed through my mind when I learned that Donna Summer had passed weren’t of her music, but of WIFI-92, playing ball in the street and the Hatboro Theater.

Many of the Donna Summer obituaries that I read last week dubbed her the “queen of disco,” but that’s far too narrow in scope. In truth, during the second half of the 1970s – as this Billboard article shows – she was the queen of the Top 40. Yet, odd as this may sound, the first thoughts that flashed through my mind when I learned that she had passed weren’t of her music, but of WIFI-92, playing ball in the street and the Hatboro Theater.

In the late 1970s, my friend Don and I played on the street in front of his house or in his driveway, where he had a basketball net above the garage. I’m not sure now how we met or why we parted, just that our life paths diverged not long after we started high school. For those few years, though, we’d meet after school or on a summer’s day, break out the baseball mitts, Nerf football or basketball and have a blast with his brother and other friends from the neighborhood – and often, like thousands of other kids in the Delaware Valley, with a radio tuned to WIFI-92 blaring in the background.

For those too young or old to remember, at the time WIFI-92 was the region’s lone Top 40 station – a sonic melting pot that didn’t care if a song was rock, pop, country, soul or disco, just that it was a Top 40 hit. And while I can’t say for sure, it’s likely where I first heard Donna Summer. In the space of a year (11/78 to 11/79) she scored four No. 1 hits – “MacArthur Park,” “Hot Stuff,” “Bad Girls” and, with Barbra Streisand, “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough),” but I’m actually waxing nostalgic for the lead-up to that stretch, when she hit the Top 10 with “Last Dance” from the Thank God It’s Friday soundtrack.

That was the summer of 1978, of course, when Grease was the word, the place and the motion; Thank God It’s Friday, on the other hand, was just plain bad. I say that from firsthand experience: I saw it that year with Don, his mother and possibly his brother at the Hatboro Theater. Yet I still walked home with a smile on my face. When Donna Summer commandeered the stage and let loose with “Last Dance,” hey, what wasn’t to like?

In time, along with many teens of that era, I embraced the notion that “disco sucks,” and tuned away from WIFI to WMMR and WYSP. In retrospect, while the anti-disco backlash was understandable, the palpable anger that underscored much of it was, at best, misdirected. Like all musical genres and fads, there was the good, bad and mediocre; that record companies and radio stations pushed too much of it was simply par for the course. When have they not hijacked a bandwagon and crashed it in a ditch?

In any event, a few years back I picked up a disco box set and a Donna Summer best-of. Now, I’ll never be mistaken for the greatest dancer (though my cat might disagree), never before bought a pure disco record and only heard what was played on WIFI-92, in the movies or on TV, and large chunks of that was while doing other things. So I was surprised by how many songs from the box set I knew by heart. Music has a way of etching itself into the brain like little else, of course, and imprinting along with it the faces and places that surround us, but… “Knock on Wood”?! The first half of the Donna Summer best-of was more of the same, but at a higher octane: memories of friends and days (and nights) spent having fun in the summertime, of concerns no larger than what time to wake up the next day.

No, the songs weren’t deep, but how much of pop music is? At the end of the day, some days, it’s enough to say – as the kids on American Bandstand said – “it’s got a good beat and you can dance to it.” (Or, in my case, tap my foot.)

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