Donna Summer's 10 Biggest Hits

The Queen of Disco's ten biggest triumphs

She started out as a pop-folkie, moved into novelty dance music, then triumphed as disco's biggest and greatest diva, but Donna Summer was capable of ballads, New Wave, rock moves, and just about anything else to which she cared to donate her incredible voice. These 10 smashes, among the biggest hits of their time, present all the sides of Summer's legacy, proving that her appeal was wider than even the disco haters might have figured.

01
of 10

"Bad Girls" (June 1979)

Toot toot. Heeeeyyyy. Beep beep. Donna's only across-the-board #1, hitting the top of the pop, R&B, and dance charts, "Bad Girls" was no less than an ode to prostitution, or at least an attempt to understand what a real "working girl" goes through on a day-to-day basis. Summer got the idea to write this with husband Bruce Sudano after one of her assistants was mistaken for a hooker by a local beat cop (!) and it became part of Donna's "disco-rock" retooling in 1979. Considered too heavy and controversial for Donna by label head Neil Bogart, who originally wanted it for Cher, Donna held onto it until she had the clout to do it herself.

02
of 10

"Hot Stuff" (April 1979)

Another scorcher, but this time Donna's looking for her own happy ending, and sounding just as desperate to get it: "I dialed about a hundred numbers baby / I'm bound to find somebody home." Yet she didn't write these lyrics -- that credit goes jointly to longtime Giorgio Moroder associate Pete Bellotte, Harold Faltermeyer, and Keith Forsey. It was probably Bellotte's idea to add the searing guitar solo by Jeff "Skunk" Baxter (Doobie Brothers, Steely Dan), but Forsey and Faltermeyer took the lessons from this dance-rock smash: Forsey later went on to guide the career of Billy Idol, while Harold scored with the hit "Axel F" instrumental. For her part, Donna took home the very first Female Rock Vocal Grammy.

03
of 10

"Love to Love You Baby" (November 1975)

At first, Donna's initial worldwide hit was just a phrase in her head, but producer Moroder wanted to turn it into a novelty "orgasm" record along the lines of Major Lance's "Love Won't Let Me Wait" or Sylvia's "Pillow Talk." Although she hestitated at first, Donna eventually complied, lying on her back in a darkened studio and thinking of her boyfriend (though not, as urban legend has it, doing anything naughty). When Casablanca label head Neil Bogart heard the result, he immediately ordered her to drag the sex vibe out to a full 17 minutes, inadventently creating the 12-inch dance single we know today. (Several hip-hop acts have sampled this cut, for what should be obvious reasons.)
04
of 10

"MacArthur Park" (September 1978)

This instantly-dated attempt to sound hip by actor Richard Harris did not at first seem like an obvious choice for Donna's talents. Yet it lent itself fabulously well to orchestration, and more importantly to the demands of side-length album cuts, which were becoming all the rage in discos. Pro that she was, Donna invested a real sense of sadness and longing into clunky lines like "pressed in love's hot fevered iron like a striped pair of pants," then turned that sentiment on its ear by segueing into two original songs: the possessive, stalkery "One of a Kind" and the resigned but upbeat "Heaven Knows," which was also trimmed from the full "suite" to become a Top 10 hit all on its own. (The 6:28 and 3:54 edits, which feature "MacArthur Park" only, are usually what get played on the radio.)
05
of 10

"No More Tears (Enough is Enough)" (October 1979)

With such a huge gay following, it was only a matter of time before Donna hooked up with Babs for yet another extended suite, this one fierecely defiant in a way only these two could be together. Legend has it that Donna passed out during the recording of this one, due to partying or her hectic schedule, or both: Streisand, being Streisand, finished singing her piece before finding out what was wrong. Nevertheless, the strategy worked, going straight to the top of the pop and disco charts -- but, as one might imagine, stalling at the bottom of the top 20 with the R&B crowd, which found this epic a little more Barbra than Donna.
06
of 10

"Last Dance" (July 1978)

Proving that Summer could handle ballads was no problem, since she'd already had plenty of good ones buried among her early albums. It was a red herring, however: modeled after Diana Ross' solo version of "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," the ballad portions are merely there to add a sense of drama, of urgency, before the beat whisks everything away. Songwriter Paul Jabara, who later penned "It's Raining Men" for the Weather Girls, cornered Summer in a bathroom and made her listen to a demo; she liked the song so much she used it as a centerpiece in her first film role, as a struggling singer in Thank God It's Friday. That movie was a notorious flop, suggesting that the dance fad was ending. But the song itself, which became a template for her "slow" numbers, brought in a Grammy.
07
of 10

"She Works Hard for the Money" (May 1983)

After several attempts at retooling Summer for a new decade, including an attempt by Quincy Jones to make her sound like Michael Jackson ("Love Is In Control" a/k/a "Finger on the Trigger"), Donna finally made a real comeback with this synth-pop number. Produced and co-written by Michael Omartian, who made his name briefly turning Christopher Cross into a Grammy powerhouse, it was again inspired by a bathroom encounter, this time with a female attendant who told Summer she worked two jobs and could barely stay awake. (Omartian went on to play a crucial role in getting Summer to embrace Christianity, which is why this comes off as a cleaner lyricsl take on "Bad Girls.")

08
of 10

"The Wanderer" (October 1980)

This was the New Wave redo, a peppy shuffle that was also the brainchild of Moroder, by this time abandoning his disco leaning for the kind of electronic-laced rock that would define the decade to come ("Call Me" by Blondie, Irene Cara's "Flashdance," David Bowie's "Cat People/Putting Out Fire"). "The Wanderer," however, had a unique vibe, a sort of neo-rockabilly flair that allowed Summer to go back to her breathy, Elvis-like lower register. Fact is, a lot of people didn't realize it was Donna until the record was over... but it became a smash hit anyway, at a time when she really needed one.
09
of 10

"Dim All the Lights" (October 1979)

The big hit "ballad" on the Bad Girls album, this song was more rock-flavored than her usual slow dances, as you might imagine. Indeed, Donna, who wrote this one all by herself, initially thought it'd be a good fit for Rod Stewart and his recent disco-rock conversion. Yet it's doubtful even Rod the Mod could hold that note she holds when the beat eventually takes off: 16 full seconds, the longest in any top 40 hit, ever. Streisand was busy trying to beat that record during "No More Tears" when Donna passed out on her, but Babs only made it to 14 seconds. A master fake-out by Summer? Who knows.
10
of 10

"On the Radio" (November 1979)

This was Donna's last big disco hit, and it was yet another Moroder-Summer song penned for a movie (in this case, the surprisingly candid and mature teen flick Foxes, which cemented the star status of both Scott Baio and Jodie Foster). Fittingly, it was also the new-song bait on her triumphant and massive greatest-hits collection of the same name. Aside from being an excellent melody with which our dive could show off her prowess, it's also decidedly non-controversial lyrically, almost a throwback to a more innocent time with its tale of romantic reconciliation through music. Then again, she does close the song by claiming "The only friend I know is my radio." It was certainly good to her.