The years immediately following the “Death of Disco” weren’t the easiest for Donna Summer, who had been the most successful artist to emerge from the genre. She began the Eighties on a hot streak, with the greatest hits compilation On the Radio becoming her third consecutive album to top the charts (and also her third straight DOUBLE album to top the charts). However, it was her last album on Casablanca (the label that had helped guide her to success) and she emerged at the end of 1980 on a new label (the fledgling Geffen Records) and a new sound, embracing elements of new wave and rock. The resulting album, The Wanderer, was not as successful as previous efforts-probably partially due to the change in sound, partially due to the new label and partially due to the disco backlash. Unfortunately, Summer would never fully regain her footing.
After shelving a follow-up album called I’m a Rainbow, Geffen decided to pair Summer with the red-hot Quincy Jones. The resulting album (which featured guest appearances from the likes of Michaels Jackson and McDonald, among others) was another moderate success. However, Polygram, the company that owned Donna’s old label, came calling back, announcing that the star owed them one more album. Somewhat ironically, the resulting album, She Works Hard for the Money, (released on Casablanca’s sister label, Mercury) became the biggest success of her “post-disco” career. Think her old folks were trying to prove a point? Money‘s title track, aided by an eye-catching video that made it’s debut just as MTV was starting to air clips by non rock-oriented black artists, became a smash, hitting #1 R&B and #3 on the pop charts. For the follow-up, Mercury paired Summer with red-hot teenage reggae band Musical Youth for “Unconditional Love”. The sunny, playful jam was assisted by yet another video, starring Summer as a schoolteacher who, aided by the coolness of Musical Youth, turns into a hot disco mama and skips gaily down the street preaching the virtues of…well, unconditional love.
As you can see, this clip served as great practice for Summer’s future role as Steve Urkel’s Aunt Oona from Altoona on “Family Matters”.
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“Unconditional Love” was a moderate hit, reaching the Top 10 on the R&B charts and just missing the Top 40 pop. It was the last meaningful chart ink in the U.S. for Musical Youth, who more or less found themselves replaced by the much more American New Edition as the teen group du jour. Meanwhile, Summer shuffled back to Geffen for her next record, and didn’t score another meaningful hit until 1989’s “This Time I Know It’s for Real”, a song which found her on yet ANOTHER label-Atlantic Records. Donna may have been working hard for her money, but I wonder if she felt like the folks at Geffen maybe weren’t working so hard to give her a hit!