The greatest legacy of Donna Summer? Her songwriting

The music world is once again reflecting on the career of another magnificent singer gone far too soon. This time, though, demons aren’t the downfall but rather unfortunate and cruel health woes.

But the legacy of Donna Summer stretches farther than her title “Queen of Disco.” It would have to, as more energy has been spent on the whole “disco sucks” movement than on celebrating its merits.

Summer’s greatest achievement came as a songwriter not as a singer. When she and husband Bruce Sudano teamed up to pen a song about his parent’s divorce, they wrote one of the finest heartbreak ballads in the modern era of country music.

As the story goes, “Starting Over Again” was written specifically for Dolly Parton who released it as the lead single from Dolly, Dolly, Dolly in 1980. A big hit, the song quickly topped the country chart and saw the top 40 0n the pop chart.

Fifteen years later, the song would see another lease on life as the title track to Reba McEntire’s 20th anniversary album of coversReleased as a single, McEntire’s version was less successful only hitting #19.

But what McEntire lacked in airplay she gained in overall magic. Her version of the song managed to update Parton’s campy confection with a dose of twang that highlighted the mournful lyric, and brought the song to life. In her hands, “Starting Over Again” became story centric for the first time. And what a story it is.

The song opens by setting the scene – the couple has sold their home, split their earnings and parted ways. It becomes apparent they’re scared, as this couple has never been on their own. To make matter worse, with grown children and shattered dreams, they don’t have many options for people to lean on as they get back on their feet.

What’s clear from the beginning is their paths in life. He’s moved on to an apartment and big deal scheming with a friend. But not one to forget, she’s now living with her sister and pouring over their more than 30 years of “left over” memories.

The construction of this tale, not to mention all the small details that bring it to life, place the listener in the heart of their struggle and pain. His ease at moving forward is perfectly juxtaposed with her struggle to come to terms with the status of her now shattered life.

But it’s Summer and Sudano’s ability to relay important details such as the length of the marriage (“30 Odd Years”) and the status of the kids (“And The Kids are all Grown”) that elevate this above your average love-gone-wrong song. The pair present a packed four minutes where every important detail is perfectly placed in just the right spot. “Starting Over Again” highlights a known truth about songwriting – the simpler a lyric, the harder it is to construct. They manage to make something extremely hard look very easy.

And that’s best exemplified by the bridge. The glimpses into the psyche of the couple are breathtaking:

What will the neighbors say
They’re talkin’ talk it’s small town news
They’re facing fifty years old wrecking up a happy home
And this far down the road
You find yourself alone
Two fools

In the end, there isn’t any resolution to the story, as Summer and Sudano opt to  let the heartbreak linger long after the story ends. Like the lyric’s most memorable line (all the kings horses/and all the kings men/couldn’t put mom and daddy back together again” ) the song can’t be put back together either. This choice to end the song deep within the couple’s pain only makes it resonate that much more.

Summer’s passing, at 63, further illustrates the state of flux within the modern musical landscape, where singers settle for modernity in place of pushing for greatness. Summer’s 70s disco heyday may be outdated in 2012, but her ability to craft, and be associated with, songs like “Starting Over Again” will ensure her legacy will live on into the decades to come.

Dolly’s 1980 original version:

Reba McEntire’s cover from 1995:

Donna Summer’s own take on the song (It’s a shame, but she never recorded it herself. However, she did sing it on TV specials a few times):

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