A lot of articles are now paying tribute to the Queen of Disco, the singer who started it all and influenced everybody from Madonna to Janet Jackson to Lady Gaga, Beyonce and beyond: Donna Summer, who died this week after a battle with breast cancer.
But where does the word come from? It’s not surprising that it started in Europe, when Giorgio Morodor discovered Summer in Germany when she was part of the touring version of the hippie musical Hair. Discothèques go back to Paris underground jazz clubs during World War II. It was where hip Parisians and German soldiers commingled to hear the latest American jazz on 78 rpm records, songs like “In the Mood” and Duke Ellington classics, all verboten by the Nazis but secretly adored by all. Hitler and his top henchmen all hated jazz. His soldiers in occupied Paris loved it.
The word “discothèque” probably comes from another French word, “bibliothèque”, which means “library”. Disque is the word for phonograph record, so discothèque is where you go hear records.
It’s no accident that I first heard the 17 minute version of “Love to Love You Baby”, the song that started it all in 1975, at a Parisian discothéque. I wondered at the 23 orgasms the singer was having. It formed a kind of musical counterpart to Deep Throat and Behind the Green Door, the first X-rated movies to go mainstream. I was in the club because my billfold had been lifted that day while at the Crédit Lyonnais, along with my passport, traveller’s checks and cash. I went to the disco to drink and dance my problems away. And discovered this strange new hypnotic dance music called disco.