By Chris J. Walker
THE relentless hard-driving beat of disco and sensual provocative vocals propelled Donna Summer’s music to the upper strata of pop charts. From 1975 to 1980, the Boston-raised singer born LaDonna Adrian Gaines rose above competitors Gloria Gaynor (“I Will Survive”) and the Bee Gees (“Staying Alive”) to rule pop-oriented dance music. Her many songs —including “Love to Love You,” “I Feel Love,” “Hot Stuff,” “She Works Hard for the Money,” “Last Dance” and “Dim All the Lights”—became anthems of the era.
Summer is constantly amazed that the tunes she created with producing partners Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte are almost as popular as during disco days.
“I was speaking to someone from a radio station in New York,” she commented from her home in Nashville, where she lives with her guitarist-singer husband, Bruce Sudano, “and I’m still the most requested person there. That’s a very big compliment and I’m very thankful for that.
“So what I’ve felt has happened, is that people who were 20 to 25 when I came out had kids who are now about the same age. Because of their parents or older siblings, when they hear the music, something rings a bell in them and they go ballistic. It’s a funny and interesting thing with a lot of artists of that era and I got a second life,” she says, laughing.
The “disco queen” was never dethroned, even as rap and hip-hop overtook her strobe-light-enhanced genre.
Summer though, was a very dedicated mother and wife, who decided to put more emphasis on raising her children and having a seminormal life. Occasional shows and recording dates would still occur, but with less insanity, which was far easier to deal with. From the very beginning of her career as a fledgling singer performing in musicals in Germany to becoming an international mega-star, the singer experienced enough tragedy for several lifetimes.
Actually, it was enough to fill a book, and after being continually solicited by publishers, she decided to succumb to the requests.
After three years of trials, tribulations and 14 rewrites, Ordinary Girl: The Journey, co-written with Marc Eliot, to be released October 7 by Villard Books is the final result.
“I just felt like it was time for me to mentor somebody else,” Summer stressed. “People kept saying to me, ‘Donna you should write a book,’ because I’m always teaching everybody stuff all the time. I didn’t set out to actually write an autobiography; it just started turning into that after I started writing. In the process, I started wondering how I was going to separate some of the things I wanted to say from my life. Finally, I realized it wasn’t going to work that way, and I was just going to have to write an autobiography.”
Summer admitted that her biggest challenge, outside of the drudgery of writing, was not being “too shocking or explicit.” She wanted to get key points across, but because of her daughters Brooklyn (a cast member of ABC’s My Wife and Kids), Amanda, Mimi and grandchildren, also wanted to leave something to the imagination.
The singer writes about the late sixties to the early eighties, before AIDS and STDs became rampant. Those times were indeed wild, and the pop icon did her share of partying too, even if she didn’t fully embrace the lifestyle. Through it all, the values ingrained in her from a strict Christian upbringing became a refuge during uncertain and difficult times.
In Ordinary Girl, Summer mentions often how she felt out of place and was nothing like her promoted temptress image. Self-deprecatingly, the singer revealed, “It wasn’t me at the time and still isn’t. I was actually always thought of as the clown and the Lucille Ball (to her close friends and family). I was the one who strange things happened to all the time and unwittingly getting myself into trouble.”
Summer can reflect on her life and crazy times in a jokingly manner now, but in cat-like fashion, she survived and returned with renewed energy.
Death knocked loudly at her door several times, such as being shot in the head when she was 5 and nearly drowning about a year later. Those early events unquestionably strengthened Summer, but also marked her for seemingly unrelenting episodes of intense personal hardship that ironically sometimes happened as she achieved career pinnacles. She extensively details the extreme joy and pain, which left a lingering bittersweet residue. The multi-faceted singer, who also paints, affirmed, “There’s no doubt in my mind I would be dead if it weren’t for my faith in God. There were things that happened, which were hard to get through and sometimes I was performing in the midst of the tragedies.”
Summer often delayed getting in touch with her feelings, until she had some downtime. Nonetheless, many sullen emotions were suppressed and didn’t come out until she started writing Ordinary Girl. Unbearable emotionality would sometimes make it too difficult to carry on and the singer/writer took long breaks, especially around the Sept. 11 tragedies, and tried to no avail to back out of the publishing deal.
She’s now glad that she was able to complete her book and is anxious to pursue other creative outlets such as children’s music, performing gospel with her talented daughters and showcasing her art.
Coinciding with the book’s release is a limited tour promoting it, and the release of a two CD reissue of Bad Girls (Deluxe Edition), with extended dance tracks and a bonus song. Just the same, Summer has plenty of songs for several new records. The only problem is direction.
“I’d like to do a four-part series,” she mentioned, “with a whole dance album, a slow one of ‘my man’ melodies, regular ballads and then some really poppy, off-the-chart stuff. I’ve written a lot of different kinds of songs and my goal in life is to unify music.”