Plain Dealer Pop Music Critic
Woodwinds fluttered. Strings crescendoed. Then the horns kicked in along with a galloping four-on-the-floor beat.
Last dance, last chance for love
Yes it's my last chance for romance tonight. . . .
The year was 1978. The song was "Last Dance," the ultimate mirror-ball prayer. And the singer was Donna Summer.
A quarter-century later, we still need her beside us, to guide us.
Sorry. When we're bad, we're so, so bad.
"The Journey: The Very Best of Donna Summer," a new two-CD set, features two fresh collaborations with Giorgio Moroder, who produced most of Summer's greatest hits. Pop music has yet to recover from the infectious, trendsetting combination of her sultry vocals and his sleek electronic grooves.
On the heels of the best-of package, the dance-floor diva's autobiography, "Ordinary Girl," comes out this week.
"There's nothing extraordinary about me at all," Summer said by phone last month from her home in Nashville, Tenn.
"I'm a common person," she said. "God is the one who says, 'Hey, you're going to be more than this.' "
Summer, 54, became a born-again Christian in 1979, after a suicide attempt at the height of her fame. She tells all in "Ordinary Girl," recounting her rise from bed-wetting Boston choirgirl to international superstar.
Along the way, she survived a gunshot to the head, a near-drowning and an abusive boyfriend. She battled depression. She even had a supernatural encounter with an angel who looked like Kenny Rogers.
"One reason I wrote the book was I want other people to know they can be more if they choose to be," Summer said. "Making mistakes doesn't preclude them from fulfilling their dreams. I've fallen down so many times, in public and outside the public eye. And I stood up again."
Summer and the Italian-born Moroder haven't worked together on an album since 1981, although they did team up for a one-off single in 1992.
"Giorgio and I have chemistry," Summer said. "We have a lovingly antagonistic relationship."
On "The Journey," the two are reunited for the melodramatic "Dream-A-Lot's Theme (I Will Live for Love)" and "That's the Way," a syncopated humdinger originally conceived as a vehicle for No Doubt's Gwen Stefani.
The latter tune is "one of the hardest songs I've ever recorded," Summer said. "It's in a vocal range I don't use too much anymore."
She said she still can nail those glass-shattering high notes in "Last Dance," however.
The new compilation also includes a five-track bonus disc with another pulsating, previously unreleased number, "You're So Beautiful."
After appearing in a German production of "Hair," Summer moaned her way to the big time on her breakthrough 1975 smash "Love to Love You, Baby." A string of Top 10 hits followed, including such chart-toppers as "MacArthur Park," "Hot Stuff" and "Bad Girls." And let's not forget "She Works Hard for the Money," inspired by a restroom attendant in a Beverly Hills restaurant.
At the mention of memory lane, Summer laughed and launched into "The Way We Were," singing: "Memories . . ."
Does she have a favorite blast from the past?
"Last Dance" is "a very dear song to me," Summer said. "I can almost never sing it without thinking about Paul [Jabara, the tune's composer, who died in 1992]. Sometimes if I let myself go there, I could start crying onstage."
She belted out the Top 5 single in the film "Thank God It's Friday." "Last Dance" won an Academy Award and the first of five Grammys for Summer.
"Her records always were really progressive," said Nicky Siano, a taste-making DJ who manned the turntables at the legendary New York City clubs Studio 54 and the Gallery.
He recalled being roused from bed once in the mid- '70s by a phone call from Summer and Marc Paul Simon, who was in charge of promotion for Summer's label, Casablanca Records.
"People are saying I'm a drag queen," Summer told Siano. "Please tell them I'm not a drag queen."
Siano tried to reassure her. "Donna, don't worry about it," he said. "Publicity is publicity."
"But I'm not a drag queen!" Summer insisted.
"OK, Donna, I'll tell everyone I know - you're not a drag queen," Siano promised.
Simon got on the line next. In a low voice, he asked Siano: "She isn't a drag queen, is she?"
Those rumors no longer dog Summer. But her music still resonates around the world.
When Siano cued up Summer's "MacArthur Park" during a disco-themed party in July on the Croatian island of Hvar, 10,000 revelers waved their hands in the air.
At the Experience Music Project museum in Seattle, an entire display case is devoted to Summer as part of the exhibition "Disco: A Decade of Saturday Nights." It closes at the end of this month, after a nearly yearlong run. From EMP, the exhibit is headed for the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich., where it will be on view June 15-Sept. 15.
"Donna Summer is an amazing singer who manipulates her voice in a variety of ways," said Ann Powers, EMP senior curator.
The influence of Summer and Moroder - an "essential" diva-producer team, Powers said - continues to be heard.
"The sound they used on 'Love to Love You, Baby' is still being used today," Powers said. "You hear it all the time, whether it's Kylie Minogue or Ashanti - a breathy, sexy, cybernetic sound."
In historical hindsight, the "disco sucks" backlash of the late '70s has given way to a kinder perspective.
"I never gave it much thought, whether [the music] would survive or not," Summer said. "But I always felt certain songs we did were groundbreaking . . . because of the type of music. There wasn't anything like it before."
In her autobiography, Summer shares credit for her success with Moroder, producer Pete Bellotte and Casablanca founder Neil Bogart.
"[We] were instrumental in changing the sound and direction of popular music," Summer writes. "Listen to Blondie's 'Heart of Glass' or Madonna's 'Borderline' and see if you don't hear echoes of Giorgio's techno influence."
"Ordinary Girl" opens with the words: "Release me from the past that I may be free to soar into the future."
"My history is part of who I am," Summer said. "But I don't want to be tied to it without the ability to move forward.
"If I did dance music once, it doesn't mean I won't ever do it again if I sing a ballad or experiment with some other kind of music. It's my job as a musician, singer and writer to explore and to chronicle."
She mostly stayed out of the spotlight in recent years, preferring to tend to her family (Summer is married, with three daughters and two grandchildren) and to her garden.
But she's gearing up for a comeback.
Summer hopes to turn "Ordinary Girl" into a Broadway musical. She wants to do another full-blown studio album, too - "as soon as I figure out what record label I'll be on," she said. And she'll keep performing "Last Dance" until she drops, no doubt.
"When I sing it, it's obviously at the end of the show," Summer said. "Usually, I'm thinking, 'OK, I got through it! Thank you, God! My feet can get out of these shoes!' "