By Scott Galloway | SPECIAL TO SACOBSERVER.COM
Singer/Songwriter Donna Summer is the latest of celebrities to pen her autobiography, a compelling new must-read titled "Ordinary Girl" (Random House) that finds her revealing many wonderful, often magical, memories of her childhood, the songs she wrote and the highs she experienced as a superstar. The book also details some surprising insecurities and fragilities that rocked her world along the way (including suicide attempts).
The book coincides with the release of Mercury/Chronicles/Universal's new double CD, "The Journey: The Very Best of Donna Summer," which includes all 14 of the Top 10 hits she recorded for the Casablanca, Mercury Geffen and Atlantic labels, plus two new songs that mark a reunion with her primary hit producer, Giorgio Moroder, after 22 years.
Also being released is a new album by her husband, Bruce Sudano, titled "Rainy Day Soul" (on Purple Heart Records) which wifey "Donna Sudano" contributed to in a very special way: she photographed the CD cover.
In a short interview conducted at The Beverly Wilshire Hotel, A. Scott Galloway elected to focus on Summer's glory days and her reflections thereof.
A. Scott Galloway: I was only 11, but I remember when "Love To Love You, Baby" first came out in 1975 and a radio station out here called KUTE-102 would only play it after midnight. How has the legacy of that song followed you over the years?
Donna Summer: I never really intended to sing that song myself. I only sang the demo. The fact that it ever came out with my voice on it remains a mystery to me. But I accept that that's the way it was supposed to happen. It was the first song people in this country recognized me for, so why fight it? People still play it and it follows me to this day.
ASG: I remember Digital Underground sampling it for their song "Freaks of the Industry."
DS: Yes, and recently Beyonce did something with it (on her album cut "Naughty Girl").
ASG: When you look at singer/songwriters like Beyonce and Ashanti, do you feel kindred?
DS: I certainly think that when somebody goes before you, they are certainly an example whether you know it or not. Aretha Franklin was writing songs, singing them and playing piano long before I was. We all have some pretty good "forewomen" who went before us. The difference for me was I went in a lot of different directions. I didn't stay in one type of music. That was a goal of mine. I think the young girls writing and singing today will have more longevity because they have more spokes in the fire to keep them going. If they keep their publishing and things like that, they will benefit for years to come.
ASG: Some artists today see songwriting primarily from a business/get paid standpoint, quite unlike the Joni Mitchells of the past who were more about art and expression. What was the impetus for you in writing your first songs?
DS: I was coming out of a different era. There were different things to accomplish for Black people and for women. I've always wanted to bring joy through my music. I don't sing as many sad songs. I've had unhappiness in my life and I don't want to dwell there.
ASG: There's a great story in the book where you mastered singing Dinah Washington's "What A Difference A Day Made" just to delight your father. Can you remember the very first song you wrote and why?
DS: Oh, gosh ... it was a song called "Can't Understand." It was pretty simple. I was about 14. The first verse was, "Can't understand why this whole world keeps pulling me down to the ground / I walk two steps they pull me back down / When will the world ever let me be." What can I say? I was depressed. I actually started writing poetry, then music.
ASG: Was there a point after "Live and More" and the sprawling "MacArthur Park" suite that you consciously decided to do something other than disco?
DS: I grew up in Boston in a very interesting situation. My dad listened to Sinatra, Nat Cole, Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday and a lot of jazz. My older brother listened to Dionne Warwick, Burt Bacharach and that genre. I came up with rock 'n' roll and country music. All this stuff was going on in my household. The way my mother would get me to go to sleep was she would put me in the crib in front of the classical station. That would make me completely peaceful. She knew there was some connection between me and music. Sometimes I think my sense of melody and ability to sing was affected by all that.
I recorded a lot of different types of songs at Casablanca, but the disco ones were usually the singles. They promoted those songs because that's how we could get people to buy the albums and, hopefully, listen to everything else. I never tried to create an image. I just tried to convey the image of the song. I go wherever the song sends me. In that sense, I'm an actress first.
ASG: What was the difference between the way Neil Bogart at Casablanca developed and promoted you versus David Geffen who signed you in the '80s?
DS: Neil was much like a father figure since he came first. He would come in the room and do my toenails. I'm serious. If the girl was moving too slow, he'd grab the thing and start polishing 'em, get the blow dryer and fan them. Whatever had to be done. He was a hands-on person and never too proud to do whatever it took. He was a consummate professional in that sense. I don't even think some of the other people at the company knew him the way that I did. I had a much more intimate relationship with him than a lot of the other acts because they came after me.
He came to Germany and actually ran one of my shows because I didn't have anyone to man the lights. He wasn't happy with the way they looked, so he and Joyce (who later became his wife) went into the booth and started calling the shots on how they thought I should be lit. This was before I even signed with them. We had thanksgiving dinner in Holland and hung out. That period is when we really bonded. When I came back, Neil worked on every aspect of the vision he had for me. From clothing and hair to makeup, he got the best of everything. He taught me how to take care of myself … things I wouldn't have known because Europe was different than America.
David Geffen was more of a business person and a very strong music person. Neil wouldn't necessarily come into the studio while I was working, but I actually wrote a song called "Sometimes Like Butterflies" at David's house. I would lie on his couch with one of my co-writers, Bruce Roberts, and just hang out for the afternoon. He really knew how to deal with artists. In the time that he started working with me, though, he was moving more into the business phase of his career. I was fortunate in that, unlike a lot of other artists on his label, I did get to hang out at his house, use his piano, write, be creative or just hang out on his lawn. Yeah, I had my own house, but there was just a certain atmosphere over at David's - a quietness - because nobody knew I was there.
ASG: When you debuted in '75, Natalie Cole was starting, Chaka was with Rufus and Aretha was dominating R&B. Did you strike up friendships with any of those women who were your contemporaries?
DS: I think with Natalie I did. We crossed paths several times and I hung out with her backstage at The Met. I had a closeness with Patti Labelle and the Pointer Sisters because I would go backstage and hang out at their shows, too. Chaka and I used to rehearse at the same soundstage, so I would sneak in and listen. I worked at trying to establish some kind of relationship with some of these ladies who were already here and coming up. I see them today, but everybody's lives have spun out into different places.
The first person that really reached out to me, who sadly isn't with us anymore, is Minnie Riperton and her husband, Dick Rudolph. They were so kind to me. I can't even tell you. They were so supportive and sort of took me under their wing. I don't know why. They were just compassionate and kind. We would go out dancing together. It was right when Minnie was diagnosed with breast cancer, but she was still healthy. They really embraced me and I was very happy for that because I didn't know anybody here in California. I was very lonely.
ASG: What was disco's greatest contribution to the world?
(Donna busts out with a dead-on falsetto rendering of The Bee Gees' "Staying Alive" and we both fall out. More seriously, she continues.)
DS: The thing that I think about dance music more than anything is it's happy music. It made you feel good. I'm a huge Joni Mitchell fan, probably have every album she ever did, and my kids know every Joni song, too. I'm from the singer/songwriter school of thought. But I think people need a lot of things in their lives. I think dancing is a primal human thing. Somehow, you shake off depressions and inhibitions, and just be free in that moment. It may not change your circumstances in an outward way, but it changes your internal circumstances and your outlook.
To me, that (disco) era was an era when people didn't want to look at the realities of life. They were focused on Friday night, "I'm gonna party hearty, enjoy my life as long as I'm livin' it."
A. Scott Galloway is an editor at Urban Network magazine and last wrote a feature on actor Wesley Snipes for The Robertson Treatment.