TAVIS SMILEY, host: From NPR in Los Angeles, I'm Tavis Smiley.
(Soundbite of "Love to Love You Baby")
Ms. DONNA SUMMER: (Singing) Love to love you, baby, yeah...
SMILEY: She started singing gospel in a Boston church and rose to fame in the 1970s as the queen of disco. In 1975, legendary singer/songwriter Donna Summer moaned her way to the top of the charts with this breakthrough hit, "Love to Love You Baby."
Ms. SUMMER: (Singing) When you're laying so close to me, there's no place I'd rather you be than with me, yeah. Oh. Yeah. Oh.
SMILEY: Her runaway success continued with 14--count them, 14 Top 10 hits, four number one singles and albums sales in the tens of millions worldwide. Donna Summer was also showered with awards. Her music has earned her five Grammy Awards and an Oscar to boot. She's considered the voice that ignited the disco generation. Now more than a quarter of a century--say it ain't so--a quarter of a century later, she's still making music. Her latest two CD set, "The Journey: The Very Best of Donna Summer," was just released. And get this, she's also penned a new autobiography called "Ordinary Girl: The Journey."
The queen of disco herself is still busy, but not too busy to stop by and see me in my studio. Donna Summer, how are you?
Ms. SUMMER: I'm fine. Thank you.
SMILEY: Is that a mouthful or what?
Ms. SUMMER: That was a mouthful, my gosh. Take the shortcut.
SMILEY: But I can't give you a shortcut because you have earned everything that I've just said. You have been at this game for so long and you really are an icon. What does it feel like to be an icon?
Ms. SUMMER: I don't know. I just get up in the morning and have my tea and it feels the same. It feels the same as being everybody else, you know. I don't feel any different.
SMILEY: But you're not slowing down. I mean, a new CD, as I mentioned, and the book. We'll talk about the book here in just a second. But how do you manage all this talent, Donna Summer, every day?
Ms. SUMMER: Well, you know, you just do different things at different times. So if I decide to write a song, I just go in the room and write it.
SMILEY: If I feel like writing a book, I'll go in the room and write a book.
Ms. SUMMER: That's what I do.
SMILEY: Tell me about this book. Why this book?
Ms. SUMMER: Well, this book came about in a kind of obscure way. I wasn't planning on writing a book, but I decided that I would do it at this point, because I felt that I needed to go to another level. I just was bored with everything, so, you know, time to move. So I also had written the music to "Ordinary Girl," a musical, and we needed a book to go with it so they could do the stage production.
Ms. SUMMER: And I was putting that off and had given it to other people to do, and we never got anything we liked, so I said, `OK, I think I need to do this.' So that's kind of how it evolved.
SMILEY: This is a strange question, but what is boredom for you?
Ms. SUMMER: When things are too easy.
Ms. SUMMER: When things aren't challenging, you know, creatively challenging, when...
Ms. SUMMER: ...you know, you've been there, you've done that. It's like, oh, God, I already did this, you know, so I think just pushing yourself to another limit...
Ms. SUMMER: ...to another level and knowing that there is always more, because, I mean, the sky is the limit.
Ms. SUMMER: There's a lot of space in between.
SMILEY: But respectfully, you've been around for a while. What else is there to do?
Ms. SUMMER: Lots of things. I mean, there's all kinds of new--you have to develop things to do. You have to create spaces for yourself. You know, I mean, I don't know, I just like to think up something and do it.
(Soundbite of "Last Dance")
Ms. SUMMER: (Singing) Ooh, last dance, last chance for love. Yeah, it's my last chance...
SMILEY: When you look back on that period, that disco period now, what do you think in retrospect?
Ms. SUMMER: Well, I think that it was, you know, a very happy time, kind of a mindless time, so to speak. People were just having a good time. They were coming out of the '60s and it was party time.
SMILEY: Yeah. What do you make of the music, looking back on the music?
Ms. SUMMER: Well, I mean, you know, before it was, there wasn't anything like it. So it created its own place. That's why it has a place. Like rock 'n' roll, like R&B, it created its own space. And in reverse, people are giving it more and more respect as they go on, because they're beginning to understand the quality of actually the music, even though it was commercial, some of it was commercial at the time, all music of that, you know, period was pretty commercial. I mean, the goal was to sell records.
Ms. SUMMER: (Singing) So let's dance the last dance, let's dance the last dance, let's dance this last dance tonight. Last dance, last chance for love. Yes, it's my last chance for romance tonight. Oh, I need you by me, beside me, to guide me...
SMILEY: Did you ever think then or have you ever thought since then that you would do it differently if you had to do it all over again because people see you as stuck in that time period and have not allowed you to do stuff beyond that?
Ms. SUMMER: Well, I don't know how people see me...
Ms. SUMMER: ...but I don't go by how people see me. I go by how I see me. And I see me big, moving in every direction I want to move in and not inhibited by people's, you know, thing--I mean, I understand that people want me to still be that person, and sometimes I digress and do it, but I don't live there.
Ms. SUMMER: And that's it.
Ms. SUMMER: (Singing) Last dance tonight. Yeah.
SMILEY: I'm always fascinated, and everybody has a story, as you well know. There's always a journey of how they got from that church choir to doing what they do. In short, what was your journey from the church choir--I'm talking not just musically...
Ms. SUMMER: Right.
SMILEY: ...from those gospel roots to disco? What was your story?
Ms. SUMMER: Well, it's a long journey, and I started off in church, and I started about eight years old was the first time I had an epiphany that I had a voice at all, and I just started singing in everything I had to sing in, and at some point when I was in my teens, I was walking up a street and I happened to run into someone. I heard music playing and I went inside and they asked me if I'd be their singer, and I said `yes,' and that's how I got from the church to the other side of the music. But back in the day, we listened to everything, I mean, from country music to every kind of music, and I didn't grow up separating music. To me, R&B, country--I mean, I know it sounds strange to some people, but it's music.
Ms. SUMMER: It's all somebody's music, you know...
Ms. SUMMER: ...and whether it's classical music or church music, you know, I mean, sometimes people in the church get a little bent out of shape, but, you know, God said go into the world.
(Soundbite of "I Feel Love")
Ms. SUMMER: (Singing) Ooh, I'm in love, I'm in love, I'm in love...
SMILEY: At eight years old, who knew that one day, you'd have a "Best of" Donna Summer CD?
Ms. SUMMER: Many "Best of" Donna
SMILEY: Yeah, yeah.
Ms. SUMMER: ...CDs.
SMILEY: A litany of them, exactly.
Ms. SUMMER: Exactly.
Ms. SUMMER: Yeah. Well, I don't know. I mean, I wasn't planning on having another "Best of" but...
Ms. SUMMER: ...this compilation is actually a little different; it has all of the general bigger hits, and then it has some of the dance hits, and then it has new songs, too.
Ms. SUMMER: (Singing) I feel love, I feel love.
SMILEY: I've asked this question before, but not of Donna Summer, so let me ask it. What makes a great song for you?
Ms. SUMMER: To me, a great song sometimes addresses an issue and maybe gives an answer or it reflects on a situation or it brings hope and, you know, it touches people. I think the fact is it has to touch people in some way. And because it touches people and it's a universal touching of people, it extends beyond the moment into the future, which makes it an evergreen, and I think when you have an evergreen, that's the key to, I think, every writer wants to have--that's longevity.
SMILEY: So lyrically, let me ask you--this may be an impossible question, but you do your best with it. Lyrically, what for you is the best song that you've ever performed in the Donna Summer
Ms. SUMMER: Of what is out there?
Ms. SUMMER: Well, I think "Hard for the Money," in one sense, because it's a people song and because it addresses human issue. "Bad Girls" was a different--you know, these songs were socially critical.
Ms. SUMMER: You know, they were done to a dance beat, but there is a message and a story in there.
SMILEY: Absolutely, sure.
Ms. SUMMER: But I've written tons of other things beyond that, you know, which will be coming out soon.
Ms. SUMMER: It's whatever works for people I think works for me.
SMILEY: Donna Summer's new two CD set, "The Journey: The Very Best of Donna Summer," and her book, "Ordinary Girl: The Journey," are both available in stores as we speak. For more information about Donna Summer, check out our Web site at npr.org. Donna Summer, it is a pleasure to meet you.
Ms. SUMMER: Thank you. You, too.
SMILEY: Thank you.
(Soundbite of "She Works Hard for the Money")
Ms. SUMMER: (Singing) She works hard for the money, so hard for it, honey. She works hard for the money so you'd better treat her right. She works hard for the money...
SMILEY: To listen to this show or past shows, or for tapes and transcripts, visit npr.org or call (877) NPR-TEXT. More information on what I'm doing is available at TavisTalks.com. The TAVIS SMILEY show is a news and opinion program created by NPR and the African-American public radio consortium.