Today Attitude has a date with a living legend. Miss Donna Summer, for it is she, in London town to host ITV Saturday night special Discomania
(which shamefully pairs her with singing chumps Westlife) and promote her latest greatest hits compilation, The Journey. But we have other things to talk about.
La Summer obviously has the most devoted fans in the entire universal, for the Attitude inbox has been well and truly stuffed for weeks with questions to pose to her Donna-ness. And is it any surprise? Surely not. Need we remind you that this woman positively defined the gay abandon of the 70s disco boom. From the moment she jumped on a plane to Munich with the US touring cast of Hair to eventually hook up with Giorgio Moroder and breathe sweet sexual delight into the 17 minute orgasmo romp of Love To Love You Baby, her fate was sealed: Global megastardom, no less.
You want stats? The only star ever to have three consecutive US no 1 platinum albums and three singles simultaneously muscling for action in the top five! You want facts? I Feel Love virtually invented modern dance music. Her classic double-LP Bad Girls redefined the barriers of disco, mixing the funk sass of the title track with rock-funk (Hot Stuff) and heady proto-house (Sunset People). And who did Quincy Jones want to work with fresh from the success of Thriller with a certain Mr Jackson? Why Donna of course! And who does Pete Waterman always, but always, say was the damn finest singer he ever worked with? Again, Donna. We could go on. But we have all your questions to ask, and Ms Summer has just arrives, looking every inch the star in wraparound black shades and high-glam leather boots ensemble. Donna, prepare to be queried.
What's the craziest rumor that's been written about you? I heard once in the 70s there was a nuts rumor that you were a man!
Alan James via email
There have been so many, I don't even want to get into that stuff. I remember when the one you were talking about started – I was somewhere in South America I think and someone was standing in my face looking at me like 'what's going on? you don't look like a man?' I don't look like a man!? Of course I don't look like a man!! I thought they were nuts! It just kept coming up again and again, and when we got back to American it didn't take long to get to the bottom of it. We were in Atlanta and we saw an ad in the newspaper for someone doing a show under my name and it was a drag show! People hadn't really seen me at that point and Love To Love You Baby was a big his, so he was using my name and miming to that song and underneath in tiny print it had his real name so everybody thought it was me. So we sent someone down there to sort it out. But he was cute though.
There is this great story I heard about you when you recorded No More Tears (Enough Is Enough) with Barbra Streisand about you falling off your stool when you were recording with her! Is it true?
Richard Evans, Cambridge
Yes – I had been up for about 8 days and I had done like 8 shows back to back. I was supposed to be in the studio the next day with Barbra but I didn't know it, and so I stayed up all night partying because it was the last night of the tour. I only had about two hours sleep and then I got a call saying you have to be in the studio! I thought 'my god I'll never make this', so I just dragged myself out of bed and I went but I was feeling really shoddy. So anyway we were both singing the high note, sat on stools facing each other, and I just blacked out, and I literally fell on the floor. Barbra just kept holding that note because she thought I was just playing – we were always kidding around with each other. So anyway, I hit the floor and when I came to and finally realised what was happening she was just finishing the high note and she said 'Donna! Are You okay?' and she helped me up. I was like 'I died on the floor and you're still holding the note, hello!
I'm more important than a song!' (laughs). It was just fun though – it wasn't a negative or a mean spirited thing, she really thought I was messing about!
I'm a huge fan of Stock Aitken & Waterman and you, so I was really excited when you made an album together. But why didn't you make a video for I Don't Wanna Get Hurt? Is it true that you didn't like the song?
SAW fan via email
It's not that I didn't like the song, it was a cute song – I just didn't think that it was mature enough for me. I just felt like this is a song for a little kid to sing and I felt kind of awkward doing it. There's no real lyric to the song, I mean there is, but not really. So I had a hard time promoting that song because I felt like it was just not right for me. But it did okay.
I think Last Dance is a personal favourite of mine because it was the first time every one got to hear what an amazing, powerful voice you have! Was it a conscious decision to introduce your full voice to your public after you became established for the breathy style of hits like Love To Love You Baby and Could It Be Magic?
Luke Williams via email
Yeah, absolutely. I had been working in theater a long time and I had sung all those belting songs, so for me it was an adjustment to song those soft songs. Giorgio would really restrict me because he wanted me to be a pop artist and he said, 'listen I don't want you to sing all these licks – I want you to sing straight'. He was the one who really got me to sing less R&B, because he thought I could have a huge pop career. So I did it and it was successful and he was right. But it got to the point where we all knew it was time to make a move towards me really singing in my full voice, I mean my mother was desperate for me to song in my full voice! And then Paul Jabara brought me Last Dance. He said 'Donna, I wrote a song for you where you can show your voice off. You have to do this song!' He trapped me in a bathroom in Puerto Rico and sang the song to me in every way you could imagine. He sat on the side of the tub, put a towel over his head like he was a woman and he started 'last dance...' He was so funny, I pretended not to want to do the song just so he would do it again! He must have done it at least 20 times and then I finally said 'okay! I'll do the song!'
Is it true Bad Girls was originally intended for Cher when she was on the same label as you in the 70s?
David K via email
No it's not! I wrote Bad Girls for myself, however Neil Bogart (Casablanca Records boss) heard the song and thought it was a good rock and roll
song for Cher who he had signed at the time. He didn't think it was a dance enough song for me at the time. When I first played it to him he asked if he could have it for Cher, and I said 'I love Cher but she can't have my song!' and I put it away. And then a couple years later an engineer was in a studio in LA and found the song and we dusted it off and worked on it and it just evolved, we added the 'toot-toots' and 'beep-beeps' and stuff. Then Neil loved it! It was a big big record for me.
I used to play the album you did with Quincy Jones over and over as a teenager and it's still my favourite that you've done. What was it like singing State Of Independence with that all-star choir of Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Dionne Warwick and the like?
Brian Lynne, Birmingham
Can I tell you a secret? Actually I was never in the studio at the same time with them. I was heavily pregnant and very ill in New York on the day they were due to record. Quincy got everybody together and he wanted me to fly into LA but I had a severe stomach virus and I was told by my doctor I couldn't leave. It was something that actually at that time didn't some out too much, but it was still wonderful they were on my record. My sister went and stood in proxy for me and there were wonderful pictures of my sister with all these celebrities. She was in her element, I was so honoured, I mean Michael was there, Dionne was there, James Ingram, Brenda Russell.... was Stevie there? Yeah, and Stevie.
You’ve had lots of radical images over the years – blonde wigs, Marilyn Monroe, hippie chick – but the most extreme must have been the kabuki makeup on your Another Place And Time album. Whose idea was that?
Ian White, Liverpool
Mine. I’m an artist and I wanted to represent myself in a new way. I was just sick of looking at myself and I wanted to do something extreme. So I decided to paint my face like I would paint a picture. I wanted to paint my face white, completely white. Actually there were several different shots for that that didn’t get used. Originally I had wrapped my head in red toile with bright red lipstick on – it was incredibly striking. I haven’t used those pictures yet, but I am going to use them someday in a photo book I’m planning. I love those shots. I think it was a kind of courageous move and definitely a step aside for me but I’m glad I did it.
Where and when in your life were you most happy?
Jonathan via email
Well, I was extremely happy when my children were born, all of them, but I think in terms of a general time in my life it would have to be when I lived on my farm in LA with my kids. There was something about being in that specific house with the kids and my husband where we were all together as a family – everybody sort of had their place, everybody was content. Germany? Well, I would definitely say that was the most vibrant time of my life. I was very young and all I had seen of the world up until then was Boston and New York, and then suddenly I found myself in Munich with Hair. Everything was new everyday, I was in a foreign country, doing different things, speaking a new language, meeting all new people – I was elated all the time. In that sense it was an amazing time in my life. But I think that’s when you sort of come into your own and everything was where it was supposed to be. My life was complete.
I’m a big fan of your songwriting – a lot of people don’t realize your songs have been recorded by people like Dolly Parton and Dusty Springfield. I’d like to know what is your favourite song you’ve ever written (mine is Sometimes Like Butterflies).
Michael Turner, Brighton
Oh, that’s a good one. I wrote that song with Bruce Roberts at David Geffen’s house one afternoon, I was pretending to be Bette Midler actually, singing with that kind of raspy voice. I love that song. But of all the hits, I guess She Works Hard For The Money would be the one I’m most pleased with writing, and of the not-known songs it would be There Will Always Be A You – that was written as a love song to my husband and is very personal to me.
In your book, Ordinary Girl, you write about how you used to pretend to be Diana Ross and sing Supremes songs into a hairbrush as a kid. I thought it was really funny and honest of you to admit that. I’m wondering if you ever met her in your adult life, and if you stopped being start struck once you became famous?
Darrin McCrae via email
Absolutely not, if you admire someone, you admire someone period. I think when you come into your own reality of success it makes you regard them more,
because you recognize how much work it takes to actually accomplish that. But actually the first time I met Diana was years before I was successful in America. I must have been 21, 22 and I went to a concert of hers in Munich – when she used to sing Reach Out And Touch she would give the microphone out to people in the audience. My sister grabbed the microphone and handed it to me and I started singing – I knew every word of those songs, I was such a fan. She said “gimme that mic, girl you sound too good!” or something and she moved on. It was really cute.
I heard you sing Let It Be non Later with Jools Holland a few days ago and you sounded amazing! It was great to hear your voice with just a piano – you should do a whole album like that! Please let me know if you have an album of new material in the pipeline – it’s been over ten years since Mistaken Identity!
Obsessed Donna Fan, Croydon via email
I really fought to do that, because everybody wanted me to do one of my old songs and I thought ‘this is an intimate moment so let’s do something special here’. Actually when we came to rehearsal we were doing On The Radio but it wasn’t working in the key we were in so I suggested Let It Be and Jools liked it and it worked great. At least I hope it did! New material? Well, I’m a songwriter that’s what I do for a living, so I’m writing new material all the time. Actually one of the things I’m planning to do eventually is to put on the internet all the songs I’ve recorded that have never been on an album. I’m gonna put my entire catalog on, all the outtakes, everything, so that people can go through it and pull things off they want to hear. I have so many things I’ve done over the years, songs with my husband on guitar, or with friends in the studio, years and years of material that I would record while I was touring. I don’t know how I’m gonna go about that yet, but I’m thinking of creating some kind of club, so that fans can download it.
You once sang a bout wanting to have Dinner With Gershwin. If you could choose any five famous dinner guests in the world – living or dead – who would they be?
Jeremy via email
Jesus, Moses, Mary Antoinette, Cleopatra and John F Kennedy.
What recording of your whole career would you out as the best example of your voice and which was the most difficult to record?
James Martinez via email
Lush Life (the jazz standard from 1982's Donna Summer album with Quincy Jones) was definitely the most difficult to record, without question. Usually I record very quickly – I study the song and make a character for myself and once I know who she is in the song, then I nail it. I don’t like singing songs hundreds of times, I think you loose something in the spontaneity of the song. With MacArthur Park I did that song in one take, so I would say that in terms of performance that would be one of my best because it just came out so naturally. But Lush Life was definitely the most difficult song I’ve ever recorded in my life. Quincy was very adamant about me getting that song down precisely. He came from the old school where you did it 600 times and I wasn’t from that mind set. To me after I’d done it the first time I felt like I really had it, but he kept pressing me to do it again and it was really hard for me – I can’t sing in my power voice for too long. But Barbra is the same way – she’s from the old school where you do it 100 times and it gets better and better each time, but I have a lock out where I feel like I’m going over the same ground. It’s just a different way of doing things.
I’m sure you must have sung MacArthur Park a million times, but do you have any idea what the lyric (‘someone left my cake out in the rain…’) is about?
Stuart Helms, Dublin
I feel like I did. But I get a lot of people saying “what’s the cake song about” but I think it’s a great lyric, a great metaphor for a love affair that’s gone wrong. Because a cake is so fragile and it’s not something you would just leave in the rain, but if you did sit it in the rain it would surely be destroyed, and if you had a love with someone that was fragile and you wouldn’t take that situation and subject it to circumstances it couldn’t withstand – so that’s what it’s about. I like songs like that, like Nights In White Satin – what does that mean? Is it about someone getting married, or someone that’s died? You can project whatever you want onto it.
Are you still ion touch with Onetta – the waitress that inspired She Works Hard For The Money?
Luke via email
You know, not really, I don’t live in LA anymore. I haven’t seen Onetta in years, but she’s a sweet lady. It must be like 15 years since I last saw her, but I meet people periodically like nephews or cousins of hers and they always tell me ‘hi’ or something from her. She’s on a picture on the back of that album – it’s a working person’s album so it made sense.
I didn’t know there was so much drama in your life – kidnap attempts, near drowning, intense love affairs, suicide attempts – until I read your autobiography. Especially in the 70s when you recorded around nine albums in less than five years. How did you manage to hold it all together?
Daniel Stoneman, Highbury
Barely! I was in and out of hospital the whole time for different for nervous conditions. Thankfully we managed to keep it out of the press so no one really knew about it at the time. But when it all started happening for me at that time it happened so quickly I really wasn’t equipped for it. I didn’t have a clue about what it was like to be famous – I’ve never had a clue, I still don’t! Really. I’m not that career minded, I’m not like Madonna, totally focused on her career. She’s a real career woman, I’ve never rally been like that. I’ve always been much more on the artistic side of thing. I’m a person that has to be forced to go on tour and do all those others things. If it was left up to me I’d just go in the studio and write and paint. So the creative side of things was never a problem for me, it was all the other stuff – the fame and the parties and the people… after awhile you just can’t keep up unless you’re doing drugs or something. I never had a single moment for myself and I felt myself spiralling down. So I was on antidepressants and other things and at some point I got so low I really felt like I was going to die. I just had to get my own life back. Sometimes it’s not enough just to smell the roses, sometimes you just have to get in there and get in the dirt and be part of what makes them grow, you know? You can appreciate the smell of a rose but when you grow it from the ground up it’s a totally different thing. I’m an earthy person I need to be part of the source of things and when you are a celebrity everything’s being cut off at the root.
I Feel Love has been a hit so many times over the years. Did you get the sense when you were making in the Giorgio that you were involved in musical history?
Michael Anderson, Reading