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'Disco's in our DNA', says Donna

Jun 14 2004
Wil Marlow

The word diva is bandied about with careless abandon these days. Any chanteuse with a modicum of success gets dubbed one when in fact only a few of today's top female singers - Madonna, Kylie, Beyonce - really deserve such a title.

Then there are those more long-standing singers who not only deserve the title but define it. They have enjoyed enduring success, radiated glamour and triumphed over adversity both in their personal and professional lives. Donna Summer is one such performer.

"It doesn't bother me being called a diva because I know the original meaning of the word," says Donna. "I don't think the negative version, of being demanding and difficult, is applied to me. In my case it applies to my singing, not to my personality."

While Donna has never really been off the radar during a career that's spanned more than three decades - if she's not in the charts her songs are either being covered or sampled - we're about to see a lot more of her than we have done for a while.

Not only is she releasing a new Best Of collection called The Journey, she's also making a rare appearance on British television in ITV1's Discomania in which she'll be introducing some of today's biggest pop acts - including Girls Aloud, Jamelia and Liberty X - as they perform their own takes on disco classics.

Donna will also be performing herself, teaming up with Westlife for a new version of her famous duet with Barbra Streisand, No More Tears (Enough Is Enough).

"I normally never do retro shows because I want to stay away from all that," says Donna. "I figure I did it once I don't really need to re-live it all the time. But when they came over to America and explained the whole show I liked the idea of it.

"The thing about it is they're trying to connect the dots. It's a way of showing young people who hear about disco that it's for their generation as well. It's about the music more than anything else because it has legs and has managed to walk from one generation to the next."

Disco has been good to Donna. She once said that God had to create disco so she "could be born and be successful" and, while God's involvement in Donna's career is open to debate, what is certain is hits like the unashamedly erotic Love To Love You Baby and the innovative and hugely influential I Feel Love put both disco and Donna on the map.

"The thing that people don't realise, and maybe I should talk more about it, was that I was called the Disco Queen but I didn't necessarily invent disco," she says. "That music was growing in Europe and we coined our own direction in it. We took the genre to another place. But we didn't know what was going on, we were just doing music."

Born in Boston 55 years ago, Donna had a difficult childhood. She suffered from low self-esteem and survived two near-death experiences. Her churchgoing upbringing inadvertently started her singing career when she had to fill in for a soloist who had fallen ill. From then on Donna was determined to become a singer.

She started out singing in a rock band in New York but soon found herself in Munich after being offered a role in the German production of Hair. There she met and married Austrian actor Helmut Sommer, from whom she got her anglicised surname. A year later she gave birth to her first child, Mimi.

It was in Munich she also met Giorgio Moroder, the innovative producer behind many of her hits.

"It was like God prepared me slowly for success," says Donna. "I started having hits in Europe and had success there for quite a while before it took off. That helped me make the adjustment to being a celebrity."

Before then, her personal life had not been so successful. Donna's battle with depression had ended her marriage and she'd become involved in an abusive relationship with a man whom she names only as Gunther in her recent autobiography. After a foiled suicide attempt in 1976 she returned to America to take her crown as the Queen of Disco.

Despite being so closely associated with disco she survived its demise in the early 80s, continuing to have hits throughout the decade with the likes of State Of Independence and Dinner With Gershwin.

Since then we've heard less and less from Donna Summer, though her presence is still felt. Her records are sampled in everything from hip-hop to pop, the most recent example being Beyonce's hit Naughty Girl.

"What she used of the song she used in good context to her own music," says Donna. "I'm always happy when someone uses the songs I wrote because I get publishing. I was saying `Go Beyonce! Go Beyonce!' I don't have to work for it, it's like sending out your elf to bring back money," she laughs.

And of course a disco revival is never far away, ready to bring Donna's hits to a whole new generation.

"I think when things get really crazy people want to escape, and they want to physically escape," says Donna. "They don't just want to escape into MTV, they want to feel like they've lived. When something like war is hanging over us, people tend to go out and dance. That's why it keeps coming back.

"Also, the children whose parents bought those first disco records have gone back to that music. They'd go out and hear these familiar tunes and remember them with pleasure so they get up and dance. They've got disco in their DNA," laughs Donna.

Although her main focus now is writing a musical based on her life story, these days Donna is letting her family lead the way in the showbiz world. Her husband Bruce Sudano, who she lives with in Nashville, is also a singer, as is her youngest daughter with Bruce, Amanda, who is recording an album in New York.

Her other daughter with Bruce, Brooklyn, is an actress in the American sitcom My Wife And Kids.

"I'm the mother who sits down and listens to their songs now," says Donna proudly. "All three of my daughters write songs and they are excellent. It's exciting to be in this creative a family."

Donna Summer's new album The Journey - The Very Best Of Donna Summer is released on Monday June 14

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