Donna Summer's sexy vocals got her banned by the BBC - and made her queen of the '70s disco boom. She talks to Tom Horan about her return to the spotlight.
Donna Summer was the biggest-selling artist of the late-70s disco era, clocking up 10 singles that sold a million or more. Her work with German-based Italian producer Giorgio Moroder introduced the world to a new sound. Combining his clinical but infectiously danceable computer rhythms with her lush and overtly sexual vocal delivery, it was the blueprint for much of the music that has dominated the charts since.
Summer now finds herself back in the spotlight at 55 as a judge on American Idol, the hugely successful US version of the Pop Idol format. With interest in the disco period seemingly inexhaustible, she has also just released a greatest hits compilation, much of which still sounds extraordinarily fresh and vital. Here she talks about her remarkable career.
You spent much of your early years in Europe. How did a gospel-singing teenager from Boston end up doing musicals in Germany?
When I first got the job singing with my original band in Boston, I was just walking down the street and I heard them. My curiosity took me up the stairs. They weren't even looking for a female singer, but I went in an auditioned, and they said: "Let's take her."
The band moved to New York, and we split. Somebody said there's a show on Broadway, and I had always wanted to be on Broadway.
Out of 300 being auditioned that day, two were taken and I was one. I have a big projecting voice - the kind you need for Broadway.
The next thing I knew was we were going to Germany in two weeks. I didn't have any money and the producer said: "Don't worry. We'll get you there."
One of the musicals you were in was Hair. Did your parents know about the nudity in it?
One night my parents did see the show, and they're very Christian in their beliefs. But, when they saw the naked scene, they weren't offended.
Not that they wanted us to be out there naked, but they realised that it wasn't pornography, that it was just a statement. You really couldn't see anything, you really only saw an outline silhouette of someone's body from behind.
The disco era was a very hedonistic time. To what extent did you live the life to which your music was the soundtrack?
Did I take different kinds of drugs? Yeah. Did I have more than one boyfriend? Yeah. I was as crazy as most people during that time. Was I extreme in that? I probably was moderate to middle.
I don't think that people really knew the damage that drugs could do at the time. I think it was just one big "Wow – let's have some fun."
Your first hit, Love to Love You Baby in 1976, had a very European sound, not to mention you faking orgasm for 23 seconds. Was it hard to sell it to America?
It started in Holland and went to France and the Benelux countries and kept spiralling. Then the BBC banned it and it took off.
America didn't know what to do with the sound we had. It wasn't R&B, it wasn't a pop sound, and radio wouldn't play it. So we went through the discos, where people loved it.
Then one radio DJ in New York started to play the long version at midnight every night. He was happy because he would get a 17-minute break, but his ratings started going up, and it snowballed.
When you look at that route to success, what do you think about the talent contest route to stardom that you judge on American Idol?
You probably can't tell from the television how much these kids work to win that situation. They go through hell. They're back there crying their heads off. They work those kids so hard.
Don't you think it's cruel to put young people through that for entertainment?
No, I don't. I think if they're not equipped to handle what goes on there, they're not ready to go into the business.
How innovative do you think your early music was?
I Feel Love was in its own time cutting-edge. As simple as that song is, people still regard it as a forerunner of a whole movement.
We tried to write other lyrics to the song, but it just crowded the beauty of what it was technologically. It's simple – just the lyric "I feel love", but it's something that anybody can sing, all over the world.
Do you still write songs?
All the time. My husband, Bruce, is a singer as well as a songwriter and producer.
So we're always writing things, always thinking about music.
And Giorgio Moroder - do you still keep in touch?
All the time. I see Giorgio when I'm in LA. We'll go out to dinner, and I'll call him and say I'm going to write with you today.
There are a couple of songs we've written that I really love, and hopefully we'll put them on the next album.
Why do you think you hit it off with him?
He has it in his own way as an Italian, and I have it as a black woman. It's a teasingness in our characters – a kind of cockiness.
Do you look back on your past and wish that you could have more of that kind of success?
I believe that in the future there is another form of success for me. I'm capable of matching my talent with the marketplace. Whether on the next record or the record after that. But I don't worry about success on that level. I make a good living. I do very well.
'The Best of Donna Summer' and 'Discomania' are out now on Mercury