By John Townsend
Donna Summer is that rarest of rare artists whose very name is synonymous with an entire genre. Dubbed the “Queen of Disco,” Summer is perhaps the first superstar seriously to marry electronic technology with the human voice.
From gay nightclubs to state fairs to high school proms in the 1970s and ’80s, you could hear the soaring majesty of “MacArthur Park,” the haunting eroticism of “Love to Love You Baby,” or the righteous anger of “She Works Hard for the Money.”
Summer captured the zeitgeist of her time. Her tunes have big themes and vast feelings, delivered with transcendent and sumptuous passion.
These qualities surely were shaped by her girlhood experience in gospel choirs, and early adult years touring in musical theater productions across Europe.
And these qualities will be showcased in her performance at Mystic Lake on Pride Sunday, June 26.
I recently spoke with Summer by telephone about the wellsprings of her career, the Disco Era, and her thoughts on the interplay of technology and music.
How did your musical-theater experience influence your style? Would you say that it did?
Oh, definitely. Of course. How could it not? I was in theater in my teens, and I think it really helped my stage presence.
It helped me to not be afraid of the audience, and it taught me how to respond or react when things were out of order. Or when things were impromptu. It gave me a good sense of off-the-cuff-ness, or doing things that were not scripted.
Actually, I prefer to work unscripted. Some people like to write their whole show, but I don’t really like to do that.
I like to write some catch lines that I can hang on to through the show.
But once those become part of my routine and my thinking, I leave the “in-between” open, so that I have room to interact with the audience.
Otherwise, it doesn’t feel like I’m doing a show.
When you were in Europe, you did Hair?
I did Hair, Godspell, The Me Nobody Knows, Show Boat, and I actually played two parts in Porgy and Bess.
My favorite shows were Godspell and Hair personally, because I really felt like they were fun shows.
I had one of the biggest singing parts in Hair of any show in the world at the time. In most of the other companies [performing Hair], they had more people singing those songs, and in my show, I had more songs than any one person.
So, they divided up the songs differently between cast members in the various productions. I’d love to have seen you.
When I first read about your theater background, it made sense, because what’s always struck me about your phrasing and your vocal delivery is your descriptiveness through the lyrics.
And you relish the words. And your voice absolutely soars.
So, that’s why it struck me that your theater experience might have fostered that.
Now, I gotta tell you, you redid one of my all time favorite songs, and one that just so happens to be very dramatic and poetic: “MacArthur Park.”
It was originally sung so strangely and beautifully by Richard Harris. But before I heard your version, I had one of those “don’t go there” moments: She shouldn’t do that, as strong a singer as she is, with that particular song. Harris stamped his trademark on it.
But when I finally heard your version, I was utterly blown away. To this day, every time I hear it, I get goose bumps. You take us through an epic song that goes to many different places.
What was the reaction to it? It was a big hit, wasn’t it?
It was huge. Well, you really know what’s funny about that? It was a special song. I loved that song like you loved it. It was one of my absolute favorite songs.
I would never have chosen to sing that song. Never. Not in a million years. Because I would have thought, “Oh, my God, it’s so sacred.” You know?
I went into the studio one day, and Giorgio [Moroder] had done this sort of up-tempo version of it. I had no idea he had done it.
He just said, “Let me work on some different cuts, and we’re going to put this together, and we’re going to do this,” etc. And I’m, like, “OK, whatever.”
When I get to the studio, he plays that first track, about 20 seconds of it. I tell him to stop the track. I get up. I walk into the studio. I get on the microphone. I said play it, because I know the words. I said play the song—start all over. And they started at that point.
I recorded the song the way you hear it. There was one tiny mistake at some point. I don’t know if I was off mike, or whatever it was that needed to be fixed.
Then, they had me sing a safety tape, which they didn’t use.
But the take that’s on there is the one I did out of the excitement of the moment. It was a great track, and I was so happy with it that I didn’t want to change it.
Once I sang it, I said, “I’ll never get this feeling of excitement that I feel the first time I hear this track, so I don’t even want to hear the whole track. I’m excited. Let me just sing it.”
So, we did one take, and basically we got that one take.
Well, it’s for all time. I’ve got it on CD, and whenever I come across a jukebox where it’s available, I always play it again.
Thank you. [Laughs] You’re keeping my royalties flowing.
Of course, I’ve got to ask you about that duet you did with Barbra Streisand, “Enough is Enough.” She, like you, is a titan.
She’s a titan, seriously. The original.
So, what was it like working with Babs?
Babs is so sweet. I mean, Babs is very funny. She’s an incredible perfectionist, which really upped my game about 25 to 30 percent just being with her.
Whenever I’m [working] with anyone, I try to glean from them their experience. She was in the business longer than I was, and I always admired her.
She was very helpful. We had a lot of fun. We joked with each other. It was great. I had a great experience.
You both have phenomenal voices that worked so beautifully together. And that tune was from what’s known as the Disco Era. You and the Bee Gees were the titans of that realm. I keep using that word.
You can use that word, because the Titans is the name of our sports team here. I don’t mind.
OK! [Laughs] Well, when I was coming of age, disco was at the heart of my youth culture. And I’ve always felt that that got cut short. Do you think that it ran its course, or do you think there were more horizons to be seen?
There obviously weren’t, because it didn’t. I have the theory that if it were meant to be, it would be. So, I think probably whatever turns it was supposed to take, it took. And something evolved.
I mean, music is evolving. You know, there’s nothing new under the sun.
We keep coming back to old things that we reframe, restructure, and spit them back out, and go, “OK, this is new.” It’s just a new thing of the moment.
But nothing’s really that new. We all glean from somebody and somewhere else. And we all learn from other people. And I just think it ran its course.
You mentioned Giorgio Moroder. I think he’s one of the great talents of the 1970s and ’80s, but a lot of people don’t know about him. How would you describe his work and what he brought to the table?
First of all, let me say, Giorgio and I have known each other for an unbelievable amount of time. We were friends in Germany. We worked together, and this is just my opinion.
When I tell him this, he always blushes. Giorgio is an extremely humble man. An extremely kind, spirited man, and generous. He is so brilliant. He is so intelligent. So brilliant, it’s kind of scary.
He hides a lot of stuff that he does that’s actually amazing. If he doesn’t think that it’s commercial, he won’t play it to anyone.
So, I’d like to go for those tapes, and listen to them. He doesn’t play them for other people. And they’re brilliant.
I’m, like, “My God, Giorgio!” He says, “No, no, no. I don’t think that’s right for the market.”
So, for me, personally, he is, at this point, an underrated and unbelievably brilliant producer, arranger, writer. He’s just brilliant.
I loved the way he scored that re-issue of Fritz Lang’s silent classic, Metropolis, back in the ’80s. I think Moroder is underrated, too. I wish we heard more from him.
I’ve been working more with him over the last couple of years off and on. He really, in his own mind, thinks he’s retired.
The only reason he thinks that is because he doesn’t think there’s a place for him. But I keep encouraging him to get back in the game, because I think he’s got a lot more hits in him.
Good for you. I’m glad you’re doing that.
So, I’ve got to ask you: where is music going?
There seems to be a lot of dissonance and a lot of use of technology that excludes the human voice anymore. When I hear some singers, I don’t know if I’m getting technology or the human voice.
You could also say that in the Disco Era, there was more technology used than before, but I was always certain if that was a good voice or not.
Here’s what I think: I think that the industry of music is an industry. And like any other thing, it needs a product.
And sometimes, you find a person who is very attractive and a talented dancer—more talented in those areas maybe—and who still has a voice.
Not the best voice in the world, but a good enough voice that you can take technology, and create a real image around them.
And I think that in a lot of cases that is probably what’s happening. I think in terms of their performances in an overall sense, their performances are good.
And they’re able to earn a lot of money, because they’re attractive. They’re a good package and whatever.
In every generation, you have that element of people coming up who have that—not necessarily great, great singers, but who are good performers and so forth.
But I think that technology is there to be used. It’s going to always be used. I don’t think that people are going to turn away from technology, because it just keeps increasing as we go along.
It’s sort of like the advent of television or radio. When you turn that corner, you can’t go back.
So, I think once we turn those corners of what we can do musically, it’s impossible to go back. I mean, we can go back and sing a standard, or do some song from before the curve, but I don’t think you’re ever going to turn back the hands of time on that one.
Maybe I’m just being old-fashioned, but I find that many singers today don’t have the level of charisma approaching yours, or Streisand’s, or even Madonna’s. It’s like a fullness of voice and of psychic presence. Maybe I’m just set in my ways.
Well, I think that in my day, we were just drilled. And we were drilled in a lot of different ways. I was fortunate.
I think Whitney [Houston] came up in that same kind of structure, where she had a person with her, guiding her. Going, “No, don’t do this this way. Do it this way.”
When you’re performing, you can’t see yourself. You need to have someone who can reflect you back to you. And when you have that, you can develop as a great performer, and as a great person.
And you [also] know what the audience wants, and you’re able to give it to them—and for it to not really be bothersome to you.
Some people don’t really know how to caress an audience. And I think that’s part of the problem.
June 26, 7 PM
Mystic Lake Casino Hotel
2400 Mystic Lake Blvd., Prior Lake