Population control advocates might find Donna Summer a problem. Not that
this sultry beauty is indifferent to the crisis of ecological overcrowding,
it's just that the libidinous, driving rhythms of her last three gold Casablanca
albums- Love to Love You Baby, A Love Trilogy, and The Four Seasons of Love-
are so intensely steamy that listeners are spontaneously transported from
the vertical to the supine, from the aural to the oral. More than mere vinyl,
these discs are aphrodisiacs, finding a berth on the bedroom shelf next to
the love oils, satin sheets, and other erotica for the adult playpen. One
wonders if, nine months after Valentine's Day, 1976, there was a baby boom
tantamount to the one following the East Coast blackout. It was on that day
that Donna Summer's "Love to Love You Baby" led Billboard's Hot 100 and that
the phenomenon of disco sex rock, engineered by Casablanca president Neil
Bogart and producers Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte, hit with full force.
Across the nation, disco babies and hot-blooded hipsters gyrated to the orgasmic
vocalizing of Donna Summer. Time magazine cited twenty-two recorded orgasms,
but whatever the count, "Love to Love You Baby" created a niche in rock history
for Donna, sending the Boston-born-and-bred songstress to the airy perch
of glamour and affluence along Beverly Hills's Benedict Canyon.
The Donna Summer domain is a bit crazed on the bright December day when a
friend drops me in the leafy paradise. Outside the house, a film crew, shooting
footage for German television, attempts to simulate a winter wonderland as
a backdrop for Donna's rendition of "Winter Melody" from her Four Seasons
of Love album. A dog snaps at a portly fellow throwing "snow" in front of
a wind machine, creating a blizzardy unreality in the eighty-degree weather.
Inside, a fire blazes in the hearth, telephones ring, spaghetti boils on
the stove, and photographers, friends, and assistants troop in and out. Hardly
the court I had expected to find for the First Lady of Love. Brainwashed
by Casablanca's superlative supersleek publicity machine, I had hoped to
find Donna languorously lying on the front lawn in a sheer silky chemise,
surrounded by exhausted hot-blooded males while breathily singing, "Let me
know the wonder of all of you." Or Donna emerging from her swimming pool
in a see-through, skin-tight jersey showing ample breasts and thighs, childishly
giggling while beckoning, "come with me." Or Donna stretched out seductively
on a couch, eating a fig and singing, "I know we can make it," while a monkey
perches on a cornice, a peacock glides by, and a leopard lies at her feet.
At least Donna's entrance into the room is not disappointing. Wrapped in
fur, she glides in, leaning against the door, affecting a Rita Hayworth
come-hither pose while "Winter Melody" blares on the stereo. Then, without
missing a beat, she slides into a knock-kneed position, crosses her eyes,
and sticks out her tongue. From Rita Hayworth to Imogene coca.
Haphazardly snatched between the phone calls, temper clashes, and television
filming, a few minutes of conversation confirms the likely suspicion that
Donna Summer, Love Goddess, is an assumed role. She is particularly good
at projecting an image because her roots are in theater. Eight years ago,
she traveled to Munich from her home in Boston to play the role of Sheila
in an international company of Hair. Finding herself in the exotic position
of being one of the few black women in a land of the fair-haired (and liking
it), she quickly learned the language, joined the Viennese company of Hair,
and stayed to play roles in the German companies of Godspell, Porgy and Bess,
Showboat, and The Me Nobody Knows. Her sensuous image, she admits, is only
one facet of her personality, but she is not impatient to demonstrate her
other abilities. That will come in time, she murmurs. Meanwhile, three albums
carefully produced along those lines have achieved the recording alchemist's
dream of turning vinyl into gold, and she's content to ride out the possibilities
of a career that has been carefully nurtured by her manager Joyce Bogart,
by her publicist Susan Munao, and by her producers Giorgio Moroder and Peter
Bellotte. It was the latter two who discovered Donna when she was doing backup
vocals for a demo at the Musicland recording studios in Munich. The newly
formed trio hit pay dirt with the two singles "Lady of the Night" and "Hostage,"
which made Donna Summer a star in Europe. Her calendar was soon filled with
television commitments and requests for personal appearances. Cued by the
success of the breathy, moaning cadences of the European hit "Je T'Aime,"
Bellotte, Moroder, and Summer wrote "Love to Love You Baby" and, despite
some reluctance on the part of the producers, cut it in the studio. The record
did poorly in Europe; it was a departure from Donna's previous hits dealing
with social commentary.
However, "Love to Love You Baby" was one of the three cuts that struck responsive
chords in the imaginative genius of Casablanca's president Neil Bogart. As
the creator of Buddah Records in the sixties, he earned the title of Bubble
Gum King by churning out hits like "Yummy, Yummy," "Chewy, Chewy," and "Simon
Says" in an era dominated by acid rock. However, Bogart's multimillion dollar
record company was a fledgling vision when Moroder walked into the modest
offices on Sunset Boulevard. Despite his enthusiasm for the record, something
bothered him, something he didn't realize until he arbitrarily slipped it
onto the turntable in the course of a party at his home. "The whole mood
of the party changed," Bogart noted. "People started dancing, and there were
constant requests for replays. I then realized what was bothering me about
the record. It was too short." Bogart placed a long-distance call to the
Munich-based Moroder and demanded a twenty-minute cut of the record. Weeks
later, New York discos repeatedly played the record, catalyzing the momentum
that would send it to the top of the heap and plop Donna Summer into a house
commanding a magnificent view of Hollywood and its ribbon of freeways.
Looking out on that view and talking about the chain of events that brought
her to this point in her life, Donna is cool and reserved. She shows little
amazement at what most people would consider a rock fantasy come true. It
is almost as if she has always been a star and that the world has finally
come to acknowledge the fact. I'm not very good at playing this game, she
mentions matter-of-factly, talking about her fame while waving her hand to
encompass the vista below. It's not easy for Donna to play the phony, says
one of her associates. Throughout the day, one gets an indication of this
aspect of her personality. If Donna looks tired, she complains that she is
tired. If she's grumpy and short-tempered, she shows it. Her other emotions
are as up front as her sensuality. But she can be thoroughly professional.
Following her New York debut at Roseland in the concert "A Summer Rose,"
After Dark magazine hosted a party for Donna at Backstage Restaurant, where
an enthusiastic crowd waited to greet her. Throughout the evening, she was
accessible, cooperative, and charming. However, the following week, I bounced
into Bloomingdale's on Saturday afternoon and noticed Donna talking with
associates near the Mary Quant booth. Not recognizing me from the week before,
she gave me an intimidating stare as I started to approach her to tell her
that late telegrams had arrived for her at the office. When I identified
myself, her frozen stare turned into a warm hello, but the previous look
was an obvious warning to any would-be intruder not to invade her territory.
It's a star's prerogative.
Donna's reviews for the above-mentioned concert were largely uncomplimentary,
but she remained unfazed by them. "I can only do the best I can under whatever
circumstances," she replies. "I can't exert too much energy crying or rejoicing
over my reviews, because I've just got too much to do." The reviews were
unfair to some extent. Donna was laboring under horrendous sound conditions
at Roseland. Furthermore, the critics, aware of the publicity push for the
First Lady of Love, created a backlash that unfairly ignored this lady's
impressive talent. Her voice contains a strong, lyrical quality frequently
overshadowed by the lush arrangements of her records, and she has an inherent
musicality that is superb. Barry Manilow has expressed his admiration for
her rendition of his "Could It Be Magic," which enjoyed a different life
through her disco recording. While the disco market has been her entree into
the rock-pop pantheon and while Casablanca's ingenius publicity campaign
has made her instantly recognizable to the masses, her formidable talent
has been left waiting in the wings, like an actress itching to perform her show-stopping number. But Donna is not impatient about that, either. Like
the facets of her personality outside her current image, her reserves of
talent will emerge in time.
Like many of her black sisters in show business, Donna's talent was nurtured
in the church. It is ironic that the girl who would become internationally
famous for her "sexcitation" would choose Mahalia Jackson as her childhood
idol and cause churchgoers to shout hallelujah when she sang out Jesus' songs.
As one of six children (five, girls, one boy) born to an electrician and
his teacher wife, Donna grew up in a boisterous middle-class Boston neighborhood.
She recalls her childhood as a happy one, but in large families, children
frequently feel lost in the crowd unless they excel at something that makes
them stand out. Since scholastics were always a pain, Donna chose music,
asking her father if she could drop out of school to pursue a career in music.
That could have happened were it not for the scholastic merit exams that
placed Donna among the top ten in her school, despite her average grades.
It's a telling episode. If Donna is interested in something, all of her faculties
are on the alert. But if she is bored or distracted, she will feign ignorance
or disinterest. She possesses an agile, dexterous mind, but it needs prodding.
Otherwise, Donna might be regarded as a dull, petulant little, girl.
Donna's most successful prodder is her boyfriend Peter Muhldorfer, a
twenty-seven-year-old German surrealist artist, who Donna met in Munich.
His dark, frequently grotesque paintings decorate the house, and the themes
frequently involve a piano or a microphone or other paraphernalia associated
with his girl friend's career. One of his paintings shows a black arm grasping
the decayed shaft of a microphone. The mike is a cracked eggshell with a
disembodied human mouth, eyes, and pupils floating in place of part of the
eggshell. Peter once told a reporter that it was a surrealistic representation
of what people are doing to Donna. I guess it's not easy to be the lover
of the woman who represents a new wave of sex rock physically manifested
by the gold records and other awards that are crowded onto one wall of the
house. It is curious that throughout the house there is pandemonium and strewn
material everywhere, except in the bedroom, which appears untouched, as if
the sex goddess had time for everything but sex. At any rate, with her doll-like
features and royal share of talent, Donna Summer has reached the threshold
of a career that should take her into television and especially films, given
Casablanca's partnership with Peter Guber's Filmworks. Perhaps the most
expressive of all the paintings and other memorabilia in the house is a small
snapshot of Donna that, for some reason, has been torn into pieces and pasted
together again- another perspective on the many seasons of Donna Summer.