Sipping a Seven-Up in the bar of the Parker Meridien, the on-again, off-again, back-again, born-again patron saint of the disco dance floor is both unexpectedly disarming and downright down-to-earth. Donna Summer, born LaDonna Gaines 39 years ago in Boston Massachusetts, is, as Lily Tomlin might put it, "a real person, just like yourself." She doesn't moan, groan, bump, grind or preach the holy gospel. In fact, when she isn't talking about her career (re-shifting into high gear this month, on the heels of a new album), Summer seems most interested in talking about her California farm, her parents, her sisters, her husband (songwriter and Brooklyn Dreams member Bruce Sudano) and the babies she really loves to love: daughters Mimi, Amanda Grace and Brooklyn. (No, not Brooke Lynn. Brooklyn.)
In New York for a week or so to unwind, take in some theater and take care of some odds and ends, Summer apparently isn't too thrilled about returning to LA. "I'm sick of the place," she insists, in the steamy voice that fired a zillion Saturday night fevers. "Sick of the smog, sick of the boredom, sick of everything."
She has to go back to the east coast to make a new video and rev up for a tour that will take her halfway across Europe and back again to promote her new album on Geffen, All Systems Go. As far as the tour and the video are concerned, all systems are go. But her heart - or is it her soul? - will remain, at least for awhile, in Manhattan.
"When you're a creative person," Summer maintains, "you've got to be around creativity. You can't be around just nothing. Not that California is nothing. It's beautiful. A wonderful skyline. But after you've looked at that for a while, you're like: Okay. Now what?
I love the farm but I'd like to move it back here so I could go to the theater if I want to. The farm is about 50 miles outside LA, but nothing much is going on. Culturally, it's kind of dead."
Since she's been in town she's seen a great show she can't pronounce. "It was Les… oh, I don't know. Mess-er-ab? Abla? Abila?" She brings her hand to her face and laughs, finally settling on the nickname everyone else has been relying on: Les Miz. Another play she hoped to see, but hadn't yet acquired tickets for, was the Pulitzer Prize-winning Fences. "I heard that's really something," she enthuses, playfully shaking a headful of auburn curls. Then - speaking of really
something - she nonchalantly slips out of her jacket, revealing a black tube top and the hottest shoulders in this or any other solar system.
Pencil-thin, Summer says her number one priority right now is to lose about 15 pounds, "so I can eat my way across Europe."
She can't be serious - she looks that good - but she is. "My biggest problem is that I live to eat, and when you’re singing every night, doing two shows, you wind up eating at one in the afternoon and two o'clock in the morning. It's tough. So I have an exercise machine and a coach and just before I go out on the road I do an hour every morning and really restrict my diet: no dairy, no wheat, no read meat. Usually, I can take off five or six pound pretty quickly, but it looks like more cause I'm working out. Then, the minute I'm off the road, that's it. I have soufflés. I mean, you wouldn't believe it. I really go for the gusto."
In addition to tailoring her body for Europe, Summer also has to tailor her act, brushing up on her foreign languages ("So I don't sound like a complete fool") and making sure that each country's favorite Donna Summer song is properly placed in the show. "In Germany, for instance, there's a song called 'Lady Of The Night' that was a hit there before anybody else knew who I was. In Holland, my first song was called 'The Hostage.' It was also a hit in France, but very few Americans have ever heard it."
Europe is where it all came together for Summer, career-wise, first on the musical stage and later on vinyl. Her first stateside single, "Love To Love You, Baby" hit the charts in December of 1975 and stayed there for 14 weeks, hitting number one locally, number two nationally, going gold, and kicking off a musical revolution that almost started without her. Called in as a studio singer to record a routine demo, she reported for work, laid down a few tracks and then left with no contract, no deal, and no inkling that "Love To Love You…" would be released in American or anywhere else. The song made her a star and, by the time her Greatest Hits
album hit the charts five years later, she had already earned eight gold or platinum LPs and another eight gold or platinum singles, including the landmark "No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)." Penned by old pal Paul Jabara and co-sung by Barbra Streisand (People magazine called it a "dueling divas shootout"), "No More Tears" went gold in five different versions: as a single, a 12-inch, on LPs by each artist and then again on Streisand's Memories album.
Overcoming the death of a musical genre she was closely identified with and a series of personal tragedies which brought her closer to her family, and to God, Summer experimented with new rhythms and sounds and became one of the few artists to survive the era she helped define. Her last monster, "She Works Hard For The Money," was released over four years ago, but All Systems Go hardly seems like a comeback. Pure pop - like just about everything else she's done - and flavored with timely elements of synth and jazz, it's obvious that Ma Sudano isn't as culturally deprived as she thinks she is. And, comeback or not, it's a pleasure having her back in the spotlight.
First things first: Tell me about the new album.
Well, it's called All Systems Go and it's coming out in mid-September. It will hopefully [she begins to laugh] become a major major success!
Well. I have a theory. You do what you do until it becomes successful. Sometimes the audience is in sync with you and sometimes you're out of sync. Nobody's successful all the time. There's no predicting.
I guess if it's good…
Exactly. If it's good and you do it well, sooner or later it works. I like to look at Bette Midler's career. She's the perfect example of somebody who couldn't catch a break and then, overnight, it turned around for her and now she's got movies all over the place. She's in. She's made it. So, when it's your moment…
I guess that's true. I've always thought of Midler as a major star, but her career has had all these drastic ups and downs.
I've known Bette over the years and I think she's extremely talented. The Rose was just a - what's the word? Just a nuance of what she can do. Even in her stage show. She used to do a couple Tom Waits songs and they were just tremendous. I mean: the acting! It gave you goosebumps. I'm a singer coming from the theater and I was just transfixed. She's got some serious depth. Something about her like Bette Davis and all the "Old Hollywood" stars. A special quality - I can't describe it.
Do you find yourself becoming more emotional onstage when you perform now, as opposed to when you were starting out? So many singers say that, after a few years, they become more in touch with their material.
I think I can be more emotional now. I think my children have a lot to do with that. Plus, some things have happened to me in the last few years that have given me this experience to draw from. The problem is that I'm such an emotional person to begin with that, onstage, I have to draw the line of how far I'll go. Once I get to a certain point, I can't get back. And I don't know what happens after that point.
Has it ever happened?
Well, let’s just say I don't want it to happen in front of other people. I can't be that open onstage. So it's kind of a balance to tow all the time.
Do you have a character for each song, or each type of song?
Yeah. I make up a character for every song because I have to know who this person is. It's never Donna Summer. It could be this little French girl, some kid in the street, my daughter… I have a song on the new album called "Thinking Bout My Baby," and to me, it's a song about a girl who's walking down the street. She's thinking about her boyfriend because she just had a fight with him and she's looking for him. It's a nice song , a real mellow song. It's sort of like "Love To Love You…", in a way, in that you can put it out in a room and it doesn't invade you. But, at the same time, it seduces you. It's simple with nice vocals and a great saxophone solo. Very musical. I think you'll like it.
Will that be the first single?
No. The first cut is "Dinner With Gershwin," which was written by a young lady named Brenda Russell who had a hit record a couple of years ago called "So Good, So Right." It's about having dinner with Gershwin and the finer things in life. It's sort of a commemoration of him.
Stylistically it's very pop modern. It doesn't sound like me at all. It's kind of synthetic. No, that sounds terrible. It's kind of homogenized… no, that sounds worse. I don't know how to say it. High tech? Ugh. Anyway, you'll like it. The lyrics are great.
Do your children ever suggest material to you?
Oh yeah. You should hear those little girls. They're really funny. Mimi, in fact, is already writing songs of her own. She's been taking piano lessons for years and she just hears songs on the radio and plays them for me. I can't do that. I sit down [at the piano] and I'm still with the hunt and peck system. Hunt and pluck!
You wrote a lot of your songs - at least on the albums I remember.
I still write. I enjoy it.
How many songs have you written?
Oh, God. I don't know. [She thinks about it.] I don't know. Maybe you should ask Casey Kasem.
Is there any special process for you when you write?
I like to go into the studio and just have someone play the piano. I sit there and listen and then… it could be anything, even a sound. That triggers a lyric and that triggers a song. "Bad Girls" started with a lyric and we went into the studio and they played guitars and I wrote the whole song that way, singing it over and over again. I think I sang that verse a hundred times and we added things, chopped things, moved them here and there.
When you do "Bad Girls" or any of the other older songs in your act, so you change them in any way? New interpretations?
No. I don't change the way they're done. I make them longer or shorter but I find that people like to sing along, and it's not fair when you switch up on them. When you see people in Vegas or Jersey, some old star of theirs and they used to sing it this way, and now they're snappin' their fingers and going' "yeah. Yeah!" I hate that. I can't handle it.
There was a lot of talk when you first started to tour that you were some kind of studio creation - that you'd never be able to cut it live.
I think that when I first became famous I was just singing things like … [she puts on a sexy look] … "Aaaaw… love ta love ya, baabeee." So people didn't know what I was capable of. But I was a belter, doing Broadway musicals in Europe. So, it wasn't a problem for me. Other people thought it would be a problem to reproduce a lot of the technical stuff. The synthesizers, though, are not a problem at all. You just bring them with you. Nowadays, I only work with them to produce certain sounds.
How many people travel with you?
Oh, God. About thirty. Do you believe that? It's funny, because I was just going through this the other night, seeing how many seats we'd need and so on.
That does sound like a lot.
Well, there's myself, my husband - this doesn't include my children - my personal secretary and dresser onstage, another dresser for the band, stage manager, two lighting guys, two stagehands, a driver, sometimes two drivers, eight in the band, two sisters [her backup singers] … that's 20. Then you have two soundmen, the tour manager, two more people… it's just amazing. And naturally you have to pay for all of them. So, when you read about someone getting big bucks, it's not their money. When Madonna or one of these people goes out on tour, they're gonna make money but not the figures you see in the paper. No way in life. There have been times, even at the height of my career, when I've gone out on the road and come back owing money! The trick, the art of it, really, is find a way to keep it all down to a functioning unit and still get the maximum.
But even owing money, concerts still make sense from a promotional angle. They do sell records.
Oh, yeah. It's basically promotion. I do Vegas and stuff like that, for the money. It sort of balances things out. But the tours are something we have to do. You owe it to the audience. It's like signing autographs in a way. That's all part of it.
How about costumes? What do those little sequined numbers run?
No more than $10,000. I won't spend more than that.
$10,000? For one dress?
Well, they're stage clothes. Stage clothes have to be constructed. I used to do six or seven costume changes in one show, but the cost was just ridiculous. And that's before you go on the road. Costumes, sets, lighting design - these are all start-up costs. Pre-tour.
Is there any set formula in your act, as far as mixing in the older songs with the newer material?
Yeah. I try to sing a few old song, then a new song, some more old songs - you know, just mix 'em in. If I were to do just new songs I'm sure they'd feel cheated.
Could you see yourself recording an 18-minute song today? I remember "Try Me" was like 17 and a half minutes long.
On the new album, "Thinking 'bout My Baby" was originally a ten-minute cut. We cut it down to eight. And I had a real struggle with the company just for eight! They said it was too long, but I said, 'You don't understand something. This is a song people are going to want to hear.' And… I don't know.
Are you happy now?
Yeah. Sure. Happiness is what you make it, I guess. You can't walk around all the time and be happy. To me, happiness is more a steady sense of well-being. I went through a lot of trauma in my life in the last few years, as I'm sure a lot of people have, and it's been hard. Now, thank God, everything's quieted down a bit.
What kind of traumas?
So many deaths. My brother-in-law, my other brother-in-law, both in car accidents, my sister's baby, my uncle… I usually don't even talk about it. But it's also been a time of growth.
Yeah. I think these things have helped me grow spiritually by leaps and bounds, because death is just so final.
I have a quote for you. I don't know if you've heard it before. Billy Joel, discussing "art rock" groups like Devo, said, "Intellectually, the whole image of it is very well put together, but it doesn't make it on the radio. If I'm driving in my car, I'd rather hear Donna Summer - that's where it's at."
(Laughing) I like Billy!
Do you think about that, when you're putting something together - when and where people will be listening?
Oh sure. On the new album, there's
something subtle. There's the title track, "All Systems Go." It really moves, so you want to be in the car when you hear it, or on the dance floor.
In the early days, how prepared were you when everything hit? Were you ready for it?
I had already had some success by that time and was making, for my circumstances, good money. But I certainly wasn't prepared for what it became. I think everybody dreams about being famous someday but how famous is a different story. When it happens overnight it's hard to deal with because your life is so changed. That's the thing I had the biggest fear about. Even now. Get your mind ready, because when it starts up [again] you can't walk on the streets, you need bodyguards… it's no fun. And I like to shop. I like to go out. I don't want to be hassled.
How did your family deal with the success?
It was very difficult. I come from a very religious family. When "Love To Love You…" came out I had to beg them not to listen to it. I said, "Mommy, this song I did as a studio singer… they released it without my permission… and…" you know the whole story.
When did you find out that the song was released?
It's funny because I had been away. I was on a ship and I came home and there were all these telegrams and dried-up flowers on my door. I thought somebody had died. Then I called them and found out what happened. When they finally reached me, everyone was frantic because the record had become an underground hit in European clubs and in LA and the major markets and they needed me to come promote it.
At what point did you consider yourself a success?
I think "Last Dance." Certainly "Love To Love You…" opened the doors, but it wasn't until much later that people even thought I had a voice. When I sang "Last Dance" and it won an Oscar, I think that changed everything.
How tied up did you feel your career was to disco?
Very tied up, unfortunately. I would always say, "I'm not a disco singer, I'm just a singer. And people are dancing to it. But people always danced." I didn't understand the big deal. People just need to categorize you.
You had all those titles: Empress of Disco… all that crap. Any that struck you as particularly amusing?
None I want to bring up. But there were some doozies.
Oh, come on…
Nooooo thanks. I'm stayin' away from that one.
You had your greatest success at Casablanca. Did many other labels try to woo you away?
Oh, all the time. Everybody was telling me that [Casablanca was] ripping me off, but I didn't find that out until much later. Anyway, that's all water under the bridge.
How did you find out?
Well, see, my records were black marketed severely. At one point, I think, I was one of the three top black-marketed artists. And we're talking megabucks.
And you feel Casablanca was doing it?
Till today we don't know. But the black market pressings… some of them were better than some of the tapes my company was pressing. So they had to have real material from somewhere. I don't think they could have gotten it anywhere else.
I don’t think I've ever spoken to an artist who didn't get ripped off early on. I'm always shocked by the stories about the black artists back in the '50s, signing away co-author rights just to get airplay.
Yeah, but see the bottom line with a lot of that is they did that for favors and they got the favors and the favors were worth that much to them. When I first made "Love To Love You…" I didn't get publishing. I made millions on that record, but it went to Giorgio's company. Giorgio [Moroder] got the publishing. I had no record deal in America so there was nothing to cover it. I just had a European record deal.
How does all that work? It always sounds so confusing.
It's complicated. If you own your publishing and they put it on TV, you get money. If they print it, it's money. If somebody else records it, it's publishing money. In those days, I didn't write, so it wasn't relative. But after "Love To Love You…" I said, "This isn't right."
You met Paul [Jabara] in those days, didn't you?
Yeah, I worked with Paul in Hair in Europe. I've known him for years. He drove me crazy.
Because he's crazy. He's a crazy man. Nuts. Neurotic. He used to call me up in the middle of the night, 4 or 5 in the morning and say, "Did I do this good? Yeah? No? I'm gonna kill myself!" He's like a Woody Allen type. But now that I'm married, he's eased up a bit with the phone calls. He knows I'll kill him. We keep in touch but it's rough because I live so far out and he's too lazy to come out and see me. I know his whole family. His mother used to come to town and cook for me. Lebanese or Armenian or whatever he is.
Can I ask a trashy question about "No More Tears"? I know it's been like six million years already.
Well, I remember all these stories that Streisand was on time and you were hours late getting to the studio. The columns made a big deal out of it. Any truth to that?
I don't know. I don't remember. I might have been late. I had just finished eight nights at the Ampitheater and when we finished they threw this huge party. And, you know, you spend the whole night shaking hands and smiling. I smiles so much my cheekbones hurt.. So I might have been late. I remember I was totally exhausted. But, I couldn't have sung till my voice was ready anyway. If I was resting, it was because I wanted to do a good job.
Did you like Streisand?
I've liked Barbra ever since I was in my teens. The first song I heard of hers was "People" and I was just totally in love with her. Totally. I'd play it on the jukebox over and over again. I always likes r&b and Motown, but pop music was what I likes best. It was my musical taste at the time.
Do you have any aspirations for Broadway?
When the right thing comes along, I'd love to do Broadway. I've been thinking about it for years, but my career was just going too fast. There was no way to slow down. Actually, I'd like to do straight theater. I'd like to develop as a serious actress."
Who do you consider to be your contemporaries?
I don’t know. Anybody who's making records. Certainly Whitney (Houston) has gone way beyond anything anybody's done. So has Michael Jackson. Phenomena like that happen just once in a lifetime. And you can't control it. It's like some sort of divine coordination. There are people out there who are great, so great, but they never make it because there are things that are lacking in them. Somebody like Whitney just has it all. She has a great voice, she's pretty, she's smart. She didn't become successful through sex.
How about Madonna?
Madonna is a very talented girl, but the route I went [coming back from a sexy image] is a struggle. When you're ready to get away from that, ready to be taken as a serious actress or whatever, it's hard for people to take you seriously. Ultimately, though, talent is what speaks. Everything else is crap.
Any advice for Whitney - or any of the other new artists?
Yeah. (Laughing) Save your money! I'm sure she's already earned a lot. Be wise now because those years aren't going to last forever. They may last five years, four years. Some people don't even last that long. So take care of yourself. Be wise in the good years so when the quieter, less abundant years happen, you can live for the rest of your life on what you've earned. You're cool.
Are you cool?
(Smiling.) Sure, I'm cool. Can't you tell?