The Donna Summer Tribute Site

On Nashville, Christmas, Barbra and image-breaking: Q & A.

By Craig Rosen.
Billboard September 3, 1994

Billboard recently caught up with Donna Summer while she was putting the finishing touches on her Christmas album in Nashville. "Christmas Spirit" is due Oct. 4 on Mercury. Some of Summer's classic material will hit the bins on "The Casablanca Records Story," set for a Sept. 13 release. In our conversation with Summer, she spoke about songwriting, her long-awaited Christmas album and her early days.

BILLBOARD: What brings you to Nashville?

DONNA SUMMER: I've been in the process of looking for property down here; looking for a house and finishing up my Christmas album, which I recorded in part with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra.

BB: Although you are primarily known for your dance and pop hits, you have experimented with country music in the past. I've heard rumors you're working on a country record.

DS: When anyone comes to Nashville, people assume you come down to make country music and jump on the bandwagon, but that's not exactly why I came down here. I came down here to work on my writing. My husband, Bruce Sudano, and I wrote "Starting Over Again," which was a No. 1 country record for Dolly Parton !in 1980^. So it's not something that started this week or last week. We have been writing a lot of country songs. When I say country songs, a great song is a great song. I don't think it has a gender or a denomination, so to speak. That's the place we're I'm trying to get to. To the place where I write songs that work across the board. I find that a great many country songs are songs that anyone can sing, like Whitney Houston or All-4-One or Ray Charles. In Nashville, they just care about the songs and they have a lot of respect for songwriters.

BB: Have you been performing any of your new material?

DS: One of the things I have been doing since last year is singing some of the country songs that I have written. They have been going over very well. I sing them in more of a country vein than in a pop vein, with a little vocal twist.

BB: Does the fact that you are an artist with a successful track record on the pop charts help you in the Nashville music scene?

DS: I don't look at my celebrity as an entree to anything. I think it is important that people hold their own in everything that they do. I'm willing to bend down and be humble to get to the level I need to be at in another area. I have no problem playing in a small place. In Nashville, nobody forgets their roots. They are able to go play in a small club and nobody makes a big deal out of it. I like being here. It gives you a chance to be human.

BB: Do you feel like your songwriting talents have been overlooked?

DS: I think, because some of the songs were really big, people focus more on singing. They didn't consider a great number of those songs I wrote or co-wrote. When you're a songwriter and singer, it's always a toss-up between what is going to wind up on top. It's a wonderful feeling having another artist sing a song of yours.

BB: Are there any artists who you would like to see record your songs?

DS: Whitney Houston, Trisha Yearwood, Linda Ronstadt. Anyone with a great voice. I love to hear people sing great songs. I would like to get to the point where those great songs are coming out of me.

BB: You're recording your own Christmas album. Do you have a favorite holiday season recording? Will that influence your album?

DS: One of my favorites is the Nat "King" Cole Christmas album, which I listen to yearly. I also love Barbra Streisand's Christmas album. Every year, we will listen to almost all the Christmas albums and then we will revert to one or two of them, because they are the most atmospheric records and make us feel like Christmas. I've tried to analyze as much of that as I could and go with that feeling.

BB: What songs are you including on your Christmas album?

which I have recorded. I also recorded "The Christmas Song," "White Christmas," "O Come All Ye Faithful," a medley of three other Christmas songs, and "O Holy Night." That song starts off fairly conservatively, then it goes into a fairly funky, gospel choral in the end. This album has something for everyone. I co-wrote three new songs, as well.

BB: Why are you recording a Christmas album at this point in your career?

DS: I have longed to make a Christmas album. Every year I start off planning to do one, but then February and March roll around and it doesn't happen--my life takes off and I never get a chance to do it.

BB: It must have been a thrill to finally cut this album you have been planning for years.

DS: Yes, it was. Michael Omartian did a wonderful job producing, and I absolutely adored playing with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra. When they first started playing "White Christmas," tears just welled up in my eyes and I had to leave the room, because it sounded so beautiful and it had taken so long to finally start this project. It was just a wonderful feeling, and I think that comes across on the record.

BB: Was it hard to get into the Christmas spirit when you were recording the album earlier in the year?

DS: We did a lot of the final cuts right around Easter, so that was pretty peculiar.

BB: Aside from the Christmas album, I understand that you have been doing some work with Clivilles and Cole?

DS: We're doing two cuts to start. We've had a few writing sessions. Right now, their album's just out; next, we are going to finalize these cuts...After that, I'm going to start looking for songs and writing with people for a studio album next year.

BB: We've talked about the present and the future. Let's go back to the past. Your first big break was landing a role in the production of "Hair" in Munich, Germany. What were you doing before "Hair"?

DS: I was still in high school. It was the end of my last year, but I wasn't doing too well in school. I was in a rock 'n' roll band called the Crow, not be confused with Counting Crows. You can guess who the Crow was. I was the only black one in the group.

BB: Some people might be surprised that you were in a rock band. How did the Crow sound?

DS: We were kind of in the vein of Janis Joplin. We wrote songs with very hippy, kind of psychedelic lyrics. We were kind of in the Boston scene at that point. Then we went to New York. It was there I was discovered. I auditioned in New York for "Hair," but I was accepted for the show in Germany.

BB: Was it tough for you to leave your family and move to a foreign country?

DS: My father had lived in Germany and had been in the service, and he spoke fluent German. He and my mother used to speak German around me and it used to make me mad, because I couldn't understand them. So I went, because I thought it was a good chance to learn how to speak another language.

BB: Was it difficult to make the transition from acting in musicals to performing live as a pop singer?

DS: When you're in a musical, the emphasis isn't only on you. You have all this support happening. The biggest adjustment was learning to fill up the stage, on my own. There are band members up there, but the main focus is on you as a person. You are given an hour or two on stage and you have to keep the people busy.

BB: You and producer Giorgio Moroder worked very closely for much of your career. How did you first meet?

DS: I came into the studio to record some sound bites for a TV commercial. I was with a couple of other girls. Giorgio heard me sing and he liked my voice, so he asked me if I would put some vocals on some of his demos. Eventually, we became very friendly. We never dated or anything, but he was like a mentor to me. He was like a big brother. He was very protective, and he really looked after me.

BB: Tell me the story behind your first big hit, "Love To Love Baby."

DS: I told Giorgio that I had an idea for a song, and I sang the melody to him and he put down a track. I came into the studio the next day and he wanted me to put down my vocal, but I wasn't really prepared, so I ad-libbed, and that was left on the song. I was goofing around. I was lying on the floor moaning and we were all hysterical. It was just too funny.

BB: But no one really took it as a joke. It became a hit and you were saddled with this sex-goddess image. How did you feel about that?

DS: I was very down-to-earth and I still am. I'm not saying I am not a woman with a certain amount of physicalness, but I certainly was not that particular type of woman. That woman had to be created. Casablanca worked very hard at creating that image around me, but I was never very comfortable with that image, because that is not me. I wanted to be taken seriously.

BB: How did you break away from that image?

DS: I think "Bad Girls" turned it around. I was becoming more sassy. The original image was a victim of femininity. When the "Bad Girls" album came out, I was able to make other statements and be other women.

BB: Over the years, you have had more success on the pop charts than R&B. How do you feel about that?

DS: I probably left the U.S. as an R&B singer and wound up being a Europop singer. Somewhere along the way, everything got a little mixed together. So I was an oddity for most people. I wasn't considered a black artist. I wasn't white in my skin, but my music was more in that pop genre, so I established a place for myself, which was good on one level and bad on the other.

BB: How?

DS: When people in the business don't know where to put you, they sometimes put you out.

BB: Did you feel that it was necessary to record the 1978 "Live And More" album to prove that you weren't just a studio creation?

DS: It was always rumored that disco singers can't sing. It was all hype from studios, the engineers and the producers. It's all producers' magic. I just felt that having come from a real history of theater and music, it was time for me to get up there and sing. I had been touring for a while, and my record company really felt it was important for me to do a live album to show all the colors that they felt were there.

BB: It must have been interesting for you to go back and listen to all your old material to compile 1993's "The Donna Summer Anthology."

DS: You don't realize what a body of work you have until you have to go back and listen to it all. It brought back a lot of memories. It was kind of like reliving my life. It was fun, it was sad, it was poignant and a revelation all at the same time.

BB: What was it like working with Barbra Streisand on "No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)"?

DS: It was fun. She's a funny girl. She did a lot of funny things. There was a lot of comedy going back and forth between us. I had just finished eight nights at the Universal Amphitheatre. The next day, we had this recording session. Barbra and I were in the studio singing and we were holding the high note on "Enough is Enough" and I didn't breathe right. I just held the note too long and I fell off my stool. Barbra kept holding her note and then at the end of note, she said, "Are you all right?" It was hysterical, because by the time she asked me, I was coming to. I hit the floor and it jolted me. She didn't stop holding her note. It was the height of professionalism. She thought I was playing around.

BB: "Anthology" contained some previously unreleased material from the aborted "I'm A Rainbow" album. Why was that album shelved?

DS: David Geffen didn't think there was enough dance music on the record. It wasn't what he was looking for. It was like having a miscarriage. I don't go into the studio to have an album canned.

BB: "Don't Cry For Me Argentina," which was originally to be released on "I'm A Rainbow" and finally issued on "Anthology," was sort of going back full circle for you to your roots in musical theater.

DS: It's like the song belongs to me now. It's almost like it's my song. I know it may sound presumptuous, but I don't mean it to. I just feel such a connection to that song. I feel like so many things have transpired in my life and my career, and I wind up back with the audience, where it all begins.

 

DONNA SUMMER'S TOP 20 HITS

1 Hot Stuff June 1979
2 Bad Girls July 1979
3 MacArthur Park November 1978
4 She Works Hard For The Money August 1983
5 Love To Love You Baby February 1976
6 Last Dance August 1978
7 Heaven Knows March 1979
8 I Feel Love November 1977
9 No More tears (Enough Is Enough) November 1979
10 Dim All The Lights November 1979
11 The Wanderer November 1980
12 On The Radio March 1980
13 Love Is In Control (Finger On The Trigger) September 1982
14 This Time I Know It's For Real June 1989
15 There Goes My Baby October 1984
16 The Woman In Me February 1983
17 Cold Love January 1981
18 Walk Away October 1980
19 I Love You February 1978
20 State Of Independence November 1982

Donna Summer's top 20 singles from the Hot 100 were computed by Chart Beat columnist Fred Bronson, using a point system he developed for his book, Billboard's Hottest Hot 100 Hits. Dates listed are month and year in which single peaked. All singles are by Donna Summer except for "Heaven Knows," credited to Donna Summer with Brooklyn Dreams, and "No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)," a duet by Barbra Streisand and Donna Summer.

� 1994 Billboard 

 

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