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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.