It's been more than an hour and I'm frantically calling Donna Summer's publicist to make sure the interview's still on. Evidently the taping of the Leeza show ran a bit long. A few more desperate calls, plus our mutual confusion over the three-hour time difference between N.Y. and L.A., clarifies what it is to be a diva, and what it is to await one.
For anyone old enough to remember disco's heyday (as I am), Donna Summer is the Queen of Disco, the diva of '70s dance music. A sexual icon with red patent-leather lips, Summer practically invented the long-playing house music heard in dance clubs today, with songs like "Love To Love You Baby." Huge hits like "Bad Girls," "Hot Stuff," "Last Dance," and "She Works Hard for the Money" took her into the '80s, but her success--which emerged in a world of glitter balls, strobe lights, and platform shoes --fell victim to the same fate as disco. By the mid '80s she was off the radar, a mother of three and a born-again Christian.
But Donna Summer has always had a following. An odd mix of club kids, gays, and closeted dance-music lovers like myself helped sustain her diva status. Which is why an event like "Three Divas" with Summer, Chaka Khan, and Gloria Estefan--coming to Broadway's Lunt Fontanne Theatre Wednesday--has folks clamoring, scheming, and pulling strings for tickets.
By the time we finally hook up for the interview, true to form, the diva is so cool and self-possessed that I feel like I'm the one who should apologize.
"How are ya?" she says from her hotel room in L.A. in a voice that still has a trace of her Boston childhood.
Okay. Just give me a minute to make sure the tape's working.
"Okay. Do what you have to do. Don't worry. Hold on just a moment. Let me just chase these folks out of here. Guys, I love you," she coos to what I imagine is her adoring and ever present entourage. "You're beautiful, but I've gotta do an interview now."
I try to imagine what Summer looks like now. Press photos have that ageless quality that rarely captures the real person. And over the years I'm sure she's acquired a certain skill at manipulating her image, which only reminds me that she's a diva--whatever that means. After listening for a while, I realize there's a strange quality to Summer's voice. It mimics disco beats, which in normal conversation sounds like she's talking incredibly fast or that I'm thinking very slowly. It's a kind of syncopated rhythm that's usually discernible only after doing lines of coke. Maybe I'm having a flashback. After all, my fondest memories of Donna Summer are of coke-frenzied, club-hopping nights that ended with an eerie sense of time warp.
How do you feel about the idea of being called a diva? I ask, hoping to get some instant insight into the diva psyche.
"They've been calling me a diva all my career," she deadpans. "Dance disco diva."
There's a hint of irony in Summer's admission. In many ways, she's a reluctant, unassuming icon, if that's possible. Being a diva, apart from the celebrity aspect, is all about power, more specifically female prowess usually marked by tragedy--Billie Holiday, Judy Garland, etc. In many ways I find it hard to imagine Summer a tragic figure: vulnerable perhaps, but never tragic.
"My bodyguards always tease me about [being a diva]," she laughs. (Bodyguards are the accoutrements of divas.) "They call me "queen.' People call me the "Queen of Disco,' so they started making a joke years ago. People listening to them sometimes think they're serious, but they're joking."
Considering how diva is sometimes a synonym for difficult, I ask, "So what about performing with Chaka Khan and Gloria Estefan?" wondering whether these three will be able to share the stage together.
"I love Gloria and Chaka Khan," Summer gushes. It's worth noting that both Chaka and Gloria (divas need no last names) have been on the music scene recording regularly the last several years, whereas Donna has not. Exactly how they'll get along is part of the fascination. Will there be tantrums? Or will it be all air kisses, sweetness, and light?
"We're going to get together and see what we can do," says Summer. "All of us are doing bits of our own show, and hopefully we'll be able to work it out where we do something together, too. So I'm hoping that it'll work out."
While I can't detect any ambivalence in her voice, the prospect of sharing divadom must be unsettling.
"I've worked with Gloria, and I know Chaka from L.A.," she says in that familiar way that everybody in the business does. "But I don't think I've ever sung with Chaka. She's so fabulous--she's got the best voice." When asked what she's been doing the past few years, Summer says, "I've kind of been futzing around trying to figure out what I wanted to do with myself--with my own life. I've been touring more than anything. I felt it was necessary for me to be myself again, for me to get onstage and be a performer." She'd like to do a musical, and laughs, "I came from theater, and to theater I shall return."
And so she is, with "Three Divas" and a new single, "Whenever There Is Love," on the soundtrack of the new Stallone vehicle, Daylight. "Someone called me with this song--Bruce Roberts, who I've written songs with before and who wrote "Enough Is Enough.' I said okay, well, send me the song. And then David Foster called me, who I've known for years, and he said, "Donna, you've gotta do this song.' Then a third person called me, so I thought I better listen to this song." ("Whenever There Is Love" was penned by Roberts and MCA chair Edgar Bronfman Jr. under a pseudonym, Sam Roman.)
"I listened to the song, thought it was fantastic. So we got together, put the tracks down with David, and they took the tracks back to L.A. And then they did a dance mix with Junior Vasquez in New York."
Not surprisingly, it's the remix artists like Vasquez that have kept the essence of Donna Summer's music alive well beyond disco, though she has managed somehow to avoid the over-recycling that Chaka Khan has endured. Nonetheless, her sound is equally familiar to the club scene, as well as your average house party.
Summer says her audience now is composed of people who "grew up watching their parents go out on Friday night," but were too young to go with them. "Those songs are in their memory bank. So when they go to a club and someone plays "Stayin' Alive,' or Donna Summer, it's something they remember, even though they weren't really a part of that. It becomes their moment to explore that time."
All of which is fine and good, but I'm still trying to understand what makes a diva. "So do you see yourself as a diva?"thinking she's making some grand gesture on the other end of the line.
"Maria Callas was a diva. And so if I consider Callas's life and all that she achieved in her lifetime, then I would consider being a diva quite an accomplishment."