HX Magazine March 6, 1998
story by Joseph Manghise
When Donna Summer was eight years old, she heard a voice in her head that
told her she was destined for stardom. "I was singing in church and I heard
the voice of God," she says. "The voice told me that I was going to be famous.
I burst into tears; everyone I told burst into tears. It was awe inspiring.
But I knew it was true."
The fact that Summer has gone on to become one of the world's best-selling
singers with an awe-inspiring 14 top10 hits, 4 number-one smash singles and
album sales in the 10 millions worldwide should cause a more than a few atheists
to take pause. And on March 16, she brings her God-sanctioned career to Carnegie
Hall for a concert benefiting Gay Men's Health Crisis, an event that Summer
seem truly excited about.
"I've always wanted to play there," she says on the phone from her home in
Nashville. "But it's also a bit daunting for a singer because Carnegie Hall
is associated with so many other great entertainers. We'll have to play to
the prestige of the hall. And I will tailor my show; it will be a little
bit different, more stripped down. I'll do the hits and a few little surprises,
some standards that are befitting the evening. I cannot wait!"
But playing one of New York's premier venues is just the latest achievement
for one of the disco era's true survivors. Born Donna Adrian Gaines on New
Year's Eve 1948, Summer grew up in Boston. When she wasn't busy hearing the
voice of God in church, she listened to Mahalia Jackson records and taught
herself to sing by doing breathing exercises.
The road to fame eventually led her to the stage. When auditioning for the
Broadway musical Hair in 1967, she landed a role in the German touring
company and subsequently appeared in European productions of Godspell
and Showboat. While in Germany, she met and married actor Helmut
Sommer. Although the couple divorced, Summer kept his name but Anglicized
its spelling. She started cutting demos and singing backup at recording sessions.
Through her studio work she met Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte. They began
working together and scored a minor hit in Europe with a song called "The
Hostage." But it was their next record, a 16 minute 50 second orgasmic opus,
that would forever change Summer's world.
In 1975, "Love To Love You Baby" became a worldwide smash, and Summer found
herself thrust into the limelight as a moaning, groaning bitch in heat. "I
was pretty goody-goody," Summer recalls, "but I got this image of a sexpot.
Actually it was hysterical to everyone in my family because the image was
so far from who I really was. It was like if you took Lucille Ball and made
her into Marilyn Monroe, that was the equivalent of what they did with me
for 'Love To Love You.' When my mother first heard the song she said, 'That's
not my daughter.' It was an adjustment to say the least. My family wasn't
exactly thrilled. I mean my grandfather was a minister!"
Summer says it was the late Neil Bogart, founder of Casablanca Records, who
masterminded the image that put her at the top of the charts. "He was a Svengali
to me, but he was also like a father, a brother, a mentor, a caretaker."
But while fans readily bought into the prepackaged sex- goddess hype, Summer
did not. "It was never me," she says, "but I still got tired of living up
to it. I didn't see myself as pretty or glamorous, but I knew I had a voice
and that I was intelligent. Neil helped me see myself differently."
The singer made the leap into acting in 1978 with the disco epic, Thank
God It's Friday, and her song from the film, "Last Dance" won an Oscar
for its composer, the late Paul Jabara. But as hits like "I Feel Love,"
"MacArthur Park" and "Hot Stuff" ruled the airwaves, Summer began to feel
the pressures of fame and sought escape through recreational partying. "Well,
I was a child of the '60s," she says. "I was in Hair, and unlike
the president, I inhaled!" But it was prescription drugs that almost did
Summer in. "I was suicidal," she says. "I was afraid to be alone, so my doctors
put me on medication that made it even worse. It got really scary. It was
like there was no place to hide, but somehow I got through it and it opened
the door to my creativity."
The experience also opened the door to spirituality for Summer. "When I found
the Lord, it was the only thing that brought internal stability to me," she
says. "I had tried everything. But when I found my way back to God, I finally
A second marriage to Bruce Sudano of the Brooklyn Dreams - who had performed
with Summer on her 1979 hit "Heaven Knows" - and a pregnancy made her take
some time out from her career. "I was over-exhausted and had been warned to
stop and stabilize my life. And I finally did."
When Summer returned to the spotlight in 1980, it was with a new label (Geffen
Records) and a new outlook. She scored more hits with "The Wanderer" and
"She Works Hard For The Money," but as inspirational songs like "I Believe
In Jesus" and "Forgive Me" found their way onto her records, some of Summer's
audience began to feel alienated from the singer. When she was quoted as
making some critical remarks about the homosexuality, the gay community also
turned it's back on her. Although Summer now denies making the comments and
says the whole incident was a "misunderstanding," she blames people's perceptions
of her religious beliefs as a stumbling block in the situation.
"People attribute certain things to a person when they become religious,"
she says, "but it's a very personal thing. Unless you've been in that place,
it's hard to understand. You see people on TV who are judgmental of others,
and that's not me. I'm not like that. When the dust finally cleared, there
I was. I believe the truth will always come out in the end. I'm still here.
I haven't changed. My approach to people hasn't changed. I've done a lot of
benefits for GMHC and other AIDS foundations all over the country. I think
you've got to do good deeds for everyone. The more you grow, the more you
become selfless. It's hard to become selfless in show business because your
self is always being projected back to you. But, basically, I am a simple
person. I'm not complicated in my regular life. I don't need a lot. My life
consists more of the people in it than the things in it."
Summer attributes her healthier attitude toward fame and life to what she
learned from another celebrity who was her neighbor in Los Angeles. "God
blessed me to know Sophia Loren," Summer says. "She's a remarkable person.
She taught me what it meant to be a celebrity and how to weave myself into
my celebrity but also be true to myself. She's also taught me how to deal
with things just by observing her."
Today, Summer lives a quiet life with her husband on their farm in Nashville,
where they moved three years ago. She has three daughters - Mimi, 24; Brooklyn,
17; and Amanda, 15 - and even became a grandmother last year when Mimi gave
birth to her own daughter. "I love it," Summer enthuses. "It's an honor.
I'm just happy that I'm alive to see this great happening." She has also
become an accomplished artist, and her paintings have been shown at exhibitions
and galleries in New York, Los Angeles and Miami.
But music still comes first for the original dance diva. Summer is currently
working on a stage version of her life story, which she hopes to bring to
Broadway. The show, titled Ordinary Girl, will feature a musical within
a musical, and Summer hints that there will even be a spot for her to perform
some of her classic hits. She is also negotiating with a former label to
cut a new album of songs from the play and was recently nominated for another
Grammy (she's won four) for "Carry On," a remix of a 1992 track that reunited
her with Giorgio Moroder. Summer has also recorded a song from Disney's The
Hunchback Of Notre Dame titled "Someday."
While her past successes loom large, Summer feels that her new music expresses
who she is today. "Any artist, if they are truly an artist, has to be true
to where they are, " she says. "I may always be perceived as a dance artist,
but people relate to my songs. I can go to the ghetto or to rich people's
homes and people relate to me because of my music. I have a sense on empathy.
I've suffered internal pain and losses, and I have a lot to offer. I've got
a gift that's meant to be given."