The Donna Summer Tribute Site

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DONNA SUMMER IS BACK

By Travis William

Without Elvis Presley, there would still be rock 'n' roll. Without Maria Callus, there would still be opera. Without Hank Williams, there would still be country. And (may god forgive me!) without Aretha Franklin, there would still be soul. But without Donna Summer, there would be no disco--that being both her crown and her cross. Coveting her crown were no lesser lights than Barbra Streisand, Tina Turner, Debbie Harry, Cher and Diana Ross. Yet Donna Summer remains the undisputed queen of disco, the only superstar of the era. The cross she bears is the demise of disco and the listening public's reluctance to let her step down off the throne and move on. To most, Donna Summer still means disco, but she believes she has much more to offer.

She was born LaDonna Andrea Gaines on New Year's Eve 1948, one of six children of working-class parents in Boston. Music became a force in her life early on as she listened to Mahalia Jackson and began performing in neighborhood churches. In high school, she became the lead singer in a rock band, Crow, playing in local dubs on the weekends and listening to Janis Joplin. Hoping to replace the departing Melba Moore, Donna traveled to New York to audition for the hit Broadway musical Hair. Instead, she was offered the part in the newly formed European touring company. Accepting the role, she left school and America.

Upon completion of the tour, Donna settled in Munich. During that time, she appeared in Showboat, Porgy and Bess, Godspell and The Me Nobody Knows and performed with the Vienna Light Opera. She married Austrian Peter Sommer, an actor she had come to know through her work. After the birth of her daughter Mimi, Donna effectively retired, fully intending to remain in Germany as a wife and mother. The story might have ended there except she soon became lonely and bored and left home alone every night with an infant while her husband went to work. For someone with the energy Donna possessed, a creative outlet was a necessity.

To fill her days and to satisfy her unfulfilled yearning, Donna began working as a backup singer at MusicLand studios. There she met up-and-coming producers Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte. One day, they asked her to help out by making a demo tape. "I was trying to give an idea," she says, "a feeling of the song so the writer could have a sense of it.' So for three minutes she moaned and vamped the words love to love you baby. In what might be an object lesson for every artist who sees fit to judge their own work, Donna remembers, "I didn't think the song was finished.'

In a music-business version of being discovered sitting at the drugstore counter, Casablanca Records chief Neil Bogart played the unfinished tape at a party and his guests kept requesting it over and over. Bogart contacted Moroder and asked him to create a longer version of the recording. The resulting 16-minute and 50-second song debuted on Casablanca's Oasis label. Falling from the charts twice, the song finally became a hit in Europe. Then 10 days before her 27th birthday, the song that Donna says "where the words never got written" reached number two on the Billboard charts in America.

Her marriage having fallen apart, Donna Summer anglicized her name and returned to the United States for the first time in more than eight years. She recalls having conversations where she would lapse back into German, the victim of culture shock. But even more shocking, she was now a pop star' Time magazine counted 22 vocal orgasmic simulations in "Love to Love You, Baby." Because of the character of the song, Donna Summer was marketed to the record-buying public as "The First Lady of Lust" and "Disco's Aphrodite.' It was a persona Donna says she never felt entirely comfortable with. Nevertheless, she made the most of it. The record went gold in 12 days and sold more than 40,000 copies in New York City in less than a week. Arriving just in time, Donna caught the emerging musical wave that became disco.

At the time, Eurodisco had been sweeping the Continent. Producer Moroder, who provided the music for the Academy Award winning film Midnight Express, and his partner Bellotte were at the center of it. They were the team most responsible for shaping the signature Donna Summer sound that developed after "Love to Love You, Baby." Recalling her early collaboration with Moroder, Donna remembers, "When I first started singing, Giorgio would say, 'No, no- that's too R&B.' He would make me sing things over and over again till he thought they were right in the middle of pop." It became a sound that transformed her from a mere disco diva into a superstar.

For those too young or too old to have experienced the phenomenon that was disco, you missed a great time. Sex and drugs were harmless pastimes, not pathogens, amusements not addictions. It was the last guiltless party, and Donna Summer supplied the music. From 1975 to 1979, while recording with Casablanca Records, Donna released seven albums, four of which were double-record sets. Of the seven, four went gold, one went platinum, one went double platinum, and one went triple platinum. Additionally, she earned the distinction of being the first female artist to have a number one single and a number one album at the same time--twice.

In 1979, Donna initiated legal action to sever her ties with Casablanca Records. Her original producing contract had been bought out; consequently, her compensation package was calculated using a foreign royalty formula that, according to Donna, resulted in her "receiving a third or even less" of what she was due. Though she has yet to repeat the kind of success she experienced during her tenure at Casablanca, it's not a decision she regrets. Bogart, the man who brought Donna Summer back to the United States and guided her in her meteoric rise, had fallen ill and his company had been acquired by Polygram. About her decision to move on, she says, "It didn't work anymore.' She does, however, lament Bogart's passing. "He was my mentor," she says. "I miss him a lot."

Extricating herself from her Casablanca contract, Donna became the first artist to sign with the newly established Geffen Records label. "David came up to me at a party and whispered in my ear, 'I want you at my label."' Of Geffen, she says, "He was such a music person. He was willing to nurture talent, and I need to be nurtured.' In leaving Casablanca, Donna was able to break out of a mold that had been created for her that she always found artistically limiting. Her first album on Geffen Records, The Wanderer, departed markedly from the disco sound for which she was renowned. 'David wanted me to do a dance record at that point," says Summer. "I was in a transition emotionally. Everything was shifting in my life: 'The title track climbed to number three in September 1980--respectable, but understandably disappointing after an unprecedented string of chart toppers. She characterizes that time in her life as traumatic. "It was very difficult, extremely," she says.

"I found myself in a serious mental and physical condition after being worked to death-nearly dying," says Summer. To save herself, she returned to God. "I believed in God my whole career, my whole life, since I was a little girl," she says. "God in that sense wasn't new." What was new was her commitment. "I had no alternative. God was the only door. Otherwise it was death. She feels the reasons behind the breakdown are "personal and nobody's business," saying only, "There were certain events in my life that were painful to me.' In her relationship with God, she found new purpose. "To love and not to hate. To be what I'm supposed to be. Everybody, in some way, needs that center. However they perceive it, whatever it is to them. They need to have that balance, because when you look around and see what's going on, it's terrifying out there!" She seems to exude a set of values-love, compassion, charity-that are more closely associated with Christ than with today's fundamentalist Christians.

Much was made of Donna Summer becoming a "born-again Christian.' At that time, the popular perception of what it meant to be a born-again was changing dramatically. For much of the late '70s and into the '80s, our do-gooding president Jimmy Carter represented, for most Americans, the quintessential born-again Christian. After the election of Ronald Reagan, the religious right attempted, somewhat successfully, to convert Christian fundamentalism from a grassroots religious movement into a potent political force. As a result of that, says Summer, "I think there are a lot of misconceptions about Christians.' Donna herself may have been the victim of one such misconception. When asked about statements she reportedly made that could be construed as homophobic, Donna sighs wearily with resignation, almost exasperation. These are old allegations she feels she has spoken to many times before, she says. "I don't know what to say about that at this point. It was over 12 years ago. At this point it's not even news.' She believes that by further discussing the nonevent, she extends its life. But understanding the sensitivity of the issue, she good-naturedly and unequivocally denies the story. "I never said anything like that in the first place--nothing like that ever came out of my mouth.' She further recalls, "It was really devastating to me as a human being to feel that people were saying things about me that were so far from the truth. It was painful to go through. It is still painful some- times." Reflectively, Summer points out, 'I have lived with rumors my whole career. People said I was a transvestite- hello!" In 1977, when that rumor surfaced in the press, she said, "You can't trace a rumor and you can't kill a lie." Today, as a mother of three, Summer is less concerned with what others say about her, She believes people can best be judged by their actions. Donna utilizes her time and her talents doing good works, among them, a benefit for Gay Men's Health Crisis in 1998 that raised $400,000. More recently, she performed at a concert for Nebraska AIDS Project. An accomplished painter who bemoans the lack of time she has to devote to her visual arts, Summer melds the modernist styles of Modigliani and Picasso. Using vibrant colors and bold brushstrokes, her ethereal figures offer a compelling look into her heart. Her work is currently touring Japan as part of an "Artists for Art" charity exhibit.

Whatever happened to the stratospheric career of Donna Summer remains a music industry mystery. "People like variety," she says. "It's just human nature and taste; you don't sit around eating ice cream every night.' By the early 1980s, disco had also become almost a caricature of itself (remember "Disco Duck"?). New wave became hip, and because of the movie Urban Cowboy, country became cool. Donna's departure from her signature sound may have also disappointed her fans. In 1982, Laura Branigan singing "Gloria" sounded more like Donna Summer than Donna Summer did. And as formidable as Geffen Records was to become, being with a new label without an established promotions department may have contributed to Summer's waning popularity. Whatever the reasons, the disco craze ebbed and the queen of disco faded with it.

In talking now about her life and her career, Summer speaks with a wisdom gleaned not from the climb to the pinnacle of success but from the descent to an orbit of a lesser star. "Money isn't more important to me than people," she says. She recounts a story about her granddaughter Vienna hearing one of her new songs. "On one of the high notes, she lifted up her arms and opened her mouth like she was singing. Only 2 years old and she already has the drama down." Laughing proudly, Donna describes Vienna as "a diva in training." Summer now lives in Nashville with her husband of almost 20 years, Bruce Sudano. Without prompting, she firmly states, "My career is what I do for a living. My family and my friends and the people that I love-they are my life."

Joining her on her current tour will be her two youngest daughters, who might perform if, as Summer says, "I can whip them into shape." The girls have formed a group and hope to embark on a music career next year, after the youngest graduates from high school. It is in talking about her daughters and the business that Donna reveals her own clearly ambivalent feelings. Asked about their potential for success, she says, 'There are a million talented and more talented people in the world. It's not just about talent, it's about a lot of things.' She wonders if 11 they have the guts to fight it through and live through the hard parts. Success is about the ability to sustain yourself, or to be sustained through the hard parts. That, I think, makes a professional:'

Though she won Grammys in 1985 and 1986 for her gospel recordings and had a number-seven hit in 1989 with "This Time I Know It's for Real," Donna says she knows about the hard parts. "Four or five years ago, right before the anthology came out, it just started to seem like everything was so difficult in the business," she says. "I thought, you know, I just gotta get out of the thing.' For her, the fun was gone. "I told myself I would get out when it wasn't fun anymore:' The anthology required her to review more than 8,000 pictures, and one day, lying in her entry hall looking up at slides against the skylight, she saw images of her- self onstage and having fun. In that moment, she says, her zeal for performing returned.

Though she does acknowledge the difficulty many people have had in the past perceiving her as anything but the queen of disco, she says, "I think that's going to change' ' Her new disc, Live & More-Encore! contains live versions of many of her old hits recorded during the taping of a VH I special, plus two new studio tracks. Explaining why she may have been pigeonholed, she explains, "It's harder for black people to cross over into different genres because people expect them to do a certain thing. That's changing now. But in the past, it's been a difficult struggle for a lot of artists.' Summer's voice sounds richer and more textured than ever before. Asked about her own sense of how she sounds, Donna says, "I have definitely matured. I don't need to wail all over the place. It's just not my tendency at this point." The music sounds joyful and fun, and it will probably be beyond anyone's power of self-control to keep their feet still while listening. It makes you want to move.

Moving is what the music of Donna Summer is all about. "People are always gonna dance," she says. As the queen of disco, she may well be the mother, or now possibly the grandmother, of dance, house and techno. She feels her 20-year-old hit "I Feel Love" still sounds contemporary. To her, that kind of music fills a basic need in our society. "In every culture, dance is such an important part of the way people interact with each other," she says. Her new CD may serve to introduce her music to a generation of club kids, most of whom were still in diapers when Donna Summer was last a super-star. Regardless of what the kids think, hearing "MacArthur Park," 'On the Radio" and "Last Dance" is sure to stir the hearts and libidos of many an aging disco bunny.

One of her new songs, "Ordinary Girl," comes from an autobiographical musical Donna created with Michael Omartian and Al Kasha. Alfred Uhry of Driving Miss Daisy fame will soon begin work on the script for the staging. A full-scale production number may be included in Donna's tour if it fits within the framework of the show. Rehearsal for Ordinary Girl which Summer will star in, won't begin until after the conclusion of the current tour and the recording of a new studio album as part of a new recording deal with Sony's Epic label.

"No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)" pairs Summer with Australian songstress Tina Arena, who sounds very good, though you will miss Barbra Streisand. Donna now assumes the senior diva role originally performed by Streisand. Recalling that collaboration, she says, "It was exciting for me. When I was in high school, 'People' came out, and that was my favorite song. I used to listen to that song over and over."

The first single released from the new album, "I Will Go With You," was first a hit when recorded in Italian by Andrea Bocelli and Sarah Brightman. Summer wrote new English lyrics and transformed the ballad into a dance recording. The song retains much of the original lushness but is now unmistakably a Donna Summer song. The second studio track, "Love Is the Healer," blends a wide array of sounds and styles. The message, however, comes purely from her heart. About commercial appeal, Donna sighs, 'When it's successful, it's supposed to be, when it's not, it's not;' she says. "I don't read reviews.'

About to embark on her tour, Donna Summer seems ageless. Her energy and enthusiasm are imparted to anyone who listens to her. Clearly excited, she points out, "This is what I do." It has been two years since her time out, which she, without bitterness, characterizes as playing "sheds." This time she will be performing in moderately sized venues from New York to California. On the 36 stops along the way, Summer hopes to entertain her old fans and engage a legion of now ones.

© 1999 Genre Magazine

 

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