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
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
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
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
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
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.