Clad in a curve-hugging outfit and platform heels, her auburn-tinted tendrils
flying and an entourage of five fluttering about, Donna Summer makes an entrance
worthy of a disco diva. But Studio 54 this isn't. Summer's current stomping
ground is a 104- acre expanse in rural Tennessee-and there's not a disco
duck in sight. "Welcome," she says, "to my little farm retreat."
Today she's a 50-year-old grand- mother, but in 1975, Summer suggestively
moaned her way into public consciousness with the infamous, 17- minute "Love
to Love You Baby." After that, in quick succession, came the polyester-era
classics "Bad Girls," "Hot Stuff" and "Last Dance." When the boogie died
in the early '80s, Summer, a born-again Christian since 1979, began to release
moderately successful gospel albums, plus some rock singles. Torn between
genres, Summer says, "I didn't know who I was in the business."
So she retreated to her family: her songwriter husband of 19 years, Bruce
Sudano, and their daughters Brooklyn, 18, and Amanda Grace, 16 (her daughter
from a previous marriage, Mimi, 26, lives in Baltimore and is a full-time
mom to daughter Vienna, 18 months). Summer also embraced a quieter kind of
art, painting neo-primitive works and selling them through a Beverly Hills
"We don't go out on Friday nights," says Summer of her family, who left their
L.A.-area home in 1991 and now split their time between the farm and a house
in Nashville. "We'll go see a movie sometimes on Thursday, when it's less
crowded. Or we just stay home." Says Sophia Loren, who lived near Summer
in Thousand Oaks, Calif., in the '80s: "Family was everything to her."
Homebody country girl she may aspire to be, but her last dance hasn't come
yet. Summer, who with Sudano has penned songs for such country stars as Dolly
Parton and Reba McEntire, never abandoned music entirely. While she was putting
together her greatest-hits album in 1993, she once again heard the siren
call of the stage. "Looking at the performance slides," she says, "I thought,
'That's me. That's what I'm supposed to be doing."'
So Summer began to engineer a comeback. This month, Epic Records releases
a live album of Summer's new pop-dance songs, and VH1 airs her first televised
concert. In July she embarks on a 35-city tour. The CD's first single, Summer's
take on Andrea Bocelli's ballad "I Will Go with You," has just been released.
"It's a great energy-infused pop-dance song," says Billboard's dance-music
editor Michael Paoletta. "Both lyrically and vocally, she's on."
Summer loved music from the start. The third of seven children of Andrew
Gaines, 74, a retired electrician, and Mary Ellen, a teacher's assistant
who died in 1995, she grew up in Boston, where her idols were gospel singers
like Mahalia Jackson. Summer and her five sisters would "do the Supremes
on the front steps" even though "I sounded exactly like Alfalfa," she laughs.
'I had this high, squeaky voice. People made fun of me." Then one Sunday
the minister of her family's Episcopalian church asked the 8-year-old to
sing. "This voice just shot out of my body," she recalls.
"It brought tears to my eyes," her father says. "She turned the lights on
in the church."
Summer lit up more secular halls when she joined a touring German production
of the musical Hair at 18. While in Europe she met her first husband and
Mimi's father, Austrian actor Helmut Sommer (she took his name, changing
the spelling), whom she divorced in 1976. She also met music producer Giorgio
Moroder, who launched her career with the pulsing "Love to Love You Baby."
A smash in Europe in 1975, the song soon made it back to the U.S., much to
Summer's embarrassment. 'It was," she admits, "racier than my parents ever
imagined me doing."
The song, which Summer typically performed with a machine blowing steam between
her legs, made her an overnight sensation. "People would be taking their
clothes off and throwing them at the stage," she says of her '70s concerts.
Summer went on to win five Grammys and party regularly at Studio 54 but says
she was never close to fellow disco stars such as Gloria Gaynor. Indeed,
she soon wearied of her high profile: "I lost my freedom and my privacy."
She found refuge with Sudano, a singer in a now-defunct disco band, whom
she met at a party in '77. 'We just hung out and wrote songs," says Sudano,
who adds that Summer was never a diva to him (though she admits that he would
carry her shop- ping bags "in the days when I would drop $20,000 at a time").
How would the ex-disco queen describe herself now? "Donna Summer," she intones,
"empress of herself."
Julie K.L. Dam
Kelly Williams in Nashville and David Coleman in Chicago
Photo by Steve Jones