She Works Hard for the Love of It
It's good to be known as the queen of something -- especially something widely and wildly influential -- even if that something is long gone. Donna Summer doesn't mind being called the Queen of Disco, but she wants to be known for more than her classic dance-floor anthems of the late Seventies.
Besides a slew of crossover R&B and pop hits (fourteen of them placed in Billboard's pop chart, including four that reached the top slot), Summer won a gospel Grammy to sit next to the three she has won in pop categories. Summer and her husband, producer Bruce Sudano, have worked on a variety of projects in their home studio in Nashville, and they co-wrote the title song for country diva Reba McEntire's album Starting Over. And beyond her showbiz pursuits, Summer is an accomplished visual artist whose works have been shown in galleries in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, and Nashville.
But with the resurging popularity of Seventies-era disco, Summer is again the diva du jour. Her pulsating, synth-driven '77 hit "I Feel Love" was resurrected in a remixed version by London techno-pop hipsters Rollo and Sister Bliss, and it made the Top 10 on Billboard's Hot Dance chart. There was also the late-'96 release of I'm a Rainbow, a previously unissued double-album cut in 1981 with her Svengalic producer Giorgio Moroder and songwriter Pete Bellotte (her last collaboration with the team responsible for her early hits). Unlike many recently resurrected disco icons, Summer is no nostalgia act. She never really went away, having continued to make music through the Eighties and Nineties.
During a recent phone interview from her home in Nashville, Summer says she has no secrets to the longevity of her career. "It's just the grace of God," she exclaims. "I thank God for whatever it is, because there are just so many talented people out there who are unable to perform for whatever reason." She does, however, have a few theories regarding her increased popularity. "At the time I was becoming successful, a lot of people started having kids -- kids who are now about college age. Music is heard by kids, it seeps into their minds, and now they associate good things with that era when they hear the music at clubs. The kids that come to my shows come up to me and say, 'Since I was three I've been listening to your songs.' There's a built-in familiarity, because the kids know the songs from when their parents played them fifteen years ago."
But Summer insists this isn't a comeback. "With the record industry where it's at -- and this is not to take away from the new, young people coming out -- sometimes people get a taste for old things again," she says. "There are periods when I was working till I was gonna faint, then there were dead periods when I wondered, 'Did the music stop?' And then things would start to rev up again. You've got to do what you do because you love it. Focus on the craft, not on success. That way you'll be ready for the task. It's a wonderful place to be when you've stored up what you have to share with people and that drawer is about to be opened. I've always felt the need to share some of my life with people, so that they know they aren't alone. Life hits everyone, and we all suffer through things. It's just that most people don't have to do it in public."
Public life began early for the Boston-born Donna Gaines, who started singing with her church choir at ten. In her late teens she made the move to New York City, and she later landed roles in European productions of Hair and Godspell in the late Sixties. While in Germany she married Austrian actor Helmut Sommor (she divorced him, but kept an Anglicized version of his name). She eventually joined the Vienna Folk Opera and performed in Porgy and Bess. Summer met up with producer Giorgio Moroder and his songwriting partner Pete Bellotte while doing back-up work for a Three Dog Night song at Munich's Musicland Studios. Summer, Moroder, and Bellotte helped pioneer a new type of dance music: Eurodisco, a slick concoction driven by throbbing electronics, sweeping synthetic orchestrations, and sensual, floating vocals. After a string of European singles on Moroder's Oasis label (which was later licensed to Casablanca Records), Summer was introduced to America in 1975 via "Love to Love You Baby," a seventeen-minute epic featuring an orgasmic vocal and a watery dance groove that helped usher in the grand disco era.
Over the next three years Summer showcased her distinctive and versatile voice -- which could purr sweetly, reach soaring falsetto highs, or knock you back with sheer gospel power -- on five successful and influential albums: 1976's A Love Trilogy and Four Seasons of Love; 1977's I Remember Yesterday and Once Upon a Time; and 1978's Live and More (which contained her cover of Jimmy Webb's "MacArthur Park," Summer's first Number One pop song and one of the most quintessential songs of disco's decadent, campy heyday). During this time she also released one of her favorite songs, "Last Dance," the Grammy- and Academy Award-winning theme of the film Thank God It's Friday. "That song reminds me of all the special people in my life who are not with us any more," Summer says fondly. "It's a song I really love to perform."
In 1979 Summer took a surprising new direction with Bad Girls, which fused Moroder's electro-dance sounds with elements of funk and hard rock. The double-album produced three hits: the rocking title track; the incendiary "Hot Stuff"; "and the warm, slow number "Dim All the Lights." With the crossover success of additional hits "Heaven Knows" and "Enough Is Enough (No More Tears)," a duet with Barbra Streisand, Summer was at the top of her game in 1979.
The following year, however, brought a mixture of success and heartache for Summer. She married Brooklyn Dreams vocalist Bruce Sudano and switched over to Geffen after suing Casablanca president Neil Bogart and his wife Joyce, Summer's manager, for mismanagement. Her critically acclaimed rock- and new-wave-flavored album The Wanderer didn't live up to sales expectations despite producing a Number Three pop hit with the title cut and a Top 40 rocker in "Cold Love." It was also the place where Summer revealed her born-again Christian passions with the self-explanatory "I Believe in Jesus." The Eighties continued to reveal the extent of Summer's versatility, with five more albums of new and far-ranging material, including 1982's self-titled album (produced by Quincy Jones), and 1983's She Works Hard for the Money (the title track yielded a big MTV hit video). Her 1984 album Cats Without Claws contained "Forgive Me," which earned Summer her fourth Grammy, for Best Inspirational Vocal.
The late Eighties and early Nineties were a quieter time for Summer: she continued to release new and modestly successful material such as 1989's dance-oriented Another Time, Another Place and 1991's soulful Mistaken Identity, but she spent less time touring and more time raising her three daughters. "I try my best to spend quality time with them, and to give them the love and attention they need," she says of her relationship with her children. "And I try not to make mistakes." Still, she finds time to work: "When you have down time, use it. You have to cut things back, like you do to rose bushes, so you can grow in areas that are much deeper, and the fruit and flower are more intense. Gardening is a great metaphor for life, and it's very spiritual. God shows by example in the garden."
The past three years have seen Summer's career start to bloom again, with the 1994 release of the definitive compilation Endless Summer and an album of holiday standards, Christmas Spirit, plus a 1995 road blitz that took her through the U.S. and Brazil. Her current tour marks the second summer jaunt in as many years. In between tour dates, Summer has managed to squeeze in a few small projects, such as a duet with Bruce Roberts for the soundtrack of the latest Sly Stallone flick Daylight and a recent appearance on an episode of ABC's Family Matters.
Summer is also working on an album of new material slated for release later this year, as well as on a semiautobiographical musical, which she hopes to take to the road in the fall. "It's based on the life of someone, to some extent," she says cryptically. "Truth is better than fiction. If you can find the truths in people's lives, that's what cuts. It's freeing to them, because it shows people you can get out of bad situations. I didn't always pick the right road, and that's part of what I'm able to speak about."
Donna Summer performs tonight (Thursday) at the Jackie Gleason Theater of the Performing Arts, 1700 Washington Ave, Miami Beach, 673-7300. Tickets range from $28 to $50.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.