'70s - Donna Summer (2003)
’Donna Summer: The Emperess of Her Own Self’
Once upon a time, a young girl stood in front of the parishioners in a Boston church. She opened her mouth to sing, and a huge voice came out - moving the congregation to tears. At that moment the girl heard the voice of God tell her, "You're gonna be famous." From that time on, the girl knew that she was destined for greatness. That girl grew up to become Donna Summer.
Most people know about her hits. Great songs like ’Last Dance’, ‘Hot Stuff’, ‘On The Radio’ and ’She Works Hard For The Money.’ What most people don't know is that Donna started off as Donna Gaines in a rock band called The Crow. And that when the band broke up, she left school to be in the German production of the musical ‘Hair’. Once in Germany, there was no stopping Donna. She was active in musical theater, playing in such shows as ‘Showboat’,’ Porgy And Bess’, and ‘The Me Nobody Knows’, and in 1971 she cut her first solo record, ’Sally Go ‘Round The Roses’.
By 1974, and now going by the name Donna Summer, she was doing a great deal of session work which brought her into contact with producers Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte. Together they recorded ’The Hostage’, a song which became Donna's first hit in Europe. An album and a few more European hits followed. Then in 1975, Donna recorded ’Love To Love You Baby’, the song that finally brought her success in America. The rest is history!
Since then she has racked up fourteen top ten hits, four number one singles, three platinum albums, five Grammy awards and twelve other Grammy nominations. She is the first female artist to have three number one solo singles in one year (’MacArthur Park’, ‘Hot Stuff’ and ’Bad Girls’) and she is the only artist to have three number one double albums in a row (Live And More, Bad Girls, and On The Radio).
Her latest double album The Journey: The Very Best of Donna Summer seems intended to replace and update 1995's single-disc Endless Summer for American consumers. It contains all 14 of the singer's Top Ten pop hits in their short single edits including 1989's ’This Time I Know It's for Real,’ licensed from Atlantic Records. As well as a selection of four of her many other Hot 100 hits, including 1999's ’I Will Go With You (Con Te Partiró),’ licensed from Epic Records. Not to mention that the main disc concludes with two new songs, ’That's The Way’ and ’Dream-a-Lot's Theme (I Will Live for Love),’ produced by Giorgio Moroder, who produced most of Summer's hits of the 1970s and early '80s. The second disc is a bonus disc of extended remixes.
Did you ever think, standing there in front of those parishioners in a Boston church back in the day, that you would go on to be one of the most famous female singers in music?! ”Well, I don’t think at that point, but if I did it was just a childish fantasy. I don’t think I ever envisioned the reality of what it is to be a star, but I think I certainly envisioned what it would be like to be Catherine Hepburn and wear pretty clothes. Or Judy Garland and singing, you know. That would have been the person I would have looked at.”
When did LaDonna Gaines become Donna Summer? ”Well, actually, my mother named me LaDonna and my father didn’t like it … or it could have been the other way round … but anyway, I didn’t use the ‘La’ very much. Sometimes my sisters would call me LaDonna just to be grand as a teasing kind of thing, but I think I was always Donna. Donna means ‘Lady’ in Italian. I then married Helmut Somer and I had it changed to the English version, Summer so that I could kinda distance myself a little bit from my new married name. Because, I was already Somer and I didn’t want to throw people as I’d already become successful with that name. So, I thought if I could just change the spelling it would help me a little bit. And back then an astronomer told me that a ‘U’ was better than an ‘O’ in the name anyway!”
Tell me exactly what was going on in the studio when you were making the song ’Love To Love You Baby’?! ”I was laying on the floor, minding my own business! Just me and a little microphone hanging down, some candles for atmosphere and Giorgio and Pete [Bellotte] were in another room and I couldn’t even see them. And all I had to do was envision! You see, I came along in Germany doing theatre so I was an actress, so it wasn’t difficult for me to emote a concept as long as I could grasp the character. So I got the character, emoted the character … which was easy as I envisioned Marilyn Monroe singing the song … and it was very simply: If I were Marilyn Monroe how would I have done this song? She would have used her nice little soft voice and just …..” [It’s at this time that Donna sings a bit of the chorus as Marilyn Monroe, and trust me, it was sung in a way that could bring any grown man to his knees!]
Was it always intended to be 17 minutes long?! ”Yep, it was. I mean, Giorgio Moroder had taken the song home and I guess he had used it when he was making love with his wife and had felt like it was too short. He wondered what he could do to the song that if repeated would still be giving you the best part of the song. And he thought that doing that would be great background music for that moment. Like a Barry White song, so he wanted to go for the female version of that."
Which of your songs today do you dance around the room to, singing at the top of your voice … and which ones make you cringe?! ”Well, I record differently then have most people. I record from the character of the song and so for me it’s always a character and it’s always an act and always a target market. So, in other words, if I do a song like ‘Love’s Unkind,’ which is a song that came out in England, we did that song specifically geared towards young buyers. So, when you hear it you go, ‘Well, that’s not a very heavy lyric’ but it was not intended to be. So, there are different songs that have different purposes, so they don’t really make me cringe to listen to. But, I mean, those kind of songs, the ones that were done sometimes for the younger kids can make me cringe because I’m not that age,” she laughs. ”And sometimes you really have to die to your ego so that you can just produce something that doesn’t have to be that complicated and still feel okay about it. But, it’s not that easy!”
And any tracks you just love? ”Oh yeah, I love ‘Last Dance,’ ‘MacArthur Park’… but I LOVE ‘Last Dance’.”
And so do a lot of weddings! ”Yup,” she acknowledges in a hearty giggle. ”Thank God for that,” she now laughs. ”I have to pay the rent, you know.”
Have you ever been to a wedding and heard it played?! ”Oh yeah, many. And they didn’t always know I was there. I've been to places I wasn’t even supposed to be. You know, you go by a building or something and you hear the music and you know it must be a wedding … and then you hear them playing your song. Or, at the end of an evening at a club. But, it’s really interesting as I have some really cool fans. I have the coolest fans in the world, I think. They are so supportive and whenever I’m feeling kinda down, I’ll read some of my fan mail and it reminds me of why I do this. And it’s not to be egocentric, but even entertainers need support, because I think they get so much adulation, but that adulation that we get we can’t take home.”
You’ve been labeled down the years as the ‘Ultimate Disco Diva’ and the ‘Queen of Disco,’ but is that something that still puts a smile on your face? ”Yeah, it puts a smile on my face because I think that it’s cute and I don’t take offence to it. I just don’t want it to hinder me from being anything else … because when a Queen takes over other properties she becomes an Emperess! So, I’m now the Emperess of my own self. The ‘Queen of Diva’ is now what they call me actually,” she laughs.
Reading your book, ‘Ordinary Girl: The Journey’ it paints one incredibly in-depth picture of a time in your life that was out of control and not in your hands. So, I’m wondering if there was truly a year or more in that time period where, for one reason or another, you completely lost track of who you were? ”Oh yeah and I think it was more than a year or two also. Sometimes you thought you knew what was going on but really didn’t and sometimes you would just be in a total whirlwind. Just going, ‘Oh my God, where am I and who can I trust and who can I not trust? Who’s my friend and who’s not my friend?’ It was like people didn’t even see me as a human being. It felt like they only saw me as a dollar bill. Nowadays, there’s so many more people that have achieved great success, but back then there weren’t that many.
At that time span, in that musical genre, coming up through all of that; being chronicled and written about, it was all a little strange. It was different back then. We had Diana Ross and Aretha and the success was just different and I was just not in an American mindset when I got here [from Germany] and so I really was lost when I started. I had to rediscover myself as an American to tell you the truth and that was really difficult.”
What was the point when it all began to spiral downwards for you? ”Well, I think that the first year that I came was really difficult, but the next two years when the success really went over the top was really the point. I mean there was just no minutes spare, no break. It was just constant touring, constant television, constant being just on-on-on-on! I mean, there were very few vacations and I don’t think any human being should have to go through that. It’s inhumane and I think that’s why you see people like Whitney and other people like that just ‘fry out.’ At some point they have to do something to maintain that level of energy and success and the human body wasn’t meant to maintain that level. It’s just not human.”
Why did it take you 20 plus years to record once again these new songs with Giorgio? ”Well, I wasn’t planning on recording with Giorgio as I was on Sony and I had been in the throws of the past two or three years of writing the book and writing other songs. I was writing the book and working with all these different artists and writers just trying to come up with the right sound for me now as a kind of a new thing and a new direction. And we had some cool songs that we’d written, but when the book came out some of those songs were written but they weren’t recorded yet and we didn’t have producers lined up to produce those songs. So, Giorgio was available and he told me he had this song that he’d written for somebody else, but that he wanted to play for me. I thought it was very cool, asked him if I could have it and so after begging him for three days he finally gave it to me! And that song is ‘’That's The Way’ that he wrote with Keith Fosse and so we all had a family reunion out there. And then I had a song that I had written for a children’s musical, which was the other song that he recorded for me.”
Will there be a new Donna Summer album any time soon? ”Well, I have other recorded songs, but I didn’t want to just throw them out there as they really weren’t ready yet. So, I pray to God there will be. I’ve got plenty of songs. I’ve got anywhere from 40 to 50 songs of co-writes and different songs that I want to record. So, there’s plenty to draw from,” she laughs.
So, if I happened to come across your 1971 debut solo record, ’Sally Go Round The Roses’ would I be a rich man today?! ”You probably would be … why, do you have one?!”
No, not yet, but we’re searching as we speak! ”Well, Vince Melouney who used to be the drummer of the Bee Gees recorded that song with me in London [England] so that might guide you a little closer. I bet you that song’s somewhere in London in one of the studios just sitting on someone’s shelf and they didn’t even know they’ve got it!”
Do you remember the day you recorded that song? ”I remember the whole thing,” she answers matter-of-factly. ”We went over and recorded it in the studio [from Germany] ,but we didn’t just do that song. We did another song called ‘So Said The Man’ which was this bizarre song about meeting like a prophet … just some guy who could tell the future … and it was a kind of an odd song. But, those were the two songs that I think I recorded in that period, but it didn’t work out so I moved back to Germany.”
Finally, please describe yourself in three words ”Laughter, faith and love.”
Interviewed by Rusty Trunk – as per the wishes of Ms. Donna Summer herself!