The ‘70s: quite a decade for those of who survived it. I lived in New York City midway through that decade and to all intents and purposes, the city on fire with music. Those were the heady days of funky grooves, house parties and clubs, clubs and more clubs. Up the street was Studio 54, a few blocks over Better Days and a subway ride away, The Loft and The Paradise Garage. Heady days, indeed, with the music of Earth, Wind & Fire, Millie Jackson, Labelle, Cameo, The Isley Brothers, Diana Ross, Rufus, Esther Phillips and B.T. Express. And, disco. Well, it was really dance music born in the underground clubs frequented primarily by black gay men up and down the Eastern seaboard – New York, Philly and DC. By 1976 when I had moved back to the city after a love-torn six months in L.A., disco was in high gear spurred on by the likes of Gloria Gaynor, First Choice and, of course, Donna Summer.
My first in-person experience of Donna had been during my L.A. stay when Casablanca Records held a truly lavish party for her on Sunset strip and I can remember - as if it were yesterday - when she walked into the star-studded function to a rousing round of applause. “Love To Love You Baby” had already become a staple on radio after gaining tremendous airplay in the clubs and no one knew quite what to expect from this girl from Boston who had spent years in Germany in shows like “Hair” and was returning in a new incarnation as the singer of a pretty explicitly erotic musical piece. Glammed up to the max, Donna made her entrance and before we knew it, she had become a staple fixture on the music scene thanks to massive hits like “I Feel Love,” “Last Dance,” “MacArthur Park,” “Hot Stuff” and “Bad Girls.”
I’ve only met Donna couple of times and we did just one major interview back in 1987 around the time of the release of the Brenda Russell-penned hit “Dinner With Gershwin.” We had a pretty extensive conversation backstage at Harrah’s in Lake Tahoe, talking about her then-new album, her ’image’ as a disco diva and sex goddess, her commitment to her faith and that rumor, the one in which she supposedly had made a derogatory comment about gay men with AIDS. She explained how a statement she made in a conversation had been misconstrued and next thing she knew, the rumor mill was churning with folks apparently burning their Summer records! My impression was that Donna was an intelligent, sensitive and well-rounded woman and I left our interview happy that I had gotten a chance to dismantle my own preconceptions of who she was and what she was about…
Fast forward to a couple of years ago when Donna was appearing at the Universal Amphitheater in L.A. and I was thoroughly taken by just what a good performer and singer she was. It was an excellent show and afterwards, thanks to my good friend Rudy Calvo, I got a chance to say hello to her and once again was struck by her charming disposition and manner. Naturally feeling good after such a great performance, Donna smiled and chatted in an easy comfortable manner…
Our next encounter was in late September in conjunction with the publication of her autobiography, “Ordinary Girl: The Journey” and the release of “The Journey: The Very Best Of Donna Summer,” a twenty-track 2-CD set that features two new songs, “That’s The Way” and “Dream-a-Lot’s Theme (I Will Live For Love)” produced by Giorgio Moroder - who masterminded all of Donna’s ‘70s hits, many with then-partner Pete Bellotte – reuniting with her for the first time in some twenty-two years.
Donna’s book is frank and honest detailing two near-death experiences, a suicide attempt and ultimately a spiritual awakening that has impacted her life ever since. Talking about what it took to write “Ordinary Girl,” Donna says, “I just felt I needed to go somewhere else creatively so although it took a while, I said, ‘let me just do this.’ I felt that writing my own story might help someone else, that I could be like a mirror. So many diverse things have happened in my life and what I know is that we are all similar in our essence [as human beings]. I thought that when people read the book, they could relate and be empathetic especially if they may feel there’s no hope, no future, that they’ve come to the end of their proverbial road. I want people to read the book and say, ‘she did it so I can do it.’ I’d like to think I can offer some kind of encouragement. People think because you are a public person, you have a charmed life. Yes, you may sit with kings and dine with presidents but when you pay all that stuff aside, life is still life..”
Donna admits that the writing process itself was sometimes difficult: “I wanted to be honest about things that were very personal. It was cathartic for me to speak about the fears and circumstances I had. There were so many things I could have held back…so writing was way more painful than I thought it would be. There was a lot of crying and some physical pain. There were some things I never grieved about like the death of my brother-in-law and having to go onstage and do four shows in Las Vegas. That experience just about broke me. In civilian life, you may get the chance to take some time out to grieve. When you’re on the road, you have to put the pain on hold…”
Reading “Ordinary Girl: The Journey,” it quickly becomes apparent that Donna did not expect the kind of enduring fame she has had. There’s the glory of being the reigning ‘queen of disco’ in the ‘70s while being at odds with an image as a sexy siren and confronting issues of self-esteem that had roots in a series of childhood traumas (including, she reveals, a serious problem with bedwetting that continued into her teens). Donna is honest in her appraisal of the ups and downs of her career, her eventual separation from Casablanca Records and a less-than-productive period with Geffen Records. On a personal level, we learn of a relationship marked by domestic violence followed by Donna’s enduring marriage to Bruce Sudano who she met when he was of the group Brooklyn Dreams and her role as mother to children Mimi, Amanda and Brooklyn.
As described in the book, Donna says she came to the realization that “it is possible to go through the fire and not be consumed. I had to have faith in God and that’s the one thing that carried me through everything that happened, that gave me the kind of instant wisdom for things that brought me through and the ultimate perseverance and ability to overcome…”
Coincident with the publication of the Random House book comes the UMG CD compilation which includes a bonus disc with special mixes and an extra new song, “You’re So Beautiful.” Says Donna, “The disc works as a great backdrop to the book. Some of the new songs were finished within the last month or so – “Beautiful” was done a while ago. In fact, I probably have about forty or fifty new songs that I’ve worked on. I was with Sony for a couple of years but I felt I was floundering over there…but I kept writing anyway. Right now, I’m talking to a few companies including UMG and I’m hoping we can work something out. I don’t want to close the door with possible record deals…”
While she has been active over the years as a performer, Donna – who has called Nashville home for several years now - says she took “a good four months off, sitting still and moving through the process of writing this book. I have a gew projects in the pipeline: “The Dreamway Express” which is a children’s fairytale that I’d like to see as a musical then an interactive video; a new recording project; and turning “Ordinary Girl” into a musical. That would be scintillatingly hot!” Donna concludes.
Donna’s story is certainly one of endurance and transformation and indeed, hearkening back to those ‘70s nights on the disco floor, I would not have expected that nearly thirty years later, she would indeed have made it through the madness of the music biz to be a first class entertainer, legitimate recording artist and a painter of renown whose artwork has earned considerable praise through the years. Her book may be entitled “Ordinary Girl” but Donna Summer has clearly had an extraordinary life!
About the Writer
David Nathan is the founder and CEO of SoulMusic.com and began his writing career in 1965; beginning in 1967, he was a regular contributor to Blues & Soul magazine in London before relocating to the U.S. in 1975 where he served as U.S. editor for the publication for several decades and began being known as 'The British Ambassador Of Soul.' From 1988 to 2004, he wrote prolifically for Billboard, has penned bios, produced and written liner notes for box sets and reissue CDs for over a thousand projects. He returned to London in 2009 where he has helped create SoulMusic.com Records as a leading reissue label.