Disco May Die, but Long Live Its Queen, Donna Summer, Who's Hot Stuff Now in Rock, Film and TV
02/04/1980 at 01:00 AM EST
God had to create disco music so that I could be born and be successful. I was blessed. I am blessed.
From the mouth of just about any performer, such sentiments would be less blasphemy than nonsense. But they come from disco's indomitable diva, Donna Summer, 31, and if Summer thinks the Lord actually said "Let there be flashing disco lights" on the First Day, well, she's got her reasons.
Blessed, yes, with the most influential set of gospel-rooted pipes since Aretha and Diana, Summer is once again bulleted at the top. She was the dominant woman at the 1980 American Music Awards (she won three), and her Greatest Hits collection is becoming her eighth monster LP (platinum or gold) since 1975, when she roared out of a flagging musical comedy career in Germany with the scorchingly insatiable hit Love to Love You Baby.
That helped launch disco, but Summer's career could easily have been a string of, well, anticlimaxes after the Love gimmick, as the beat ground everything under its platform shoes into producer-dominated formulas. Instead, Donna boogied into a succession of commercial and artistic triumphs, with state-of-the-music hits like I Feel Love, MacArthur Park and Bad Girls. She's had an unheard-of string of simultaneous No. 1 single and LP hits, some composed by her, and her world tours have reaped millions. More significantly, as the disco industry itself is beginning to lag, Summer, the genre's only world-class superstar, has smartly left all its sham one-shotters behind by fusing her music to fad-resistant staples. Her Last Dance won a Grammy and (as a cut in the movie Thank God It's Friday) an Oscar last year and thrust Donna and disco itself into Hollywood. Hot Stuff, more than any other single, brought R&B, disco and rock together at No. 1; and, of course, her dueling divas' shootout with La Streisand, No More Tears (Enough Is Enough), included on respective LP releases, carried Donna's On the Radio—Greatest Hits LP far higher than Streisand's all Wet album. Says Summer of their historic duet: "I didn't feel intimidated by her, and she didn't feel intimidated by me. At first she was shy because disco was new," reports Donna. "She said, 'This is your thing. Whatever you want to do I'm willing to try.' There was total compatibility. I loved working with Barbra."
Clearly, enough isn't enough for Donna. Her five Grammy nominations for 1980 are matched by only one other solo artist, Kenny Rogers, and—remarkably—were for top LP and disco recording (Bad Girls LP) and best single in rock (Hot Stuff), soul (Dim All the Lights) and pop (Bad Girls). Then she was scheduled for the ultimate mainstream crossover last Sunday with the ABC special she had long sought. "I'm black first of all, and that has something to do with it," she says of the delay. "They didn't know how they were going to get their money or their rating." She won them over, as it turned out, with a fiery performance at a convention of ABC's station managers.
Summer's pop apotheosis has helped her shed any sleazy stigma left over from the protracted (16 min. 50 sec.) vinyl orgasms of Love to Love You. "I used to think I had to live up to the [lurid] way people wanted me to be," she recalls. "Now I allow people to see who I am and believe that they would like that person better. To be my crazy self—just as weak, normal, straight, unstraight as anyone else."
Summer doesn't drink and is now adamantly anti-drug ("I did everything you can do already"). Donna has also become pop culture's most unlikely Christian true believer outside of Dylan. Donna and her three singing sisters read the Bible and pray backstage (or even in the elevator) before concerts ("We hold hands and try to give each other our energy"). She doesn't gamble anymore when in Vegas and says, believably, she is "frightened" sometimes by her stardom. "If someone stares too hard," she says, "I'll punch him in the face. I forget I'm a public figure. I don't want to be worshiped." She is also not the promiscuous lady her material might suggest. "I've never had a one-night stand—without fidelity you have nothing," she believes. "Maybe I'm a weirdo, but I'm not celibate either. I need one man to center my life around."
That one man for two and half years has been Bruce Sudano, 31, her co-composer on Bad Girls and a lead guitarist-vocalist with the Brooklyn Dream, who have frequently appeared as her opening act. For Donna it was "spirit at first sight" when she met Bruce, "but he was cool." Now, though, they are nearly inseparable—in both love and war. "Bruce and I work together, we fight, we disagree. Basically, we're two crazy, neurotic artists." Marriage is a definite maybe. "We don't like living in sin," says Donna.
Eight months ago they moved into society chronicler Earl Blackwell's old 25-room mansion in L.A.'s Hancock Park. With them is Donna's 6-year-old daughter, Mimi, by her Austrian ex-husband, Helmut Sommer (her professional name came from a record label misspelling). Armed with her own interior decorator's card (for the discounts), Donna filled the place with antiques, Oriental rugs, potted trees, a Betamax and other electronic gizmos.
Back in the projects in Boston, where she was born Donna Gaines, the third of seven children, she "always felt like an outsider." Her father, once a janitor and butcher, now works for Sylvania. Her mother toiled in a sneaker factory and taught grade school. Donna—who herself was a switchboard operator and meat packer before her career clicked—is still close to her relatives, and a Summer tour is more We Are Family than Hot Stuff. Mother Mary stays backstage. Sisters Linda, 27, Mary Ellen, 23, and Dara, 21, form the backup trio, Sunshine; and brother Ricky, 32, has worked as her on-tour security guard. Donna even brings Mimi onstage—shades of Chastity Bono—during gigs. "Between my family, Bruce's and people I work with, I don't have time for anybody else," says Donna. "I wanna help the people I love first."
After singing solos in Boston churches and with a white rock group called the Crow ("I was the only black person—get it?"), Summer won a part in a German production of Hair. Her first assigned roommate in the company, Ronnie Williams, turned from a "brother" into a lover for two and a half years. She went on to the Vienna Volksoper and a Godspell road company before she broke up with Williams and clicked with Sommer, an actor, during a ski weekend in Davos in 1972. "I told him if we did it one night, he'd never want to leave me." They moved in together in Italy, and Donna was soon carrying Mimi. "It was the spaghetti. You get so lazy you just lie there," she remembers. They soon married and moved in with his family in Austria. A year and a half later she left him after falling in love with German painter Peter Mühldorfer. "It was very intense," she says of their three years together. "The devil got loose."
It may have been the same devil that made her record Love to Love You in early 1975—a song that stiffed in Europe before helping to catalyze the disco craze in the States. Reminiscent of the story line from her favorite Bette Midler's movie saga, The Rose, Donna says, "I had told my mother that I would never come home to live in America until I was famous." By late 1975 she was home.
Nowadays Donna's limited spare time is spent horseback riding, roller-skating and listening to rock favorites like Ronstadt, Springsteen, Rod, Mick and the Doobies. Donna has also taken up jogging with Bruce at 3 a.m. and is down to a shapely 125 pounds (she's 5'8"). Summer has had both thyroid and ulcer problems, but they are behind her now. Neither a cook nor hostess, she says of the Hollywood party crowd, "Social life, what's that?"
"Motherhood," she says, "is the most important thing that ever happened to me. I got that feeling of responsibility, that I couldn't be a space case the rest of my life." Until last year Mimi lived mostly with Donna's parents, but now the child alternates between Donna's place (where two butlers help out) and visits with her father. Helmut, now studying law, is "fabulous," Donna says. "He's very polite and considerate of Bruce. Mimi knows too that it's okay between them, and so she can be affectionate with either one."
Home has always exerted a strong pull. Though she says, "I can make $400,000 a week on the road," she can well afford to add to that claim: "I don't wanna kill myself for money. It's taken me a long time to get to this level. My priorities now are my sanity, my health, my child, my family, my career. It used to start with my career."
Despite the Dump Disco movements, no one's about to dump Donna now. "I don't think I will be affected if disco dies," she says. The lead role in a Josephine Baker film biography is a possibility, though competitors like Aretha and Diana have pointedly added Baker "homages" to their acts. Summer sniffs that Josephine's son "has sought me" for the role. Less loftily, Donna will begin to merchandise herself this year, predictably, through a line of Donghia manufactured fabrics designed by her called "Summer Nights." She's also building a video studio at home "because I would love to become a producer or director."
Whatever form it takes, her next move won't be timid. "There are lots of sides to my personality that people don't know about, because dealing with an artist is overwhelming," she says. Her dream? "To be the perfect mother and the perfect entertainer. I would make it work 'cause it never works." How will she do the impossible? "Magic, darling, it's all magic."