Donna Summer: Is There Life After Disco?

Rolling Stone's 1978 cover story on the disco legend: 'I was treated as a novelty act at first. It's like Marilyn Monroe playing the part of the dumb blondie while depriving herself of something greater,' says Summer

donna summer
Photograph by Brian Leatart
Donna Summer on the cover of 'Rolling Stone.'
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Until I saw Donna Summer a year ago on a Midnight Special with Lou Rawls, I'd viewed her music simply as brilliantly packaged aural sex, nothing too meaty, and, in spite of its implied intimacies, nothing too personal. But when she joined Rawls on the dais dressed like a Bloomingdale's Cleopatra, she sang probably the most affectingly full-blooded version of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" I'd ever heard. This wasn't the cooing voice she used on records.

The second time I saw her was on the set of the Casablanca Records and Film Works-Motown production, Thank God It's Friday. Donna was playing an aspiring singer trying to persuade a disco DJ to let her perform a song. After several rebuffs, the singer sneaks into the booth and locks the door behind her, so it's just the two of them. Then she unbuttons the top button of her blouse and fixes him with a stare from the corners of her eyes. I remember thinking it was one of the most curious expressions I'd ever seen, wide-open, withheld and coldly erotic.

But now, at Christmas time, when Donna pulls into the Casablanca Records' office of Susan Munao, wearing a billowing green velvet dress and pencil-heeled black boots, she looks neither mysterious nor erotic, just dog tired.

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Her handshake is firm and her smile is friendly, but her wide eyes are bloodshot. Her tall frame is muscular and her face, framed by wavy black hair and centered with a puggish nose, is less angular than in album photos. While Munao leaves to fetch Cokes, Donna sinks into a swivel armchair with an exaggerated sigh.

In rotelike speech with an occasional Bostonian curl, Summer attributes her languor to the last two days' regimen of interviews and rehearsals. Then, without breathing space or prompting, she launches into a detailed, detached explanation of her plans for taking Once upon a Time (her latest album) to the stage in the spring. After a few minutes, Munao returns to announce that Summer's boyfriend, Michael, would like to speak to her for a moment. "He has those Christmas cards you wanted," Munao says. Michael, a tall, blond man wearing a red-and-white satin warmup jacket, saunters into the room possessively and places a card before Donna.

"No, no," she says, plucking it from his hand, "this won't do. You can't tell who's supposed to be who. Is that a cartoon of Neil Bogart [Casablanca's president] or Jeff Wald [Donna's comanager with Joyce Bogart at the time]?"

"Well, that's Neil, I guess," he says. "You can tell because he's sort of fat." Before going, Michael mentions that he'd met a psychic healer earlier in the day and asked him by Donna's later.

"Well, I don't want to see him." Donna hitches her shoulder like a kid turning down porridge.

"Believe me," he says slowly, "you want to see him. I mean, this guy has such an eerie aura about him. He told me more in fifteen minutes about what's been going down in your life and career than I could've told him."

"Oh yeah? What'd he say about my headaches and insomnia?"

Michael leans over the desk at Donna, resting his weight on his knuckles. "He said to tell you that he'll take on your pain because it won't hurt him."

"Really?" Her face brightens. "Really? Look, ask him if he'll meet with me tonight. Maybe he'll take away this negativity so I can sleep." After Michael saunters back out, I tell her it sounds as if she's going through a rough stretch. "Oh God," she says, letting out a long breath, "I can't even begin to tell you. Too much has happened lately. It seems like an absurdity. I just got back from this Italian tour that was so ill organized and badly paced that I thought I was going to break. In one airport I was so gone that they had to give me oxygen and wheel me to the plane, and all I could think was, 'I've got a show to do tonight.'

"Sometimes it gets to the point where you've been pushed for so long, by this motorous, monstrous force, this whole production of people and props that you're responsible for, by audiences and everything that rules you, until you take it upon yourself to be a machine. And at some point a machine breaks down. I feel like I want to cry most of the time and just get rid of it, but sometimes I get so pent-up, I can't. And that's when I get afraid."

Probably more than any other single personality, Donna Summer has come to represent disco artistry, a fairly enigmatic thing to epitomize. In the rigid framework of disco, the artist's role is so often reduced to that of a prop that the term "artist" hardly even applies. Few disco performers have attempted to adopt the genre to their own bents and even fewer have managed to escape it altogether. Strangely, Summer has been not only its most flagrant example of prop usage, but also the most successful at transcending the prop – and, in turn, disco itself.

In her early hits, particularly "Love to Love You Baby," Donna and her producers – Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte – embellished and strengthened the prop by affording it a persona of sorts: Donna became a servile vixen with a whispery voice, intoning and moaning over a metronomic beat that had all the intensity of a sex act between consenting androids. (No less an authority than Time clocked the seventeen-minute performance at a prodigious twenty-two orgasms.) If it seemed a persona of dubious and limited worth, it nevertheless had the desired results: Donna became disco's best-known personality – one of the few to endure – and, in the bargain, one of its most consistent sellers.

But Summer's two albums last year, I Remember Yesterday and Once upon a Time, were ambitious departures from the sexy marionette image and breathy vocal mannerisms, and at times suspended disco's influence altogether. I Remember Yesterday was a random sampler of twentieth-century-pop vocal styles, from the Hollywood "jazz age" title track to the electronic reverie of "I Feel Love," the album's biggest single. (According to Donna, it was the one track she had the least hand in writing. "Giorgio brought me these popcorn tracks he'd recorded and I said, 'What the hell is this, Giorgio?' I finished it sort of as a joke.") But Once upon a Time, says Donna, "is the first record I can really say is a part of me." In the course of its four sides, she and lyricist Pete Bellotte rework the Cinderella fairy tale, transplanting her from the castle and silk landscape of yore to a Fritz Lang-like urban nightmare where claustrophobia is both Cinderella's greatest infirmity and impetus.

Donna's own childhood in Boston as Donna Gaines, the daughter of an electrician and schoolteacher, she says, wasn't far removed from the Once upon a Time scenario. "I grew up in a family with five girls and one boy, and we lived in a three-family house, so I had to compete. To be heard, you had to talk loud. Either that or you just tried to find a hollow corner where you could sit and fantasize about being someplace else. And school wasn't any easier. I went to school with some pretty violent people, and I was an outsider because I couldn't live on that black-and-white separatist premise. Racial? I didn't know what the word meant until I was older."

Singing became a way for Donna to assert her worth. Though her church-choir director always refused her plea to sing a solo, she knew she had a voice. "Because when I screamed, I screamed loud," Summer says. "I just wasn't getting it out right. So that's when I would go up to my parents' bedroom to do breathing exercises and listen to Mahalia Jackson records." Instead of at the church, she sang her professional debut at Boston's Psychedelic Supermarket in 1967 with a band called Crow ("the crow being me because I was the only black member of the group").

Donna left Boston in 1967 at the age of eighteen to accept a role in a Munich-based edition of Hair. While in Germany, she married an Austrian actor from the troupe, Helmut Sommer (they are now divorced, but she's retained the name and Anglicized its spelling); had a child, Mimi (who lives most of the time with Donna's family in Boston); sang in Vienna Folk Opera productions of Porgy and Bess and Showboat, and spent her afternoons singing backup at Munich's Musicland studios. It was there that she met producers Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte, and together they had a minor string of pap-pop hits in Western Europe.

Moroder had just licensed his Oasis label to Casablanca for American distribution in 1975, when he and Summer recorded "Love to Love You Baby," which failed in all European markets that had previously played Summer, save one – Paris.

When Neil Bogart first received "Love to Love You Baby," his luck had just begun to change for the better. Kiss mania was starting, and it looked as though it might save Casablanca from an impending bankruptcy incurred by the Here's Johnny: Magic Moments from the Tonight Show turkey on which Bogart had high-rolled $1.5 million. But Bogart, who'd borrowed his last name from Humphrey Bogart (real name: Neil Bogatz) and appropriated his company's name from the actor's best-known film, likes to flaunt his loser's luck. The first time Bogart played "Love to Love You," the story goes, was at a party at his house, where he kept getting requests to play it again and again for the dancers. Bogart decided then to gamble with a full-sided version for her album and called Moroder in Munich that night to request a new track.

"You know what I used to tell people in the beginning?" asks Bogart, sitting in front of his cutaway windows in his Persian-décor office. "'Take Donna home and make love to her – the album, that is. It'll become part of your family.'" Along those lines, Casablanca promoted the record by encouraging radio stations to play the track at midnight, sponsoring "seventeen minutes of love with Donna Summer," although it aimed its heaviest push at the discos just then sprouting around the country.

Did Bogart worry at the time that the sexy hype might limit Donna's credibility?

"Hype. What a marvelous, misused word. Terribly misused." He leans forward with the eagerness of a doctor with a ready-made diagnosis. "If you hype something and it succeeds, you're a genius, it wasn't a hype; if you hype it and it fails, then it's just a hype. We did build her up bigger than life on that first album [Love to Love You Baby]. We hyped ourselves, if anything, so if somebody says that she's a hype, hopefully they know how to use the word.

"The sex-image thing didn't concern me as much as it did others – or as much as it did Donna, for that matter. It concerned me because it concerned Donna; that's the extent of it. I had no doubt that she would blossom as nicely as she has. She's the only person I know to go from being a disco artist to an 'everyman' artist."

"It's slowly been getting easier for me to sleep," says Donna, picking at some tortilla chips in a dish before her. "And those squeezing headaches are finally gone. But for a few weeks there, it was torture." We are sitting in a corner booth at Carlos & Charlie's, a Spanish-style Sunset Strip singles habitat that has little carousel unicorns and medieval turrets adorning its green shingle roof. Donna makes an Imogene Coca cross-eyed face over a particularly peppery chip and then tells about her meeting with the psychic. He said that before she could remove the "negativity" around her, she must first look closely at the people guiding her affairs. Coincidentally or not, since our first meeting a month ago, she has terminated her relationship with Wald, DeBlasio, Nanas & Associates management and enlisted Susan Munao from Casablanca to work with Joyce Bogart as comanager. And Michael, who introduced her to the psychic in the first place, seems also to have faded along the way.

Joyce Bogart had gone into partnership with Jeff Wald, et al. after marrying Neil Bogart in 1976, but Donna says she found the new association unworkable. "It's like having an artist and you don't even know what in the hell they're about. When I was on that tour in Italy and I was calling them trying to tell them what the problem was, all they could say was, 'Cancel the tour.' My name is on that billboard, and those audiences are not going to understand why I'm canceling, and unless I'm deathly ill, I don't want to do that .... Anyway, as far as I can see they're just manipulated by the machinery of this whole business."

(Jeff Wald replies: "Shit, so the dressing rooms at some three-hundred-year-old theater in Verona weren't adequate – that's what you get when you play a three-hundred-year-old theater. That's part of show business. I didn't get involved with her until after she came back from Europe – that was supposed to be Ron DeBlasio's business. I found her to be immature, demanding and childish.

"Her expectancy of what management is doesn't match mine. She would call you up to get a jet for her to get out of a place, and after you spend six hours getting the plane in the air on the way to her, she calls you back and tells you her astrologer told her not to fly that day.

"She likes somebody to live with her and hold her hand, and I'm not going to do that. My job is to advise and counsel. I think we made major contributions to her career.")

But, I wonder, given Donna's disco-derived image, doesn't she feel she's been manipulated too?

"Constantly," she says, tilting her head in a little-girl-share-a-secret pose. "And it can be pretty frightening when you realize you're a part of the machine. But you can always change that. In the beginning it was like being a commodity. The image and the person got characterized as one and the same, and I was saying, 'No, wait. There's more to me than meets the eye – maybe twenty pounds more.' By the time of Spring Affair [1976], it was enough. I couldn't go on singing those soft songs. I've sung gospel and Broadway musicals all my life and you have to have a belting voice for that. And because my skin is black they categorize me as a black act, which is not the truth. I'm not even a soul singer. I'm more a pop singer."

A waiter brings Donna her chef's salad. "Oh no," says Donna, calling him back. "I'm sorry. I ... uh ...," she lapses momentarily into German, then catching herself, translates apologetically: "I forgot to tell you. I'm allergic to cheese. Can you take this back?" I've noticed her slip into German two or three times before, so I ask her what America must have seemed like on her return.

"Frightening, to say the least. Even going home to Boston was a shock. People couldn't understand me, a black, speaking German. I didn't really get used to it until last spring when I broke up with my German boyfriend." And California? She looks over her shoulder, peering out through the lead-glass window that frames the Casablanca offices across the street. "California will probably never seem like home to me. Sometimes I get bored riding down the beautiful streets of L.A. I know it sounds crazy, but I just want to go to New York and see people... suffer. I know that there's another kind of world that I don't get to see, that I'm protected from, but I'm aware of it because I grew up there. Sometimes this is like being displaced from the real world."

An uncomfortably tall man in a reindeer-pattern sweater has corralled his friends into the corner of the mirrored room and is sharing his excitement with them. "You know that part in 'Love to Love You Baby' where she starts to fuck the microphone? I got so excited that I was jumping up and down until my little bastard stood up." Flashing a proud smirk, he reaches down and pats the corduroy area between his legs where his "little bastard" is now merrily reposed.

The occasion is the last evening of Donna Summer's first starring engagement at Sahara Tahoe's High Sierra Room, and the place is a waiting room backstage. In spite of this one corner of good cheer, though, the mood among those waiting for the star is reserved. Donna's first show of the evening had been beset by a bizarrely fluctuating sound system and a near-comatose dinner crowd. I'd wondered beforehand why Donna bypassed the usual concert-hall circuit in favor of Tahoe and Las Vegas, but Joyce Bogart informed me that "that's her audience. She draws an audience that's sixty to eighty percent white, ranging up to forty-five years of age, and that means places like Tahoe and Vegas." Donna says it's because she can find "recruits" for her music in those audiences. Tonight, though, there were no recruits to be found, and when Donna came offstage she was almost in tears.

But now when she enters the waiting room from her dressing cubicle, the mood of a half-hour before seems forgotten. Dressed in a short, blue silk kimono and wearing a lovely smile, this is the Donna Summer of her album covers – fully alluring. She begins to circle the room, stopping and chatting animatedly with any unfamiliar face she sees. When she gets to the corner where the happy owner of the "little bastard" waits, he hands her a copy of Once upon a Time for an autograph. "Would you draw something weird on the back?" She complies with a hurried cartoon sketch of a girl in a gown. "Oh, is that you?" he says. "Be sure to draw some big boobs on it, just like yours."

She smiles indulgently. "You mean big butt. I have a big butt."

"Well, you said it, not me," he says, and gives her a squeeze beneath the kimono. She shoots him a glare that could cut marble, but he's oblivious. As she hands him back the album, he leans over and tries to kiss her on the lips. She pulls back for a quick second, then turns and offers her cheek instead. For just the glint of a second I catch a look in her eyes – a look that abides.

An hour later, moments before her last show of the engagement, Donna and three of her sisters, who sing backup for her, stand in the wings, clinging affectionately to each other in a tight prayer circle. "Ladies and Gentlemen," announces an FM-modulated voice, "the High Sierra Room is proud to present the 'First Lady of Love,' "and Donna takes her place center stage, singing Barry Manilow's "Could It Be Magic," one of her favorite songs. Supported by a full orchestra and a meticulous rhythm sextet, Donna's show de-emphasizes her disco sources in favor of a campier cabaret production. She's a Sophie Tucker on "One of These Days," Judy Garland on "I Got It Bad (And That Ain't Good)," and a little like her idol, Josephine Baker, on the intro to "My Man."

But when she gets to "Love to Love You Baby," the disco pulse washes over her, and she comes damn close to copulating with her mike stand, writhing up and down its length with palpable shivers. Judging from the audience's response, this is still the Donna Summer they know best. Suddenly, with only a blink between songs, the pitapat beat becomes "I Feel Love," juxtaposing the erotic with the icelike. Donna dances in angular, jerky motions and her face is a dazed, mechanical mask.

Then, almost as though she finds Giorgio's mesmerizing "popcorn tracks" too confining, she begins to sing, "Feel it!" on the offbeat, gradually transforming the song into a fevered gospel and bolting into a coltish dance. I'm reminded of that moment at the end of Once upon a Time's second side, when, after fifteen minutes of brilliant electronic tension, Cinderella's dream – to be free of the machines – true, signaled by an acoustic piano flourish. The first time I heard that, I thought of Metropolis, Fritz Lang's archetypal science-fiction film about man's revolt against the machines, and its simple maxim: "The mediator between the mind and the machine must be the heart."

Earlier in the week. Donna had said: "I guess I was treated as a novelty type at first, but that was to be expected. I wasn't a hype. It's probably like what Marilyn Monroe must have gone through her whole life, playing the part of a dumb blondie while she was depriving herself of something greater. She couldn't make them believe it, and it killed her as a result. I don't want that to happen to me."

Now, after the encore, Donna stumbles into the wings looking faint and has to be helped into a chair. A stage attendant slips over her face an oxygen mask, kept handy because of Tahoe's high altitude. Sitting there gasping, her big eyes peering over the plastic pocket stuck on her face. Donna looks slightly scared, very tired – and wholly indomitable. But it's a gentle, not a hard look, the look of someone who's just won a tough audience but is waiting for a tougher one. It's the indomitability of someone who abides – not her place, but her time.

This story appeared in the March 23rd, 1978 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 261: March 23, 1978