Donna Summer: Is There Life After Disco?

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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."

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