The crown fits loosely for the “Queen of Disco,” whose music has spanned more genres and styles than the one that jump-started her career.
By Naila Francis
Those who caught Donna Summer in concert during her last tour five years ago may have found the experience quite different than the shows the dance music diva had put on in the past.
When the veteran songstress stepped out onstage, it was sans the flashy outfits and eye-catching backdrops, the glamour and fanfare that were at one time hallmarks of the disco era in which she emerged.
Sure, times have changed, and Summer, who performs Friday on the opening night of Bethlehem’s Musikfest, has grown since then. But when she decided to have her voice and down-to-earth personality the only accompaniments to the orchestra she had on stage for that tour, she also was borrowing a page from one of entertainment’s beloved icons.
“Judy Garland has been kind of my mentor,” admits Summer, who caught a retrospective on the talented but troubled actress and singer on television a few years ago, with one clip standing out in her mind: “She just had one spotlight on her and she had on a tuxedo jacket with these stockings underneath. Her clothes were not the issue. It was she who was the issue.
“She brought every bit of her frailties onto the stage with her,” says Summer. “She had an alcohol problem. She had a little drug problem and she made it all become part of the show. It drew you in and you wanted to know her, to be a part of her as much as she wanted to be a part of you.
“That’s why, on my last tour, I subdued all the clothes. I went out with nothing but the orchestra. My goal was to make people believe that when they left, they’d seen an amazing show. All these people who want to perform, who want to sing, it’s about making them believe that they’re doing it through you and making them, when they leave, go out there and do what they’re supposed to do. It’s about the brain and where you take them in their mind. I really gleaned that concept from watching Judy Garland.”
There is something more intimate, more immediate and — most important to Summer — more authentic to be found in such performances. Though the singer-songwriter has filled her share of stadiums, she says she prefers the smaller venues for the chance they afford to connect with her audience.
“I can be spontaneous, just live in the moment and whatever is going on onstage, make it real,” she says. “A lot of people have a routine that they follow, but I don’t. I have a layout of songs to work with but it’s subject to change. I may stop and feel the love of the audience and just start singing a song a cappella to them. Then we might just have 10 minutes of me talking to them, with them answering me. Anything is possible. That’s what makes a show real, when you feel not only that you’ve seen a show but you’ve been part of it.”
It’s a formula, she says, that also explains her enduring popularity. Despite a few hiatuses here and there, Summer, 56, has been a prevailing musical presence, from her breakthrough in 1975, with the 17-minute-long “Love To Love You Baby,” up through her last studio album of new material, 1991’s “Mistaken Identity,” and her more recent compilations, “The Journey: The Very Best of Donna Summer” and “Donna Summer Gold.”
A five-time Grammy winner, she has amassed an impressive catalog of hits spanning dance, rock, pop, gospel and rhythm and blues, including “I Feel Love,” “Bad Girls,” “Hot Stuff,” “Enough is Enough,” “MacArthur Park,” “On the Radio,” “She Works Hard for the Money” and “Last Dance.” Though she is often referred to as the “Queen of Disco,” it’s a title that’s admittedly narrow for the versatility of her work, as her Grammy wins in four different musical categories, including best rock vocal performance, can attest to.
“It’s nice to be queen of something, as long as it doesn’t hinder me. I’ve been consistently doing all kinds of music all along. That’s how I grew up. I grew up in a cosmopolitan environment,” says Summer, born Donna Gaines in Boston, Mass. “I used to sing country songs, classical songs …. Disco music is music that can be played in a club. I’ll tackle anything I feel I can tackle and I love doing that and I feel people really get to know who I am through that.”
With an album of new material slated for release early next year, Summer, who now calls Nashville, Tenn., home, says her influences are just as varied. She has a deep reverence for the work of seminal artists such as James Taylor, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, as well as those she refers to as “the standards”: Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick, Diana Ross and Barbra Streisand. Throw in there classic rock favorites such as the Eagles, the Doors, Fleetwood Mac and John Fogerty, and contemporary artists such as Alicia Keys, Black Eyed Peas, OutKast, Avril Lavigne, Norah Jones, R. Kelly and John Mayer, and it’s a mix that speaks to the musical chameleon that she is.
“There are people who sing a song a specific way and every song they sing, they put that tag on it,” says Summer. “My approach to music it to let the song sing itself through me. Whoever the character in the song is, that’s who’s singing the song and I may use any voice to sing that song. I’m more of an actress who sings.”
Her most recent single is the breezy, bouncy “I Got Your Love,” available only through iTunes.
“It’s what country songwriters call a ditty,” says Summer, who recorded the song after Sept. 11, finding momentary solace in its buoyant simplicity. “When you fall in love, you don’t have to write the Gettysburg Address. You just want to say ‘I love you,’ and this is just a little happy love song that people can drive to work to, can exercise to, something they can find somewhere in the background, in the lining of their lives.”
While Summer still enjoys drawing from her parade of hits and fan favorites, there is one song, the one that rocketed her to fame, that she sings with reluctance.
“I don’t sing or play ‘Love to Love You Baby’ the way I sang it back then,” she says of her No. 2 pop hit that proved as much a novelty for her sexy moaning and breathing as it was for its extended length. “When I used to do it that way, it was frightening to be onstage. People would take their clothes off in the audience, throw underwear on stage. … In its time, there was just nothing like it. Today, everything’s all about sex, the kind that’s just hump and grind and pump and let’s get it over with. This was really about an ongoing intimate moment between two people. It had an ebb and a flow to it that was very hypnotizing to people.”
Today, Summer, a devout Christian, offers up a much more subdued version of the song, which she says never really reflected who she was to begin with. She is past the stage, too, of aiming for hit records.
“I’ve had my share,” she says. “If I have more after this, that’s the icing and the cherries and all that other stuff.”
– The Intelligencer