Clad in a curve-hugging outfit and platform heels, her auburn-tinted tendrils flying and an entourage of five fluttering about, Donna Summer makes an entrance worthy of a disco diva. But Studio 54 this isn’t. Summer’s current stomping ground is a 104-acre expanse in rural Tennessee—and there’s not a disco duck in sight. “Welcome,” she says, “to my little farm retreat.”
Today she’s a 50-year-old grandmother, but in 1975, Summer suggestively moaned her way into public consciousness with the infamous, 17-minute “Love to Love You Baby.” After that, in quick succession, came the polyester-era classics “Bad Girls,” “Hot Stuff” and “Last Dance.” When the boogie died in the early ’80s, Summer, a born-again Christian since 1979, began to release moderately successful gospel albums, plus some rock singles. Torn between genres, Summer says, “I didn’t know who I was in the business.”
So she retreated to her family: her songwriter husband of 19 years, Bruce Sudano, and their daughters Brooklyn, 18, and Amanda Grace, 16 (her daughter from a previous marriage, Mimi, 26, lives in Baltimore and is a full-time mom to daughter Vienna, 18 months). Summer also embraced a quieter kind of art, painting neo-primitive works and selling them through a Beverly Hills gallery.
“We don’t go out on Friday nights,” says Summer of her family, who left their L.A.-area home in 1991 and now split their time between the farm and a house in Nashville. “We’ll go see a movie sometimes on Thursday, when it’s less crowded. Or we just stay home.” Says Sophia Loren, who lived near Summer in Thousand Oaks,” Calif., in the ’80s: “Family was everything to her.”
Homebody country girl she may aspire to be, but her last dance hasn’t come yet. Summer, who with Sudano has penned songs for such country stars as Dolly Parton and Reba McEntire, never abandoned music entirely. While she was putting together her greatest-hits album in 1993, she once again heard the siren call of the stage. “Looking at the performance slides,” she says, “I thought, ‘That’s me. That’s what I’m supposed to be doing.’ ”
So Summer began to engineer a comeback. This month, Epic Records releases a live album of Summer’s new pop-dance songs, and VH1 airs her first televised concert. In July she embarks on a 35-city tour. The CD’s first single, Summer’s take on Andrea Bocelli’s ballad “I Will Go with You,” has just been released. “It’s a great energy-infused pop-dance song,” says Billboard’s dance-music editor Michael Paoletta. “Both lyrically and vocally, she’s on.”
Summer loved music from the start. The third of seven children of Andrew Gaines, 74, a retired electrician, and Mary Ellen, a teacher’s assistant who died in 1995, she grew up in Boston, where her idols were gospel singers like Mahalia Jackson. Summer and her five sisters would “do the Supremes on the front steps” even though “I sounded exactly like Alfalfa,” she laughs. “I had this high, squeaky voice. People made fun of me,” Then one Sunday the minister of her family’s Episcopalian church asked the 8-year-old to sing. “This voice just shot out of my body,” she recalls.
“It brought tears to my eyes,” her father says. “She turned the lights on in the church.”
Summer lit up more secular halls when she joined a touring German production of the musical Hair at 18. While in Europe she met her first husband and Mimi’s father, Austrian actor Helmut Sommor (she took his name, changing the spelling), whom she divorced in 1976. She also met music producer Giorgio Moroder, who launched her career with the pulsing “Love to Love You Baby.” A smash in Europe in 1975, the song soon made it back to the U.S., much to Summer’s embarrassment. “It was,” she admits, “racier than my parents ever imagined me doing.”
The song, which Summer typically performed with a machine blowing steam between her legs, made her an overnight sensation. “People would be taking their clothes off and throwing them at the stage,” she says of her ’70s concerts. Summer went on to win five Grammys and party regularly at Studio 54 but says she was never close to fellow disco stars such as Gloria Gaynor. Indeed, she soon wearied of her high profile: “I lost my freedom and my privacy.”
She found refuge with Sudano, a singer in a now-defunct disco band, whom she met at a party in ’77. “We just hung out and wrote songs,” says Sudano, who adds that Summer was never a diva to him (though she admits that he would carry her shopping bags “in the days when I would drop $20,000 at a time”). How would the ex-disco queen describe herself now? “Donna Summer,” she intones, “empress of herself.”
Julie K.L. Dam
Kelly Williams in Nashville and David Coleman in Chicago