Donna Summer’s crossover crusade is unique in pop music: She seeks to go from a soft-core disco-porn message (in effect “Rip my clothes off and make love to me”) to PG-rated funky rhythm and blues (“Rip my clothes off and make love to me but say please first”). This year—while still no threat to the memories of her idols, Mahalia Jackson, Judy Garland and Josephine Baker—Donna has boogied a lot closer to respectability. “There are 101 reasons, good reasons, why 1978 has been a terrific year for me—a year of firsts,” she boasts. They include her first profitable tour (a rarity among solo recording artists, whose labels often subsidize concerts to promote record sales), her first movie role (Thank God It’s Friday), a new million-dollar-plus contract with Casablanca Records, a new boyfriend, two No. 1 singles—Last Dance and Mac Arthur Park—and a No. 1 LP, Live and More. Even more important, she is, at 30, so established that she can finally abdicate her reluctant title as Queen of Disco.
It was the Summer of ’76 who, fresh from eight years of minor success as a singer in Germany, turned the U.S. on with Love to Love You Baby, a 22 (count ’em) gun salute to the pleasures of the multiple orgasm. Ultimately, though, the tune’s true catalytic role came in the disco boom. Today there are more than 10,000 disco clubs in the U.S. (though, admittedly, the shakeout is Darwinian—many last only two years).
Summer counts on a considerably longer career expectancy. “We need to go back to categorizing songs instead of singers,” she says, with her dukes up. “Every song I do is not R&B or disco.” In fact, on her tour and current album, Live and More, she has delved into Gershwin and Ellington without unduly annoying either her fans or theirs. Casablanca Records, anyway, has tied her up for three years. That may include some movie work—her role model is Bette Davis—despite the fact that Thank God It’s Friday was described by one critic as a slice of disco life that became “shavings of the sort that pile up beneath an ineptly managed saw.”
Indeed, the limelight can burn. Summer has an ulcer, occasional headaches and laryngitis, and the anguish of leaving her daughter, Mimi, 5 (from a failed first marriage), with her parents back in her native Boston. Her ex-manager, Jeff Wald, blasted Donna this spring, saying she’d been “immature, demanding and childish.” But Summer says she’s coping: “I don’t smoke, drink, snort cocaine, take Quaaludes or sleep around town.” She has, however, maintained her devotion to astrology and changed boyfriends: from German painter Peter Mühldorfer to singer-guitarist Bruce Sudano, of a group called Brooklyn Dreams. Asked if they lived together, she answered testily: “We eat at the same table, bathe in the same tub and save water by showering in the same shower.”
Marriage, she says, is not impossible, but her first priority is to polish her songwriting and live performing. “I always want to be up front,” she says. “But I want to become myself, so people accept the more normal girl-next-door that I am and not look at me as someone to be seduced.” There is a well-timed pause worthy of, say, Bette Davis, and she adds, “Not that I mind being seduced.”