Remembering Donna Summer, The Queen of Disco

This has not been a good month for music legends. Only two weeks after the death of Adam Yauch, who helped define ’80s hip-hop with the Beastie Boys, Donna Summer, who arguably did the same for disco in the ’70s, has passed away. At only 63, this seems far too young. Here, we revisit Interview‘s first meeting with Summer in January of 1976. Summer has recently released “Love to Love You Baby,” the song that won her the title “Queen of the Discos,” but is not yet at the apex of her fame. Starting in 1979, Summer would go on to win five Grammy awards; from 1976 to 1984, Donna had a Top 40 hit every year (and while this no longer means much in the days of digital downloads, it was a big deal back then.)

by Lance Loud

The Park Lane Hotel room in which Donna Summer is to be met is dominated by a gargantuan cake, formed and frosted in near life-sized likeness of Ms. Summer as she appears on the cover of her astronomically successful disco LP Love to Love You. The cake has a large bite missing from the crotch area.

At the door we are greeted by an acolyte in attendance to the new crooner.

ACOLYTE: Hello [he turns to speak to someone leaving]. Inspiration is sweet b’bye! [to us] You’re from AW’s “I”? Sit down, Donna will be in in a moment.

Taking a place at the fringe of aforementioned dominating cake, it was not long before its model entered. Donna Summer bounced into the room. Tina Turner hairdo, big thirteen-year-old smile, bubbling over with pubescent pizzazz. She is more precocious than sensuous, more Home Coming Queen than Desdemona of the Discos. In our preliminary lip service, every sentence she spoke began like a firecracker, worked its way through on a zoo train of inflection and impersonations, ended in giggled and bright smiles. This is her moment and yes, Ladies and Gentlemen, Donna Summer is thrilled to accept the award.

DONNA SUMMER: C’mon, c’mon, what do you want to know? I’ve been answering questions all day and I’m ready to go!

LANCE LOUD: Well, first of all, are you a country girl or a city girl?

SUMMER: I was born in Boston, but honey, I still don’t consider myself a city girl. New York, Los Angeles, London, Paris, Berlin—those are cities.

LOUD: Yes. Can you tell me a little about your pre-fame existence? I bet you’ve been asked that one all day but this is my first time around.

SUMMER: Thas’ alright! I just make it a little different each time I tell it so’s I don’t go crazy. Hmmmm, let’s see, I’ve had a couple of records that sold pretty well in Holland and Germany. I had a really good song, a disco thing about kidnapping [Donna launches into a brief synopsis of a song about kidnapped husband, high ransom, police mishandling, tragic end] and the last line was “…his funeral was yesterday.” It was a great dance tune, I don’t know why it didn’t do better in the charts, I think it was because of the subject matter.

LOUD: It’s hard to think and dance at the same time. How did you come about recording “Love to Love You?”

SUMMER: Well, it started out as a demo tape, just something I kinda had scribbled off and thought that I’d record as a short single or ordinary record cut. I had originally planned to do it much differently, more of a Gloria Gaynor type beat ya’know. But me and my producer sat down to plan it out way last spring and at that time the songs “Je T’Aime, Moi Non Plus”  had just been re-released in London and was a smash hit.

LOUD: Isn’t that the song by Jane Birkin where she moans and pants through a veil of 101 strings?

SUMMER: Uh, yeah… Anyway, my producer was yellin’ about how HOT that song was so I said, “Aw, I can do better than that,” When we went into the studio, we made a short instrumental tape of “Love To Love You” I listened to it a couple of times ta’get in the mood and then we shut off all the lights, I closed my eyes, and pretended I was talking to ma’boyfriend when we’re alone.

ACOLYTE: Inspiration is sweet…

SUMMER: Everyone went crazy for it, they played it for the record company and they flipped, my producer went back and made it longer. Myself, I was shocked! I mean, when I heard the playback I wondered, “Is that ME?”

LOUD: You did sound knowledgeable beyond your years.

SUMMER: Hmm, yes… Y’know the American version is censored!

LOUD: It is?

SUMMER: Yeah, they cut out two lines that I say on the European version.

LOUD: Which are?

SUMMER: Well, one is           , and the other is                     .

LOUD: What? I didn’t hear them.

SUMMER: That’s because they’re censored on the American version! Anyway, if truth be known, I didn’t think it was so great when it was finished. It was nice, but I didn’t think it was so hot. But when it became a big hit, honey I LOVED that record!

LOUD: Where was it recorded?

SUMMER: In Europe. See, I left America at the end of the ‘60s cause of the racial thing. I’d been living on Bleecker and it was a crazy time. Once I got beat up bad right on the street by a Black Muslim for walking with two Jewish girls. Bad news. I joined the German company of Hair and stayed there ever since. German people are really great, my boyfriend’s German and he’s [various stories of Germanic decadence are swapped]… but you know, German people get very uptight if you mention World War II. One guy over there that I knew go so furious when I asked him, “Aren’t you ashamed of all the millions of people you killed in the War?” Germans today feel that what’s past is past, new generations don’t really remember it except what their fathers told them and they can’t really relate to it that way.

LOUD: Oh, I know, an old war story is an old war story, my Dad tells quite a few himself.

SUMMER: But boy! Was that guy ever mad!

LOUD: Back to the beat; are you a good dancer?

SUMMER: I dance, and when I do, I don’t feel a fool.

LOUD: Are you acquainted with Poppers? [dead silence and blank looks] Uh, you see, I have this current fixation about them and disco music. Not using them, but watching them in the act of being used. I was at a disco called 12 West the other night and when your record came on there was literally an explosion of snapping and popping, just like the Fourth of July.

SUMMER: Poppers…?

ACOLYTE: [whispers]  Pss, pss, amyl nitrate.

SUMMER: Oh yeah! Yeah, they use them a lot in certain places.

LOUD: Like gay discos.

SUMMER: GAY DISCOS?! Honey, I don’t believe I’ve ever been in anything BUT gay discos. They’re AIN’T any other kind!

LOUD: You have a point. Donna Summer, what is your message to the world?

SUMMER: Message? Message? What message? You mean like, how has my music affected people? Last night at some party, a woman about 45 or more came up to me and said that her son had sent her husband and her my album and one night they listened to it together. She told me that things happened between them that hadn’t gone on in 10 years! SHE got the message.

LOUD: I think everyone’s getting that message. How does it feel to be on top now? The new Queen of Discos?

SUMMER: Queen of Discos? I though Gloria Gaynor was the Queen of Discos?

LOUD: She is? Oh, that’s right, well, she’s Queen of Discos like Minnie Pearl is Queen of Country Music. But to a lot of people, your record is really the impossible dream of disco rhythm!

SUMMER: Disco Queen, huh? Well, I dunno, I may be, like you said, the new Queen of Discos; but lemme tell ya, since I got to be Queen, I ain’t been alone with my boyfriend for one minute!!

ACOLYTE: Inspiration is…