Saturday, May 19, 2012

148: The Self-Empowered Woman: Donna Summer

Dear Followers,

It came as a real surprise last week to learn that Donna Summer (aka The Queen of Disco) had died of lung cancer even though she didn't smoke. Years ago I met and interviewed her at the Mayfair Hotel in London and was blown away by how open and warm she was. I had expected to meet a larger than life diva with attitude, but was pleasantly surprised to learn that the only oversized thing about her was her talent. She was one of the 68 women profiled in The Self-Empowered Woman, and even though her story was used as part of the Supportive Someone chapter she actually embodied several important traits.

LaDonna Adrian Gaines (born in Boston on December 31st, 1948), began singing as a toddler, and by the time she was a ten year old elementary school student (who was asked to fill in for a no-show soloist) she knew that she possessed a remarkable voice (2: An Early Sense of Direction). She sang in the church choir, but (remarkably) never had singing lessons or vocal training. The strength and power of her voice surprised her when she first began to sing in public, and astonished others for decades. Her tight knit family was strongly affiliated with Grant African Methodist Episcopal Church, and it was in that church where she believed that God told her she would be a famous singer, but that she must never misuse her talent (3: Belief In The Unbelievable).

Summer struggled for years with low self-esteem. One side of her face had been badly scarred in a childhood accident, and her siblings teased her by giving her the nickname "scarface." To make matters even worse, one of her girlfriend's father often poked fun at her by calling her "Donna Ugly," a taunt that stayed with her for years (6: Life Is Not A Beauty Contest).

When the teenaged Summer decided to suddenly audition for a psychedelic rock group called The Crow, which   was looking for a male lead singer (11: Risk Addiction), her rendition of Aretha Franklin's "R.E.S.P.E.C.T." secured her the position of the band's lead vocalist. The leader of The Crow was a young man named Hoby Cook, and he took Summer under his wing and, in her words, "...became Professor Henry Higgins to my Eliza Doolittle."  

Summer moved to New York after high school, but didn't find the success she had hoped for. What she did secure, however, was a role in the German production of "Hair," and that experience changed her life (8: Turning No Into Yes). While in Germany she recorded the 17-minute record "Love to Love You Baby," which became 1975's major disco hit.

Several years later, I attended her sold-out concert in Los Angeles at The Hollywood Bowl. Her performance  was being filmed for a network TV special, and I remember being amazed at how comfortable she was when it came to calling a halt to the filming whenever she was displeased with the orchestra or the lighting or whatever (10: The Critic Within). Summer's first marriage was to an actor she met when she lived in Europe (Helmuth Sommer), but after their daughter, Mimi, was born they divorced (15: Forget About Prince Charming). In 1980, she married Bruce Sudano, and they had two daughters, Brooklyn and Amanda.

Around 1985, untrue rumors spread that Summer had made anti-gay remarks, which resulted in a backlash from her fan base. Angry fans returned thousand's of her records, and the controversy negatively affected her record sales and her reputation (12: Hard Times). In 1989, Summer wrote a letter of apology to ACT UP, explaining that the alleged quote was untrue.  

Summer's mother, Mary, said that Donna sang from the time she could talk and "...literally loved to sing. She used to go through the house singing." And, obviously, that passion stayed with her until the very end. At the time of her death she had begun recording material for two new albums (7: Magnificent Obsession).

Looking forward to your comments....

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