Saturday, June 23, 2012
DONNA SUMMER: AN GLOBAL AND PIONEERING ICON
There are divas and then there's Donna Summer Larry Flick VH1-Behind The Music 1999 Last month, fans of iconic Disco/Soul singer/songwriter Donna Summer received news that has many of them shocked, sad and hurt; she had died from lung cancer at the age of 63, leaving a void in music and in many of her fans' hearts and souls. Donna Summer wasn't just any singer; she had a unique and versatile singer voice that touched people's souls, and she was a great songwriter, who's songs were about love, fun, liberation and empowering. She also made history several times, and was a pioneer of the Disco and Women's liberation movement as well as had a successful career past the Disco era, inspiring many female singers. Yet with all her success, Donna had to overcome many obstacles, including fighting for her image, reclaiming her spirituality and reconnecting with her gay fans after she sued a magazine for printing a false statement about her. She was able to rebound with a television special, an best-selling autobiography and releasing an hit album "Crayons" her first full length album in close to two decades, which showed that she hadn't lost her touch and leaving fans wondering what she had in-stored. Well known for being a private individual, no one knew she was ill, and when news of her death hit, millions of her fans began to pay homage to her legacy, reminding the industry (including The Billboard awards and American Idol)why they fell in love with her in her in the first place, and this blog in a tribute to her memory. Donna was born as La Donna Adrian Gaines in Boston on December 31, 1948 to the late Andrew and Mary Gaines as the third of seven children. During her early childhood, Donna and her family had lived in the projects that had diverse races of people. "all types of people lived in our project" she wrote in her best-selling memoirs "Ordinary Girl The Journey." "Whites, blacks, Hawaiians, Asians and others. It was a rare example of ethnic diversity." A few years later, Donna's family moved the family to a 3-family house, where her aunts and grandmother lived, and while there was lots of love, there was also a lack of privacy."Growing up in my house was difficult" Donna said on VH-1's Behind The Music documentary."You couldn't have privacy We took baths together. We went to the bathroom together. If someone happened to be in the bathtub and you had to go the bathroom, you went. You shared about everything." Donna's Christian parents raised Donna and her siblings in church and played Gospel music, but unlike strict Christian parents, who forbade their children to listen to secular music, Donna's parents allowed their children to listen to secular music, which Donna sang with her sisters as a form of fun."We would sing The Supremes. Martha & The Vandellas. Were singing Aretha" Donna's sister and longtime background vocalist Mary Ellen Gaines-Bernard said on "Behind The Music." "We were singing more than Gospel." Donna had also listened to Rock and Pop music, but her biggest inspiration was Gospel legend Mahalia Jackson, who's voice and style inspired her to hone her craft, by practicing and doing exercises to streghten her diaphragm. That training paid off; one Sunday while her family was attending services at the Grant A.M.E. Church, a soloist for the church's choir had became ill, and Donna stepped in, and while she was singing, she brought the congregation to tears. "I knew she could sing, but I didn't know it would have an affect on people" Donna's late father said on "Behind The Music." It was there where she learned how the power of her voice had an positive impact on people and it was there where she decided she wanted to be a singer. "I could hear God's voice and distintcly inside my head saying "You're going to famous." she wrote in her memoirs. "That's the power, and you are never to misuse it." Donna would spend her teenage years singing in church and in local bands including The Crow, where band member and leader Hoby Cook coached Donna on proper etiquette, exposed her to different types of cuisine, and took her to see Rock singer Janis Joplin in concert, and at first Donna was shocked by Joplin's wild stage presence and attire, but she later realized the power in Joplin's voice and stage presence. "Her voice and phrasing sent chills down my spine" She wrote. "Hoby wanted me to study Janis' vocal freedom and her natural relaxed stage presence. Looking back, I realized how fortunate I was to have seen Janis Joplin live." The band had begun to get bookings in New York City, and received a following and buzz from several record labels including RCA who offered Donna an solo contract. Donna was flattered and shocked considering she enjoyed performing with the band, who happened to be on the urge of breaking up due to creative clashes. After talking it over with Cook, she signed with the label, and began to record demos while enjoying living in the city. "I was living in Greenwich Village and loving every minute of it-the streets, the coffee shops, the people, the pervasive heat, and most of all, the beat and the spirit permeating the Village" she wrote in her memoirs. "I liked to take barefoot walks over to the center of Washington Square Park, one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen, not so much communally, There was always a great influx of young and talented people who had gravitated there from all walks of New York City life." Donna also learned that the city had angels as well. In her memoirs she also wrote how a guy approached her and friend and told her that she needed to head overseas and she would be a famous performer and songwriter. A day later, a producer for the Broadway play "Hair" came to her apartment and asked her to audition. She nailed it and offered her the lead part with one condition; she would have to go to one of the productions overseas. Donna chose Germany, and while she was excited, she knew she had to convince her strict father to allow her to go. He didn't want her to go out the country and Donna and her mother had to convince him that he needed to allow her to fulfill her dreams."I think he wanted great things for her, but I think if he was really afraid if he let go, something bad would happen to her" Donna's sister Mary said on "Behind the Music." "I was 18 at that point and I was old enough to go and I said 'daddy you have to let me go' Donna added. Donna's mother told her husband she needed to go and it would be a great opportunity for her. Her husband relented after Donna arrange for the producer to speak to her father, who gave his daughter his blessing, and Donna began her journey. "Being in Germany was a completely different experience. Not only did I have to support myself, I had to learn the language" she said of her experience. However she fell in love with Germany and after her six-month contract was up, she decided to renew for another two years as well as travel with the production which would plants seeds for her future career. Especially in Austria and Vienna, where she also did modeling for extra money. In 1973, Donna met and fell in love with Austrian actor and co-star Helmut Sommer, who she married and gave birth to their daughter Mimi, and while Donna loved her daughter and husband, being a young wife and mother was too much due to Helmut's working and her not performing, and it wasn't long before Donna feel into a deep depression, and to file for divorce while keeping his last name. Donna began to do session work, around Germany, and it was where she met producer/songwriter Giorgio Moroder, who would become a major figure in her future career. "I had already developed a minor reputation in Germany as a Pop singer" she wrote. "Giorgio not only was totally supportive in the studio, but took a personal interest in me and saw to it that I got back on my own two feet." Donna's and Mordoer's early works "The Hostage," "Lady of The Night," "Denver Dreams" and "Virgin Mary" became modest hits, but huge in Holland and other European countries, but Donna was yearning for more success. In early 1975, Donna came up with a song that she had been toying with and when she told Giorgio, he got very excited, and the next day they began recording the song which was titled "Love To Love You Baby" which Donna originally wanted to give to another recording artist to sing. Moroder had went to an international music convention and sold the demo to Neil Bogart president of Casablanca Records who got positive feedback when he played at a party he was hosting."We had a party at our house and we played the record and people kept on saying play that again" Joyce Bogart-Trablus, Bogart's widow, who would later become Donna's manager said on "Behind The Music." The song was so hot that Neil and Joyce used the demo as background music while they made love, and knowing how the song had the power to connect with people sexually, Neil called Giorgio in Munich and told him that he had to extend the song for 17 minutes and the singer on the demo was the one who could only record the song."Whoever is on that demo is the only one who can sing the song" Donna wrote of what Neil told Giorgio. "It's the voice you want to take home and make love to!" Donna wasn't sure if she record a 17 minute song. Giorgio gave her confidence to do so. "We'll improvise. Make it sound sexy" he told her. He dimmed the studio lights while Donna was recording, and to get the sexy vibe, she patterned herself after Marilyn Monroe. "I was laying on the floor with the microphone on the floor" she told talk show host Arensio Hall. "I was wondering how Marilyn would do it." The song became an instant hit in America, but some songs found it very long and racy, but that all changed when the late Frankie Crocker, a legendary DJ on WBLS began to play the extended version of the song on his show. Other DJ's began to follow suit, and it wasn't long before music lovers was falling in love with Donna, and before she knew it, she was on her way to becoming the star she always dreamed of, but not the way she expected. When she arrived in America, she learned that Neil and Joyce had created an image of her being a sex goddess as well as changing the spelling of her last name from Sommer to Summer to make it more marketable. Neil also appointed Joyce to be her manager. Donna was uncomfortable with the image, but many fans loved her song including aspiring singers like Roderick Young. "She had a lot of volumes and a-lot of passion" Young says of her voice."When I first heard sing I knew I wanted to be a singer."It was a mind f to me. Very revolutionary" Donald Peebles author of "Hidden Fires" and creator of the blog "It's A Donald Thing." "Having a massive orgasim on the song. People didn't even know that women had orgasims. Women felt that they can have orgasims. No one wanted to talk about women's sexuality. Women wanted to be liberated. It liberated women. Blacks. Gays. It was liberating." "The song peaked at # 2 on the Pop charts and became a hit with the emerging of Disco music, and helped Donna automatically connect with Gay music fans. "They were willing to accept what she brought forward" Flick said on "Behind The Music. She was a strong woman. She was a powerful woman and that was good for us." Hetero men of color also had fantasies and named her their first superstar crush. "As of matter of fact, she was my first crush" Aresino Hall said on the Today show. "What was unique about "Love To Love You Baby" was that it created a powerful, feminine image that was unlike anything released in music" she wrote in her memoirs. Donna would follow her debut with several concept albums and singles which she co-wrote with Moroder and his partner Pete Belletto including "A Love Triology," "Four Seasons of Love" "I Remember Yesterday" and "Once Upon A Time" which would go multi-platinum and along with her singles "Could It Be Magic," "I Feel Love" which became her signature live song, and "I Love You" which dominated the music charts and discos around the world thanks to her tours and appearances on Soul Train, American Bandstand (which she became the only artist to host), The Mike Douglas and the Dinah Shore shows, and rubbing shoulders with many celebrities including Sammy Davis, Jr. Vince Price, Sophia Loren, and building a great friendship with Neil and Joyce. "We were from the beginning fast friends" Joyce revealed on "Behind The Music. She also had to maintain her sexy image which began to not like and was far from her character. "It was an image I regretted. I mean who could live up to that? Not even Marilyn!" she wrote. There were many however, who saw that Donna had potential to be taken seriously as a singer including the late Paul Jabara, who had seen her in the play "Hair" and along with Bruce Roberts created a song that would show the world her ability to belt out songs. The result was "Last Dance" which became an instant classic and earned Donna her first Grammy Award and showed the Black community that she was a sister, while earning Jabara an Oscar. "I love it" Young says. "I love it because it got better and better." Donna also released a Disco version of the Jim Webb classic which became her first # 1 Pop hit and a household name, further displayed her vocal capability and made her more famous, but she began to suffer from depression insomia and was diagnosed with a chemical balance and have conflicts with Neil about her image and creative control. Her sister Dara had introduced Donna to a minister, who had helped her reconnect with God and heal her spiritually, physically and mentally. With her renewed faith with God, Donna decided to take control of her professional and personal life; she decided not to perform her debut single, and she began to date singer/songwriter Bruce Sudano a member of the group Brooklyn Dreams who she would marry and later give birth to their two daughters Brooklyn and Amanda Grace. She also decided to record music with a edge. Teaming with Moroder, Bellotte, and Sudano, she released her classic album "Bad Girls" which topped the Billboard Soul and Pop charts, and it also featured a combination of genres including Soul, Rock and Opera. "We did it deliberately" Summer said in the Billboard Book of # 1 Rhythm & Blues Singles. "We thought it was time to incorporate other elements into the music. I always liked Rock & Roll music, so I wanted to give it an edge." "I can sing songs like "Love To Love You Baby" she told Ebony Magazine in 1977, but I can sing ballads, light opera, things from musical comedies, church hymms-all type of songs." "We knew we had to go away from the typical Disco sound" Giorgio said on "Behind The Music." "It was the transformation of Disco becoming not typical Disco, but Disco with a Rock edge." The single released two classic hits; "Hot Stuff" and "Bad Girls", which both hit # 1, with the latter topping both the Pop and Soul Charts, while the former earned Donna a Grammy for Best Rock Female, making her the first female to win in that category as well as the first Black. "I know that Donna Summer was more than a Disco sound. She let people she could do a little R&B, you can feel the Gospel in her voice. Young said. She's a church lady." "Hot Stuff and Bad Girls showed her sassiness" Peebles said."It took her out of that Casablanca Records sexy girl image that they wanted her to promote; that slutty trampy image, but she showed them she was not a kitten doll. (That) she was a soul sister, and that was to show the Black community that she did indeed have soul in her own way." While both singles were on the charts, Donna released her self-penned hit "Dim All The Lights, and joined forces with idol Barbara Streisand for the duet "No More Tears (Enough Is Enough) which not only topped the Pop album charts, it also made them the first female duo to score a # 1 Pop hit and it became an anthem that enlarged both of their fan bases. "They did a great job actually. It really was a great moment for those two. It showed that Donna could go on her own with another musical legend, and it showed that Barbara could get down" Peebles said. She went to her roots per say." "Two powerful voices" Young added. "It gave Barbara street credit to be on a Dance record and it gave Donna a reputation that she can sing with someone who is known with a good voice like Barbara Streisand." Donna had ended 1979 on a good note. She had released a double greatest hits album which peaked at # 1 making her the first female artist to have three double album sets to go triple platinum and hit # 1 as well as being the first female artist to have two sets of single in the top 5, while being number. However her relationship with Neil and Joyce had become strained. In her memoirs, Donna wrote how Neil originally wanted her to give Bad Girls to Cher because it was too Rock for her image, and she also felt that he and his wife was taking advantage of her so, in early 1980, Donna sued them for fraud, misrepresentation and under influence. She later signed with Geffen Records and in late 1980, Donna released her album "The Wanderer" which went gold and featured elements of New Wave, Rock and Gospel and showed her growth as a writer, while her single "Cold Love" earned her another Grammy Award, but they time her album was released, the Disco movement was abolished by many whites who had a ceremony in Chicago where they destroyed Disco Records causing Rock artists and fans happy. "Rock music being that insitution that it is it was kind of it's taking over our Rock Music" Grammy Award winning singer and former Soul Train dancer Jody Watley said on Unsung about the movement. "Disco music actually provided a great outlet for people to get dressed and have a good time." For her second release on Geffen, Donna had recorded the album "The Rainbow" but it was shelved and Donna reluctanly parted ways with Giorgio. Geffen recruited legendary producer Quincy Jones to produce Donna's next album and in 1982, she released her self-titled album and the top 10 hit "Love Is In Control (Finger On The Trigger)" and while she was riding high on the charts, she was dealt with a blow; Donna her learned that Neil Bogart had died from cancer and was sad that the two had never had the chance to resolve their issue. She did however patch up things with his widow 6 years later. "No matter what has gone on between us and regardless of all the false information and speculative garbage that has been printed about our relationship, I had then and still do have a special place in my heart for him, and I always will" Donna wrote in her memoirs. Shortly after Neil's death, Polygram had purchased Casablanca Records and learned that Donna owed the label one more album, so she decided to fulfill her contract and on May 20, 1983, she released her comeback single "She Works Hard For The Money" which hit # 1 on the R&B Charts, # 3 Pop and became the official working women's anthem, and showed her as being a powerful, yet classy woman. "Everybody works hard for the money. Donna Summer said rich people work" Young says of the impact of the song. "Whether she was a housekeeper or a maid or an construction worker or professionals people wouldn't think women would work in, they go out there and do it for themselves and their families" Peebles added. Donna also scored with "Unconditional Love" with the UK teenage Boy Band Musical Youth which became a hit on the R&B charts and the U.K. helping the album go gold. Despite it's success, Donna was had wanted to spend more time with her family, so she took a 3 year break from recording and touring. "Everybody has a personal life. She has beautiful daughters." Young says. "She came from a Christian background anyway, so family was important to her anyway. Peebles adds."Donna still knew that family was her backbone." In 1987, Donna released her album "All Systems Go" and the single "Dinner With Gershwin" which was written and co-produced by Brenda Russell hit # 10 on the R&B charts and # 13 on the UK charts, but creative differences between Donald and Geffen prompted her to leave and ink a deal with Atlantic Records, where she teamed with the UK team of Stock, Aitken and Waterman for her album "Another Place and Time" and single "This Time I Know It's For Real" which became her last top 10 Pop hit thanks to the video and her appearance on the Aresenio Hall show. Things had began to look great for Donna; she started painting, had a television sitcom based on her family in the works, but things came to a halt after New York magazine printed an article about Donna "allegedly" made anti-gay and homophobic remarks and saying that AIDS is a divine ruling. At first Donna didn't address them when the rumor first came out, but she decided to address them at a press conference as well as filing an $50 million dollar libel suit against the magazine, and received and undisclosed settlement, and under the terms neither she or the magazine can't discuss the terms. Despite fighting and winning, the person who made the rumor had caused pain with both Donna and the gay community individually and collectively. Roderick Young was friends with one of Donna's security guards, and he expressed to him how pissed Donna was about the rumor. "When they put out that rumor she was mad. She didn't do anything about right away and it kept festering. Donna didn't hate gay people. God is love and that's what Donna was!" "I just believe it was an conspiracy to go against Donna to break up her relationship with the Gay Community" Peebles add. "I guess what brought things to closure was when she did the concert at Carnegie Hall for Gay Men's Health Crisis. That was a good move on her part. People do make up rumors about you when you're a powerful people." After receiving her settlement, Donna and her family left California and relocated to Connecuit, then Nashville Tennessee, and throughout the 1990's and 2000's she received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, released a anthology, a greatest hit and Christmas album, made two appearances on the hit sitcom "Family Matters," performed a concert on VH-1, released her best-selling autobiography, reunited with Moroder on two songs for another hits compliation, had art galas to display her paintings, which sold in the numbers, and was inducted into the Dance Music Hall of Fame. A new generation had also began to pay homage to Donna by covering and sampling her songs including Faith Evans, who covered "Heaven Knows" for the "Fighting Temptations" soundtrack, while TLC and Beyonce Knowles who each sampled "Love To Love You Baby" for their hits "I'm Good At Being Bad" and "Naughty Girl" with the latter becoming a huge hit. "I loved it. I loved it" Young says. "When somebody samples something you done, you must have done something fierce for someone to take a piece of it. I know Donna got paid for that." Singer Damien Nova did a cover of her classic "I Feel Love" while Gay Hip-Hop duo The Qure sang the hook of "Hot Stuff" on their song "Turn Down The Fans." Donna also began to tour more and she decided to add her "Love To Love You Baby" in her line-up after 25 years of not performing it. By the mid 2000's whenever fans approached Donna, they always told her that she needed to put out some new music, and with her daughters grown and pursuing their own careers, she decided to honor their request and in May 2008, she released "Crayons" her first full-length album in 17 years, which featured all forms of music including Hip-Hop, Dance, Rock, Latin, Soul, Adult Comptemporary and Pop. "I wanted this album to have a lot of different directions on it," Donna explained on the album's title. "I did not want it to be any one baby. I just wanted it to be a sampler of flavors and influences from all over the world. There's a touch of this, a little smidgeon of that, a dash of something else...like when you're cooking." In addition to the different genres she co-wrote all the songs with songwriters/producers Ziggy Marley, J.R. Rotem, Toby Grad, and Evan Bogart, the son of her former label head Neil Bogart, which was an emotional highlight for her. "I almost cried in the room" Donna told Mary Heart on "Entertainment Tonight." "I'm working with Neil's son." She also added in her bio "I just wanted to hug him because it's like I'm seeing someone I haven't seen since his father passed away. It's almost like Neil is looking at me through him. Evan and I hit it off immediately; there was a synergy that happened really quickly." The album released several hits including "Stamp Your Feet," "I'm A Fire," :Fame (The Game)," "Sand On My Feet" and though it wasn't release as a single, many fans fell in love with the album track "The Queen Is Back" which many felt should have been the issued as the first single. "I felt that that was her time of still letting you know she still had it, and (that) she wasn't gonna let one era define her "Peebbles says about the song. "Even though she define a certain era, she was letting people as a woman of a certain age and a certain time she still had it". The album hit # 17 on the Pop charts, but despite good reviews and appearances on American Idol, the album didn't do as well as it could have due to ageism and lack of air play. "It wasn't promoted in certain circles. It wasn't promoted that much on Black radio and it should have been promoted not only on Black radio, but on some radio stations here in this country." Donna embarked on a successful tour, and on August 27, 2009, she appeared at Brooklyn's Sea Breeze concert series near Coney Island, and fans from the borough and all around the world flocked to see her perform in the borough where her husband was born and raised. "It was a special, special night" Young who attended the concert that night. 3 months later, Donna had performed at the Nobel Peace Prize Awards, and acknowledged having the honor to perform with President Obama in the audience. Those appearances helped "Crayons" gained more sales. In addition to touring, Donna had appeared on producer David Foster's television special, and released her single "To Paris With Love" and appeared on her nephew's rapper O'Mega Red single "Angel." She also had plans to release a Dance album and an album of Standards which had fans excited, but on May 17, 2012, fans got news that was totally unexpected; Donna Summer had died at the age of 63 from lung cancer in her Florida vacation home surrounded by Bruce, Mimi, Brooklyn and Amanda, leaving many fans and celebrities shocked, and hurt. "I was shocked to hear about Donna." Barbara Streisand said in a statement. She was so vital the last time I saw her here a few months ago. I loving doing the duet with her. She had an amazing vice and was so talented." Donna and I had a friendship for over 30 years" Chaka Khan said in a statement. She is one of the few black women I knew who could speak German with and she is one of the few friends I had in this business." "Michelle and I were sadden to hear about the passing of Donna Summer" President Obama said. "Her voice was unforgettable, and the music industry has lost an legend far too soon." "Donna Summer was an Icon." Out rapper Montez Love said. R.I.P Donna Summer Actor Lance Gross said on Essence online. "I'm so sad". Elton John said."This woman was the queen of disco and so much more. Her records sound as good today as they ever did. That she has never been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a total disgrace, especially when I see the second-rate talent that has been inducted. She is a great friend to me and to the Elton John AIDS Foundation and I will miss her greatly." John and many other fans are also mad at the fact that Donna has not been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, while others, like Madonna and Blondie, who came out after her were inducted ahead of her. "I really feel she didn't get her due in the end" Peebles said of the music industry's lack of respect of Donna's success. "Madonna's white. They should have given Donna Summer her due way before Madonna. They love it when Madonna is a slut. If Donna Summer was a slut like Madonna was and is, then they would have given it to her." "I think because the humbleness of her, and the magnitude of her talent, people say she's an underrated singer, and it's so funny that would be true after all that she has done. I can understand if she first came out, but come on, the woman's been around forever. Now she's the number one singer in Heaven." Shortly after the news of her passing, the Billboard Awards and American Idol had announced plans to honor Donna at their shows and during the former, Natasha Bendingfield's performance of "Last Dance" was cut short while the network went into a commercial, while the latter who recruited singers Gloria Gaynor, Gladys Knight, Thelma Houston and Shelia E to perform, was cut at the last minute in favor of allowing a former contestant to propose to his fiancee as well as follow Idol Judge Steve Tyler around his house. Fans blasted both shows online for the lack of treatment to Donna's legacy, with many planning to boycott Idol as a way to protest. However many of Donna's fans and peers have been paying homage to her buy purchasing her CDs, while several independent podcasts and bloggers have posted tributes to her. Beyonce Knowles acknowledged Donna last month during her concerts at Atlantic City last month, and fan and interior decorator Niki A. Ramli recently published a tribute book to Donna titled "The Thrill Goes On." Many writers, and performers have spoken about the importance of Donna's music and how it's important to remember the contributions she made to music as well as how. "She broke some barriers down" Young says. "She sang beyond Disco. She did Rock. R&B. Gospel. And live! She didn't lip-synch. She sang live!" She paved the way for many of these young artists who the radio play today" Peebles added. Donna's funeral was held in Nashville Tennessee and she is survived by her husband Bruce Sudano, daughters Mimi, Brooklyn and Amanda Grace, a son-in-law, three granddaughters, her sisters Linda Gaines Lotman, Mary Ellen Bernard, Dara Bernard and Jenette Yancey, her brother Ricky Gaines, her nephew rapper O'Mega Red, and several friends, and fans around the globe. Donna Summer once said that God had to create Disco so she could be famous and successful. Well God did more than provide Disco for her to be a successful, he also allow the world to experience the talent of an talented singer/songwriter, who used her voice and songwriting skills for us to dance, make love, express themselves, and become empowered and liberated, and while many of us are sad that she went to heaven so soon, God made sure that Donna Summer left a large collection of music for us to listen to forever, and that Donna was able to provide us the Last Dance.