Donna Summer, one of the most recognizable voices of the disco era, has died after a battle with cancer. She was 63.
With the success of her career-defining, 17-minute orgasmic disco epic “Love to Love You Baby,” Summer was once known as “The Sex Queen of the ‘70s.” But she didn’t seem to enjoy her time on the throne, according to a profile from The Washington Post archives. “That’s an image I have been plagued with,” she told the Post in 1978.
Read the story in its entirety below.
Donna Summer: Intimate and Untouchable, Trying To Cool Her Image
By Jacqueline Trescott
April 3, 1978
Donna Summer, the torrid singer whose name and moans have steamed up disco for almost three years, has sung 10 songs. There have been few grunts or grinds. She has shown this audience, as she vowed to do in her first American tour, that she is not a heavy-breathing novelty but a versatile performer. To demonstrate, she has just ripped the lid off “The Way We Were.”
The people in the audience respond well but are still anticipating what they hope is underneath Summer’s modest covering of billowy chiffon and sequins. Slowly the layers of chiffon vanish, slowly the audience starts to steam. Forty minutes into her show, the slow beat of “Love To Love You Baby” begins. The 17-minute disco version with its 22 orgasmic gasps has made her a Phenomenon and earned her the title, “Sex Queen of the ‘70s.” Now the gray eminence with his blonde companion is grinning, the cats from Baltimore are calling louder, the gays are jumping up to dance.
Now Summer, down to a dancer’s black skirt and sequined vest, has an icy, forbidden-fruit look on her long face. With the makeup she looks like a Barbie Doll. She is moaning. She is massaging the microphone stand, moving her hips. She is doing that would bake Blaze Star blush. She is doing all the things in public your mother forbade you to do in private. The audience is manic.
She doesn’t smile, she hardly responds. That’s part of the act, being simultaneously untouchable and intimate, but it’s part of her ambivalent feeling about her image. She is tired of being only erotic.
“That’s an image I have been plagued with,” she says later. In a breathless, fast voice, she explains how she almost couldn’t deal with the public Donna Summer. “When I came back from Europe I walked into this commotion. (”Love To Love You” was already No. 1). I didn’t watch the song climb like other artists; I got off the plane and there was all this frenzy. I didn’t understand it, it was shocked and I almost had a nervous breakdown.”
It’s time for her encore. She chooses “A Song for You,” which she winds up with , “Thank you Jesus, Moses and Abraham/I was just singing my song for you.” The crowd roars.
Ten minutes later, the spontaneous Donna Summer is inside her suite at the Painters Mill Music Fair, again, stressing that she is the normal, 29-year-old, down-home, Capricorn sister.
She is tidying up the room. “Domestic? No, not really, I just can’t wait,” she says, cordially. Then she launches into a description of her curtain and canopy-making marathon for her new home in Los Angeles. After eight years in Munich, she has landed in America’s glitter, dream factory with her daughter, Mini, 4; from a marriage to an Austrian actor.
Finally she stops cleaning, smiles at the motion-picture distribution man, who hasn’t seen “T.G.I.F,” a film in which Summer stars as a Los Angeles disco lady. It will be released in May.
Next, her wide-eyed gaze falls on the entourage from Casablanca Records, who are all smiling back because they like her and because she, along with kiss, has made that company (Summer has sold more than 12 million records in less than three years.) Then Summer smiles at the press. She knows to smile, a big, open-mouth grin, temporarily outlined in scarlet.
She has plopped a tweed cap on top of her monstrous, curly wig and is now wearing an oversized T-shirt with a picture of her current boy friend, Bruce Sundano, a singer with the Brooklyn Dreams. It’s inscribed “Here’s My Mugger.” The girl has a sense of humor.
When her group traveled all day Easter Sunday, she dressed up as a bunny and distributed candy on the plane. But right now she wants to work off her nervous energy. She talks, nonstop.
“That was my first experience in a theater in the round, she starts, unprompted. “You know I don’t smoke pot, don’t take any drugs. Out there I inhaled something from the audience and, wow, I missed a note. Did anyone notice?”
Why had she waited so long to do an American tour? Instantly, her tone is emphatic. “I wanted to stand on my own first. I couldn’t allow the public to catalogue me on just a minimum of my talent,” she say.
In Europe, where she lived for eight years, Summer was a different kind of star. “Clean-out, funny and not at all suggestive,” she says. In 1967 she went to Europe for the European production of “Hair,” stayed, sang with the Vienna Folk Opera and had some hit records. When Neil Bogard, president of Casablanca, heard “Love To . . . - it was bombing Europe - he wanted it revised to be as sexually explicit as possible, and brought her back to the states.
Summer’s “Love To” fit neatly into an explosive trend, orgasmic rock, which started with the mildly provocative “Let’s Get It On” by Marvin Gaye and graduated to the explicit “Do It ‘til You’re Satisfied.” Preachers, teachers and parents debated the lyric’s decency, but the music captured 15 percent of radio air time. Summer simply provided the ultimate fantasy.
Even before Summer returned in late 1975, she was being hailed as the hottest thing since Ma Rainey brought the blues to the city, since Josephine Baker took off everything but her bananas.
Summer pushed all the other disco queens to the background.
But the packaging was so perfect that some people doubted its authenticity. She was haunted by rumors that she was a transvestite, which she denied. Then she was attacked on moral grounds by folks like Rev. Jesse Jackson, who campaigned to rid the air waves of sex and drug lyrics.
If she didn’t like it, if it was causing her so much pain, why didn’t she stop the sex goddess hype earlier? “I was part of the machinery, the album cover, the promotion. But I was prepped to be a part of that, because I wanted to be a success. Now I am in better control and I can show what else is there,” she says, smiling and disappearing into a cream-colored Rolls-Royce.
She didn’t know how, but Summer knew she was going to be a success the day she stood up in Boston’s Grant A.M.E. Church and sang “I Found the Answer” by Mahalia Jackson and her father cried.
“I discovered right then that God had blessed me. I had a talent. I knew I was going to be great,” says Summer. She was then LaDonna Andrea Gaines, one of seven children of a butcher and a schoolteacher. As she grew up listening to Dinah Washington, the Supremes, Dionne Warwick and Janis Joplin, all Summer wanted to do was sing. In high school, she joined a group, “Crow.” She shakes her head, “I was the only black and my mother said it would never make it with that name. She was right.”
With only a month to go in high school, she auditioned for “Hair” and departed for Europe. She missed the King assassination, the riots, the Vietnam protests, much of the women’s liberation movement, as well as the gay movement.
“When I came back I was in shock. It was a cultural shock, but also an amazement at how I was perceived, and the intensity,” says Summer. “Basically the song that created the image was an accident. I found the image to be stunting, too small. But I was also shocked at the new environment, being a star, having servants. Also, there was too much luxury. I wanted to do my own shopping and I couldn’t.”
The ulcers got worse. Everything came to fast. “I felt like I was going up, when I was going down. I couldn’t relax, sometimes I had to go to the hospital for a week. I have an acute memory and I couldn’t remember my name. I was petrified,” says Summer. “But, she adds, “I did learn how much I could take and when to draw the line. That’s important in this business.”
Summer’s successful tour of Italy last fall, the upcoming movie, a couple of planned television appearances and the success of her last two albums have all boosted her confidence. “I love the motion of people trying, people growing. I want people to see that in me. I’m out here and I have learned that what is out here has to work for me.”
She has talked to her astrologer in Chicago. She has taken some white medicine for her ulcers, chased down with a Coke. She turns to her three sisters, all tall like her, and gathers them into a group. The folks chanting outside in the darkened theater don’t know it, but their sex queen is back-stage, praying before she goes on stage.