May 17 marks three years since Donna Summer died unexpectedly, having kept her illness a secret to even those she regarded as close friends. Though her passing was widely reported at the time, the coverage was limited in scope, as so much of it boxed in one of our most virtuosic vocalists as the "Queen of Disco," essentially burying her with a mirrored ball tied to her feet (which she would have loathed).
I was troubled that so many of the obituaries were dry, fact-based lists of her accomplishments, wholly lacking in heart, failing to convey the true measure of her spirit or cultural impact. I knew Donna and worked with her over the years. On this anniversary, I want to share my feelings about her in a way that more vividly and emotionally reflects her legacy.
My first memories of meeting Donna have the dreamlike quality of one of her 20-minute musical suites. It was 1989, a good year for Donna Summer, who had just scored her first huge hit in several years with "This Time I Know It's For Real," a worldwide, multi-format success. I knew the chart positions in every country because at the time I worked as an assistant to the head of public relations at Warner Music International, Donna's label. One of the best parts of my job was to occasionally look after artists while they were in New York for promotion. With Donna, this never felt like work because she and her husband Bruce Sudano were real people: down-to-earth and kind.
One afternoon my boss was busy and asked me to accompany Donna and Bruce to the Roseland Ballroom for a radio show soundcheck. This was what was referred to as a "track date," meaning that Donna would be singing live to a pre-recorded track to promote the album Another Place and Time. That was the first time I heard Donna Summer's voice live, and it was a musical moment that still produces intense euphoric recall. Donna was fairly unassuming, and hadn't been noticed much amidst the environment of chaos that filled the room. And then she began to sing.
The track for "Love's About to Change My Heart," the album's second single, began with a hallmark Donna Summer-ballad intro. At first, her voice was lost amidst the ballroom's din: "I never needed someone/Cause I always led a life of my own." By the third line, I noticed the energy began to change, heads whipped around, immediately identifying the unmistakable sound of Donna Summer. The song continued, building, growing, Donna standing with one hand on her hip, casual, in jeans with a big hat, big smile, and that sound just emerging from her body with seeming effortlessness.
The room had become hushed, the rapt silence creating an atmosphere of reverence and respect. She gave hand signals to the sound guy to adjust her levels: a secret language. The rest of us just stood and listened, rather stunned. "How does a person even do this?" I remember thinking. The voice: clear, brilliant, throbbing, thrilling. By the time the song's rhythm track kicked in, a group of disparate people, many technicians (who generally don't give a shit) had become a Donna Summer audience.
At the song's crescendo, each note moving up a half-tone on the scale, until it reaches the payoff, the money note: "Love's about to change, change, change, my... heart." I looked at Donna's face, which seemed to say, "Nothing to it," but to the listener it was everything; the moment was sublime, the essence of Donna Summer's artistry. She sang like Fred Astaire danced.
Though Donna Summer was synonymous with disco, there was so much more to her stylistically. To listen to recordings like "Hot Stuff," "Cold Love" or "Protection" (which was written expressly for Donna by Bruce Springsteen, a fan), to name just a few examples, is to hear authentic rock 'n roll vocals: shredding and balls to the wall. To hear her recording of the Billy Strayhorn standard "Lush Life," her own Giorgio Moroder/Pete Bellotte swing era-tinged collaboration "I Remember Yesterday," or her recording of Evita's "Don't Cry For Me Argentina," is to hear a theatrical voice of exceptional power and interpretive acuity (Donna got her start on stage, in the German production of Hair).
To listen to the 1982 Quincy Jones-produced album Donna Summer, especially its first single, "Finger On The Trigger (Love Is in Control)," as well as her subsequent single, "Mystery of Love," is to have the odd sensation of beholding the complete chassis of the Michael Jackson Thriller-era pop sound, only the car's exterior is now regally personified by Donna Summer and the hood ornament is a sparkling "D."
After the disco juggernaut was snuffed out, radio changed and Donna's career continued as she experimented with other musical genres, scoring some of her biggest hits, like "She Works Hard for the Money" and the exuberant, reggae-flavored "Unconditional Love" in the post-disco era. Of course, anytime she even opened her mouth, no matter what came out or what year it was, the result was a number one dance record. Like the concept suggested by the titles of two of her albums, I'm A Rainbow and Crayons, Donna's musical curiosity and diversity allowed her to paint in many colors. It's no surprise then that she was also a fine artist of notable skill. I remember helping to plan what I think was her first major art show in New York during that first encounter in 1989.
There were three separate periods in my music career where Donna and I orbited each other and I am so grateful for each and every memory. But first, for me and for so many other people, Donna's music was the soundtrack of my adolescence. In junior high school, not an easy time, Donna's voice comforted me and consoled me as I dreamed of nights on the dance floor that I was just a few years too young to live out in real life. Her music transported me to light of New York City and Studio 54, just 35 miles away, but so much farther than that if you were an unhappy teenager.
Instead of dancing at the clubs, I danced around my bedroom. In the winter of ninth grade, as I obsessed about my lack of popularity and redecorated my bedroom for the twentieth time, I wore out my copy of Donna Summer Live and More, communing with the outstanding die-cut album art and reading the label copy over and over as if it were a sacred text.
I met Donna initially during my aforementioned stint at Warner Music. This was a period when I was also writing songs myself. Like many young people who worked at the labels, I was also pursuing my own musical aspirations when I wasn't in the office. My commitment to songwriting and passion for pop music, coupled with my youth, made this a very heady time for me, as I was beginning to meet some of the people who I had heretofore only dreamed about. This made me particularly vulnerable to the social advances of Paul Jabara, who wrote the Oscar-winning "Last Dance" for Donna, and whose larger-than-life personality redefined pushy. He was an amazing force of nature: a Lebanese Mama Rose, and a songwriting God to me.
Paul had begun to call our offices trying to find out what Donna was up to (tracking someone down was much harder to do in the pre-digital era, you had to "call around.") Sensing a sympathetic spirit in me (read "gay"), Paul poured on the charm, and without much hesitation, I disclosed that I had reason to believe that Donna and Bruce just might be going to Elaine's, the legendary Upper East Side restaurant, after the Roseland show. Paul had been down, his productivity hamstrung by his battle with AIDS and a serious coke habit, none of which I knew at first. What I did know was that he seemed to crave the connection to Donna, his old friend, as a different kind of fix -- a sort of talisman that he was still "hot." I identified with so much of Paul's desperation to be validated without understanding why. Drawn to his charisma, flattered by his attention, I agreed to bring him as my guest to Roseland. Thus began a short, but memorable, friendship.
Paul was a trip. Everything was completely over-the-top with him, and even though I later found out he was already pretty sick, you couldn't easily tell. His enthusiasm was infectious. Hanging out with him, you could see how his pushiness coupled with his talent resulted in such great success. He had that amazing blend of pathological determination, unwillingness to compromise, and a need to be acknowledged that I've only recognized in other people who are carrying childhood trauma like heavy backpacks through their lives.
After the show, Paul said, "Okay, sweetie, let's go to Elaine's." At this, I panicked. "But Paul, I can't; I wasn't invited and if my boss finds out she'll fire me. " I was frightened of my supervisor, and with good reason: She was territorial and terrifying. "Don't worry, kiddo, you're with me and if anything happens I'll say I brought you. Besides, don't you want to have dinner with Donna Summer?" The truth is I wanted to have dinner with Donna very much. I also wanted to have courage like Paul Jabara, so I borrowed his. The resulting meal was the first time I had ever had dined with a star.
When we got to Elaine's, Paul said hello to its owner, Elaine Kaufman, who personally whisked us in to the room and led us to a preferred table where Donna held court. I'd never been to a restaurant where there were famous people anywhere but in pictures on the wall. I noticed something magical about the energy in the room, as if I had crossed over into some other universe where everything looks the same but is somehow just better. It seemed to me that the air was imbued with magic, and all the things you dreamed about as a sad kid that would make you feel less awful about yourself had actually fulfilled their promise.
Donna seemed surprisingly happy to see Paul, and completely unsurprised that I would be there, which struck me as odd; never having been around celebrities socially, I was unacquainted with the casual dynamic of posses and hangers-on. Paul sat me right next to Donna, who treated me immediately like an old friend. In that very moment I stopped caring about what my boss would say, because in that second, and perhaps for the first time in my life, I felt exponentially less terrible about being me. David Munk from East Brunswick, New Jersey was sitting at Elaine's with Paul Jabara and Donna Summer! This might be accurately regarded as the first time I experienced the drug-like effect of celebrity or, to be more specific, proximity to celebrity.
Donna asked me if I liked the show and wanted to know how I thought it sounded from the audience, which blew my mind. Had I had stepped into a dream where all the pain of my childhood was seemingly ameliorated by my simple proximity to Donna Summer? I looked around the table at six other gay men who, no doubt, felt the same way I did, but I also felt some bitchiness: They envied my preferential seating next to Donna.
At some point during the meal, the conversation came around to a subject that seemed painful to Donna, the alleged homophobic comments that she'd made about AIDS being God's revenge on gay people. Of course, I had heard the rumors which had been repeated so many times they seemed to have acquired an air of legitimacy and, what's worse, had had a negative impact on Donna's career, upsetting her core fan base to such an extent that some had turned their back on the woman they had once regarded as "the Queen."
Paul practically screamed to me, "Look at this table, David," with a huge gesture pointing out six gay men, one well-adjusted husband and Donna Summer. "I ask you, is this what the dinner table of a homophobic person would actually look like?" He had a point, but then, I'd never believed the rumors in the first place. "Really, David," Donna said, her voice quiet and touched with sadness, "I love everyone," she added defensively, "I would never, ever make a comment like that." I thought it was odd that she felt compelled to set the record straight to me, a starstruck assistant. "No woman in my position could even function for a day without gay men in her life. I love my gay friends." "You see," Paul added, "She never said that about gay men. She loves us."
I saw Paul periodically after that. I would go over to his apartment and he would make me spaghetti and listen to my demos while he did lines of coke off a table. He seemed lonely. He even let me hold the Oscar he had won for writing "Last Dance." Even better were his critiques of my work: an Academy Award-winning songwriter tutoring me. "This is good but you have to bring the vocals forward, David. Always keep the vocals in the front of the mix," he would remonstrate, "Always!" We'd listen to music and he'd tell me stories. He was an odd study in opposites: determined and defeated, embittered but hopeful.
No matter how sick Paul got, I'm certain his relationship with Donna always represented the apex of his success as well as his last, best chance of having another hit. When I found out three years later that he had died from AIDS, I was extremely sad. I'd had no idea. The news of his illness, in that terrible decade when it seemed like almost everyone died, put his emotional neediness in a different perspective, as well as making his adoration of Donna and his abiding hope for having another "great moment" all the more poignant. I didn't understand him very well at that age, but looking back from this vantage point, after my own years of career highs and lows, I think I understand him better.
Now Donna is gone as well; I can feel the same heaviness in my heart that I felt when Paul died, for they were kindred. But there was a third person: Donna was also deeply connected to Bruce Roberts, who co-wrote "No More Tears (Enough is Enough)" with Jabara and for whom I worked in the late 1990s. It was during that time in Los Angeles, via Bruce, that Donna came back into my life and I got to know her better and spend more time with her.
I remember one day when I was in the office, which was in Bruce's home. Bruce had gone shopping to Barney's with Donna, an outing that I knew he relished ("David, you should have seen the faces of the staff behind the counter when Donna walked up, you've never seen such love.") I was working at my desk and listening to Lena Horne's recording of "Stormy Weather." I remember the name of the song because I wrote in my journal that night. "Life is bare/Gloom and mis'ry everywhere/Stormy weather."
Suddenly the vocal was strangely doubled. I thought my speaker wires were loose. "Just can't get my poor self together." Suddenly Donna sashays into the room, arms rolling in a waving motion and her voice -- that voice -- joining with the great Lena Horne and singing just for me. Donna was like that: spontaneous, playful and not afraid to use that vocal gift to have fun, to make a point, to celebrate life. Bruce had set the whole thing up so she would walk in and surprise me.
She wasn't precious about her singing; she shared it freely and with no self-consciousness. I think she enjoyed what the power of her voice and what her presence could do in any context. I will always see her that way: in an imaginary spotlight in front of my desk in Bruce's house, belting "Stormy Weather," standing on Lena's shoulders and giving me a "forever" moment, one that I can, in turn, share with you now.
In these desultory days of auto-tune, when singer and pole dancer -- two professions with formerly diametrically opposed skill-sets -- are now, sadly, interchangeable, Donna Summer's protean abilities seem even more impressive. Only in what's left of the music business can you be a singer without really being able to sing. The fact that in addition to having that voice, Donna Summer wrote or co-wrote almost every one of her iconic songs is a detail that should be considered when properly assessing her place in history.
It is a fact that Summer was, along with the Bee Gees, the recording artist who most completely captured the essence of what was first affectionately, then derisively called "Disco" music in the late 1970s. But what gets obfuscated in yoking the singer to the "Queen of Disco" sobriquet is her true range as an artist. "Disco" died in 1979 because the homophobic, racist majority felt threatened by what was an unabashed celebration of African-American and gay urban culture, forcing the word disco to shape-shift into the less descriptive (and less overtly gay) "Dance Music." Donna Summer was simply one of the best singers, period.
In the end, I think she'd like to be remembered as a great musician whose stunning, soaring voice brought joy to people all over the world for almost forty years. In order to do that, you can't just define a trend: You must transcend it and create something that endures. Donna Summer's music will endure. That is her legacy and it is everyone's to celebrate.
A different version of this piece appeared in Stargayzing.com