May 17, 2012 12:35 PM ET
Donna Summer on the cover of 'Rolling Stone.'
Photograph by Brian Leatart
Until I saw Donna Summer a year ago on a Midnight Special with Lou Rawls, I'd viewed her music simply as brilliantly packaged aural sex, nothing too meaty, and, in spite of its implied intimacies, nothing too personal. But when she joined Rawls on the dais dressed like a Bloomingdale's Cleopatra, she sang probably the most affectingly full-blooded version of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" I'd ever heard. This wasn't the cooing voice she used on records.
The second time I saw her was on the set of the Casablanca Records and Film Works-Motown production, Thank God It's Friday. Donna was playing an aspiring singer trying to persuade a disco DJ to let her perform a song. After several rebuffs, the singer sneaks into the booth and locks the door behind her, so it's just the two of them. Then she unbuttons the top button of her blouse and fixes him with a stare from the corners of her eyes. I remember thinking it was one of the most curious expressions I'd ever seen, wide-open, withheld and coldly erotic.
But now, at Christmas time, when Donna pulls into the Casablanca Records' office of Susan Munao, wearing a billowing green velvet dress and pencil-heeled black boots, she looks neither mysterious nor erotic, just dog tired.
Her handshake is firm and her smile is friendly, but her wide eyes are bloodshot. Her tall frame is muscular and her face, framed by wavy black hair and centered with a puggish nose, is less angular than in album photos. While Munao leaves to fetch Cokes, Donna sinks into a swivel armchair with an exaggerated sigh.
In rotelike speech with an occasional Bostonian curl, Summer attributes her languor to the last two days' regimen of interviews and rehearsals. Then, without breathing space or prompting, she launches into a detailed, detached explanation of her plans for taking Once upon a Time (her latest album) to the stage in the spring. After a few minutes, Munao returns to announce that Summer's boyfriend, Michael, would like to speak to her for a moment. "He has those Christmas cards you wanted," Munao says. Michael, a tall, blond man wearing a red-and-white satin warmup jacket, saunters into the room possessively and places a card before Donna.
"No, no," she says, plucking it from his hand, "this won't do. You can't tell who's supposed to be who. Is that a cartoon of Neil Bogart [Casablanca's president] or Jeff Wald [Donna's comanager with Joyce Bogart at the time]?"
"Well, that's Neil, I guess," he says. "You can tell because he's sort of fat." Before going, Michael mentions that he'd met a psychic healer earlier in the day and asked him by Donna's later.
"Well, I don't want to see him." Donna hitches her shoulder like a kid turning down porridge.
"Believe me," he says slowly, "you want to see him. I mean, this guy has such an eerie aura about him. He told me more in fifteen minutes about what's been going down in your life and career than I could've told him."
"Oh yeah? What'd he say about my headaches and insomnia?"
Michael leans over the desk at Donna, resting his weight on his knuckles. "He said to tell you that he'll take on your pain because it won't hurt him."
"Really?" Her face brightens. "Really? Look, ask him if he'll meet with me tonight. Maybe he'll take away this negativity so I can sleep." After Michael saunters back out, I tell her it sounds as if she's going through a rough stretch. "Oh God," she says, letting out a long breath, "I can't even begin to tell you. Too much has happened lately. It seems like an absurdity. I just got back from this Italian tour that was so ill organized and badly paced that I thought I was going to break. In one airport I was so gone that they had to give me oxygen and wheel me to the plane, and all I could think was, 'I've got a show to do tonight.'
"Sometimes it gets to the point where you've been pushed for so long, by this motorous, monstrous force, this whole production of people and props that you're responsible for, by audiences and everything that rules you, until you take it upon yourself to be a machine. And at some point a machine breaks down. I feel like I want to cry most of the time and just get rid of it, but sometimes I get so pent-up, I can't. And that's when I get afraid."
Probably more than any other single personality, Donna Summer has come to represent disco artistry, a fairly enigmatic thing to epitomize. In the rigid framework of disco, the artist's role is so often reduced to that of a prop that the term "artist" hardly even applies. Few disco performers have attempted to adopt the genre to their own bents and even fewer have managed to escape it altogether. Strangely, Summer has been not only its most flagrant example of prop usage, but also the most successful at transcending the prop – and, in turn, disco itself.
In her early hits, particularly "Love to Love You Baby," Donna and her producers – Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte – embellished and strengthened the prop by affording it a persona of sorts: Donna became a servile vixen with a whispery voice, intoning and moaning over a metronomic beat that had all the intensity of a sex act between consenting androids. (No less an authority than Time clocked the seventeen-minute performance at a prodigious twenty-two orgasms.) If it seemed a persona of dubious and limited worth, it nevertheless had the desired results: Donna became disco's best-known personality – one of the few to endure – and, in the bargain, one of its most consistent sellers.