by Patrick Pacheco
Population control advocates might find Donna Summer a problem. Not that
this sultry beauty is indifferent to the crisis of ecological overcrowding,
it's just that the libidinous, driving rhythms of her last three gold Casablanca
albums- Love to Love You Baby, A Love Trilogy, and The Four Seasons of Love-
are so intensely steamy that listeners are spontaneously transported from
the vertical to the supine, from the aural to the oral. More than mere vinyl,
these discs are aphrodisiacs, finding a berth on the bedroom shelf next to
the love oils, satin sheets, and other erotica for the adult playpen. One
wonders if, nine months after Valentine's Day, 1976, there was a baby boom
tantamount to the one following the East Coast blackout. It was on that day
that Donna Summer's "Love to Love You Baby" led Billboard's Hot 100 and that
the phenomenon of disco sex rock, engineered by Casablanca president Neil
Bogart and producers Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte, hit with full force.
Across the nation, disco babies and hot-blooded hipsters gyrated to the orgasmic
vocalizing of Donna Summer. Time magazine cited twenty-two recorded orgasms,
but whatever the count, "Love to Love You Baby" created a niche in rock history
for Donna, sending the Boston-born-and-bred songstress to the airy perch
of glamour and affluence along Beverly Hills's Benedict Canyon.
The Donna Summer domain is a bit crazed on the bright December day when a friend drops me in the leafy paradise. Outside the house, a film crew, shooting footage for German television, attempts to simulate a winter wonderland as a backdrop for Donna's rendition of "Winter Melody" from her Four Seasons of Love album. A dog snaps at a portly fellow throwing "snow" in front of a wind machine, creating a blizzardy unreality in the eighty-degree weather. Inside, a fire blazes in the hearth, telephones ring, spaghetti boils on the stove, and photographers, friends, and assistants troop in and out. Hardly the court I had expected to find for the First Lady of Love. Brainwashed by Casablanca's superlative supersleek publicity machine, I had hoped to find Donna languorously lying on the front lawn in a sheer silky chemise, surrounded by exhausted hot-blooded males while breathily singing, "Let me know the wonder of all of you." Or Donna emerging from her swimming pool in a see-through, skin-tight jersey showing ample breasts and thighs, childishly giggling while beckoning, "come with me." Or Donna stretched out seductively on a couch, eating a fig and singing, "I know we can make it," while a monkey perches on a cornice, a peacock glides by, and a leopard lies at her feet.
At least Donna's entrance into the room is not disappointing. Wrapped in fur, she glides in, leaning against the door, affecting a Rita Hayworth come-hither pose while "Winter Melody" blares on the stereo. Then, without missing a beat, she slides into a knock-kneed position, crosses her eyes, and sticks out her tongue. From Rita Hayworth to Imogene coca.
Haphazardly snatched between the phone calls, temper clashes, and television filming, a few minutes of conversation confirms the likely suspicion that Donna Summer, Love Goddess, is an assumed role. She is particularly good at projecting an image because her roots are in theater. Eight years ago, she traveled to Munich from her home in Boston to play the role of Sheila in an international company of Hair. Finding herself in the exotic position of being one of the few black women in a land of the fair-haired (and liking it), she quickly learned the language, joined the Viennese company of Hair, and stayed to play roles in the German companies of Godspell, Porgy and Bess, Showboat, and The Me Nobody Knows. Her sensuous image, she admits, is only one facet of her personality, but she is not impatient to demonstrate her other abilities. That will come in time, she murmurs. Meanwhile, three albums carefully produced along those lines have achieved the recording alchemist's dream of turning vinyl into gold, and she's content to ride out the possibilities of a career that has been carefully nurtured by her manager Joyce Bogart, by her publicist Susan Munao, and by her producers Giorgio Moroder and Peter Bellotte. It was the latter two who discovered Donna when she was doing backup vocals for a demo at the Musicland recording studios in Munich. The newly formed trio hit pay dirt with the two singles "Lady of the Night" and "Hostage," which made Donna Summer a star in Europe. Her calendar was soon filled with television commitments and requests for personal appearances. Cued by the success of the breathy, moaning cadences of the European hit "Je T'Aime," Bellotte, Moroder, and Summer wrote "Love to Love You Baby" and, despite some reluctance on the part of the producers, cut it in the studio. The record did poorly in Europe; it was a departure from Donna's previous hits dealing with social commentary.
However, "Love to Love You Baby" was one of the three cuts that struck responsive chords in the imaginative genius of Casablanca's president Neil Bogart. As the creator of Buddah Records in the sixties, he earned the title of Bubble Gum King by churning out hits like "Yummy, Yummy," "Chewy, Chewy," and "Simon Says" in an era dominated by acid rock. However, Bogart's multimillion dollar record company was a fledgling vision when Moroder walked into the modest offices on Sunset Boulevard. Despite his enthusiasm for the record, something bothered him, something he didn't realize until he arbitrarily slipped it onto the turntable in the course of a party at his home. "The whole mood of the party changed," Bogart noted. "People started dancing, and there were constant requests for replays. I then realized what was bothering me about the record. It was too short." Bogart placed a long-distance call to the Munich-based Moroder and demanded a twenty-minute cut of the record. Weeks later, New York discos repeatedly played the record, catalyzing the momentum that would send it to the top of the heap and plop Donna Summer into a house commanding a magnificent view of Hollywood and its ribbon of freeways.
Looking out on that view and talking about the chain of events that brought her to this point in her life, Donna is cool and reserved. She shows little amazement at what most people would consider a rock fantasy come true. It is almost as if she has always been a star and that the world has finally come to acknowledge the fact. I'm not very good at playing this game, she mentions matter-of-factly, talking about her fame while waving her hand to encompass the vista below. It's not easy for Donna to play the phony, says one of her associates. Throughout the day, one gets an indication of this aspect of her personality. If Donna looks tired, she complains that she is tired. If she's grumpy and short-tempered, she shows it. Her other emotions are as up front as her sensuality. But she can be thoroughly professional.
Following her New York debut at Roseland in the concert "A Summer Rose," After Dark magazine hosted a party for Donna at Backstage Restaurant, where an enthusiastic crowd waited to greet her. Throughout the evening, she was accessible, cooperative, and charming. However, the following week, I bounced into Bloomingdale's on Saturday afternoon and noticed Donna talking with associates near the Mary Quant booth. Not recognizing me from the week before, she gave me an intimidating stare as I started to approach her to tell her that late telegrams had arrived for her at the office. When I identified myself, her frozen stare turned into a warm hello, but the previous look was an obvious warning to any would-be intruder not to invade her territory. It's a star's prerogative.
Donna's reviews for the above-mentioned concert were largely uncomplimentary, but she remained unfazed by them. "I can only do the best I can under whatever circumstances," she replies. "I can't exert too much energy crying or rejoicing over my reviews, because I've just got too much to do." The reviews were unfair to some extent. Donna was laboring under horrendous sound conditions at Roseland. Furthermore, the critics, aware of the publicity push for the First Lady of Love, created a backlash that unfairly ignored this lady's impressive talent. Her voice contains a strong, lyrical quality frequently overshadowed by the lush arrangements of her records, and she has an inherent musicality that is superb. Barry Manilow has expressed his admiration for her rendition of his "Could It Be Magic," which enjoyed a different life through her disco recording. While the disco market has been her entree into the rock-pop pantheon and while Casablanca's ingenius publicity campaign has made her instantly recognizable to the masses, her formidable talent has been left waiting in the wings, like an actress itching to perform her show-stopping number. But Donna is not impatient about that, either. Like the facets of her personality outside her current image, her reserves of talent will emerge in time.
Like many of her black sisters in show business, Donna's talent was nurtured in the church. It is ironic that the girl who would become internationally famous for her "sexcitation" would choose Mahalia Jackson as her childhood idol and cause churchgoers to shout hallelujah when she sang out Jesus' songs. As one of six children (five, girls, one boy) born to an electrician and his teacher wife, Donna grew up in a boisterous middle-class Boston neighborhood. She recalls her childhood as a happy one, but in large families, children frequently feel lost in the crowd unless they excel at something that makes them stand out. Since scholastics were always a pain, Donna chose music, asking her father if she could drop out of school to pursue a career in music. That could have happened were it not for the scholastic merit exams that placed Donna among the top ten in her school, despite her average grades. It's a telling episode. If Donna is interested in something, all of her faculties are on the alert. But if she is bored or distracted, she will feign ignorance or disinterest. She possesses an agile, dexterous mind, but it needs prodding. Otherwise, Donna might be regarded as a dull, petulant little, girl.
Donna's most successful prodder is her boyfriend Peter Muhldorfer, a twenty-seven-year-old German surrealist artist, who Donna met in Munich. His dark, frequently grotesque paintings decorate the house, and the themes frequently involve a piano or a microphone or other paraphernalia associated with his girl friend's career. One of his paintings shows a black arm grasping the decayed shaft of a microphone. The mike is a cracked eggshell with a disembodied human mouth, eyes, and pupils floating in place of part of the eggshell. Peter once told a reporter that it was a surrealistic representation of what people are doing to Donna. I guess it's not easy to be the lover of the woman who represents a new wave of sex rock physically manifested by the gold records and other awards that are crowded onto one wall of the house. It is curious that throughout the house there is pandemonium and strewn material everywhere, except in the bedroom, which appears untouched, as if the sex goddess had time for everything but sex. At any rate, with her doll-like features and royal share of talent, Donna Summer has reached the threshold of a career that should take her into television and especially films, given Casablanca's partnership with Peter Guber's Filmworks. Perhaps the most expressive of all the paintings and other memorabilia in the house is a small snapshot of Donna that, for some reason, has been torn into pieces and pasted together again- another perspective on the many seasons of Donna Summer.