Donna Summer, best known for hits such as Last Dance, She Works Hard for the Money, Hot Stuff and Bad Girls, will perform at 8 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 31, at the Anderson Center for the Performing Arts.
A Summer night show at the Anderson CenterTweet
Donna Summer has certainly earned her “Queen of Disco” nickname: four No. 1 pop hits; 10 other Top 10 pop songs; 15 No. 1 dance hits; five Grammy Awards; and more than 130 million in worldwide sales over a 35-year career.
But she has also gained royalty status in an area that may surprise casual fans: songwriting.
“Perhaps because my voice is so strong, people think of me as a singer,” said Summer, who will perform at the Anderson Center at 8 p.m. Aug. 31. “The (songwriting) almost becomes irrelevant to them. It doesn’t for me.”
Summer has written or co-written more than two dozen of her hit singles, along with scores of other tunes on her albums. Those songs, which include She Works Hard for the Money, Bad Girls, On the Radio, Love to Love You Baby, Dim All the Lights, Heaven Knows and This Time I Know It’s For Real, have enabled Summer to prosper as a pop-music icon years after former contemporaries have faded away.
Summer even has a No. 1 country single on her songwriting résumé. In 1980, Dolly Parton took Starting Over Again a song written by Summer and husband Bruce Sudano about an older couple going through a divorce, to the top of the country charts and the pop 40. Starting Over Again became a hit again in 1996 when country star Reba McEntire covered it.
“My songwriting does at times get overlooked or overshadowed,” Summer said, adding that she is not thought of a “singer-songwriter.”
“I’d like to change that in the future. It’s really important for people to understand that the songs are coming out of me.”
For Summer, the songwriting process begins with a color, feeling or words that draw inspiration. She then prefers to take that inspiration “totally away from everything” in a studio with microphone and headset.
“Sometimes you write and it’s just like writer’s block,” she said. “Other times … it’s falling through you. You can’t get it done fast enough and you don’t want interruptions. You know it’s pure. I try to get to that pure place – whatever the music is and whatever I’m feeling are in alignment and I can get it out before it gets polluted.”
Summer pointed to two songs that she is especially proud of – and neither is a hit record. The first is an unreleased song written with producer Michael Omartian called No Ordinary Love Song. The second, on Summer’s 1979 double album Bad Girls, is called There Will Always Be a You, a love song to Sudano. It is one of several ballads on the album that showed Summer’s skills extended beyond dance numbers.
“That was my favorite song I ever wrote,” she said. “At the time, I thought it was the most poetic song I had written. It’s not necessarily a hit song. It’s for listeners – people who will get deeper into the album. Anyone who knows me and really likes the music is going to know that song is special to me.”
When it comes to the stage, Summer said there is one song she never tires of performing – and it’s one she did not write: Last Dance. Performed by Summer in the 1978 film Thank God It’s Friday, the Paul Jabara-written song earned an Academy Award and serves as the crescendo of Summer’s live shows.
“There is something in that number,” she said, “There are moments of what it feels like to be onstage - the way I envisioned it and the way I want to feel it - that come together in that song. It is me and the audience.”
When Summer comes to the Anderson Center, the audience can expect a mix of songs ranging from standards to newer material from Summer’s 2008 Crayons CD to “a lot of the hits,” she said. (For tickets, call 777-ARTS or go to http://anderson.binghamton.edu. Inside reserved tickets are $68.50; lawn seating is $32.50.)
But Summer also emphasized that the crowd is often the key to her concerts and used an analogy that may have some fans humming one of her No. 1 songs, MacArthur Park.
“The audience has to bring some fun with them – bring some energy,” she said. “If you look at us as a cake, we are the mix: we’re in the bowl waiting. The energy comes from the audience: they are the blender. They whip it up.
“Even though you are there to make them happy, it’s that energy that sends you to the moon. If you can get ahold of that, you’ll go to places you never imagine. It’s an exciting experience. I love making people happy.”
Summer’s career continues to evolve: Next up is a new dance single, To Paris With Love (just released on iTunes), followed by a new album. She also has started work on an all-standards album.
“If you’re an artist, you can’t paint with the same color every time,” she said. “You have to paint with other colors or else you’re not balanced. So I will be moving on.”
Standards, which Summer has always performed live and on albums, also provide a connection to one of her musical inspirations.
“I always looked up to Judy Garland,” she said. “I would see her in the spotlight and people would adore her. She knew how to work the moment.
“That is the kind of artist I want to be. I want to be someone who can take you there – wherever that is – and drop you off. At the end, you’ll say, ‘Oh no, the show is over?’ It went by so fast because you were so consumed and so a part of what was going on that you want to come back for more. That to me is a great performer.”
A family affair
A family get-together at Donna Summer’s house is sure to feature everyone contributing to the beat.
“My whole family is musical,” Summer said.
Bruce Sudano, Summer’s husband, is a singer-songwriter who has been a member of the groups Alive and Kicking (best known for the 1970 hit Tighter and Tighter) and Brooklyn Dreams (which collaborated with Summer on her 1978 hit Heaven Knows.) Daughter Mimi plays the guitar and piano; daughter Brooklyn (an actress who starred in the ABC comedy My Wife and Kids) plays guitar and sings; and youngest daughter Amanda and husband Abner Ramirez make up the pop-soul duo Johnnyswim.
But one member of the family is especially standing out these days, Summer said.
“My granddaughter is writing like an accomplished 40-year-old,” Summer said of 12-year-old Vienna Dohler. “We all sit around saying ‘What can I steal from her? I like that lick.’”
Vienna sings, plays piano and is writing entire songs, Summer said.
“She is gifted,” Summer said. “She has a great voice – a little Joni Mitchell-ish.”
Summer admitted that her own powerful voice often takes a back seat when the music takes over.
“We listen to the younger kids,” she said. “I hardly ever sing when they’re around. They’ll get up and run out of the room and say ‘Oh, mom!’ because my voice is so noisy.
“I’m like, ‘Hello! I paid your tuition to school with this!” Summer said with a laugh.