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Donna Summer: The 'Fresh Air' interview

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross. Even many people who prided themselves on hating disco loved one of its biggest hit-makers, Donna Summer.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOT STUFF")

DONNA SUMMER: (Singing) Sitting here eating my heart out, waiting, waiting for some lover to call. Dialed about a thousand numbers lately, almost rang the phone off the wall. Looking for some hot stuff, baby, this evening. I need some hot stuff, baby, tonight.

BIANCULLI: Her hits of the 1970s and early '80s included "Hot Stuff," "Last Dance," "Heaven Knows," "On The Radio," "Bad Girls" and "She Works Hard For The Money." She had three consecutive No. 1 platinum albums and 11 gold albums. She's now the subject of a new HBO documentary titled "Love To Love You, Donna Summer." She was considered a disco sex queen, and she played the part well, but that's hardly how she saw herself. Donna Summer died in 2012.

We're going to listen to Terry's 2003 interview with her. At the time, she had written her memoir, "Ordinary Girl." She had her first hit, "Love To Love You Baby," in 1975. She made that record when she was living in Germany, where she had starred in a production of "Hair." In Munich, she met the record producer Giorgio Moroder, who became her collaborator and one of disco's most successful and influential producers. Summer had been doing demo recordings for Moroder when she came up with a line she thought would make a good hook for a song - love to love you, baby.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

SUMMER: Yeah, I had this idea at home one day. And I ran into the studio, and I said, Giorgio, I have this idea. Would you - do you think you could write something to it? And I sort of sang it to him, and he kept saying it over. He says, love to love you. I love to love you. He kept rubbing his chin and thinking like a little mad scientist. And then he went into the studio, and Giorgio had written this track. And I began to - he asked me to go in and start singing something, and I had - didn't have any words other than love to love you, baby. So I was improvising on the track live. And that really became "Love To Love You Baby," the original track.

TERRY GROSS: So when you sang him your initial idea, what was it that you sang?

SUMMER: You know, love to - I love - (singing) I love to love you, baby - you know, the melody of the song. And then he went from there and produced something and then I began to sing it. And then I began to play with the - there weren't that many words, so I played with the sound of the music. You know, (vocalizing). You know, there - we didn't have the same technology we have today, so I had to do everything with my own voice.

GROSS: You say in the book you approached the song like an actress because you didn't think of yourself as having that kind of really sexy persona. So tell us about how you did approach recording the vocal.

SUMMER: Well, the vocal was - it was very breathy and airy. And basically, I was a theater singer, so I had been, you know, much more of a belter. And it was really different and difficult for me to tap into who this person was. And so I imaged Marilyn Monroe and just began to think, well, how would Marilyn sing this song? And she would be very soft. And then I - you know, I started playing with the thought in my mind. And then I - so as I began to sort of think of it her way, through her, I began to understand who the song was for and who the song was about and the girl singing it. And I tapped into it and recorded it.

GROSS: Well, I think this would be a good place to hear your recording of "Love To Love You Baby."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE TO LOVE YOU BABY")

SUMMER: (Singing) I love to love you, baby. I love to love you, baby. I love to love you, baby. I love to love you, baby. I love to love you, baby. When you're laying so close to me, there's no place I'd rather you be than with me. Oh. I love to love you, baby. I love to love you, baby. I love to love you, baby. Do it to me again and again. You put me in such an awful spin, in a spin. Oh.

GROSS: That's Donna Summer's first big hit. Now, when Neil Bogart decided to have this record on his label, he wanted a longer version for the dance clubs. So you had to go back and do, like, a long version, like - what? - 14 minutes.

SUMMER: Well, it wasn't for the dance clubs, actually. I think Neil had a little something else in mind. It worked out for the dance clubs.

GROSS: Oh.

SUMMER: But it actually - it was for...

GROSS: Torrid love (laughter).

SUMMER: ...The secret times - secret lives of many people. But he had played the short version when he was with his wife, and he thought that it was too short. And he said, this mood is so great. I just want to hear it extended. What's the longest that you're going to extend it? And Giorgio said, well, you know, we'll do the best we can. And we came back. I think the original was, like, 17 and - almost 18 minutes. And, of course, he thought no one would ever play it on the air, but they wound up playing it on the air.

GROSS: So what did you add for the long version?

SUMMER: Well, there was music - extension music added and bridge music, and there were other melodies inserted and then just sort of vocal swells. You know, just - it was a mood setter.

GROSS: What did you do to set your mood?

SUMMER: Mine (laughter)? I laid on the floor. And it was very difficult to do this because, I mean, I was a comedian, and Giorgio and I - we were always goofing around. So Pete and Giorgio had to turn the lights down. And I think they might have brought some candles in the room or something. And I literally laid on the floor. They lowered the microphone to me, and I just, you know, kind of sang it like I was, you know, having a romantic encounter (laughter). It's embarrassing to me to say this now, but it's true. And we nailed the song, finally. And, you know, like I said, I came up with some vocal approaches that were not - basically no one had ever done before. So it kind of started the whole thing of this new type of music.

GROSS: Now, after recording "Love To Love You Baby," you were brought to the United States to promote the record. And as you say, this is when you were transformed into a sex queen and sophisticated diva, which was a kind of awkward position for you to be in judging from what you write in your book because, first of all, you were brought up in the church. And second of all, you were used to singing in, like, a theater setting, not being the sex queen. And you thought of yourself as comedic, not the...

SUMMER: Definitely.

GROSS: ...Sex queen.

SUMMER: What a contrast.

GROSS: So how were you transformed? What were some of the things that you were told you needed to wear or say or act like?

SUMMER: Well, I mean, I have - you know, everybody has different portions of their personality, and I tend to be - I can be very, very quiet and to myself and withdrawn. And I just, you know, sort of - and I can be extremely outgoing when I need to be because I grew up in a big family. And so I just sort of drew on my other self, the one that I am most of the time when nobody's around and when I just want to be alone. And that sort of - I thought that person would work fine for whatever it was I had to do.

And so, I mean, the things that they encouraged me to do, you know, was to - you know, they gave me a makeup artist and a hair person and a stylist. And, you know, they took me to Hollywood and did the whole Hollywood thing with the clothes and the makeovers and the, you know, things that I had, you know, done in different - I modeled in Europe, so I was familiar with all of that fashion, you know, input. But, you know, they wanted me to look a certain way, to be a certain way. And they said, well, you're going to be a star. People aren't asking for you. They're asking for this image of you. And so that's kind of what, you know, was done. They began to transform me into an image.

GROSS: How did you like the image?

SUMMER: Well, I didn't like the image per se. I mean, I didn't particularly care for the sex image. I thought it was kind of narrow, and I felt like I was going to have to break out real soon, otherwise I wasn't going to make it. So, you know, initially for the record, it was what - you know, what sold the record. But it wasn't a place that I was comfortable.

GROSS: You are already a mother by then.

SUMMER: Yes. I had one daughter, Mimi, by this time.

GROSS: Did that make it more uncomfortable, being a mother?

SUMMER: Yeah, I think - I mean, I think when you have to be accountable to people, it's hard not to think about what you're doing. When you don't have to be accountable to anyone, then you only have yourself to answer to. It's different. So I always felt like I had this sort of - people to answer to. And my children - and my child, at the time, was one of them. And I felt in the future, I didn't want her to say, Mom, well, you did it, you know, but - you know.

GROSS: Did she ever say that?

(LAUGHTER)

SUMMER: Yeah, she did. Yes, she did...

GROSS: What was your comeback?

SUMMER: ...Much to my chagrin. I just told her it was a different time. And, you know, I came from a totally different life than her. And I was very insecure and not able to make my own stand at that time. And I allowed myself to be led into things that I, you know, really didn't approve of, even for myself. For other people - they want to do it, that's their business. I - you know, I have nothing against that. But for me, I didn't think that it was the right - I would have - if I would have had to choose a song as a first song, it would have been "Last Dance" or "Enough Is Enough" or something like that.

GROSS: After "Love To Love You Baby" became a hit, there was a cake, a now-famous cake, that was made and delivered long distance (laughter).

SUMMER: (Laughter) It sure was.

GROSS: Would you describe the cake...

SUMMER: OK.

GROSS: ...And the extremes that were gone to to deliver the cake to its destination?

SUMMER: Well, that cake is actually in the book. And it was a cake that was made by Hansen's Cakes in LA. And they did a picture of me from the album cover. And the cake was - oh, gosh, I think it maybe it was about four feet, five feet long. It was body length. And I was drawn out on the cake, you know, like I am on the album. And it said love to love you, baby, on it. And they flew the cake first class, two seats, with people accompanying it, from LA to New York to a party. And they presented it to me. And it was - you know, they brought it in on an ambulance. And I mean, it was just this whole big to-do about this cake. It turned out to be its own marketing tool for the company and for me. It was quite a big thing at the time.

GROSS: There's a photograph in your book of your parents sitting on a couch next to the cake...

SUMMER: (Laughter).

GROSS: ...Staring at the cake with a look, I think, of confusion and resignation on their faces.

SUMMER: Yeah (laughter). Looking at it - what is going on here?

GROSS: What did they think of this?

SUMMER: Well, I think the look on my mother's face is, you know, pretty much that - what? This is not my child. She has no clothes on, or she has a very little clothes on. Her legs are exposed. And my dad is looking at it, kind of perplexed, going, I thought I did a good job, you know.

(LAUGHTER)

SUMMER: And so they were so perplexed. You know, I mean, they were really happy that day, I think. When they brought the cake, they just - they were dumbfounded. They'd never seen anything like it. And to see, you know, that particular album cover done that big, they were in shock.

BIANCULLI: Donna Summer speaking to Terry Gross in 2003. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MFSB SONG, "TSOP (THE SOUND OF PHILADELPHIA)")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2003 interview with disco queen Donna Summer. She died in 2012 and is the subject of a new HBO documentary called "Love To Love You, Donna Summer."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: Why don't we hear another recording? And this is another one of your hits, one of your - I guess it was like your second big hit, your second really big hit. This is the song "Last Dance," which is from the film "Thank God It's Friday." Let's hear it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LAST DANCE")

SUMMER: (Singing) Last dance, last chance for love. Yes, it's my last chance for romance tonight. I need you by me, beside me, to guide me, to hold me, to scold me, 'cause when I'm bad, I'm so, so bad. So let's dance the last dance. Let's dance the last dance. Let's dance this last dance tonight. Last dance, last chance...

GROSS: That's Donna Summer, her hit "Last Dance." That's - what we hear at the beginning of that is something typical for some of your songs - starting slow, and then the beat comes in and everything speeds up. Is that something that you and Moroder knew would really work? And what really works about that?

SUMMER: I think we decided - and I don't know if it was Neil and Giorgio. We - they wanted me to have a slow song as a hit, and they were having a hard time finding the right song for me to sing. And I don't know if it was Neil or Giorgio who came up with the idea of, why not start the song slow and then break out into it, so people can start together, and then they can swing themselves out and start dancing, you know, the way they dance. And it was a format that worked for us very well.

GROSS: I want to get back to what we were talking about before, which is like, you know, the image that was created for you...

SUMMER: OK.

GROSS: ...Of, like, the disco diva, the sex goddess. Did you feel like you had to live up to that in your personal relationships?

SUMMER: Well, not my personal relationships so much. But I think in my, you know, public relationship to people, when I did interviews or whatever, people (laughter) - guys would be so nervous, like they thought I was going to, you know, just - I don't know - jump on them or something. And I think the image was really pretty hard to live up to at some point, especially with my sense of humor and at the time, my kind of quirky sense of mocking. It just didn't go together. So I had to really be calm when I did interviews and not, you know, clown around too much.

GROSS: What were the tours like? I mean, you describe in your book that, you know, sometimes, you'd have, like, male dancers in loincloths.

(LAUGHTER)

SUMMER: Yeah. Well, that was what was happening at the time. I mean, we had this one show that was - I forget who designed the show, but it was a big egg. You know, there was - smoke would be on the stage, and the lights would be down. And I would be inside the egg. And then all of a sudden, the music would start, and the egg would start to break apart. And then four dancers would come out and lift the shell off and I would be unveiled in the middle.

GROSS: (Laughter).

SUMMER: Don't ask me whose idea that was. But in any case, the audience would go crazy because the egg had been out there from the time they got there. So I'd be out in that egg for for 10 minutes while people are getting in, you know - in their seats and stuff. But - so, I mean, originally the - you know, the shows were pretty racy, I'd say. You know, people would throw bras on stage and underwear and all kinds of things. And at some point, doing "Love To Love You, Baby" became almost impossible. I just couldn't do it after a while. It was just more than I could handle.

GROSS: People threw their bras on stage?

SUMMER: Their bras, their underwear. People would rush the stage, men and women, and just throw themselves (laughter) at the stage. And it was like nothing I have ever seen or experienced in my life. It was just such a strange thing. You know, when I would start doing the song, people would literally just break out and run down the aisles and try to jump onto the stage. And many times, they made it. And it was back in the days when I only had, I think - well, I had two bodyguards, but they weren't enough to fit all the way across the stage. And so some people would manage to break through the lines, and it was pretty scary.

GROSS: Well, why don't we hear another record here?

SUMMER: OK.

GROSS: My guest is Donna Summer, and her new book is called "Ordinary Girl." It's an autobiography. Why don't we hear "Bad Girls?" And how did you come up with the idea of writing a song about hookers?

SUMMER: It wasn't the first song I wrote about hookers, by the way, but it was the most famous one (laughter). And it came about because someone in my office was accosted by the police, and they thought that she was a hooker. And that's how the story came about.

GROSS: Now, as you describe in your book, Neil Bogart from your record label didn't want you to record it. He wanted Cher to record it. What was his problem with having you record this song?

SUMMER: He just thought it was too rock 'n' roll, too - he didn't think it was dance enough at the time, the way it was recorded originally. And I had gone in and recorded it with my husband Bruce and the Brooklyn Dreams. They did the track. But I - when he said he wanted to give it to Cher, I told him, I don't think so. This is my song. And I keep Cher - I love Cher, but she can't have my song right now. And so I just took the song, and we just sort of canned it for about...

GROSS: How'd you get back to it?

SUMMER: Well, How it came about was pretty bizarre, actually. I was in the studio. And a friend of mine worked in the studio. He ran the studio, actually, as an engineer, Steve Smith. And he was going through old tapes. And he heard "Bad Girls." And he's like, Donna, I just - man, I heard this tape last night. He said, I played it over and over again. I think this is a hit record. I said, you do? I said, well, I know, but Neil doesn't want me to do the song. What am I going to do? He said - I said, he doesn't want - he won't let me. I already asked him. He said, look. I think you got to pull this song out. I think you got to release the song. And I said, well, you know, when Giorgio comes, maybe you can play it to him and just see how he feels about it. Well, the song was down. There wasn't any beep beeps or toot toots on it. And it still needed some work. And Giorgio took it out, and he actually loved it. And he said, well, you know what? Let me work on this. So he went to work on it, and then I came in and did some more vocals and things. And it was missing something. And I kept thinking, what - you know, what do you do when you're sitting in a car, trying to get a prostitute's attention? And I said, you honk your horn. So the beep beep and the toot toot was how to get people's attention. And it did. It worked.

GROSS: It's such a great record. Let's hear it. This is Donna Summer singing "Bad Girls."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BAD GIRLS")

SUMMER: (Singing) Toot toot, hey, beep beep. Toot toot, hey, beep beep. Toot toot, hey, beep beep. Bad girls talkin' 'bout the sad girls. Sad girls talkin' 'bout bad girls, yeah. See them out on the street at night walkin', picking up all kinds of strangers, if the price is right. You can score if your pocket's nice. But you want a good time. You ask yourself who they are. Like everybody else, they come from near and far.

BIANCULLI: That's Donna Summer. She spoke to Terry Gross in 2003. After a break, we'll continue their conversation. And we'll remember Chris Strachwitz, the founder of Arhoolie Records, who died earlier this month. He traveled the country to track down and record regional musicians, releasing invaluable collections of blues, Cajun, zydeco, Tex-Mex and gospel. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, professor of television studies at Rowan University, in for Terry Gross. We're listening to Terry's 2003 interview with Donna Summer, the subject of a new documentary on HBO titled "Love To Love You, Donna Summer." It premieres Saturday night. She died in 2012.

She became a top-selling disco queen in the 1970s and 1980s, but was involved in music long before that. She sang in a psychedelic rock band in the late '60s, and in the mid '70s, before her disco years, she moved to Germany to perform in a theatrical production of "Hair." It was there when she began working with record producer Giorgio Moroder.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

SUMMER: Oh, I went there when I auditioned for "Hair," and I got the part, and that was - I auditioned in New York, and I got the part. They were getting ready to put up a cast of "Hair" in Germany, and they didn't have any Black kids for the show, so they auditioned for kids in New York. And there were 300 kids the day I auditioned and only two of us were taken. I was one of them.

GROSS: Did you love doing the show?

SUMMER: Yeah, at the time, yeah, I did. It was it was a lot of fun. And I was coming of age in a whole other climate and a whole other community with - you know, with different challenges and different excitement, you know. And it wasn't like growing up in America. It was just this - having this whole other space to become an adult. And...

GROSS: Was that a good thing?

SUMMER: Oh, it was great.

GROSS: What was good about that?

SUMMER: Well, I think growing up - you know, I grew up in the church and grew up very strict. And this was the antithesis of that. And I really had to find my way in the middle and go, OK, this is my line. I'm walking this line. And it made me establish my own identity, and it made me know who I really was and what I really, you know, believed in for myself.

And it wasn't something that - you know, I'm doing this because my parents said do this, or I'm not doing this or I'm doing this because all these people do this. It was having this sort of extreme liberalness on one side and extreme, you know, strictness on the other, and then going, OK, this is what's right here. I've - this is comfortable, and I can live with this. So...

GROSS: That's beautiful because, like, in Germany, you found out who you really were, and then you became a star and they made you over to somebody else.

(LAUGHTER)

SUMMER: Constantly being made over. What am I going to do, you know? Never good enough (laughter).

GROSS: I want to ask you about being born again. I know that's been very important in your life. At what point in your life did that happen?

SUMMER: It happened at the height of my career, to tell you the truth. And it happened at a time when I probably without it would not be alive. And so I think that it was my - definitely without a question, I think, I know, it was my saving grace from God.

GROSS: Like, what point - like, what records were coming out at about this time, just so we can place it?

SUMMER: Oh, let's see. Where am I at? It was probably around the "Bad Girls," "Enough Is Enough" - no, maybe it was a little after that - somewhere in there, somewhere around and about that time, you know.

GROSS: And some of the things that were going wrong with your life at that time, you say you don't think you would have survived if you hadn't...

SUMMER: No.

GROSS: ...Been born again.

SUMMER: No, I wouldn't have.

GROSS: What was going wrong?

SUMMER: (Clears throat) Excuse me. I just - I think that I was exhausted, I think, emotionally exhausted. I had seen it all. I felt like I'd seen it all. And I didn't feel like there was anything left to do. I felt like, you know, what am I doing here in this place? What is the purpose of my being here? And I think when you start asking those questions, you better find answers because it can be extremely depressing if you don't.

And I think that you probably - I don't know if you go through this, but as creative people, I think artists tend to go through this, you know, quite a few times in their existence. It's par for the course, and it's what makes you go to the next level. But, you know, if you're aware that there is another level. I felt like I had gone to that level, and I didn't know where to go from there. So I felt like, well, there's nothing left for me to do now but just die. And so I - you know, I needed God.

GROSS: Do you have a favorite of your hits that we haven't played yet?

SUMMER: Favorite - well, I like "Last Dance." I love "Last Dance." And I love, you know, "On The Radio" too.

GROSS: "On The Radio" - good choice. Let's hear "On The Radio."

SUMMER: (Laughter) Oh, you clever little one.

GROSS: Tell us about, you know, the origin of the song and the production on it, how you put it together.

SUMMER: OK. Mmm hmm. Well, "On The Radio" was - I was in the studio with "On The Radio" for about three weeks to a month - not in the studio with it, but I had the song. Giorgio had given me the track, and I said, Giorgio, what - is there anything - did you have anything in mind when you wrote this track? And he kept saying - well, he said, something with the radio. And I said, OK. I said, OK. And I pondered it for about three weeks. I couldn't come up with a word.

And so one day I was in the studio, and it was the day I was supposed to be recording something else. And I was sitting at the piano and I was up at Rusk Studio in Los Angeles. I was at the piano, and Stephen Bishop's record was on the top of the piano. And I looked at the record, and I know Stephen, and we've written together, and I'm like, you know, how would Stephen say this? What would - what line would he come up - he's so clever. And all of a sudden this one line came to me, and it was, it must have fallen out of a hole in your old brown overcoat.

And it just - it was like, lightning bolt. OK, that's it. I knew who the person was. I knew who the person was in the song. I knew who she needed to be. I knew what she was going through. And I knew what had to be said. And so as soon as I got all of the personal information on the character, I was able to go into the studio, stand on the microphone and sing the song pretty much verbatim the way you hear it. And I think I got most of the song in the first take.

So, you know, it was about having that story in my psyche and being able to go on there and sing it from that person's perspective. And once I got the perspective, I was writing.

GROSS: You know the whoa-oh? You know, like, on the radio, whoa-oh? Sorry for doing that so horribly.

SUMMER: (Singing) Whoa-oh-oh-oh.

GROSS: Thank you.

SUMMER: (Laughter).

GROSS: When - at what point in the song does that actually come to you, that you were going to do that there? Is that when you're at the mic, or is that when you're doing the songwriting?

SUMMER: I think that I just did that spontaneously. I mean, I don't think that - I don't - I just think it came out. I don't think I planned it, you know, but just probably needed something there.

GROSS: Donna Summer, thank you so much for talking with us.

SUMMER: Thank you.

GROSS: OK Well, this is Donna Summer, "On The Radio."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ON THE RADIO")

SUMMER: (Singing) Someone found a letter you wrote me on the radio, and they told the world just how you felt. It must have fallen out of a hole in your old brown overcoat. They never said your name, but I knew just who they meant.

Whoa-oh-oh-oh, I was so surprised and shocked, and I wondered, too, if by chance you heard it for yourself. I never told a soul just how I've been feeling over you. But they said it really loud. They said it on the air on the radio, whoa-oh-oh-oh, on the radio, whoa-oh-oh-oh, on the radio, whoa-oh-oh-oh, on the radio, whoa-oh-oh-oh.

BIANCULLI: That's Donna Summer. She spoke to Terry Gross in 2003. Coming up, we remember record executive and musicologist Chris Strachwitz, the founder of Arhoolie Records, who died earlier this month. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIG MAMA THORNTON SONG, "SWEET LITTLE ANGEL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Terry Gross
Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.