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She Worked Hard for the Money: Donna Summer, 1948 - 2012

By Dave R.

May 17, 2012

For those who partied in the '70s and '80s, the name Donna Summer evokes nostalgic memories of hot discos throbbing to the heat generated by 'I Feel Love', 'Love to Love You Baby', 'Hot Stuff' and Last Dance', to name but a few. This woman put sex and disco together and instigated a musical genre, which belonged to gays and was only later adopted by the world at large. She was the musical 'love-child' of Georgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte and was the voice that fronted a new techno-synth and electronic sound that was distinctly European in flavour and first broke there too in the early '70s. The icing on the 'Macarthur Park' cake went into meltdown however, when in 1983, La Summer opened her newly converted Christian mouth and made some remarks, which instantly alienated the gay community and thus her strongest fan base. Whether the things she said were misquoted or not, suspicions were aroused which refuse to go away.

She was born Donna Adrian Gaines on New Year's Eve, 1948 in Boston, Massachusetts. She was the third of seven children and began singing, like so many of her contemporaries, in the church choir. At eighteen, she moved to New York in search of a career. After a successful audition, she joined a German production of 'Hair'. After a year, she moved to the Viennese cast and eventually joined the Vienna Folk Opera, during which time she appeared in productions of 'Showboat' and 'Porgy and Bess'. After returning to Germany and doing more musical theatre, she started doing studio backing sessions and was spotted by Moroder and Bellotte. This led to the release of 'The Hostage' and the rest, as they say, is history.

During this time, she met and married actor Helmut Sommer. After one child, Mimi, (who appeared several times on stage with her) and a divorce, she kept and anglicised her married name. There were several other European hits but her worldwide breakthrough arrived with the release of 'Love To Love You Baby' in 1975. Initially, this sixteen-minute track was only a club hit until Neil Bogart, chief executive of a small record label called Casablanca, released it in America. The ensuing storm of protest this breathless track aroused in conservative America, guaranteed its immortality and certain stardom for its vocalist.

From this point, came a string of Donna Summer albums, Grammy awards and an Oscar for 'Last Dance' (which went to the writer and not the performer) that would help define an era. Gay men across the world embraced anthems such as 'Macarthur Park', 'On the Radio', 'She Works Hard for the Money', 'Bad Girls', 'Hot Stuff' and as two Divas together with Barbra Streisand, 'Enough is Enough'. In the years that followed, she went on to collaborate successfully with Quincy Jones, ('State of Independence') Michael Omartian and later, with England's Stock, Aitken and Waterman.

The talent was never been in doubt and the music was always uplifting and sometimes inspiring but her career was dogged by the near fatal blunder of 1983, when she is alleged to have said that AIDS was a divine punishment from God and that homosexuals were sinners. Despite years of vehement denials, the rumours refuse to die. She publicly stated:

"It is a source of great concern to me that anything I may have said has cast me as homophobic ... all I can ask for is understanding as I believe my true feelings have been misinterpreted." (Press statement, 1984).

So what really did happen and how did such a rumour start? She acknowledged herself that the whole thing stemmed from a conversation she had with fans after a concert in America at the end of 1983. It has to be remembered that she had just converted to born again Christianity and was clearly swayed by the influences of her newfound faith. She was also recently divorced from her second husband, had split with her record company Casablanca and her career was fading along with Disco.

"I had become desperate and suicidal. I was taking a very serious anti-depressant drug and knew I had to come off it -- but I didn't know how. It wasn't living, it was living hell." (Gay Times, November 1999)

At this point, she was talking to a largely gay group who had waited behind after the concert to meet her. By all accounts, the discussion became heated and things were said in anger. The dispute lies around exactly what was said but a Village Voice reporter called Jim Feldman wrote the story that was to place Donna Summer diametrically opposed to the entire gay movement.

It was not a good time for gays either. AIDS had begun to strike into the heart of gay America, much to the initial delight of some elements of the Christian Right, who used it shamelessly for their own propaganda. For Donna Summer to defect to the 'enemy' in the first place was bad enough but for her to seemingly endorse their views was shocking in the extreme.

In retrospect, her outburst may seem to be the result of, at best, naivety and she is quoted as saying much later:

"At the time, I thought AIDS was a herpes pimple, like you get on your mouth. I certainly didn't have any idea what it really was and certainly if I had, in my heart I would not wish AIDS on anyone. I'm not that kind of person. It's one of the most horrifying diseases around. I don't think they're doing enough for it." (The Advocate, July 4, 1989)

She certainly denied malicious intent hundreds of times since and threw herself into a whole raft of good works for AIDS causes but it may have been too little, too late? Cynics said that of course, she would do that, or else lose a large section of her record buying public. She most certainly was given advice by record company executives and like any politician who has committed a faux pas, the exercise needed to be damage limitation.

The fact is that, although remaining on the fringes of Pop culture, Donna Summer's career flat lined until Stock, Aitken and Waterman took her on and produced 'Another Time and Place', which was a million selling album worldwide, spawning such hits as 'This Time I Know It's For Real' and launching a brief if successful comeback in 1989. She always worked since that time and even had a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and could be said to have a stunning back catalogue, certainly in terms of gay music history. After all, before Madonna and 'Erotica' and Gaga and 'Born This Way', there was 'Love to Love You Baby' and 'I Feel Love' and as for that blemish on her career ...

"It hurts. It makes me ache. I can't stand to talk about it because it hurts so bad. When I first started, they said I was a man -- a transvestite. That too was a rumour. It passed." (The Advocate, July 4 1989)

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