When Donna Summer answers the phone at her Nashville home, her greeting is gravelly. The "hello" sounds almost muffled. It's around 9 a.m., and apparently her voice hasn't awakened yet. She won't be home too long, anyway, because there's more road work to do. For weeks, she's been traveling the country, doing a round of morning shows, daytime talk shows, a little radio.
Surely you've heard by now that the woman known in the '70s as the First Lady of Love and the Queen of Disco has published a memoir called Ordinary Girl: The Journey. And UTV / Mercury Records has released a two-disc career retrospective, The Journey: The Very Best of Donna Summer, featuring two new songs. She's in the middle of promoting both. In the book, written with Marc Eliot, the singer-songwriter details her path from poor Boston girl to international superstar. Along the way, she experiences abusive relationships, physical illnesses, suicide attempts, conflicts with fame, spiritual rebirth.
But we haven't heard much from the singer in a while. She scored a dance hit in '99 with "I Will Go With You (Con Te Partiro)." The record wasn't heard much outside the clubs, though. Her last gold-certified smash was "This Time I Know It's for Real," which climbed into the Top 10 in 1989. She Works Hard for the Money, a million seller 20 years ago, was the artist's last hit album.
However, there was a time when Donna Summer was everywhere -- on Midnight Special, on Soul Train, on the Tonight Show, on the radio. (Remember that ubiquitous 1980 hit? On the radio / whoa-o-o-o-o ... It was one of Summer's biggest.) In '75, she fueled the sexual fire that ignited disco. With "Love to Love You Baby," a nearly 17-minute, lushly pulsating track over which Summer pornographically moaned the title over and over, the singer became an instant pop sensation. But gay clubs were already hip to her, embracing "Love to Love You Baby" first and other sexy Summer classics such as "Spring Affair" and "Try Me, I Know We Can Make It."
By 1978, though, Summer had truly arrived, acting as host for American Bandstand (the only person ever to substitute for Dick Clark) and hitting No. 1 with "MacArthur Park," "Bad Girls" and "Hot Stuff." The most versatile singer the disco era produced, Summer is the only artist to score three consecutive No. 1 platinum albums. She owns five Grammys, 11 gold LPs, 12 gold singles. The pug-nosed girl from Boston gave us fever consistently.
Now, disco is no more. When the '80s dawned, it fell and splintered, leaving sharp pieces in hip-hop, techno and house. Summer, who turns 55 on New Year's Eve, has been relegated to the occasional nostalgia show. But don't count her out. There's more "music coming and more projects," she says.
As for Ordinary Girl, "It just seemed like an appropriate direction to go in," Summer says. "People keep asking me, 'Why now? Why the book?' I needed to do the book at some point to go with the musical I had written, also called Ordinary Girl [which hasn't been produced yet]. I needed to do something creative, but people were asking for an autobiography, anyway."
The tell-all evolved from a novel Summer was "in the throes of writing, a book about a girl and her adventures in Europe in the '60s," she says. But the story mirrored her own. When she started exploring her life, revisiting the past and all its joys and pains, the performer found the process to be cathartic, freeing.
"It made me feel that my life had a purpose," Summer says. "When you plop those things together, you see the pattern. All of these things happened for a reason."
Summer's story begins on Dec. 31, 1948, when she was born LaDonna Adrian Gaines in Boston. Her father, Andrew, was a jack of all trades: a butcher, a wallpaper hanger, a TV repairman, a fisherman. Her mother, Mary Ellen, cared for Summer and her four sisters and one brother. The book opens when Summer is 5 years old and she realizes God's presence for the first time. (Throughout the book, Summer, who became a born-again Christian in the early '80s, recounts various spiritual awakenings.) She stood alone in the courtyard of a school near her home and "all of a sudden I became acutely aware of my surroundings for the first time," Summer writes. "The whooshing leaves, the gentle wind, and the uneven ground beneath my feet touched me in a profound way."
Although the tone is a bit melodramatic at times, Ordinary Girl is personal and vivid. After nearly drowning in a neighborhood pool when she was 8, Summer realized a new sense of creativity. Not long after that, she sang in church for the first time. She knew then that she would one day make a living as a vocalist.
"The message was clear," Summer says. "I asked God to let me sing, to show me how to sing. And He did."