Summer's deep insecurity during her adolescence didn't deter her from her passion. She worked on her technique, teaching herself breath control by listening to Mahalia Jackson records. She eventually joined a local, all-white band called the Crow. ("Guess who the crow was," Summer quips.) And the group performed throughout the city.
At 19, Summer abruptly left Boston for New York after witnessing an attack on an elderly woman, who later died from her wounds. Summer knew one of the three boys involved in the beating, and she testified at the trial. When the boys were found guilty, Summer received threats from folks connected with the group. So she fled. With the Crow, she settled in Greenwich Village and became a part of the folk-rock hippie scene. She wasn't there too long before she met Broadway producer Bertrand Castelli, who offered Summer a role in the German production of Hair, a wildly popular show at the time.
Summer accepted, and on Aug. 28, 1968, she left for Munich, Germany. It would be seven and a half years before she returned to the U.S. A fluke of a song would bring her back.
"The best parts of the book are my years as a black woman in Europe," Summer says, her voice warm and open now. "I started to blossom without the stigma of color. I was free over there. My color was an accent. People thought it was a great thing, and it wasn't just lip service, you know. They welcomed me into their homes."
After Hair ended, Summer performed in other productions and sang in clubs around Munich and Vienna. In 1972, she married Helmuth Sommer, a blond, blue-eyed Austrian actor. The next year, her daughter Mimi was born. But for several reasons -- conflicting work schedules, Sommer's emotional distance, the singer's infidelity, the marriage didn't last. By '74, the two were divorced and Summer (her name was later changed when she launched her career in the States) concentrated on performing.
She had been doing backup work at Giorgio Moroder's Mu-sicland Studios, and the two had formed a relaxed creative relationship. In early 1975, Summer approached Moroder with an idea for a song intended for another singer. All Summer had was a line, "Love to love you, baby," which she sang in a breathy style inspired by Marilyn Monroe. Moroder dug it, and, with his partner Pete Bellotte, immediately worked up an undulating, Barry White-inspired arrangement. Summer laid the vocal down. And a copy made its way to Neil Bogart, president of Casablanca Records in Los Angeles, the label that recorded Kiss at the time. Legend has it that Bogart played the three-minute demo at a party and people requested it all night. The next morning, the label president called Moroder and asked that the song be extended to 15 more minutes, covering an entire side of an LP.
A few months later, Love to Love You Baby, the album, hit the streets. When Summer returned to America, she was already a star. Clubs and late-night radio had been wearing out her record, which swiftly sold a million copies.
The single hit No. 2 on the pop charts. But the singer wasn't prepared for the demands of the success: the constant touring, appearances and concerts. Casa-blanca promoted her as a sex goddess, an image that unnerved her. The Cleopatra-like wigs, the elaborate makeup, the oohs and aahs on the early records -- none of that, Summer says, was a reflection of who she was.
"I put myself in the situation, though," the artist says. "I have to take the responsibility and put it on my shoulders."
But there was no time to slow down. Summer was huge. Between '75 and '83, she scored 10 gold and platinum albums. Her masterpiece, the two-LP set Bad Girls, came out in 1979 and folded in elements of styles that would explode in the next decade: electronica, new wave rock, country pop. In the '80s, though, Summer concentrated on her personal life and retreated from the pop landscape. She married Bruce Sudano, an Italian singer-songwriter, and gave birth to two daughters, Brooklyn and Amanda.
Today, the girls are grown. Mimi, an aspiring songwriter, lives in the Baltimore area and has two children. Brooklyn, an actress and model, stars on the TV show My Wife and Kids, and Amanda is a senior communications major at Vanderbilt University. Sudano and Summer spend the bulk of their time in Nashville, where they have three homes, including a farm.
"For the past 10 years, I haven't really been that career-minded," Summer says. "I've worked here and there; you probably just didn't hear about it."
The cover of Ordinary Girl features a glamorous Essence magazine-style shot of Summer, who looks as if she hasn't aged a day since '75. On the back is an old picture of the pop legend circa 1979: Ink-black hair rains past her shoulders; her lips are parted and candy apple-red.
"People hadn't seen me in a while," Summer says, "so I wanted a new picture on the front. But when you put the book down, the 'bad girl' is on the bottom. All of that is behind me now."