Dan’yelle Williamson (Diva Donna) and the Company of SUMMER © Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade

Donna Summer: An ordinary girl on an extraordinary journey

Dan’yelle Williamson (Diva Donna) and the Company of SUMMER © Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade

Dan’yelle Williamson and the Company of SUMMER. Photo by Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade.

From the mid-1970s through the ’80s, ‘The First Lady of Love’ released one hit after another

By Shirley Fishman
Dramaturg, La Jolla Playhouse

Donna Summer always dreamed big. She knew in childhood that she wanted to sing and, according to family members, sang around the house morning, noon and night. She never let go of that passion, despite personal and professional obstacles that impeded the path to reaching her goal.

Growing up in the 1950s, the third of seven siblings in an African American churchgoing family in south Boston, Donna sang gospel while listening to records of Mahalia Jackson and Dinah Washington, the Supremes and the girl groups of Motown, as well as rock star Janis Joplin. Like many teenagers in the 1960s, she found kinship in the rebellious spontaneity of rock and roll music, and she was soon skipping school and singing with The Crow, a local rock band.

Dan’yelle Williamson (Diva Donna), Alex Hairston (Disco Donna), Olivia Elease Hardy (Duckling Donna) and the Company of SUMMER © Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade

Dan’yelle Williamson, Alex Hairston and Olivia Elease Hardy with the Company of ‘SUMMER.’ Photo by Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade.

By age 18, with ambitions to become a stage actress, Summer was sneaking off to New York where she auditioned for the rock musical Hair. She won a part in the company’s European touring company and, with her parents’ reluctant permission, left school to join the cast in Munich, Germany.

After the show closed, Summer remained in Munich. She was modeling, performing and winning accolades in German productions of Godspell, Porgy and Bess, Show Boat and The Me Nobody Knows, and singing in Vienna Folk Opera productions. She married fellow Hair cast member Helmut Sommer in 1973 and gave birth to their daughter Mimi that same year.

When she wasn’t working on shows, Summer sang backup at Musicland Studios for music producers Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte, who were generating a new kind of synthesizer-driven dance music called “Eurodisco.”

CBS4’s Dillon Thomas visits with Donna Summer’s sister in Cleveland

When they heard Summer sing, they told her that she had potential to become a recording artist.

In 1974, Summer recorded a studio album with Bellotte and Moroder, Lady of the Night, which produced two hit singles. Moroder told her about the re-release of British actress Jane Birkin’s 1969 erotic hit recording “Je T’Aime,” written by French songwriter Serge Gainsbourg for his girlfriend Brigitte Bardot. He suggested that she try writing a similar song. She wrote “Love to Love You Baby,” which Moroder set to a disco beat. Initially reticent to record it, she relented and the rest is music history.

Previously unknown in the U.S., Summer became a sensation within weeks of the 1975 American release of the record by Neil Bogart of Casablanca Records. Uncomfortable with how she was being promoted and the public’s perception of her as the “First Lady of Love,” Summer struggled to hold on to herself as the whirlwind of interviews, media appearances, concerts, touring dates and demands for new records took its toll on her energy, marriage and sense of self. She amicably divorced Sommer in 1976 and kept his surname, but adapted the spelling to Summer. She relocated to the West Coast and continued to work with Bellotte and Moroder.

Neil Bogart began producing films in 1977, and for his film The Deep, Summer co-wrote the lyrics and sang the film’s theme song “Down, Deep Inside,” which earned her and co-writer John Barry a Golden Globe nomination for Best Original Song. In Bogart’s 1978 film, Thank God It’s Friday, Summer played a featured role and sang the film’s signature song “Last Dance,” which won 1978 Golden Globe, Grammy and Academy awards for Best Original Song.

Donna Summer was one of the most successful artists of the 1970s and the reigning Queen of Disco. The she moved on to even more ambitious horizons.

Summer had achieved worldwide acclaim, countless industry awards, magazine covers, and gold and platinum records. She was one of the most successful artists of the decade and the reigning Queen of Disco. Sensing the demise of disco and frustrated with being limited to one genre of music, she longed to return to her passion — rock music. Despite her close relationship with Bogart, she sued Casablanca and wrested herself from its yoke. Untethered from disco, Summer moved on to even more ambitious horizons.

From the mid-1970s to the late 1980s, Summer released one hit after another, including “I Feel Love,” “MacArthur Park,” “Hot Stuff,” “Bad Girls,” “On the Radio” and “She Works Hard for the Money.” She collaborated with iconic music producer Quincy Jones and recorded “Protection,” a song written for her by Bruce Springsteen. Her #1 duet with Barbra Streisand, “Enough Is Enough,” became the first 12-inch single to be certified platinum.

In 1979, Summer became the first artist to twice score a No. 1 single and album simultaneously and, to date, she is the only solo artist in history to achieve three No. 1 double-albums on the Billboard charts.

In 1983, at a time when it was rare for African Americans to appear on MTV, Summer’s video for “She Works Hard for the Money” was in constant, heavy rotation on the fledgling music channel. She was also the first African American woman to be nominated for an MTV Music Award.

Now in full control of her career, the public became increasingly aware of the scope of Summer’s musical tastes and the extent of her extraordinary vocal range. In 1980, after a three-year courtship, Summer married singer-songwriter and frequent collaborator Bruce Sudano of Brooklyn Dreams.

After the birth of two daughters (Brooklyn in 1981 and Amanda in 1982), Summer took a hiatus, with occasional concert dates, to raise her daughters, tend to family, and other passions. She reconnected with her interest in the visual arts, which she developed while living in Munich. Her vibrant abstract expressionistic paintings received critically acclaimed gallery exhibitions in Beverly Hills, New York and other cities, achieving sales in excess of two million dollars throughout her career.

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In recognition of her musical accomplishments, Summer was honored with a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame in 1992. She returned to acting in the 1997 television series “Family Matters” as Aunt Oona. Her autobiography, Donna Summer: Ordinary Girl, the Journey, a candid memoir about the highs and lows of her professional and personal life, was published in 2003.

In 2008, after 17 years without a recording, a new studio album, Crayons, proved she hadn’t lost her appetite for adventurous explorations in music. Fans and music critics applauded new songs written by Summer and other songwriters, including a duet with Ziggy Marley, and showcased diverse thematic and musical motifs in rock, reggae, samba, pop and dance music.

Summer died in her Naples, Florida, home on May 17, 2012, at age 63. She was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013. Three years ago, California’s La Jolla Playhouse produced the world premiere of SUMMER: The Donna Summer Musical as a tribute to the legendary singer. The show transferred to Broadway and is now making its way across the nation, including its current stop at Denver’s Buell Theatre.

This article reprinted courtesy of La Jolla Playhouse and Dramaturg Shirley Fishman

Summer: The Donna Summer MusicalSUMMER: The Donna Summer Musical:  Ticket information

  • At a glance: She was a girl from Boston with a voice from heaven, who shot through the stars from gospel choir to dance floor diva. But what the world didn’t know was how Donna Summer risked it all to break through barriers, becoming the icon of an era and the inspiration for every music diva who followed. With a score featuring more than 20 of Summer’s classic hits including “Love to Love You Baby,” “Bad Girls” and “Hot Stuff,” this electric experience is a moving tribute to the voice of a generation.
  • Dates: Performances January 28 through February 9
  • Where: Buell Theatre
  • Genre: Bio-musical
  • Tickets: Start at $30 and can be purchased at 303-893-4100 or in person in the Helen Bonfils Theatre Complex at 14th and Curtis streets or online by clicking here:

Photo gallery:

Video shout-out from the stars of SUMMER: