Donna Summer was born on New Year’s Eve in Boston. Her childhood was filled with music. Inspired by Mahalia Jackson, she began singing in church choirs at the age of ten. A few years later she joined a Boston rock group, and by the end of the 1960s she was living the life of an artist in New York City’s Greenwich Village.
Soon after, Donna left the United States to join the German cast of Hair. She was still in her teens, a shy, ordinary girl who was suddenly feeling the jolt of the sexual revolution. She lived in Germany for seven and a half years, modeling, acting, falling in love, getting married, and giving birth to a daughter. She met a producer named Giorgio Moroder, and together they created a song called “Love to Love You Baby.” It became one of the world’s premier disco hits.
Donna Summer returned to America as a star, a “sex goddess” who bore little resemblance to her own sense of who she was. She describes what that personal transformation felt like from the white-hot center of the disco era, and how, over the next two decades, it contributed to a sometimes harrowing spiritual journey.
With heart and humor, Donna Summer relives the decadent days of disco and shows how she transcended them. This is the inspiring tale of an “ordinary girl” on an extraordinary journey.
|Publisher:||Random House Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||6.37(w) x 9.54(h) x 0.98(d)|
About the Author
Marc Eliot is the New York Times bestselling author or coauthor of several biographies and books about popular culture, including Down Thunder Road: The Making of Bruce Springsteen, Barry White’s Love Unlimited, and Erin Brockovich’s Take It from Me. He divides his time between New York and Los Angeles.
Read an Excerpt
From Chapter 6
Shortly before Christmas, Helmuth and I decided to try a trial separation, and I went to Anna’s to get away from Helmuth and our apartment. This offered me an opportunity to hear other voices, human voices that, thankfully, were louder than the tormenting voices in my own head. Gunther would drop by on occasion to visit Anna’s husband, his best friend. We were both at home in Anna’s house, giving us the connection that would lead us soon to common ground. I had a sense we were fellow travelers, searching for each other. What a desperate duo we were, perfect for each other. At least, for the time being.
Then it happened. One night, while I was there alone at Anna’s with Mimi, having just put her to sleep, Gunther showed up unexpectedly and we started discussing our marital problems. He recognized my high level of anxiety and coerced me to take a couple of sips of wine. I fell prey to Gunther’s illustrious seduction that night.
I knew in my heart and soul that I had crossed the uncrossable line. I recognized the demise of my own moral convictions, and it shook the very foundation of my emotional stability. What did God think of me now? I shuddered at the idea that my eternal options were narrowing. What would Helmuth think of me? I knew my life was transparent in God’s eyes, but how could I continue to deceive Helmuth? Could I trust my husband to forgive me when I couldn’t even forgive myself? Gunther, on the other hand, flourished because of my emotional turmoil and now wanted to possess me at any cost. He stepped up his pursuit of me to the point of what would be described today as stalking. This, oddly, enticed and excited me–I was drawn to his burning need as much as he was to me.
Shortly thereafter, I went to the town of Knokke, Belgium, on a singing engagement without Helmuth. Overcome by loneliness, I stupidly decided to pen a steamy love letter to Gunther. I disguised myself by signing the letter “Love, Paul.” After reading the letter, Gunther placed it in his desk drawer, where it was found later that day by his wife. Believing that she had discovered that his secret life was the real reason for Gunther’s abuse and the cause of their estrangement, she decided to take the letter with her to a local club and show it around. It just so happened that night to be the same club where Helmuth worked as the headwaiter.
Helmuth, drawn to all the commotion, caught a glimpse of the letter and did a double take. The handwriting appeared disturbingly familiar as he read the words:
Missing you deeply here in Knokke.
Was this Donna’s handwriting? he wondered. The very thought made him feel as if he’d been stabbed in the heart. He asked quietly, “Dauf ich das im Licht sehen, bitte?” May I see it in the light, please?
Upon my return from Knokke, Helmuth confronted me. He told me he had seen “the letter.” I knew immediately that he knew the truth, and squirm as I might, there was no way out. I could see the pain in his eyes as he wrestled with the concept of my being unfaithful. How could someone he held so high stoop so low? I was completely unable to deal with the situation. He was broken, and so was I.
Not long after, feeling I could never repair the breach of trust, I made one of the most difficult decisions of my life. I knew I had to leave Helmuth. Not because of Gunther, but because of the calling I had to pursue–because of my singing. Helmuth told me that if there was music there in my heart, he would let me go.
Gunther stood by me during the first difficult days of my separation from Helmuth, and whenever I started to weaken, he encouraged me to keep my focus on my calling. This setting was perfect for Gunther, and as the saying goes, when he was good he was very good. During this time Gunther became my major crutch. He lavished his most sensitive, kind, and humane qualities on me. Gunther took Mimi and me on wonderful rides in the country and made paintings of me, but more than anything, he stood by my side and nurtured me back to emotional health, through the inevitable depression that goes with self-induced failure. I was powerless to resist him, yet at the same time I was extremely afraid of being controlled by him.
Unfortunately, when Gunther was bad, he was horrible. As I became more secure, he became more insecure and would compensate by drinking heavily. Because of his alcohol-fueled temper, I tried my best to keep an emotional arm’s length from him, which made for a stormy on-again, off-again relationship. One night Gunther and I went out to a club with some friends. At one point I was walking across the dance floor and a man grabbed my hand and asked if he could dance with me. I politely declined and walked back to our table. The man from the dance floor followed me back to the table and sat down across from me, in Gunther’s empty seat. He asked, “Is that your drink?” “Yes,” I said. He picked up my drink and drank right out of it! He then reached for my hand again and tried to pull me onto the dance floor. I said no, this time abit louder. Just then Gunther appeared. Seeing the man harassing me, Gunther raced over to me and grabbed the guy. He punched him, sat him down, picked him up again, punched him, sat him down again, and then kicked his chair, which was on rollers, all the way to the door and down the flight of stairs that led to the street. I stared in total disbelief. Gunther was indeed a dangerous man.
I was terrified of his violent temper! I couldn’t believe what he had done. It’s true the fellow had been out of line, but Gunther’s reaction was completely way over the top. Somehow he avoided going to jail, and in retrospect, that only made him worse.
Sometimes he did things I couldn’t stand. He would sleep with other women just to try to make me jealous, but his childish behavior didn’t faze me in the least. He’d come back, confess everything, and say he was sorry. It didn’t matter to me. I was unaffected by his behavior. My attitude would make him so crazy he’d go off, drink, and get even crazier. There were times I tried to leave him, and that’s when I learned firsthand what it felt like to be on the receiving end of his uncontrollable violence. One night he literally kicked the bathroom door off its frame trying to get to me. Anothertime I came home and found him enraged over something completely trivial. All six foot four of him slapped the five foot eight of me around and then threw me across the room, straight into my glass cabinet. Pieces of glass pierced my skin and scalp. I had glass in my hair, my face, and all over my body.
When I finally could get up I called the police, who warned him to stay away from me. Despite their warnings, he just kept coming around. He tried to get us back together. He told everyone that “our trouble” was really all my fault. He claimed I had become too arrogant and full of myself, and that I had kicked him out for no reason. In other words, he wanted everyone to think that he was the victim!
Even after he began to abuse me, my insecurities led me to believe that I had destroyed my marriage because of this man and that therefore somehow I had to stick it out. Besides that, I figured I must have done something to provoke him. Maybe I shouldn’t have said this, maybe I shouldn’t have done that. I started playing that head game because as dangerous as it was to be with him, I really didn’t want to face the alternative of “being alone.” Here we were, two lost souls, groping at each other in mutual darkness. What a mess; what an utterly hopeless mess.
I kept myself busy and picked up singing work wherever I could. One day, a friend of mine told me about a producer who was looking for new voices. Maybe he could use me. It wasn’t what I wanted, but it was a job. I set up an appointment to meet the man.
That man turned out to be Giorgio Moroder.
I have many wonderful childhood memories of growing up in an old cobblestoned neighborhood of Boston. In my mind I can still see the way it looked to me as a child. It was a mystical place filled with gas lamps and beautiful foliage. There were low-slung buildings styled in birthday-cake architecture and covered in climbing ivy, all of it reflecting colonial times. It was like growing up in a great big live-in diorama of the American Revolution, New England style.
I remember one haunting autumn afternoon when I was only five years old, standing by myself in the nearby courtyard of my little redbrick schoolhouse. All of a sudden I became acutely aware of my surroundings for the first time. The whooshing leaves, the gentle wind, and the uneven ground beneath my feet touched me in a profound way. The sensation overwhelmed me, all at once bringing me closer to and yet isolating me from everything. It was frightening to have my senses so abruptly awakened. In that moment I realized that everything in the schoolyard, in the streets, at home, in the world must have been designed by someone, and that someone must be God. I was humbled to my childish core. From that moment on I knew I wanted to be connected to Him with all my heart and soul.
I was born LaDonna Adrian Gaines on New Year's Eve, December 31, 1948, into a loving family with deep spiritual roots. My daddy, Andrew Gaines, was the proverbial "son of a preacher man." He was born in Fairfax, Alabama, where his father, Reverend Solomon Louis Gaines, was a Christian minister of one of the biggest churches in the little town. Grandpa Solomon died suddenly while sitting in churchwhen Daddy was only eight years old. Shortly thereafter, his mother, my grandmother Eula, moved her three daughters and four sons to Boston.
During World War II, my father fought in Germany as a sergeant in the army. After discharge from the service, he returned to Boston, where he took any job that was available, working as a butcher, a wallpaper hanger, and a television repairman. During the late forties he met and fell in love with Mary Ellen Davis, a green-eyed, curly-haired beauty from Boston, the woman who was to become my mother.
My mother was a first-generation American, her parents having emigrated from a small fishing village in Nova Scotia. Although I've never quite been able to sort out the combination of ingredients, I know my heritage is mixed, something like African, Indian, and Dutch-Irish-all filtered down into one body: mine.
I have warm memories of my maternal grandmother, Annie Glouster, whom we used to call Nickel-Bag Annie. Whenever she would visit she would untie the handkerchief she'd stuffed with nickels and give each of us kids a shiny new one-thus the nickname. (She was the inspiration for a song I wrote years later called "Nickel-Bag Annie.") Back in those days "nickel bag" had a sole reference-to a bag of nickels.
My father was quite adept at fishing. It was a skill that came in handy after he married my mother. Whenever they ran short of cash, Daddy knew he could always bring home plenty of fresh food, enough to feed the entire house. And there were plenty of young mouths to feed-four, to be exact: Jeanette, the oldest; next, my brother, Ricky; then me; and Amy, the youngest at that time. I can remember many times when we ate fish for days at a time! No one ever complained about eating fish. We loved it!
My parents spent most of their waking hours trying to keep a roof over our heads. There was little time and little money for anything but the bare necessities. We rarely took trips anywhere, except for the occasional summer car ride to the amusement park. By and large, travel was restricted. My entire world was confined to places I could walk or take a bus to: school, church, the playground.
Even though we weren't dollar rich, we had something we thought was worth a lot more-a great neighborhood filled with wonderful people. The first few years of my life we lived in a low-income housing project that had been built after the Second World War. All types of people lived in our project: whites, blacks, Hawaiians, Asians, and others. It was a rare example of ethnic diversity.
Grandma Eula lived with us in our apartment. Both of my parents worked, so it was very convenient to have Grandma Eula around to take care of us.
One of my fondest childhood memories is of watching my parents dance. Mummy was very light on her feet, and let me tell you, Daddy was no slouch either! Whenever they did the lindy hop, which was often, he would grab my mother, fling her between his legs, roll her through, and hoist her in the air. All the kids would gather around whenever they danced their fast, twirling routines. Years later I wrote a song with my sisters called "Watchin' Daddy Dance," recalling those moments of spontaneous love that filled our home.
My mother was quite shapely and outstandingly pretty, with extraordinary light green eyes, a shade I've never seen on anyone else. Wow, what a face! Her great maternal instincts kept everyone together and happy. She knew when to say yes and when to say no, and whenever she was in doubt, she'd put all final decisions on the broad shoulders of my daddy. If I asked her for permission to do something she wasn't sure about, she'd subvert her own authority by saying, "Wait until your father comes home."
Not that she couldn't be a disciplinarian when she felt that necessity. In those days if you didn't give your children the occasional swat on the behind, it meant you didn't love them. As the comedian Chris Rock says, "I ain't sayin' that it was right . . . but I understand." My mother had no compunction about throwing the occasional hairbrush our way when we were being especially rambunctious. Needless to say, there were a lot of broken brushes in our house. But ultimately she loved to laugh more than anything else, because she preferred to see the humor in life's daily routines. On more than one occasion my ability to make her laugh saved my little brown behind a good butt whuppin'. Luckily, Daddy rarely spanked; however, his raised voice was even more torturous. He had a pair of lungs that could yell loud enough to make the pots and pans rattle in the kitchen, and that was something I dreaded even more than being spanked.
As a child, I had an innate moral compass, which was enhanced by my upbringing. Whenever I did something my parents would think was wrong, I would know it long before they'd say so and feel completely awful. I'd put myself through the dreadful anticipation of "waiting for Daddy to come home." Believe me, that waiting was as bad for me as the actual moment of his arrival.
When I was still a very small child my mother used to love to braid my hair. She had extraordinarily agile fingers and could gather together as few as four strands of hair at a time, which made for a very long period of time that I had to sit still. You could be bald and she could still braid your hair! The problem for me was that I didn't really like the way I looked with my hair braided. She braided my hair so tight it made my eyes slant. I'd see myself in the mirror afterward and wonder who was that little girl staring back at me. Being braided and not liking it was one source of my low self-esteem. I'm sure many girls of color know exactly what I'm talking about and will completely understand. The first thing I did when I became successful was to invest in lots of fashionable wigs.
One Friday afternoon, just before sundown, I was walking home from the playground with a couple of school friends when one of them said, "Hey, I bet I can beat you home." I bet them they couldn't. Without saying a word, they both took off running. At almost the same time, I heard someone calling from a nearby building. I quickly turned my face in the direction of the voice.
Pow!!! Smack in the forehead!!! I didn't know what hit me. I fell to the ground. My friends were gone, having run away. At first I didn't know where I was or who I was, for that matter. I crawled on the ground in a circle, too stunned to even cry. I didn't feel any pain. I was unquestionably in shock. I lay down again, but when I opened my eyes, it was dark. The sun had gone down and I couldn't remember how to get home. Talk about a traumatic experience for a young child!
I managed to get to my knees when I heard my brother's voice calling, "Donna Adrian Gaines!" I felt his hand on my waist pulling me up. "Get on my back," he said, recognizing that something was wrong. It was then that I started to cry. I began to realize that something bad had happened. My brother carried me into the light. I touched my face to wipe off what I thought were tears. My brother began to yell, "Oh my God, what happened to you!" I was covered in blood. I had been shot above the eye with some kind of cap gun or small-caliber gun, which had made a hole above my right eye.
My grandmother heard my brother screaming and ran out to see what had happened. I was rushed to the emergency room, where the doctors said, after a thorough examination, that I would recover.
Thank God for my brother. Shortly after this incident and several others involving my siblings, my mother and father decided to look for a safer environment for us.
When I was six years old, my parents moved us out of the proj-ects. We moved into a gray-and-white three-family Victorian house just outside Brookline. My parents, keenly aware that we were a black family living in a partially integrated middle-class neighborhood, wanted to make sure their children set a good example. We had to be neater and more polite than all the other neighborhood kids. God forbid we did anything vulgar. I remember getting a spanking from my father one time for wearing red fingernail polish, because in his opinion, the only ladies who wore that kind of adornment were hookers.
While my parents never mentioned our color as any kind of an obstacle, we were always encouraged to do our best, and to fit seamlessly into our community. We were never to give anyone an excuse for saying, "See? You just can't allow them to . . ." You can fill in the rest.
Our house at 16 Parker Hill Avenue had a huge backyard (or at least it seemed so at the time) and more room for us to move around. My aunt Mary and uncle George moved into the first floor with their growing brood; our family of six (Mummy, Daddy, and now four kids) occupied the second; and Grandma Eula lived on the third with two of our cousins whose parents were deceased. In addition, Mummy made our house welcome to all the neighborhood kids and wanted all of us to learn to be kind and to share whatever we had with others.
As a result, our house was always noisy and full of life. I must say there were many times when I was confused by it all. It was inside that confusion and chaos that I ultimately discerned my voice. Sometimes it seemed as if I were looking at life from underwater, a perspective that I gleaned as an eight-year-old girl from a real experience.
On one especially hot day during the summer, my brother, Ricky, took all of us to Brighton Pool. Sitting on the lip of the pool with Ricky, I asked, "How can I get to the other side?" He turned to me and said, "The best way to go from one side of the pool to the other is to simply walk across the bottom. The trick is to keep jumping up and down."
I was always the type to dive into things, literally and figuratively, regardless of whether or not I fully knew what I was getting into. I was about to learn what people meant when they warned against getting in over one's head!
I was only four feet eight inches at the time, and, sure enough, as I got nearer to the middle of the pool I found myself in well over my head. I kept jumping as Ricky had instructed; however, each time I hit the bottom of the pool, I had more and more difficulty coming back to the surface. I realized I was drowning and I started to panic. Just then I saw a couple of young boys dive into the pool right over my head. I thought they would know I was drowning if I could only grab one of their legs. With all the strength I had left in me, I grabbed, but water filled my lungs and I blacked out.
I have no idea how long I was unconscious, but somehow I came to and found myself walking along the bottom of the pool toward the shallow end. I kept walking across the bottom of the pool, no longer in a state of panic, but rather in a state of peace. I walked until the water receded across my face. Looking up, I opened my eyes and saw the beautiful blue sky. My first thought was "Heaven is so beautiful. Why was I so afraid to die?" The emergency bell rang, jerking me back into reality. My sisters and brother jumped into the pool and pulled me out.
To this day I think of my near drowning as a baptism. Although I had no idea how I miraculously survived, I knew God was watching over me. From that moment on, it was a matter of faith to me that He would continue to watch over me and that He must have something special in mind for me. I had no idea what the future would be, but somehow I knew it would be something wonderful.
That year, 1956, was indeed a year of change. Nearly drowning adjusted my sense of purpose, and I seemed endued with a new sense of creativity. I was already into all kinds of music, especially the gospel music that was played and sung at the Grant AME Church at 1900 Washington Street, a two-bus journey from our house. I usually didn't take the second bus, as it was only about a ten-minute walk from there. I enjoyed having that time for myself, singing as I walked along to church. Often I'd struggle to reach the high notes. One day I prayed and asked, "God, please teach me how to sing better." I began to practice my breath control.