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MUSIC : Donna Summer Brings Old Hits for New Fans : The singer, known for her '70s disco singles, performs at Universal Amphitheatre, her first L.A. show since 1988.

August 04, 1995|STEVE APPLEFORD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Steve Appleford writes regularly about music for The Times

UNIVERSAL CITY — Don't call Donna Summer's music retro . That kind of talk suggests the singer's career ended during that mid-to-late-'70s season of disco when Summer dominated the dance floor and airwaves with a remarkable series of dance-pop singles.

"I think it still holds its own," Summer says of that string of hits, from 1975's sultry "Love to Love You Baby" to 1983's driving "She Works Hard for the Money." After all, Summer is finding some new young fans on her current concert tour, which brings her tonight to the Universal Amphitheatre, her first Los Angeles appearance since 1988.

"Today," says Summer, "when I sing 'Last Dance' on stage, people act like somebody gave them a teaspoon of ice cream for the first time. They're all over it, and they're not embarrassed or ashamed."

The singer has embarked on this tour with plans to begin work on a new album this fall, at a time when '70s disco is enjoying a popular resurgence with a new generation of listeners. In Los Angeles, that resurrection is illustrated by the popularity of dance clubs like 1970, and in tribute acts like the campy Boogie Knights.

Not surprisingly, Summer says she is still committed to the dance genre. Last year's "Endless Summer" album was a compilation of Summer's hits mixed with some new tracks that kept the dance-floor beat, but in a contemporary setting.

"Dance music has been very good to me," says Summer, who now lives in Nashville with her husband and songwriting partner Bruce Sudano. "So I'm certainly not going to shun it. But I still want to do other things as well. I like music--period. But dance music is a part of my life, and it probably will be for a while.

"You can sometimes use it to give a good message, but I don't think people's perception of it is message-music, per se. It's more of a recreational kind of music."

Summer was a key player in creating the disco genre (working with producers Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte), which soon had everyone from Barbra Streisand to the Rolling Stones trying their hands at disco-flavored pop. The producers had met Summer in Munich, while the singer was performing in a local stage production of "Hair."

She says that it wasn't at first obvious the music they were creating was something special.

"When you're forging a new path--with 'I Feel Love' and some of those pop-techno songs--it's innovative and kind of scary because you don't know if you're going to succeed. You hope that the market will like it and embrace it."

After some success in Europe, their first major U.S. hit was "Love to Love You Baby," which had Summer mingling her vocals with a heavy Euro-dance beat and suggestive moaning. The singer's vocal range was soon called upon to cover a wide range of pop uses, including a chart-topping duet of "No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)" with Streisand in 1979.

By the beginning of the next decade, Summer was introducing guitar and other subtle rock elements into her sound. According to The Rolling Stone Record Guide, Summer was convincing in many settings: "Something about her voice hits home, whether she's aiming for the heart, the soul or the feet."

Summer's heyday lasted into the MTV era, when her "She Works Hard for the Money" single reached No. 3 on the Billboard's pop singles chart. But the Top 40 eluded her in the years after, though she says now that she's thankful that she finally had a break from the frantic schedule that inevitably accompanies massive pop success.

"I hadn't had any time for myself and time to be a human being," she says of her hit-making days. "I was a commodity, and I was tired of being sold and bought. It's very difficult sometimes to deal with."

Now on a tour that will keep her on the road through September, Summer seems prepared again to deal with the demands of the music business. Meanwhile, she is gathering songs for the upcoming album. She says, "I want to take my time and make a really great album."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

WHERE AND WHEN

Who: Donna Summer, with comedian Tommy Dawson.

Location: Universal Amphitheatre, 100 Universal City Plaza.

Hours: 8:15 tonight.

Price: $20 to $35.

Call: (818) 980-9421.

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