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Reborn Royalty

Christian Faith and Love of Family Now Motivate Donna Summer, Once the Bad-Girl Queen of Disco


Of all the artists who rode the disco wave of the '70s, Donna Summer may have fared the best into the '90s.

While many of her dance-record peers disappeared with (but haven't made a comeback with) polyester bell-bottoms and platform shoes, Summer has been back on the charts and on the road. Last year she teamed with British techno-pop singers Rollo and Sister Bliss on a remake of her 1977 hit "I Feel Love," which landed in the Top 10 of Billboard's Hot Dance chart. It also topped the dance charts in England for five weeks.

That record drew on her first pop incarnation as the Queen of Disco.

"It doesn't bother me at all to be called that. . . . I mean, it's nice to be called the queen of something, honey," the four-time Grammy winner said with a laugh during a recent phone interview. "As long as it doesn't limit you, and as long as people allow me to be who I am and grow, I have no problem with that label."

Who she is at 48 is considerably different from the sexual provocateur heard on her early hits including "Love to Love You, Baby," "Bad Girls" and "Hot Stuff."

These days, her Christian faith and love of her family top the list of subjects she finds worthy of musical examination. She's singing more R&B and gospel-tinged songs than the frenetic dance numbers that made her famous, though she still includes some of those in her shows.

"I'm proud of my hits, and I think a song like 'Last Dance' tied into the hyper experience of that time," said the still silky-voiced singer, who performs tonight and Saturday at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts. "It was a part of an Oscar-winning film, and it is one of my signature songs.

"But now my yardstick for success is my family," she said. Her family consists of her husband of 16 years, songwriter Bruce Sudano, and three daughters--Mimi, Brooklyn and Amanda. "I'm not that impressed with awards, because you see people out there with Grammys and their kids are hooked on drugs.

"Sometimes in this business, you become so self-absorbed that it's tough to fulfill your other responsibilities. So I try very hard to focus my attention on other people's lives. That keeps you from becoming too, you know . . . me, me, me."

Summer's thoughts were on Sudano when she wrote "There Will Always Be a You," a highly personal reflection on love's bumpy road that she describes as "an obscure, small song, but one of the most poetic I've ever written."


Inspired by a stormy time in their relationship, the song's lyrics point to the power of everlasting love and devotion: "Like the raven and the dove, looking for perfect love / After rainy and stormy weather, I am yours and you are mine."

"I wrote it for my husband--who is white, that's why the raven and dove phrase--when we were in love, but we're also working to get through some hard times," she recalls. "It says to him 'I love you,' even if we ever didn't make it, he would always still be with me."


The music Summer sings now is grounded in her faith in God and her love of the great spirituals. Growing up in Boston as a young admirer of gospel great Mahalia Jackson, she began singing in her church choir when she was 10.

Over the years, Summer's mom--who died from cancer last year--urged her to sing more gospel numbers. In honor of her wish, Summer has included one during this year's a Midsummer Night Tour, which concludes Sunday in Las Vegas. One highlight of her 1995 tour was a remarkable rendition of "Amazing Grace."

"My mother would say, 'Donna, sing a song to God,' so all summer long I've been singing Oleda Adams' 'Through The Storm' for her," said Summer, who now lives in Nashville. "It's a song that got me through a lot of personal hardship, and that's the one song I need to sing.

"Gospel is music that's both for yourself and to be shared. It transcends people's circumstances. I think that's what spirituals are all about. We're not just one-sided beings--we tend to nurture the flesh, but it's OK to nurture the soul too."

Summer (born Adrian Donna Gaines) plans this fall to record an album that centers on the resiliency of the human spirit.

"It's being conceived as a family-based musical for the stage," she said. "We'll probably release an album with some pop material first. But the musical will touch on a lot of issues, the main [one] being finding our own resolve when we're ready to give up. Sometimes we need that foot that kicks you in the butt, saying, 'No, you're not going to quit!' "

* Donna Summer performs tonight and Saturday at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, 12700 Center Court Drive. 8 p.m. $36-$52. (800) 916-8500.

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