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This story first appeared in the June 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Watching the news on May 17, I realized everyone has a story about a Donna Summer song. “I was three in the backseat of my mother’s car when ‘Love to Love You’ came on,” recalled one anchor. Others were reminded of “Bad Girls,” “Last Dance,” “Enough Is Enough,” “I Feel Love” and “She Works Hard for the Money.” My thoughts went to “White Christmas.”
The year was 1975. My husband-to-be, Neil, was running Casablanca Records and had signed Kiss, whom I had been managing, when we went to Europe to see Donna. Known as Donna Gaines then, she was playing Christmas Eve at an Amsterdam hotel. She had no sheet music, no conductor, no lighting — it was just her with that amazing voice. I kept saying, “Sing ‘White Christmas’ again” for an encore number, which she did — like 10 times. No one wanted her to leave the stage.
Donna became known as a disco phenomenon, but when I started working with her, my goal, and certainly hers, was to show what an entertainer she was — that not only did she have this golden voice, but she had it, whatever “it” is.
We talked that night and discovered we had the same ideas, so I said, “I want to manage you.” Then I found all the best costume designers and makeup artists and choreographers. As one can imagine, I had a bit of a theatrical bent, having worked with Kiss, the so-called Demons of Rock. We came up with a moniker for Donna: The First Lady of Love.
She changed her last name to Summer and with that became the disco queen, playing Vegas and Atlantic City and having four No. 1 hits in the same year in 1979. Later, she had a network television show with a recurring role on ABC’s Family Matters in the ’90s. But even with so much success, Donna was a very grounded person. I remember once we were on tour when she left off the hair and makeup and came down to the lobby. Somebody screamed, “Oh my God, you’re Donna Summer!” Her retort was, “No, honey, I left her upstairs on the dresser.” That’s who she was: “I’m just a plain girl, Donna Gaines from Boston. I have friends, family and faith.” And a loving husband of 32 years, Bruce Sudano.
She was a one-of-a-kind, creative, talented and smart woman. For periods of our lives, especially the five years I managed her in the late ’70s, we were nearly inseparable. My kids called her Aunt Donna, and four years ago, my son Evan wrote a song with her that ended up on her 2008 album, Crayons. I understand why she kept her lung cancer secret. Fame is a double-edged sword: No one would have left her alone to live her life with her family, and she was a very family-oriented person. I last saw her a year ago. I wish I had a chance to say goodbye.
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