'Nightline' Playlist: Donna Summer

Ths superstar has claimed a number-one dance hit in each decade since 1970.


June 13, 2008— -- The queen of disco is back.

Almost 60 years old and after a 17-year hiatus, Donna Summer, the five-time Grammy winner and disco superstar, released a new album last month titled "Crayons."

While Summer can currently claim a number-one dance hit in each decade since 1970, she came from humble beginnings.

Born outside of Boston, Summer was raised by devout Christian parents who introduced her to both gospel and classical music.

Summer remembers her mom singing songs to her before going to bed each night.

When Summer would throw a tantrum, to calm her down her mother would sit her in front of the radio tuned to a classical music station, something she credits for expanding her musical understanding from an early age.

"As long as the classical station was playing on the radio, I wouldn't cry," Summer told ABC News. "If it was on for 20 hours, I would sleep for 20 hours. I would be calm. So I think that my mother probably helped my sense of musicality just by doing that."

At age 18, Summer left home and auditioned for a part in the Broadway musical "Hair," and she received a part in the show when it moved to Germany.

Germany would prove a life-changer for Summer. She performed in several other musicals and worked as a backup singer for many artists, including Three Dog Night and the pop band Munich Machine.

While in Germany, she also met producer Giorgio Moroder, the man who would launch her solo career and continue to have a profound impact on her for the next several decades.

After initial success in Europe, Summer made the jump back to the United States with her single, "Love to Love You Baby."

Summer's success continued across many different genres, from disco and R&B to rock and funk, as she continued to push her own musical boundaries.

She went on to produce hits like "Bad Girls," "Last Dance," and "She Works Hard for the Money," a song that was inspired by a washroom attendant.

"I was at a Grammies party … and I went to the ladies room and on my way in I saw this little old lady sitting at the end of the bar. And she was asleep," Summers said. "She was the bathroom attendant. And at that same moment, a group of ladies walked into the room and started spraying their hair and doing all these things. And my first thought was 'God, she works hard for her money, that lady.'

"And then I thought, 'man, that's a song,'" she continued. "So I went and grabbed my manager and we went back into the bathroom and started writing the song on a piece of toilet paper."

Throughout her career, Summer said, she has always gathered much of her inspiration from other musicians and from those people around her.

"You know songs are there for the moments," Summer said. "I think music is the one thing that gets into your body and you can't get it out."

The first song Summer sang publicly was "I Found the Answer" by Mahalia Jackson, an experience still vivid in her memory.

She was 8 years old and the pastor of her church invited her to sing to the congregation — half in jest, Summer recounted.

But when Summer started singing that morning, there was nothing to joke about.

"I opened my mouth and this voice just shot out of me," she said. "It shocked me and it shocked everyone in the room. I started crying and everyone in the room started crying and I heard the voice of God say, 'You're going to be famous and this is power and you are never to misuse this power.'"

Summer credits Gloria Gaynor as the precursor to the disco explosion during the 1970s. One song that has particular importance to Summer is Gaynor's "I Will Survive."

"You know, I've used that song in my life and it's helped me through moments where I've thought, 'I've gotta get through this, I've gotta survive,'" Summer said.

She and Gaynor are friends now, Summer said, and occasionally bump into each other and share notes on each other's music.

Summer saw Janis Joplin perform live in Boston and didn't know what to think of her at first.

"She was just wild," Summer said. "She didn't have a bra on. That was so out — you don't understand what that was like. Women didn't walk around without a bra back then. Not women with those size boobs."

However, as soon as Joplin opened her mouth and started singing "Little Piece of My Heart," Summer was hooked.

"I was like, 'Oh my gosh.' You died and went to heaven. It was just riveting," she said. "It was such a great song. It pierced me and I thought, 'Wow, she's got it. She's got the gift.'"

One song that Summer said she goes back to again and again is Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On."

"It's pertinent, it's relevant and whenever I seem to listen to it, it always has something to do with what's going on," she said.

Summer said she can sometimes be caught singing the song out loud when nobody's around.

"When I go to the beach house, I throw that song on and I'm running around dancing in the house singing out loud," she said laughing. "You know, it's fine. No one knows I'm there."

Summer finds inspiration in Mariah Carey's 'Hero.'

"First of all, 'Hero' is really encouraging," Summer said. "People need to know they can rise to the occasion and they need to know that they can go beyond themselves."

The inspiration and encouragement echoed in "Hero" are important to Summer.

These emotions also reflected in her latest album, "Crayons."

"I approached this album as though I was out of the box — without rules; without regulations; without restrictions," Summer said.

This "out of the box" sentiment is something Summer brought to a popular single off of "Crayons," "Stamp Your Feet."

"'Stamp Your Feet' is a song of encouragement and being in the game of life," she said.

"You can get knocked down. It's OK. You can get up and keep going," she said. "You'll turn a corner and some day it will change."

Summer said people have come up to her after listening to "Stamp Your Feet" and said the song changed their lives — something Summer finds rewarding.

"If I can do it at my age and put myself on the line, I don't know what will come of it, but you know what, I'm going for it," Summer said. "I'm going to kick this ball as far as I can and hopefully I'll kick it out of the stadium."

Despite all she has accomplished, Summer said she feels she still has room to improve.

"My goal is to have Grammies in all categories, just to conquer every style and to succeed at it," Summer said.

"The voice is the instrument — it's not about the song."

"I Found the Answer" MAHALIA JACKSON

"I Will Survive" GLORIA GAINER

"A Little Piece of My Heart" JANIS JOPLIN

"What's Going On" MARVIN GAYE


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