Friday, May 18, 2012

My Summer Memories


Hers was The real Voice.

Radio and recordings didn't do justice to its nuclear sound.

I discovered that the first time I heard Donna Summer sing  live; her vocal timbre as large as the Santa Monica mountain range with peaks and vales just as wide.Not only did her voluminous voice turn heads,

it stopped birds in flight.


At a rehearsal for a women's conference in late '80's, Donna told the story of how she was singing  in the courtyard of her Westlake Village home (named "Holywood Ranch"). A bird flying by stopped mid-air and jerked his head toward her at the sound her striking song. She wasn't boasting. She was matter-of-factly relaying an unusual experience. Her crazy-big vocals just happened to be the main point.

Most remember her belting out Bad Girls, Last Dance and On the Radio. I connected to some later songs: Dinner with Gershwin, Forgive Me and Everybody up to the Dance Floor.

She also had a lesser known gospel side. During  the women's conference performance, where I sang back-up, she joked how we four resembled an Oreo cookie--she and her African-American sister flanking me and my Caucasian friend.  We sang Gospel classics like Operator, Give me Jesus on the Line, I Anticipate A Miracle, and I Worship You Almighty God. Man, could she sing the last one! I remember accompanying her at Gateway Foursquare church in Agoura Hills where both our families attended.


But my gospel favorite was "His Eye is On the Sparrow".
Here's the chart I wrote to accompany her when she  performed at a black mega-church in L.A. Her personal assistant, Gina, had asked me to write it.

We musicians joked about how we'd like to have a 'Gina' - she cooked, drove the kids and kept Donna's schedule together.

I fought rush-hour traffic from Thousand Oaks to Crenshaw, got lost in the worst part of South Central LA off the10 freeway, (not far from where they had the Rodney King incident a few months later) and made the rehearsal an hour late. I repeated the drive the next morning to play at Fred Price's charismatic church service,  which was an experience in itself!

She invited my husband and me to the induction of her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The reception at a nearby hotel was delightful with its made-to-order pasta station and coffee bar complete with whipped cream and raspberries. I remember lots of beautiful people and Hollywood buzz in the room. Someone thought I was an actress. Ha, mother of two that I was. She was busy with several interviews and photo ops, but still made time to come by our table to say 'hello,' joke with my husband and make small talk. She had a great sense of humor and was so down to earth considering the super-star that she was.

Her husband Bruce Sudano was friendly, very grounded, and a musician/songwriter in his own right.
He would sometimes call Donna by her real name, "Adrian."

I was honored to have sung and played with her, but was so out of her league, in more ways than one.
What we did share were things dear to my heart: faith, music, and children of similar ages.

Most obvious was our artistic and economic disparity. Did I mention she was a painter? Forgive me if this next story is a little gauche. (Read my daughter's blog for a more tasteful and spiritual take on her memories of Donna: http://aprilmccullohs.com/donna-summer-how-i-knew-her#comment-250).

One afternoon while rehearsing at Donna's house, I complimented her very large embroidered rug (that incidentally covered only half of her enormous living room). She casually commented back,
"Thanks. I'm thinking of changing the rug out for the Spring. "Do you do that?" she asked me.

Before I had a chance to give an awkward answer, her husband, Bruce came to the rescue and deflected the conversation. I was spared from having to explain that I was lucky to have one nice living room rug for my 2-bedroom apartment, much less two to change out seasonally!

She possessed a kind of humble obliviousness to certain things; mostly how staggeringly great her own voice was.

Now she's made her debut appearance in Heaven. I wonder if it included a duet with Whitney Houston,  Ella Fitzgerald or other great singers gone before her!

I bet the sound of her epic voice is turning heads everywhere.

Even stopping angels in flight!!

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