The New Orleans singer talks about Donna Summer before paying tribute to her Friday night at The Joy Theater.

anais st. john photo
Anaïs St. John

[Singer Anaïs St. John has performed jazz standards, tributes to Eartha Kitt, and recently Donna Summer. On Friday night, she'll perform her tribute to Summer, "Last Dance," Friday at 8 p.m. at the Joy Theater. Recently, My Spilt Milk asked her for a better understanding of Summer, and what drew St. John to her.]

We all know and love Donna Summer as the Queen of Disco, and that’s is how I first saw her both as a performer and Icon--a symbol of an era. I was drawn to the music first, and through that I began to get to know the woman who created the soundtrack of a generation. 

Summer had a powerful voice with tremendous range. That range allowed her to sing almost any style of music, and she did. She started in church choirs and quickly was drawn to musical theater, performing in Hair and many of the top productions of the day in Europe. She fronted a rock band for some time as well. She loved experimenting with different music forms and pushing her voice into new arenas. Donna described her singing as opera with a rock 'n' roll heart. 

It was while touring in Europe doing musical theater that she met Giorgio Moroder, an Italian producer. Over a conversation, Donna shared a title and a concept for a song. Moroder loved it and came back to her the next day with a completed tune. They went into the studio with it and "Love to Love You Baby" and the Queen of Disco was born. 

Donna created characters for songs to find their musical and performing center for her. She said it takes her a while to discover who the character in a song is, but sometimes she nailed it right away. With "Love to Love You Baby, " she came up with an image of Marilyn Monroe, and that was the image she used when she laid down the first vocal for the track. She admitted that her normal singing voice never sounded like the voice she made up for that song.

Donna used characters to write as well as perform. Donna realized that the female songwriters she most admired were able to open a very private part of their inner lives and let you in. She always found that kind of personalized songwriting to be too painful, which is why in her songwriting she preferred to create characters whose story she told in song. She always preferred to play the role of the observer rather than the lead. Songs like "Bad Girls" came from projecting her characters found in real life. That song was inspired by life on the Sunset Strip. One day a young secretary of Donna's went out for lunch and was mistaken for a prostitute. She was a very pretty, well-dressed black woman. She then began to wonder what kind of life it was for the women who actually are hookers.

Once while having dinner at a restaurant in Los Angeles, Donna went to the restroom and saw an attractive attendant sitting by a small television set fast asleep. She looked at the woman and felt a wave of sympathy. She then blurted out, "She works hard for the money," then asked her friend for a piece of paper and wrote down the lyrics. She remembers these people while creating and performing these songs, tries to find their voice. She often felt the songs belonged more to them than to her

That really is one of the greatest challenges of this show, to give voice not just to my understanding of Donna Summer but the many characters she created and gave voice to.