She Worked Hard for the Money

Shine, Donna, shine

I never watched the television series “Taxi” with much regularity, but I remember one scene between Louie De Palma (Danny DeVito) and Zena (Rhea Perlman). He was trying to break up with her for some reason. When she asked him why and whether there was another woman, he said yes.

“Donna Summer,” he said to raucous studio audience laughter. “She thought it was a black-white thing, but I told her I didn’t want her shaking it for any other guys.”

Really, I thought? White guys like Donna Summer, too? DeVito wasn’t exactly an Adonis, her equal in attractiveness, but who was? I wondered whether other guys outside the Black community admired this woman. It seemed perfectly logical to me that she would be admired. On TV, she seemed so tall, slim, with perfect complexion, long hair and shiny lips. She was glamorous, talented and world famous.

I didn’t go on a hunt for information about Donna Summer, but I eventually found out that it was more than her music that held crossover appeal. She married outside her race twice, and first did so in an era where the Black consciousness ethos was still pretty strong. Black power and Black beauty were still everything to us, so Donna Summer’s choices might have seemed out of step with that. But she gained a lot as a person and a professional from those experiences.

Her first husband was an Austrian actor named Helmuth Sommer, whom she married in 1973, after moving there. LaDonna Adrian Gaines married this guy, created a variation on his surname to come up with Donna Summer, moved to Munich for a while and eventually became fluent in German. They had a daughter named Mimi. That marriage ended and she eventually married a guy named Bruce Sudano, who would collaborate and produce a lot of her music, and they had two daughters, Brooklyn, an actress and Amanda.

I didn’t realize it when I was younger, but this was a daring path. But then again, maybe it was more natural. When you reach that level of professional success, racking up hit after hit after hit, double LP after double LP, single after single so much so that her ground-breaking style would inspire lots of artists and even help give rise to clubby music like techno, you run with a different crowd. You meet different men and are forced to have different experiences.

She was the first pop singer I became conscious of as girls in my generation began saving our coins and breaking away from their mothers during trips downtown to prowl musty independent music stores to buy her tapes. By the time I was 11 years old, when she released “She Works Hard for the Money,” in 1983, I thought this woman was terrific. Secretly, of course. It didn’t matter that merely listening to her ultra-racy “Love to Love You Baby,” would have gotten me into a world of trouble with my stern, austere single mother who was giving me a strict religious upbringing.

She was like the complete package to me. But I would never have the guts to try to sing her songs out loud in our house, or anyplace where other adults who knew my mother would hear me, and promptly rat me out. And I could never try to wear lipstick or put on anything that resembled those figure hugging outfits that she could rock any day of the week. And I initially resented the notion that my main claim to fame in life would be to marry outside my race, and to a white man.

Until the day I plugged a small boom box into an outlet in my room, I had to go into my mother’s pristine, well-appointed living room to listen to music. I didn’t get nearly enough of this beautiful, creative, ground-breaking mezzo-soprano who charmed all the guys and made girls like me want to emulate her. Later I would discover that she was raised on gospel music and came from a Christian home and reconnected with her faith in a powerful way as an adult. Parents really shouldn’t put too many restrictions on the music their kids listen to, because you never know what kinship, what healthy connections, could exist between the artist and that youngster.

Anyway, all I understood, in my locked-down way of living, was that she was special. And it’s really sad for her family that her warmth, hugs, faith and beauty, everything about her that enriched their lives, is now just memories.

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