“Release me from the past that I may be free to soar into the future,” reads the epigraph to Donna Summer’s 2003 autobiography, “Ordinary Girl.”
When she found international renown as the Queen of Disco, Summer left behind her past as Donna Gaines, a gentle, wide-eyed, churchgoing young woman from Boston blessed with a remarkable singing voice.
The late singer had to leave her hometown to find fame and fortune. But despite opening her memoir with that prayer, she always cherished the memories of her Boston upbringing. A touring production of “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical” debuts in her hometown beginning Tuesday at the Emerson Colonial Theatre.
“In my mind I can still see the way [the city] looked to me as a child,” she wrote. “It was a mystical place filled with gas lamps and beautiful foliage.”
It was here, growing up in a three-family home on Parker Hill Avenue in Mission Hill, that Donna Gaines found her voice.
“She sang one day at church,” around age 10, recalls Jeanette Yancey, the oldest of Summer’s five sisters (the siblings also included a brother). Little Donna’s rendition of the traditional gospel hymn “I Found the Answer” made the minister weep.
The congregation at the Grant AME Church in Roxbury “stood still,” Yancey says. “We couldn’t believe the voice that came out of her. She had no singing classes, no nothing.”
Years later, after Summer left Boston for Greenwich Village and then Germany, where she starred in the musical “Hair” and met the producers and songwriters who would help launch her divine recording career, her sister was driving on Tremont Street one day when she heard Donna’s voice on the radio, cooing “Love to Love You Baby.”
“I had to pull to the side of the street,” Yancey says.
While living in Europe, Summer married an Austrian actor named Helmuth Sommer, with whom she had her first daughter. On an early record release, the name was misspelled as “Summer,” and she kept it that way.
At Jeremiah E. Burke High School in Dorchester, which was then an all-girls school, Donna Gaines sang with the glee club. She also sang with the Lawrence Bagwell Choir, and she joined a singing group called the Young Adults, which performed around the city.
“I wanted to knock on any door that had anything to do with music,” she would remember.
In fact, that’s how she joined her first band. While she was walking around the city one day, the sound of a rehearsing rock band wafted out of a building. Intrigued, she walked in.
“Are you here for the audition?” they asked. Why, yes, she guessed she was.
The band was called the Crow (or Crow, depending on who you ask). They were “six college-age white guys with wild hair [and] sloppy clothes,” Summer recalled. She got the gig.
“We were a very diverse band, musically,” says bassist Vern Miller, a founding member of the notable Boston band the Remains, who famously toured with the Beatles. One member of the Crow, Mark Gould, would go on to become principal trumpet of the Metropolitan Opera orchestra.
They covered a range of songs, from “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” to Martha and the Vandellas’ “Dancing in the Street.”
Miller, who also played tuba in the band, was raised in a family of classical musicians in New Jersey, where he is now retired from a longtime job as a music teacher. As a kid, his parents took him to a Black church to play his trumpet.
“It was the first time I heard a gospel choir,” he recalls, “and it hit me way down in my heart.” Hearing Summer’s voice for the first time, he says, affected him the same way.
Bandleader Hoby Cook, who studied at what was then the Berklee School of Music, played saxophone and keyboards. He was the product of a wealthy, well-connected Connecticut family, Miller says. Every weekend, Cook would show up with a carful of new gear he’d bought for the group.
“We were extremely well-equipped,” Miller says.
Cook and the band’s young singer soon became romantically involved. He loved buying her fashionable new clothes and treating her to fine meals, as she recalled in her memoir. He took her to see Janis Joplin perform at the Psychedelic Supermarket.
Soon, however, it became clear that there was no future for the Crow — and that Donna Gaines had a bright future of her own as a solo act. So she and Cook parted. After she moved to New York City, he made a last-ditch effort to hang on, asking her to move back and marry him. But it wasn’t meant to be.
For years afterward, says Jeanette Yancey, Cook and Summer stayed in touch. He married, and his wife and Summer occasionally called to catch up on their respective lives. (Cook died in 2018.)
When Donna Summer became a household name a few years later, Miller, her former bandmate, was not surprised.
“I didn’t know when I worked with her that she’d have the self-confidence or the upwardly mobile drive to become successful,” he says. “She was young and naive, with perhaps a certain innocence. She had a sweet, cooperative nature about her.
“But talent-wise, I was not the least bit surprised.”
In 1983, with a long string of huge dance hits under her glittering belt, Summer returned to Jeremiah E. Burke High School to accept an honorary diploma. There to greet her was Joe Day, who’d taught her in civics class a decade and a half prior. By then he was the assistant headmaster.
“She was a delightful person,” says Day, who is retired but still helps coach the basketball team at Noble and Greenough.
When she had told him years earlier that she had an opportunity to join the cast of “Hair” overseas, he had urged her to go for it. He’d seen the hippie musical in Boston. “I knew what it was all about. It was fun,” he says. “My mother probably wouldn’t have liked it,” he adds with a laugh.
After Summer quit school and left Boston in 1967, they wrote to each other for a time before eventually losing touch. But at the Burke in 1983, when Day climbed up onstage, Summer gave her former civics teacher a big kiss.
When he got home, his wife chided him.
“You got a kiss from Donna Summer?”
James Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.