Donna Summer is my hero, and she’s always been one of us. Bostonians will proudly tell you how she grew up on Parker Hill Avenue, went to “The Jerry” (a.k.a. Jeremiah E. Burke High School in Dorchester), and worshiped at the Grant AME Church in the South End.
I was lucky enough to see her perform at the Bank of America Pavilion in 2010. She sang three of my all-time favorite songs: “Love to Love You Baby,” “Hot Stuff,” and “I Feel Love.” It turned out to be one of Summer’s last concerts; she died less than two years later, at 63. I still can’t believe she’s gone.
When I heard there was a new museum exhibition devoted to my hometown girl, the Queen of Disco, I was ecstatic. Her legacy lives on with “Donna Summer: Four Seasons of Love,” now on display at the Grammy Museum in downtown Los Angeles.
On the fourth floor of the museum, visitors can get an up-close look at Summer’s glittery stage costumes, including the Marilyn Monroe-style dress that she wore in promotional materials for her “Four Seasons of Love” album in 1976. Also on display are handwritten notes and lyrics, the Grammy Award she won in 1979 for “Hot Stuff,” her Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee award, photographs, magazine covers, original album artwork, and other mementos.
“She was very much interested in style,” said Bob Santelli, the museum’s executive director. “It’s a very colorful exhibit.”
By sharing these artifacts, which are on loan from Summer’s family, the museum aims to “tell her story and help demonstrate why Donna Summer is not only the undisputed Queen of Disco, but also one of the most successful female artists of all time,” Santelli said.
“The story is more than who she was as a recording artist and performer,” Santelli said.
A sketch of an elegant gown that Summer created shows just how involved she was in designing her own wardrobe. She drew a sparkling gown with a plunging neckline, and scribbled notes to describe specific parts of the costume, pointing out where “various size crystals” would go, and the “oval shapes” near the bottom. Above the sketch she wrote: “Send to Linda Stokes,” her costume designer.
Another part of the exhibit tells the story behind “Onetta,” the woman in Summer’s hit song “She Works Hard for the Money.” It turns out that Onetta was an overworked washroom attendant Summer encountered at a Grammy Awards party. Summer told the story of how she walked into the ladies room and saw Onetta taking a nap. The image of Onetta asleep on the job inspired the song.
In addition to being an accomplished singer, songwriter, performer (and five-time Grammy Award-winner), Summer was an accomplished visual artist whose paintings have sold for as much as $150,000. Several are showcased in the exhibit.
Her artwork and paintings are among the highlights, because “to display art she crafted personally opens up another side of Donna Summer that hard-core fans probably never knew,” said Nwaka Onwusa, associate curator at the Grammy Museum.
In a statement on the museum’s website, Summer’s husband, Bruce Sudano, says, “Donna’s relationship with The Recording Academy was very special to her. On behalf of our daughters Mimi, Brooklyn, and Amanda, and the extended family, we are truly honored to have the Grammy Museum host this amazing tribute to Donna’s legacy.”
There’s only one downside to the exhibition: It’s up only until April 20.
DONNA SUMMER: FOUR SEASONS OF LOVE Grammy Museum, 800 West Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles. 213-765-6800, www.grammymuseum.org. Mon-Fri 11:30 a.m.- 7:30 p.m., Sat-Sun 10 a.m.- 7:30 p.m.Emily Sweeney can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney.