August 23, 2016

Donna Summer the Queen of Disco!

I moved my family to Nashville in 1997 with some vague, unfocused goals of furthering my career as a musician. I wasn’t sure what to expect or what would happen. A couple months after I arrived I met a guy at my church who told me he ran front-of-house sound for Donna Summer. “Can you get me a gig?” I asked half-jokingly. Then he came back from a road trip and said, “hey you’re not gonna believe this but we’ve got a guy in the band that’s leaving. We need someone who can play keyboards, sax, flute, and harmonica”. So I had a demo cassette tape I gave him and he passed it on to the musical director. I got a call from Michael Hanna who said “I’ll buy you sushi and we can talk about the gig.” I met him and he hired me! That was the beginning of 7 years being a part of her band.

It probably took her two years to remember my name to be honest but she was always asking me about my family and my kids. That was a big deal to her. She told the band that if she caught any of the guys fooling around on the road and not being faithful to their wives they would be fired. She called me Ross Perot because she never could get my last name.

There was a time where I was getting annoyed with some of her quirks and eccentricities. Then, providentially, I walked into a gift shop and I found a book that had some of her works of art (she was a painter). I looked at these paintings and something clicked. I understood her. She was an artist. She marched to a different drummer. It was ok. After that I never had any bad feelings.

She would work the band like a Georgia mule at the sound checks having us play different progressions and grooves and she would improvise lyrics over them. This was one of the ways she would write songs and stay creative. Everything was recorded. Once she asked me for a title and some chords. “Raining in Memphis” I said and she started to make up stuff. So I can say I wrote a song with Donna Summer. But, generally, we the band were not always happy doing 4 hour soundchecks.

Cher had that hit with the auto tune robot-voice thing and Donna’s team got all psyched up about some kind of a similar comeback for her. So there were a number of TV appearances including the Today Show and the Rosie O’Donnell show. We did a lot of less glamorous stuff like a lot of casino shows and some state and county fairs. We played a New Years Eve gig at Donald Trump’s house in 1998 or 2000. I know it wasn’t 1999 because she refused to go anywhere that New Years and was convinced there would be worldwide problems caused by Y2K.

The coolest thing we did was the VH1 Live and More Encore concert in 1999 which yielded a live album and DVD. She came to me afterwards and said “I knew you were good but I didn’t know you were THAT good.” She was referring to my sax solo on Hard for the Money. There it was live, first take. It better be good.

We did a concert at the Hollywood Bowl and the music director for my next gig was there and recognized me from a church we both attended when I was growing up in California. That led to my decade-long gig with the evangelist I will refer to as “The Evangelist”. Worlds collided when Donna showed up at one of The Evangelists meetings and sang His Eye is on the Sparrow.

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