‘Sunset People’ | Donna Summer | 1979
For DONNA SUMMER, finding fame felt like a divine pursuit. “I was 8 and I had this epiphany, really. I was in church, the Grand AME Church back in Boston, and it was a, like, spiritual flash; I knew I would be famous. I was just this little ugly black girl from Boston, but I knew it.”
She was still going by her given name, LaDonna Adrian Gaines, when at age 18 she moved to Germany to chase a role in a traveling production of “Hair.” She also pursued a pop career and spent time in a folk opera troupe. Whenever she heard a phone ring, she announced, “Hollywood calling!”
The real Hollywood would beckon Summer after she and Italian-born producer Giorgio Moroder fashioned the epic and erotic 1975 disco hit “Love to Love You Baby.” The song was made famous by her orgasmic-sounding moans, which she was too shy to record until she pretended she was Marilyn Monroe in a role.
Summer relocated to L.A. and her label, Casablanca Records, was on Sunset Boulevard and decorated to look like Rick’s Cafe. Summer was dazzled. “It was like to going to Las Vegas but better. All these people on the street, walking, talking, profiling. . . . I thought I had died and gone to heaven.”
That inspired her 1979 song “Sunset People,” a song of shimmer and shag carpet that starts with a red-eye:
Late-night flight, LAX
Limousine and you’re all set
For Sunset, for Sunset
Riot house, a penthouse suite
The street’s alive beneath your feet
The song pays tribute to some music landmarks (“Rainbow girl, Whisky man, spottin’ every star they can”) and briefly alludes to the dark costs of the bright lights (“Foreign cars full of stars / tinted glass to hide the scars”), although the danger is hard to dwell on since you can practically hear Summer smiling as she sings.
Like so many, Summer found out that fame loses its luster the longer you watch. “I was mentally ready for fame but not emotionally. You start to lose yourself.” After a Casablanca employee was humiliated by police who accused her of being a Sunset prostitute, Summer sang the less-sunny tale of “Bad Girls” (“ ‘Bad Girls,’ ” she says, “had the message that, in a way, we’re all hookers to somebody.”) Both Sunset songs were on the same album in 1979.
Through the years, Summer, who moved to Nashville in the 1990s, has set aside “Sunset People” during some tours but now she’s rethinking that. She plays the Hollywood Bowl in August and hinted that she will add it to her set list. “That’s the thing about that song, it had the pulse of a car cruising. And cruising is what you do on Sunset, right? To see and be seen, that’s Sunset.”