By Dennis Sun
I still remember those days in high school and college. It was right after the flower revolution when disco emerged. It was crazy and fun. Every weekend was disco time to the young. We danced and boogied till the wee hours of the morning. This was the disco era. And in this era, there was only one queen whose voice and music reigned in dance floors of the clubs and speakers of the radios. Her name was Donna Summer.
Donna Summer surged to international superstardom in the mid 1970’s when she spearheaded a conglomeration of various sound fusions of R&B, soul, pop, funk, rock, disco and avantgarde electronic techno dance music that bombarded underground dance music out of the clubs of Europe garnering skyrocketing sales of records and proliferating a distinctive sound on the radio and television around the globe. Donna Summer became a cultural icon and her prominence in the disco charts made her the goddess of disco influencing artists even to the diva likes of Madonna to Beyonce.
May of last year, Donna Summer passed away after a long battle with lung cancer which she believed developed by inhaling toxic particles following the 9-11 terrorist attacks in New York.
May of this year a year later, Marlene released a tribute album to honor the legacy of Donna Summer. Marlene laments the loss of a great voice who was still so vital even during the last days of her life. With this album, Marlene hopes Donna Summer’s music would continue playing in our hearts and minds.
What a timely centerpiece for the “summer” edition of Jeepney Press as we delve into the life of a Filipina jazz diva in Japan, Marlene, through the songs of another music icon, Donna “Summer.”
It started in the park! Or should I say, “with” a park because, literally, the park is a famous song. It all began when Marlene started singing McArthur Park in her concerts. McArthur Park is the multimillion selling vinyl single disco version recorded by Donna Summer which became number one on the American pop music sales for several weeks in 1978.
“I was singing McArthur Park in a live house and it was so well appreciated. Then, I sang it again at a Jazz Festival in Sapporo and the people became so ecstatic with my rendition of the song. My manager thought that Donna Summer songs fit me well. A month later, Donna Summer passed away from a lung disease. So she suggested that I do a cover album of her. Perhaps, do it as a tribute album. She talked with my big bosses at Sony and that’s how it all started.”
McArthur Park, written by Jimmy Webb, is actually a song that the composer meant its lyrics to be symbolic and referred to the end of a love affair. And McArthur Park was actually the place where they occasionally met for lunch and spent their most enjoyable times together until they broke up.
“When Donna Summer died, she was still at her best. She was looking good and singing even better than ever. I wanted to continue her legacy as a singer. People didn’t actually listen to her songs. They danced to her songs mostly. So I want the world to listen to her songs again through my album and rediscover how beautiful her songs are. And hopefully, people will listen to her again.”
Donna Summer is the disco queen. From the late 70’s to the early 80’s, no diva on her right frame of mind was able to touch her songs. She was the leader. She reigned as the queen of her dancing era. She was the Queen of Disco. The diva of all divas, Barbra Streisand, even recorded a duet with her to revive her popularity. The queen of soul, Aretha Franklin, even tried to record disco songs just to jump into the bandwagon.
Marlene, though starting as a singing pop idol in Japan, has transformed herself as a truly deserving jazz diva. So how does a jazz queen attack the songs of a disco queen? How did she breakaway from the disco genre?
“You can never compete with the original. Every time I do a cover version of any singer’s songs, it has to be me. I don't even have to try. I just sing it the way I feel it. “Marlene sings Donna Summer” is not a disco music but an acid soul jazz album with some fusions of R&B but we also put collages of sounds from that era to give us a little taste of the 70's and 80's.”
At the end of the day, you'll hear Jazzy Marlene and you'll wonder where's Donna?
Listening to some of the songs in the album, you would be surprised to hear many dancing tunes turned into ballads.
There were several songs to choose from the immense number of songs Donna Summer recorded. How does one select and then, fall in love with the songs? Marlene and her arranger, producer Kuriya Makoto got the freedom to select which songs of Donna Summer she will cover in her album.
“It wasn't easy. There are 10 songs we covered in the album. We listened to Donnas' tons of songs. I came across the song, Melody of Love which I never heard before. I fell in love with the song right away and I must say that It is my favorite among the rest in the album.”
LOVE TO LOVE YOU BABY
Marlene has two precious babies, a boy and a girl. It must be difficult balancing life as a diva and a mother.
“The moment I get on the plane, right there, my role changes from Mommy to Marlene or vice versa. The Mommy in me is a disciplinarian. I am very strict. If I have to give a “palo” to my kids just to teach them a lesson, I’d do it. I don’t want to spoil my kids.”
Being a mother is stressful but how does a domesticated diva handle it? Kids shouting, fighting, messing the house…
“I always tell my kids, ‘I don't lose my voice when I sing, but lose my voice at you kids.’ Kids can push your button to the edge of losing your mind! But after all the disciplining, the kids come up to me and say, “Sorry, Mommy!” and that alone relieves me all of my stress. They give me stress, yes, but they also de-stress me afterwards with their cute little sweet ways. So far, I think I am doing a great job in my life as a diva and a mother. Balanced? Only my singing can prove that! When I am home, Marlene, the diva, is gone. Home is my stage and my kids are my listeners.”
Do they even know that “the” Marlene is their mother? The jazz diva?
“Oh, yes! When we go to the gas station to fill up the car, my young boy would call up the gas station boy and yell, “Do you know who she is? She is Marlene!” I know he is very proud of me. He said he wants to be a singer like me. Sometimes, he comes home and ask me for an authograph to give to his friends. He said it’s for his friends’ parents who happen to be my fans. This would happen everyday at times.”
How does a domesticated diva spend her free time then?
“Right now, I don't have a free time at all! I am a PTA officer, too, so I have obligations to the kids. This also gives me a chance to glance on my kids at school. Once a month, I'm a traffic officer in an intersection holding a flag to make sure that the kids are safe crossing the street to school. I live an unglamorous private life in contrast to my public life! I do a little gardening. Most of the time you can find me weeding to keep my lawn as nice as I can! During school break, we spend our time in our summer house in Karuizawa. I try to bring the kids outdoor whenever I can.”
Marlene has passed the golden age mark of 50 but she looks decades younger. She continues to be a “hotstuff” passing the golden age. She’s slim, fit and energetic. How does Marlene take care of herself? She is the same as she was 30 years ago.
“I'm a natural woman. My kids give me the exercise I need. I take our dog, BOLT, every morning for about 40 min. to a couple of hours walk and that gives me a good exercise. I do not have any beauty ritual. I hate to start something that I won't be able to sustain! Only lately that I go to a beauty esthe around my neighborhood where they massage the face with pure aloe vera juice. It smells like vinegar but after the massage, one feels really youthful. I check myself on the mirror everyday. If I see changes in my body, that's when I work out. I cook my own meals, no junk food and no frozen foods either.”
What’s the baddest thing you’ve done? Sorry, but I had to ask this question as it’s part of being “the” Donna Summer.
“I just never had the chance to be bad! I entered showbiz early in life that I didn't have the chance to explore my teenage years. On top of that, I am a very conservative person. I was taught well at home. Even with having boyfriends, I have never had several boyfriends at the same time. Sometimes I wish I can be bad...but It's just not me. I was never a bad girl and can never be one.”
Actually, there’s a “bad” thing I remember with Marlene. I am telling this because Marlene and I have been friends a long time ago. Driving back to Tokyo from Narita Airport one time, I noticed how Marlene can get “bad” with other cars overtaking her. She would speed up those cars to catch them. That’s cool!
NO MORE TEARS
What was your hardest challenge in life? Biggest lesson in life?
“Every day is a challenge. As long as I am alive, there will always be challenges for me. Big or small, I learn how to live it. Everything that comes to me...I think of them as part of my life. Things happen. I don't make a big deal out of anything.”
“Biggest lesson in life? Don't give your trust 100%. Keep the 20% to yourself. And when you give, don't expect that you'll get something in return.”
SHE WORKS HARD FOR THE MONEY
Marlene has worked for a long time…since she was 15 years old.
“For me, money always comes and goes. I don’t have cash but I have properties. I don’t know but no matter how much cash comes into my hands, lalabas at lalabas ang mga ito. Yun yata ang fate ko. I used to be the bread winner of the family.”
“For me, this song is for the women of Japan nowadays. When I first came here, most women stayed at home to attend to their family. 30 years later, Japanese women has changed. Society finally accepted the fact that even their women can compete with the men in the work field. More and more women now work and help their husbands. And with the economy today, women from all over the world can't just help but work hard for the money.”
THIS TIME I KNOW IT’S
When it comes to reality, Marlene wants positive certainty. Thus, she married late in life.
“I married late because I wanted to be sure that I won’t divorce. Sa atin, walang divorce. Maraming hiwalay, pero hindi divorced. I want to be sure that when I get married, it would be forever. I had been single for a long time but I knew what I wanted. I want a happy married life with a good husband and beautiful children. So here I am with what I asked for...a very supportive husband and two handful kids!”
Marlene wandered far and wide. At the end, the call of the Land of the Rising Sun seemed strongest.
“I believe that destiny brought me to Japan. The Japanese people accepted me perhaps not only because of my singing but more of my personality… more like a dalagang Pilipina. Talent is not enough in itself. You have to be likeable.”
How is your relationship with God?
“I sleep at night thanking HIM for the blessings. I know HE is there. I am not a devotee but I believe in the Holy Spirit and I know that HE's always there for me. I believe HE is guiding me every day. When in need, HE gives me what I ask for. There are times when I don’t even ask, for HE already gave me much.”
I LOVE YOU
Marlene is living a long distance marriage for quite a long time now. How do you keep the relationship working?
“My husband works in the States while I work in Japan. It is a long distance relationship but somehow we keep it working. Although I have adjusted to that kind of lifestyle, I still wish that we could be together as a family. Love and trust keep us together though... for a long time, we have been physically separated, even before we got married.”
ON THE RADIO
So what’s coming up on Marlene’s summer
Summer has always been a very busy time for me.
Catch me on July 12 at Ebisu Act Square, July 18 at Nagoya Blue Note and on July 19 at Osaka Billboard, on August 31 at Motion Blue Yokohama and I will also be at the Sasebo Jazz Festival in Nagasaki on October 13. Please visit my homepage, www.marlenejazz.com for other shows near you!
For now, this centerfold needs to wrap up with a few good words of advice. There are plenty of talented Filipino singers and dancers out in Japan. A few make it. Many don’t.
I always say this: Just be yourself. Be your own dance and dance in your own style. Let the artist you love be an inspiration but don’t be like them. You can never be another Whitney Houston nor Mariah Carey. You can only be YOU!
And here’s the last note from Donna Summer: “I'm just an ordinary person that did some extraordinary things.”