Donna Summer and the Spago-Moroder-Puck Connection


What do Donna Summer, Giorgio Moroder, and Wolfgang Puck have in common?

It all started when I was doing research for a bio of the Austrian-American celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck (coming soon). Although I did dine once at his iconic Spago restaurant in Beverly Hills – and even shook hands with the star chef himself (a story for another day) – I really didn’t know a lot about Mr. Puck’s story.

Then there was that name: Spago. Where did that come from? In seeking the answer to that question I also happened to discover several other interesting links to two other notable people.

So, what do Donna Summer, Giorgio Moroder, and Wolfgang Puck have in common?

In a way, it’s complicated. But in another way, it’s simple. Let’s start with the simple.

First of all, disco queen Donna Summer, music producer/composer Giorgio Moroder, and celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck all have the German language in common. They each also changed their names at some point in their lives. And they each lived and worked in Austria and Germany for part of their lives. Sadly, Summer died in 2012, but Moroder and Puck are still very much alive.

But how did fate intertwine the lives of these three people?

Haare album red

Before she was Donna Summer, Boston-born Donna Gaines was a member of the cast for the German production of HAARE (“Hair”) in Munich. PHOTO: Hyde Flippo

Donna Summer
Five-time Grammy Award winner and “disco queen” Donna Summer was born in Boston, Massachusetts on December 31, 1948. Her parents christened her LaDonna Adrian Gaines. Before she died in May 2012, aged 63, she lived a very full and notable life, a life that included living and working in Germany and Austria.

In 1967, all of 18 years old, only weeks before she would have graduated from high school, Donna Gaines auditioned in New York for a German stage production of the musical “Hair.” She was accepted and talked her parents into letting her fly off to Munich. Polydor later released her recording of “Aquarius” (“Wassermann”) in German as a single. (Another American, California-born Ron Williams, sang as Hud in the German production. He’s still living in Germany.) After the production ended its run, the Afro-American singer decided to remain in Munich. By now Donna Gaines spoke fluent German, and she was working in the music business in Munich, singing backup vocals at a local recording studio and making demo tapes.

In 1973 Donna Gaines married an Austrian actor named Helmuth Sommer and took his surname. Her new stage name was born when her record company printed labels with her new name misspelled as “Summer” rather than Sommer. She went along with that. Donna Summer lived for a time in Vienna, and sang briefly with the Volksoper there. She and Helmuth had a daughter. Even after their divorce in 1976, Donna retained the anglicized version of her Sommer surname.

Video: Donna Summer speaks German in this interview on German TV. (2:30)

Around 1974, while working as a model and backup singer in Munich, she met German-based producers Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte during a recording session for Three Dog Night. Summer was still almost unknown in her homeland, but she was having success in Europe. She soon began working with Moroder at his Musicland studio, and after recording a few European hits, she co-wrote a song called “Love to Love You, Baby” with Moroder. That song became an international hit in 1975. Donner Summer was on her way to becoming a world star and the “Queen of Disco.”

Giorgio Moroder
Summer and Giovanni Giorgio Moroder were able to meet because Moroder had moved from Berlin to Munich in order to be closer to his Italian hometown and his mother. He had worked in West Berlin for several years, after leaving South Tyrol, a German-speaking region in the Dolomite Alps near the Austro-Italian border. Moroder’s mother always called him Hansjörg, the German version of Giovanni Giorgio (John George). In 1940, when Hansjörg Moroder was born in the town of St. Ulrich (Urtijei in the local Ladin dialect), the political situation in South Tyrol meant that his official birth certificate had to be in Italian, not German. He and his three brothers grew up hearing German, Italian, and Ladin, a Rhaeto-Romanic dialect also found in parts of Switzerland (Romansch). So, when he moved to West Berlin in the mid-1960s, Moroder had no problem with the language. He also knew English, which proved helpful when he began working with British bands, including Queen, Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, and Electric Light Orchestra.

Giorgio Moroder and Donna Summer at Moroder’s surprise birthday party at Spago, Beverly Hills on April 26, 2010. PHOTO: Getty Images

Moroder and Summer had great success together until the singer decided to switch labels and work with David Geffen. Moroder has said: “Geffen pushed her to make music that wasn’t right for her. It was a big mistake in my opinion.” Although he continued to produce records for Summer, the two drifted apart, even before Quincy Jones began producing for her, with her “Donna Summer” album in 1982. Mororder moved to California in 1978.

Moroder went on to huge success working with David Bowie, Berlin (“Take My Breath Away”), Blondie, Janet Jackson, and other top names. He also became noted for and won awards for his movie music: Midnight Express (1978), American Gigolo (1980), Scarface (1983), and Flashdance (1983). Moroder produced and co-wrote the theme song for the the North American release of the 1984 children’s fantasy picture The NeverEnding Story (“Die unendliche Geschichte”), a German production directed by Wolfgang Petersen before he went to Hollywood. Moroder also collaborated on music for Top Gun (1986, soundtrack by Harold Faltermeyer, a German-born music producer and Moroder protege in Munich). Now a lively 75, Moroder has been enjoying a bit of a comeback after years of quiet obscurity, thanks to a French electronic music duo called Daft Punk and their 2013 song “Giorgio by Moroder” – with the voice of Moroder and music by Daft Punk on their album “Random Access Memory.”

Moroder and Summer were reunited and reconciled just two years before she died of lung cancer in Florida. Donna Summer lived two floors below Moroder’s 21st-floor apartment in the same Los Angeles highrise. According to Moroder, the two talked and often shared text messages after she moved into the building. “I saw her more in those two years than I had in the previous 20. It was lovely.” Donna Summer was one of the guests at Moroder’s 70th surprise birthday party held at Spago in Beverly Hills on April 26, 2010.

Wolfgang Puck
I’m pretty sure that Wolfgang Puck and Donna Summer have met in person. After all, she was in his restaurant for Moroder’s 70th birthday. We do know that Puck and Moroder are good friends who have known each other for many years. (See the photo above.) And that brings us to the “Spago connection.”

Wolfgang Puck in 2012

Wolfgang Puck in 2012. PHOTO: Glenn Francis (PacificProDigital.com – Wikimedia Commons)

Celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck was born Wolfgang Johannes Topfschnig on July 8, 1949 in a small town near Klagenfurt, Austria in the province of Carinthia (Kärnten). When his mother later married Josef Puck, young Wolfgang received his adopted name of Puck (pronounced POOK in German). Puck’s mother was a part-time pastry chef and her son also was interested in a career in cuisine. Despite obstacles that included an abusive stepfather and a lack of money, Puck managed to intern in restaurants in Austria, and later in France and Monaco. In 1973, following the advice of a friend, the Austrian chef went to America.

Around the same time that Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder began their musical collaboration in Munich, Wolfgang Puck was already in the United States working at the La Tour restaurant in Indianapolis, Indiana. After two years at La Tour, Puck arrived in Los Angeles to become co-chef at the Ma Maison restaurant in West Hollywood. Soon Puck became a business partner, and was a rising culinary star as Ma Maison began attracting the rich and famous of southern California.

Not content with one popular restaurant, Puck wanted to open another one. His idea was an upscale pizza restaurant unlike any other. It would serve pizza topped with shrimp and other unique toppings. But he needed money from investors, and during a conversation about that, his friend and regular customer Giorgio Moroder suggested he call it “Spago,” Italian slang for spaghetti. (Moroder had planned to compose an opera or musical with that name.) At first, Moroder was interested in investing in the new venture, but the two would-be partners couldn’t agree on terms. Even after Moroder was no longer part of the deal, Puck decided he wanted to keep the name.

In 1982 he opened his new Spago restaurant on the Sunset Strip. Spago became a hit and soon offered much more than fancy pizza. In 1997 a second Spago opened on ritzy North Canon Drive in Beverly Hills. (The old Spago closed in 2001.) Today Wolfgang Puck has a culinary empire with three companies bearing his name. You can now dine at Spago in five cities (see below) and in Wolfgang Puck’s many other restaurants: CUT (steaks), Five Sixty, The Source, Postrio, WP24, Wolfgang Puck Express/Grille/Bar & Grill, and Vert.

Giorgio Morder DJ 2015

Giorgio Moroder in 2015, now the celebrity DJ.

So what do these three people have in common? Surprisingly quite a lot. Here’s a summary:

COMMONALITIES for Summer, Moroder,
and Puck

  • All three people changed their names at some point in their lives: LaDonna/Donna Gaines became Donna Summer, Hansjörg Moroder became Giovanni Giorgio Moroder (or just plain Giorgio Moroder), and Wolfgang Johannes Topfschnig became Wolfgang Puck.
  • All three people have the German language (and English) in common. For Moroder and Puck, Deutsch is their mother tongue. Summer learned German in the late 1960s when she lived in Germany and Austria for almost a decade.
  • All three became expats in foreign countries. Summer, born in the USA, lived in Germany and Austria. She married an Austrian with whom she had her eldest daughter, Mimi Sommer Dohler (b. Natalia Pia Melanie Sommer, 1973). Moroder left northern Alpine Italy for Germany (Aachen, Berlin, Munich) and later the United States (NYC, Beverly Hills, Los Angeles). Puck left his native Austria as a young man to work and train in France and Monaco before he went to America in 1973. He became a US citizen in 1999.
  • Moroder gave Puck the name “Spago” for his restaurant, which now has five locations: Beverly Hills, Las Vegas, Maui, Instanbul, and Singapore. All three gathered to celebrate Moroder’s 70th birthday at Spago in Beverly Hills.

Life certainly can offer some interesting twists and turns. It’s fascinating to see how the lives of Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder intermingled, beginning in the 1960s in Munich, then diverged for decades as they each went their separate ways – only to merge again in southern California at Wolfgang Puck’s Spago in 2010, with a name suggested by Giorgio Moroder back in 1981.

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