Songwriter Interviews

Bruce Sudano

by Carl Wiser

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The fall came early for Bruce Sudano. Soon after landing the 1970 hit "Tighter, Tighter" with his band Alive 'N Kickin', he found himself back home, living in his parents' basement, trying to find his way. He emerged with Brooklyn Dreams, a Los Angeles-based trio whose 1977 debut album hit the sweet spot between disco and soul. The group teamed up with Donna Summer on the 1978 hit "Heaven Knows"; two years later, she and Sudano got married.

The couple had two children together: the actress Brooklyn (born 1981), and the musician Amanda (born 1982). Bruce put his career on hold while Summer kept making music. She often talked about how hard it was being away from home while maintaining a connection to her fans, a conundrum many entertainers face. Sudano and their children (along with Summer's daughter Mimi from a previous marriage), inducted her into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013, a year after she died of lung cancer at 63. "If you walked into our house, you would never see a gold record or a Grammy," he said. "She believed it wasn't a good idea for me, the kids, or even her, to live under the shadow of look what I've done. She was into what comes next. She wanted to push the envelope. She wanted to create something new at all times."

Sudano has lived by those words, constantly creating new music. His 2003 album, Rainy Day Soul, is filled with heartfelt songs evoked by his incredible journey. In 2014, he released With Angels on a Carousel, which moves through the last years of Summer's life. He's currently working on an EP called Stories of Our Lives Vol. 1. The first single is "With Him," a song about the emotional fallout from a breakup.
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): You started in 1650 Broadway [a songwriting factory near the Brill Building in New York City] where you were trained to write hit songs, and you never really did write a hit song. Why not?

Bruce Sudano: Because I wasn't really that good at it. I was mentored by Tommy James, and really my introduction to 1650 Broadway was at the recording studio that was in the basement of 1650, which was called Allegro Sound, and that's where Tommy recorded many of his hits. I was in a band called Alive 'N Kickin', and we were playing around the corner with a house band at a club called the Cheetah, which was on 52nd Street, right off 5th Avenue. Tommy had an apartment on 54th and 8th, so in between sets, I would run over to Tommy's apartment and learn how to write songs. We would make our way over to Allegro to record, so I got to see and learn the recording process while I was still in my teens and see how a pop record was made.

In those times the recording studio was vastly different than it is now. Then, we were 4-track and 8-track and finding different ways to create layers. You had to be inventive and creative in slowing things down and speeding things up and things like that.

Songfacts: With Brooklyn Dreams, you co-wrote a song called "Music, Harmony and Rhythm." Can you describe how you wrote that?

Sudano: Yeah. That song was written by myself and [lead singer] Joe "Bean" Esposito. At that time I was living right off Laurel Canyon in a little apartment in Los Angeles because Brooklyn Dreams actually formed in LA. I had a little one-bedroom apartment with a little refrigerator, a piano, an acoustic guitar and a bed. We would rehearse there daily, and one day Joe came in with this part where he had [singing] Music, harmony, and a rhythm. I thought it was really great, so on the acoustic guitar that night, I came up with the verses:

Oh, when the day to day gets me down
I go off to my world and escape into the sound
And it gives me strength...


It's funny, because Joe, Eddie [drummer Eddie Hokenson] and myself were in bands together back in Brooklyn through the late '60s and early '70s, but we just couldn't get a record deal. Once we got to LA, it seemed like what we did was unique, whereas in New York, blue-eyed soul was more readily available.

Once we got to LA, we got a lot of attention because it was more unique out there, and a lot of the songs that I had written while I was in my mother's basement became songs that were on that first Brooklyn Dreams album, songs like "Street Dance," "Old Fashioned Girl," "Don't Fight The Feeling" and "On The Corner." So that's how "Music, Harmony and Rhythm" went.

It was written on acoustic guitar. We got all the vocal parts worked out, then we went into the studio and a part we sang in unison became the musical theme it was built around.

As a kid growing up I was always enthralled by orchestras, and a big dream of ours was to have real string sections on our songs. So, for kids that grew up on the Stones and the Temptations, as we got out to LA and with the evolution of disco music, it became a perfect fit for us as an R&B band, to incorporate rock and disco into our rhythmic music.

Songfacts: It stands in contrast to the very introspective music you've made over the last 20 years or so. That Brooklyn Dreams album didn't have pour-your-heart-out kind of songs.

Sudano: Well, it was a different phase of my life with different understandings, different motivations, different inspirations. "Old Fashioned Girl" on the Brooklyn Dreams album was more introspective, and there's another song, "You're The One," which was also more also introspective. But when you're in a group and you're writing for the group, your motivation is different. As a solo artist, I'm more committed to expressing my own personal feelings. When you're in Brooklyn Dreams and there are other people involved, you're striving for mass appeal, and in those days the record company was expecting that from us.

Lyrically, I always try to be creative, but I think my point of view is more universal. I try to stay away from writing cliché love songs - that has never been something that inspired me. So, I always try to dig a little deeper and approach things from a different point of view. In some ways that's a blessing and in some ways that's a curse. That may be why I never really wrote that many pop hits. I think I'm better at the introspective stuff because I tend to live there.

Songfacts: Did the disco sound create any constraints when you were trying to express yourself lyrically?

Sudano: Constraints? I don't think so. When Donna and I would write together, to test the song we were writing, we would slow it down and do it as a ballad. We always felt that if the song held up as a ballad both lyrically and melodically, it could almost always translate to tempo. So, I don't think there are lyrical constraints based on rhythm or tempo in that way.

Songfacts: I remember hearing a slowed-down version of "On The Radio" without all the instrumentation, and it was really striking because you could really follow the storyline. I still to this day haven't really figured it out what happens in that song.

Sudano: Well, Donna wrote it with Giorgio [her producer, Giorgio Moroder], and Donna could be very simple in her lyrics, or she could be esoteric. But basically, the story of "On The Radio" is somebody hoping that the song on the radio will let the person know that they are in love with them. It's a bit esoteric, but I think that's what she was trying to say with that song.

There's a couple of things about that song. First of all, the melody is beautiful. It's a very Giorgio, Italian kind of melody. Giorgio would send things over on a cassette, and when that came over, Donna gave it to me and said, "Here, I think you should write this." I listened to it and said, "No. There's no way I'm writing this. The song is for you, you write it." And she did a great job.

She always said that the hook for her in what the lyric should be came from the line about "must have fallen out of a hole in my old brown overcoat," which to her was a Stephen Bishop kind of line.

Songfacts: That song is a great example of how you can just put little images in there and let the listener fill in the rest. We know the overcoat is brown, and we know the couple broke up in June, but then we have to fill in the rest of it. I'm wondering if she had a whole screenplay in mind when she wrote the song, or if she only had those details.

Sudano: She definitely had a screenplay. If we talk about Donna and her songwriting, she was very stream-of-consciousness. Her favorite way to write was to go in the studio, mic the guitar, mic the piano, turn on her microphone, roll tape and flow. That's how "Bad Girls" was written. That's how many of her songs were written: just flow.

She considered herself an actress who sang, so she wrote from a point of "here's my story and here's how I'm going to tell it," and she would just go to that place and sing it out. She was very quick that way.

Songfacts: Was it challenging when she was singing a song that was out of character for her? I'm thinking of a song like "Hot Stuff," for example.

Sudano: That was easy. She knew immediately what the character of the song was, because she was an actress who sang. I always contend that Donna was one of the best female rock and roll singers ever. She doesn't get cast very often in that picture, although she did win the Rock Grammy for "Hot Stuff." But she just jumped right on that and injected it with the rock and soul that that song required, quite naturally.

Songfacts: This was also a very male-dominated industry, and Donna Summer was a rare songwriter diva of this era. How did that happen and what were the challenges?

Sudano: Well, Donna had been writing since she was a young girl. She wrote poetry from the time she was a pre-teen, and so from her very beginning working with Giorgio, she wrote songs. Even in her band, the Crow, before she left Boston, she wrote songs. So Donna wasn't somebody who put up walls. She didn't see barriers, she just saw what she could do and believed in what she could do. And when she would do it, there was no question because there it was and it was pretty obvious. So, it wasn't that she had to force anybody to allow her. Her talent spoke for itself and you knew she was going to take you to the mountain top.

Songfacts: So, her method of songwriting is stream-of-consciousness, actress who sings. What is your songwriting method?

Sudano: My songwriting method is pretty much the same, but Donna wrote from titles more than I did - I write from situations or an emotion. I would love her ability to be colorful and esoteric, and she appreciated how I can tell a story in such a black-and-white, poetic way. We appreciated each other's gifts. They were obviously a little bit different, but in unison, they complemented each other.

So, I write from an emotion. It's kind of like writing a story or a play in that you have to play it out emotionally to get to the full depth of the story and the full depth of the emotion. I'll be like, "What do I really feel and how do I really want to say that." You want to inhabit the character and really get a sense and a feeling of what that situation feels like, and then you have to translate that into poetry.

I have this new song called "With Him" out now, and this is a song about a couple who were together for 17 years. They happen to be a gay couple, and it's a breakup of a longtime relationship. It's a different kind of breakup when you're with somebody for a long time because you have a level of a whole world breaking down and then building yourself up. And the thing about this song is that the person who is being left realizes that even if you want to come back, I can't take you back because your heart isn't mine anymore, your heart is with him. So, I don't want to let you go, but I can't take you back because I recognize that your heart is no longer mine, so whatever the pain that I have to suffer, I have no choice and I have to walk through it. That was the scenario and the drama of that one.

Songfacts: Yeah, that's a very powerful song and it makes a lot more sense when you learn the backstory and how you wrote it for a specific couple. A song that also comes to mind when you're talking about that is "Starting Over Again," which I understand you wrote about your parents' divorce. I believe you wrote that one with Donna as well.

Donna Summer was the first to sing "Starting Over Again," but she never recorded the song. Dolly Parton recorded it first, releasing it as a single in 1980. Her version was a huge hit, topping the Country chart and even cracking the Top 40 at #36. Reba McEntire brought it to a new generation with her 1995 cover, which reached #19 on the Country chart.
Sudano: Yup, I wrote that with Donna, and yes it was about my parents' divorce. I was 29 years old at the time and my parents were getting divorced. Even though I was an adult, the fact that they were divorcing affected me.

Donna and I were living in Hancock Park in LA, and I had this little back bedroom with a Fender Rhodes. I was back there writing, and I started this song "Starting Over Again" about my parents' divorce. At some point, Donna opens the door, puts her head in and says, "I think you should put a line in that song about how all the king's horses and all the king's men couldn't put your parents together again." That was pretty much her contribution to the song, but as it would be with Donna, that was the line in the song that really was the hook. Even though it wasn't the chorus, that's the line people remember. People say, "Oh, that's the song about all the king's horses and all the king's men." And I'm like, "Yes it is."

When I perform that song live, I tell the story of how the song got cut, because that's an interesting story as well. Donna is preparing to go on The Tonight Show, and she was going to sing "MacArthur Park," which was her new single. She comes to me the day before, and she says, "You know what? I'm going to sing 'Starting Over Again' on The Tonight Show tomorrow. I'm like, "Honey that's really great, and that's really sweet, but you can't do that because you're going on the show specifically to promote your new song and that's what you need to do." And she said, "Yeah, I know. But, maybe if I sing 'Starting Over Again,' your parents will stay together."

I said, "That is really sweet, but it's too late: They're not going to stay together. And the record company is going to freak out if you don't sing the new single." She said, "I don't care, I'm going to try."

And she went on The Tonight Show and sang "Starting Over Again." My parents did get divorced, but the following day, Dolly Parton's people called and said, "What song is that? Has it been recorded? Can we record it?" And that's how the song got cut by Dolly.

So, when I perform it live I say, "If there are any songwriters in the house who want to know how to get a song cut, my recommendation is to get your wife to sing it on The Tonight Show."

Songfacts: Were you trying to get your parents back together in writing that song?

Sudano: No. I really wasn't. I was merely painting a picture of these people who had been married for 30 years, and here they are by the end of the song, two fools starting over again because basically, both of them had gone from their parents' house into this marriage. So it's "starting over again, where do you begin when you've never been out on your own." And, "All the king's horses and all the king's men could not put them back together again," I was just merely reflecting my emotion.

There's a line in there where I say, speaking about my father, "He's out scheming big deals with one of his friends," and my father was always offended by that line. He said, "Why did you say scheming, why couldn't you say dreaming," and I'm like, "Uh, I'm sorry."

But that was really one of the straws that broke the back of the marriage, because my father was a dreamer, but he always had another scheme to "make it." And, in fact, maybe it should have been dream because he was a dreamer. And my parents always, ALWAYS, encouraged me to dream. They never said, "You'll never make it Bruce, get a real job." They always said, "Go for it." They always believed in my talent and encouraged me. So, my father was probably right, I should have written, "He's out dreaming big deals."

Songfacts: Your songs are very emotional, very visceral. It's almost like you took some of those songwriting rules that were so engrained in 1650 Broadway and just ignored them.

Sudano: Well, in some ways, you're completely right. I'm a big assimilator, so I've encountered a lot of people and a lot of situations. I've been around a lot of great talents, but I never wanted to imitate - I always wanted to create something that was intrinsically, honestly and truly, what I created.

There are great producers and songwriters I know who go into a session and put on the hits of the day and say, "OK, let's write something like that." I always felt like I was cheating because I just wanted to be me. My goal is to be the best Bruce I can be. To be the most honest and the best artist I can be.

I assimilate, so I'm influenced by lots of things, but I never set out to imitate. There were times in my career when I would stress because I would be surrounded by super-successful people and I would really be frustrated that I wasn't succeeding, so I would try to imitate, and whenever I did, I wrote the worst songs. Once Donna passed away, it allowed me the freedom to continue my career, and in a way, be the most "Bruce" I could be. It's been challenging, it's been exciting, and I continue to refine myself. I continue to improve. It's where my path has led me. Even on stage, I'm more comfortable, I'm more myself. That's what I think it's about: the freedom to be yourself in front of an audience. And, with the kinds of songs I write, they are open books into myself or my interpretation of situations of lives of people, or of things that we all experience in life. The With Angels On A Carousel album [2013] chronicles my whole time from when Donna got sick to when she passed away. As I was working on it, Donna would be like, "OK, but you have to give people hope," so it caused me to write a song like "At The Dawn Of Hallelujah Day" just from her saying that to me. Because I do believe in every situation there is hope, and without hope you can't take a step forward.

Songfacts: You talk about how there is hope in many of these songs. How does your faith affect your songwriting?

Sudano: Well, at different points in my life, it's been more apparent or less apparent, but I am a man of faith. I believe faith is a gift and it's one of the greatest gifts that I have. So, I think that my faith is present in everything that I write in one way or another.

There were times in the '90s when I was living in Nashville and I was writing some songs for the Contemporary Christian market, so writing from a point of faith was more obvious at that time, but now it's just intrinsic in everything I do, and it permeates my point of view.

Songfacts: There was a very long period when your children were growing up that you were less active professionally than Donna Summer. Can you describe that time for you?

Sudano: In 1980 I did my first solo album and it was the same year Donna got pregnant with our daughter Brooklyn. It was a time of transition in many ways: she was leaving Casablanca, she was signing with Geffen, and it was a time when I realized we were really going to be a family. Mimi moved in with us when Donna was pregnant with Brooklyn. She got pregnant with Amanda immediately after that, and I realized it would be literally impossible for me to be a husband, be a father, maintain our family, and continue to be a solo artist if Donna was going to be who she was and have her career.

Being a songwriter was always my first dream, so I felt I could continue to write songs for other people. I had been in a band since my early teens, playing clubs and playing live, and I continued to do that with Donna. So, it was somewhat of a sacrifice on one hand, although I felt it was what I needed to do. The other things in my mind took precedence over me trying to be Bruce. I felt I could be creative within the other circumstance and be happy. It's a decision I've never regretted. I'm always glad I made that decision because we had a beautiful relationship for a long time. We had a beautiful marriage, we have beautiful children. I very shortly will have my ninth grandchild. Abner, Amanda and two of my grandchildren just visited me this past weekend here in Italy - we spent five days running around Italy together, having a great time. [Amanda and her husband, Abner Ramirez, are the musical duo Johnnyswim.]

Going back to my faith, I trust God, and I will pray about things, and I will try to sense the leading of the Holy Spirit. That's how I lead my life: where is the Spirit leading me? So, when it was 1977 and I meet Donna and I fall in love with Donna, and my record company is telling me this is the biggest mistake of my career, and my parents are saying, "You're going to marry a black woman?" Donna's parents are saying, "You're going to marry another white guy?" and her record company is freaking out because they're afraid of losing control of Donna, I was convicted in my heart it was the right thing for me to do. So that's how I've lived my life.

When I got to this phase where Donna is now gone, it was a horrible experience, emotionally devastating - my kids propped me up for a time. But quickly I recognized, "OK Lord, this is your will for my life, this is something that is out of my control. How do I walk forward? How do I continue to bring as much light to the world as I can, and where do I find your purpose in this?"

So, that's what has enabled me to walk forward, to continue to develop myself as a solo artist at this stage in my life, to be challenged by it and to grow in it, and to make a difference.

Songfacts: I'm trying to understand how marrying a successful, talented artist could be considered a career mistake.

Sudano: Well, because here I am with my band, my record company has a lot invested in me, and they see this as "Bruce going under the shadow of Donna Summer." So their interpretation was, "This is going to be a detrimental move for your career."

But I'm happy with the decision I made, and I believe it was ordained. But that was their position at the time. Also, here we were in 1977 being an interracial couple, so it's a little bit different for those reasons. It's much more common now, but not then.

With her video for "She Works Hard For The Money," Donna Summer became the first black woman to get significant airplay on MTV. When MTV launched in 1981, they stayed away from black artists, going with rockers and new wave Europeans. Summer made a video for her 1980 hit "The Wanderer" and had a de facto video for "Bad Girls" available from a TV special, but the network ignored them. Perhaps they were afraid of disco, but Rod Stewart got airplay with "Da Ya Think I'm Sexy?" and Blondie got plenty of spins with "Heart Of Glass" and "Rapture." Summer was extremely popular, but MTV made Pat Benatar, Stevie Nicks and Olivia Newton-John the video stars.

Michael Jackson cracked the code in 1983 with his "Billie Jean" video; Summer's "She Works Hard For The Money" followed a few months later, becoming one of the most popular videos on the network.
Songfacts: Why didn't MTV play the "Bad Girls" video?

Sudano: I don't think there was a "Bad Girls" video. "Bad Girls" was before MTV and all that. They didn't play "The Wanderer" video, but what they did play four years later was "She Works Hard for the Money," and by that time they were playing Michael Jackson as well, and they had started playing more black artists on MTV. But with "The Wanderer" there definitely was resistance. When MTV started, white rock and roll bands were the foundation of what they were doing, so it took some time before they transitioned and opened it up a little bit.

Songfacts: The song "Dim All The Lights" was written when you and Donna were a couple - you may have even been married by that point. Does that song have anything to do with you?

Sudano: The only thing I have to do with that song is Donna wanted to write one day and she said, "Come on, let's write something, get on the piano." I don't know what I said, but I probably didn't feel like it, so she went to the piano and figured it out by herself. She wrote "Dim All The Lights."

Songfacts: It's an interesting song because it doesn't take place in a disco, it takes place sitting at home with the old Victrola.

Sudano: She wrote it as a ballad. It only became uptempo when she brought it into the studio and said, "Let's crank it up." But if you play it as a ballad, I think the lyric sounds much more romantic.

Songfacts: What is the hidden gem in her catalog?

Sudano: Ah, good question. There's a song on Mistaken Identity [1991] called "Let There Be Peace." There is also on Mistaken Identity a song called "Friends Unknown," which is the knockout number in the Donna Summer musical. "Friends Unknown" is a tear-the-roof-down moment in the show.

There are so many hidden gems. There is "Voice Crying Out," there is "All Systems Go," there is her singing "Lush Life" on the Quincy Jones record. There is "Fascination," another cool song. Donna is always recognized for the dance hits, but she made a point of including on every album ballads and different kinds of songs because she never wanted to be pigeonholed, and it's really her hardcore fans that truly appreciate that. For many of the general public, they just know the dance hits, but there are many great songs.

Songfacts: What's one that really connected with you, Bruce?

Sudano: "There Will Always Be You" because she wrote that by herself on the piano for me.

Songfacts: What was it like when you first heard that song?

Sudano: It was a beautiful moment. It's an understanding of the depth of love that somebody has for you.

Songfacts: Has there ever been a time that the music has left you?

Sudano: No. Music has never left me. Music has always been my best friend - it's always been my go-to place. Music is what aligns me so I know who I am. It's at the center of who I am. If I'm out and about, distracted by some other realities of life for a period of days, and I'm like, Who am I? Where am I? What am I doing?, I always know I can come back to my guitar or a piano and say, "Ah, here I am."

When Donna left, and the whole time she was sick, as crazy of a time as that was - the craziest time in my life - there was the music that anchored me, and I thank God that I have that.

October 17, 2019
photos 2,3: facebook.com/brucesudanomusic/
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Comments: 3

  • Jeanette Wilson from New Brunswick, Nj 08901Bruce this is Jeanette Wilson my son's and I came to Donna Summer Musical on Broadway we took picture etc. any how you've know my son's since they were kids, however I never told you that when I was in High School your song with "Tighter & Tighter" by Alive and Kickin hit the chater as number 1 on the Billboard chart and everyone at our school loved that song, we are having our class reunion Sept. 2020 it was great times at our High School so I'm on the sterring group that chose the music and you know that song hit the chart, so we will be playing that song at my class reunion by the way it's my 50th class reunion I gradurated in 1970 then was accepted at Douglass College Rutgers University from 70-74 with double major in History Political Science. I never told you how much I loved that song but then you never knew your mother and I was friends and I used to go swimming at the Y all the time she was so nice to me. I moved to LA in 76 that's when I meet Donna she didn't know I had children and when she told Mary Ellen to give me a ticket for her show in LA she was shocked to see my son's seating up front yes best seat's and she ask them to come on stage to dance with her and they frozen, as my kids had never seen a live famous recording artist on stage, well any how I was wondering if you can call at my reunion to say hello to some of my glassmate's they would just died to hear your voice and you can tell them how much of a trip I was in LA, just kidding. But for real they love that group and New Brunswick is not a hole in the wall it has grown to be a very large city very close to Princeton with The State Theatre which just open up with Denzel Washington and The Crossroad Theartre Ballett School of Dancing and so much more. What you are Donna didn't know was in my yearbook I was called "The Black Twiggy" I never told Twiggy that, I keep a lot of thing to myself. Shawnee McGee is thinking about coming to LA in December and I know she would love to see you. I keep in touch with your brother Barry wow he is still in TN I thought everyone moved away after Donna died and her parents Rew Rew do you keep in touch with Dara we are friends, Linda as we were embrassed as family. My son's are married they both went to college and Duwayne gradurated with honors and I gave him a party that was huge with Tent's 5 of them one for the different food's I catered most of the food and Shawna McGee came with her daughter for Thanksgiving I always invited her and her family to my home this year I'm going to her home in Brooklyn I'm so looking forward to seeing her in NY, I've slowed down a lot, got away from modeling and all of that went into Corporate America to protect myself and son's I'm retired now and live off my benifits, 401K etc. I'm OK I am now 67 years old do you believe that. It seemjust like yesterday that I was gradurating from High School but no it's been 50 years. Well take care and good night.
  • Christine E. Mackenzie from New MexicoDonna was my soul sister in the 1968 Munich/Germany Production of 'HAIR'. Both Capricorns, we connected on a deeper, a 'soul-level' and got very close as friends. I loved her all my life and we (later on in our lives, when we were both married with kids) still managed to spend precious time together, in California, in England...wherever and I really got to like Bruce a lot, he was her rock and the whole family was so fun to be around...music was truly paramount in their lives it ran through it like a red thread....I still miss her and love listening to my favorite songs of hers like:'She works hard for the money', 'McArthur Park', 'On the Radio' and so many more but my top one is the one she wrote for Bruce:'There will always be you'. Thanks for the memories baby....
  • Frederick W. Frank from Springfield Il UsaQuite a story, interesting insight on how Bruce's and Donnas lives came along.I am thankful for Donnas sister Linda Gaines for sharing the link to this thru the FB group (that I belong to) honoring her AWESOME sister.We feel your loss Bruce and Linda,while at the same time grateful to God that we shared time on Earth to have enjoyed (She was "Hot Stuff indeed..not ashamed to admit i REALLY had a crush on her in her disco years!) her beauty and talent ..even if we never corresponded.
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