Music

Bruce Sudano, Donna Summer’s Widower, on Ye Sampling ‘I Feel Love’: ‘Kanye Is a Great Artist, But Wrong Is Still Wrong’

Bruce Sudano is pleased that reaction to his latest solo album, Talkin’ Ugly Truth, Tellin’ Pretty Lies “has probably been the best to any solo record I’ve ever done.” And while the singer, songwriter and Donna Summer widower is “trying to avoid the obvious thing of, ‘I wonder why?,’” he actually has a pretty good idea.

“I just do my best to write songs,” Sudano tells Billboard from his home in Milan, “but I think the thing about this record is I’m working with a producer (Ken Lewis). Over these past years since Donna passed away (in 2012), I started this solo thing from a very stripped-down acoustic guitar thing. This phase started with the notion of loss; that’s what these original songs started coming out of, and I just wanted them to be songs that I could perform by myself. Now I’ve worked up to a fuller, more of a contemporary type of production. It still starts with a song I could sing just with my guitar and then we produced it afterwards, so maybe that’s why it’s connecting more than what I’ve done before.”

Sudano — whose credits beyond Summer include songs for Jermaine Jackson, Dolly Parton, Reba McEntire and others — acknowledges that the eight-song Talkin’ Ugly Truth, his ninth album overall, does move beyond the loss and grieving of its predecessors, casting an outward view of the world he sees, and what he’s thinking about it. “I didn’t start out with that as a concept, it just evolved,” says Sudano, who duets with Valerie Simpson on the track “Two Bleeding Hearts.” “I’ve always written from a place of personal experience and thoughts and emotions, and how I assimilate them and process them is what comes out in a song. But some of these songs definitely deal with people of a certain age and what thoughts, emotions, responses and new things you have to encounter. In every phase of your life, you’re navigating some experience, and when you’re my age (75), you’re navigating a different set of emotions and look at life through a different perspective. That’s a very real part of life.”

Sudano, who was a co-producer of Broadway’s Summer: The Donna Summer Musical and performs an acoustic version of her “Bad Girls,” which he co-wrote, in concert, does pay homage to Summer with the cover art of the album. It’s an iPhone photo of a portion of a larger painting by Summer, stemming from an idea presented to him during the making of Love to Love You, Donna Summer, the 2023 HBO documentary co-directed by their daughter, Brooklyn Sudano.

“Someone said, ‘Would you consider a piece of Donna’s for a cover?’” recalls Sudano, whose wife, Francesca, is an art gallerist in Milan. “I thought about it and, yes, if it artistically fit in my psyche. And there was this one painting, a really big painting, and I took a picture of a segment of that painting and people said, ‘This looks really great. This would be a great cover.’ It’s from our apartment looking down at the traffic, and I thought it represented that chaos of Talkin’ Ugly Truth.”

Sudano has, of course, been dealing with some chaos in the wider world of the Summer estate, stemming from Kanye West’s attempt to sample “I Feel Love,” her 1977 top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100, for the track “Good (Don’t Die)” on his Vultures 1 album with Ty Dolla $ign. Sudano confirms that the estate had turned down West’s request to sample the song, then took action when a version of it was released on Spotify with changed words and another singer, issuing a public statement to label it copyright infringement. The track was subsequently removed from streaming versions of the album but is on the physical edition and was played at public listening parties prior to its release.

“It’s a very unfortunate situation,” says Sudano. “All of these things are very subjective. I try to view it through Donna’s lens and how she would protect her catalog in the right way. Kanye is a great artist, but wrong is still wrong.” He notes that previous samples used by Beyonce — including on “Summer Renaissance” from 2022’s Renaissance — were handled properly, with Beyonce even insisting on having the track played in-person for Sudano rather than simply sending a virtual file.

“Kanye’s people sent me an mp3 and I decided, ‘No, this is not a good fit,’” Sudano relates. “I go back to them and say no, then, ‘How much do you want?’ It’s not about the money. It’s just not a good fit. Then it comes out and it’s no longer Donna singing and he’s changed the lyric and has somebody sing the same melody — now it’s ‘Ooh, I’m alive I’m alive I’m alive I’m alive,’ and I say this is copyright infringement. And once it’s out, it’s out. So I brought a complaint and we’ll see where that road leads. I respect Kanye as an artist, but this is just wrong.

“The other side of this,” Sudano adds, “is this is not a unique situation. It’s much better than it used to be in terms of samples, but there’s a lot of thievery that still goes on, and not everybody can fight it. This happens to so many people who are not in a position to where they can at least take a stand. So I feel like I have to do this for all those other people as well.”

Sudano says the next thing on the Summer estate docket is a limited biopic series “’cause I think that will give us a little more room to go in different areas,” although details are not yet firm. On his own front he’s eyeballing more live dates in the U.S. during the fall and more videos for other Talkin’ Ugly Truth tracks, including “How’d You Get There.”

“I’m enjoying doing these videos,” Sudano says, “and I’ll do some shows, and along the way I’m always writing here and there. I don’t have any plans to start recording yet — although Ken Lewis has been messaging me about it. (laughs) My thing now is to work this record through the end of the year. That’s my real focus.”

Tour Dates:

9/11- 04 Center, Austin, TX
9/13- Red Dragon Lounge, Baton Rouge, LA
9/14- The People’s Room, Mobile, AL
9/19- Bluebird Cafe, Nashville, TN
9/21- Dee’s Country Cocktail Lounge, Madison, TN for Black Oak Artists Day Party for AmericanaFest

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