The queen of disco may be filling the dance floors in a better place now, but a local singer is channeling her considerable talents to keep the music of Donna Summer alive.
Rainere Martin had put her career as a singer on the back burner until she had the opportunity to perform as the iconic disco, R&B and pop singer in Atlantic City and later at retro disco and ’80s events at clubs and theaters across the country.
“I never wanted to be anyone else,” Martin said. “I wanted to make it in my own right. I gave up singing for years and years; I had just gotten that itch right before [Summer] passed away to start singing. I started doing little things and after she passed away, I landed ‘Legends in Concert’ in Atlantic City. That was a pure blessing. I happened to be at the right place at the right time.”
Martin said there was a Summer tribute artist set to perform who fell ill. Organizers reviewed Martin’s audition tape and summarily offered her the position.
She has entertained Summer fans across the country as the late legend but said she’s eager to build an audience in her native Philadelphia.
“The people that come to my show are diehard Donna Summer fans. I’ve acquired fans in every other city but my own, so that is the reason I put this production together in Philly, because this is my hometown.”
Her latest show, “An Evening With Donna,” which she is bringing to Plays and Players Theater July 19, has Martin taking Summer’s fans on a sonic and visual ride through her legendary career. “I do about eight of her greatest hits and then I have dancers in between and there’s video footage,” Martin said. “You’re getting moments from her life from video collages and still pictures of her. Towards the end of the show, I bring me out as myself and do a dedication to my grandmother. So it’s an evening about getting to know Rainere as well.” Martin’s performances of Summer music are so spot-on that she has been called on by members of Summer’s family to perform at tribute events.
One of Summer’s nephews invited her to perform at a benefit concert in celebration of a mural that was painted of the singer at her high school.
“I attended and I met two of her sisters, her brother and nieces and nephews. They basically welcomed me with open arms and gave me their blessing,” Martin said. “That is something that I will forever cherish because that is sticky territory when you are trying to take the torch of their loved one and carry it on. I actually stay in touch with her niece and talk with her on a regular basis.”
Martin said her portrayal of Summer was a harder sell to the singer’s diehard fans.
“Some of her fans are tougher to get approval from than her family was,” she said. “They are just really critical. Actually one of the fans traveled all the way from Canada to be at the affair at her high school. He had been a fan for 35 years of her career. And I acquired some of her fans from that performance there. They reached out to me on Facebook. One of the guys was saying he wanted to hate me so bad because they are so protective of Donna. He came to the affair not wanting to like me because he doesn’t like anyone imitating her. He said when I opened my mouth to sing, chills went down his spine because the sound and the look was so uncanny. I wanted their approval because it is important for me to let them know that I’m not trying to be Donna. I’m just trying to carry her legacy on. I went up to her older sister and asked her if she liked it. She looked at me with tears in her eyes and gave me a big hug and said, ‘It is still rough for us dealing with this. When I closed my eyes, I would have sworn it was Donna singing.’ That right there is all the validation that I need to know that I’m going to continue doing what I’m doing.”
She added that being embraced by Summer‘s LGBT fans was rewarding as well.
“For them to jump onboard like that and for me to break through to them, that is saying that I am doing my job well,” she said. “They are the toughest critics out of everybody. They’ve embraced me and I’ve embraced them. I love everybody. The most important thing I want people to understand is I don’t want to be referred to as a Donna Summer impersonator. I’m a Donna Summer tribute artist. There’s a big difference. Paying homage to someone is different than just playing them or trying to be them. I don’t have to alter my voice. When you hear me sing, you hear Donna within the song but you also hear Rainere; that’s my voice. When I sing her music, I don’t try to sound like her. I was just blessed to have the same tone that Donna had. That’s why a lot of people associate me with her. The people see that vision and embrace me and I give that love right back.”
Even with the adoration and support of Summer’s family and fans, Martin said there is one aspect about her tribute shows that makes everything worthwhile: the fabulous retro fashions she gets to wear.
“That’s the best part about doing it because I’m that girly type of girl. I had a lot of gowns and evening wear and you can’t wear that every day. Maybe you can wear it once a year. So that’s one of the best things about doing Donna, because you can play dress-up on a regular basis. It’s an excuse to go out and buy another sequined gown or glittery dress. It’s absolutely amazing.”
Rainere Martin brings “An Evening with Donna” to Philadelphia 3 and 8 p.m. July 19 at Plays and Players Theater, 1714 Delancey Place. For more information or tickets, visit aneveningwithdonna.brownpapertickets.com or call 800-838-3006 ext. 1.