By Malcolm X Abram
Beacon Journal pop music writer
Donna Summer, the singer/songwriter known as the “Queen of Disco,” has died at 63 after a battle with cancer.
The singer, five-time Grammy winner and two-time Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominee’s family released a statement: “While we grieve her passing, we are at peace celebrating her extraordinary life and her continued legacy.”
LaDonna Adrian Gaines was born in 1948 in Boston, one of seven children in a strict Christian household where she grew up with gospel and classical music. She became the soloist in her church choir by age 10. As a teen she started several girl groups inspired by Motown stars such as The Supremes, to little success. She performed in a European tour company of the musical Hair and spent a few years living in Germany.
Summer’s rise to fame came in late 1975 at the dawn of the disco era, when her then 18-minute hit Love To Love You Baby, which she co-wrote, drew attention for her lusty erotic coos and moans over the track’s insistent dance beat, immediately making her popular in gay dance clubs (where she would eventually become an icon) and the growing disco circuit.
The song’s prurient sound was a bit controversial at the time, with some radio stations refusing to play it. It also gave little clue as to the true power and range of Summer’s voice and songwriting ability, but it reached number 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, and the album of the same name, her second release, sold platinum.
Summer closed out the decade with a string of hits and gold albums, including the influential synthesized dance hit I Feel Love, from her concept album I Remember Yesterday, and the double LP follow-up Once Upon a Time, both released in 1977. Last Dance from the disco film Thank God It’s Friday garnered an Oscar for best song and is still a popular last-call song for DJs.
Summer topped the charts with a version of MacArthur Park from her live double LP Live and More. Her most successful album followed, the double platinum Bad Girls, which ruled the radio and the charts with sassy dance tunes including the title track and the rock-flavored Hot Stuff, and made Summer the first artist to have three consecutive double albums sit atop the Billboard chart.
In the early ’80s the backlash against disco and the rise of new wave and rock (and to a lesser extent, punk) killed the genre as a commercial force. But Summer kept having hits, crossing over from the R&B and dance charts with On the Radio and her duet with Barbara Streisand No More Tears (Enough Is Enough). During this time Summer became a born-again Christian, and did not appreciate the sexed-up image her record label, Casablanca, preferred.
In 1983 Summer would have another huge hit with the title track from her 11th studio album, She Works Hard for the Money, inspired by an incident during a Grammy party:
“I went to the ladies room and on my way in I saw this little old lady sitting at the end of the bar. And she was asleep,” Summer told Nightline in 2008.
“She was the bathroom attendant. And at that same moment, a group of ladies walked into the room and started spraying their hair and doing all these things. And my first thought was ‘God, she works hard for her money, that lady.’ ”
A few hours later Summer had written the song, which would became a female empowerment anthem, on a roll of toilet paper.
Summer’s commercial fortunes took a downturn and she was embroiled in a controversy about alleged anti-gay comments; she denied it, but it dovetailed with the rise of AIDS and earned a brief boycott from some activists. She would have only a few more hits in the U.S. such as This Time I Know It’s for Real in 1989, but she remained popular throughout Europe.
Even as her star power waned, Summer’s music remained a staple on classic pop and R&B radio and her songs would eventually be sampled by artists such as LL Cool J, Timbaland and Beyonce, who most recently interpolated Love to Love You Baby in her hit single Naughty Girl.
Donna Summer may forever hold the title of “Queen of Disco,” but she was a talented singer and songwriter whose musical legacy is interwoven into the always growing pop music and pop culture tapestry.
Summers’ death brought out tributes from famous friends and admirers. Elton John said in a statement: “Her records sound as good today as they ever did. That she has never been inducted into the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame is a total disgrace especially when I see the second-rate talent that has been inducted,” he said. “She is a great friend to me and to the Elton John AIDS Foundation and I will miss her greatly.”
Summer married former Brooklyn Dreams vocalist Bruce Sudano in 1980. She is survived by her husband, three daughters and four grandchildren.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.