Donna Summer 1948-2012

Donna Summer won Grammys in a number of categories.
Donna Summer won Grammys in a number of categories. (KEVORK DJANSEZIAN / AP, File)

Queen of Disco's voice endured after genre crashed

Posted: May 19, 2012

NEW YORK - Michael Jackson was the King of Pop. Aretha Franklin was the Queen of Soul. Like them, Donna Summer, who died Thursday of lung cancer at 63, was given a title befitting musical royalty: Queen of Disco.

Yet unlike Jackson or Franklin, she wasn't comfortable with that title.

"I grew up on rock-and-roll," Ms. Summer once explained.

As disco boomed and then crashed in a single decade - the 1970s - Ms. Summer, the beautiful voice and face of the genre, with pulsating hits such as "I Feel Love," "Love to Love You Baby," and "Last Dance," made hits incorporating the rock roots she so loved. One of her biggest hits, "She Works Hard for the Money," came in the early 1980s and relied on a smoldering guitar solo as well as Ms. Summer's booming voice.

Yet her disco anthems had the greatest impact on popular music, and it was for them that she was remembered as news of her death spread.

Ms. Summer died Thursday morning in Naples, Fla., said publicist Brian Edwards. In a statement, her family said it was "at peace celebrating her extraordinary life and her continued legacy."

It had been decades since that flashy moment when Ms. Summer was every inch the Disco Queen.

Her glittery gowns and long eyelashes. Her luxurious hair and glossy, open lips. Her sultry vocals, her bedroom moans and sighs. She was as much a part of the culture as disco balls, polyester, platform shoes, and the music's pounding rhythms.

Ms. Summer's music gave voice to not only a musical revolution, but also a cultural one - when sex, race, fashion, and drugs were being explored and exploited with more freedom than ever before in the United States.

Her rise was inseparable from that of disco itself. But she remained popular for years after the genre she helped invent had died. She won a Grammy for best rock vocal performance for "Hot Stuff," a fiery, guitar-based song that represented her shift from disco to more rock-based sounds, and she created another kind of anthem with "She Works Hard for the Money," this time for women's rights.

'A great friend'

Elton John said in a statement that Ms. Summer was more than the Queen of Disco.

"Her records sound as good today as they ever did," he said. "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. She is a great friend to me and to the Elton John AIDS Foundation and I will miss her greatly."

Ms. Summer may not have liked being Queen of Disco. And she later would become a born-again Christian. But many remembered her best for her early years, starting with the sinful "Love to Love You Baby."

Released in 1975, a breakthrough hit for Ms. Summer, it was disco's ultimate sexual anthem. Ms. Summer came up with the concept, recording a demo in 1975, on the condition that another singer perform it commercially. But Casablanca Records president Neil Bogart liked the track so much that he suggested to producer Giorgio Moroder that they record it again, and make it longer - what would come to be known as a "disco disc."

Ms. Summer had reservations about the lyrics - "Do it to me again and again" - but imagined herself as a movie star playing a part, à la Marilyn Monroe. So she agreed to sing, lying down on the studio floor, in darkness, and letting her imagination take over. Solo and multitracked, she whispered, she groaned, she crooned. Drums, bass, strings, and keyboards answered her cries. She simulated climax so many times that the BBC kept count: 23, in 17 minutes.

'I just always knew'

What started as scandal became a classic. The song was later sampled by LL Cool J, Timbaland, and Beyoncé, in her jam "Naughty Girl." It was also Ms. Summer's U.S. chart debut and the first of her 19 No. 1 dance hits between 1975 and 2008 - second only to Madonna.

LaDonna Adrian Gaines was born in 1948 in Boston. She was raised on gospel music and became the soloist in her church choir by age 10.

"There was no question I would be a singer, I just always knew," she said in a 1989 interview with the Associated Press. "I had credit in my neighborhood. People would lend me money and tell me to pay it back when I got famous."

Before disco, she had already reinvented herself several times. She sang Motown songs with local groups in Boston as a teenager, then dropped out of school in the late 1960s and switched to psychedelic rock after hearing Janis Joplin. An attempt to get a part in the musical Hair led her to get the principal role in Munich. She stayed in Germany for five years, worked in other productions, and modeled.

Meanwhile, she was performing in operas, singing backup for Three Dog Night and other groups, and releasing songs of her own. A marriage to Helmuth Sommer didn't last, but the singer did hold on to her ex-husband's last name, changing it to "Summer." By 1974, she had met producers Moroder and Pete Bellotte and released her first album, Lady of the Night, to success in Europe.

Then came "Love to Love You Baby." Through the rest of the disco era, she burned up the charts. She was the only artist to have three consecutive double LPs - Live and More , Bad Girls , and On the Radio - hit No. 1. She was also the first female artist with four No. 1 singles in a 13-month period, according to the Rock hall of fame, where she was a nominee this year but was passed over.

Musically, she began to change in 1979 with "Hot Stuff," which had a tough, rock beat. Her diverse sound helped her earn Grammys in the dance, rock, R&B, and inspirational categories.

Ms. Summer, ever true to the rock of her youth, later covered the Bruce Springsteen song "Protection."

"I like the Moody Blues, the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones as well as Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick, the Supremes, and Temptations," she said. "I didn't know many white kids who didn't know the Supremes; I don't know many black kids who don't know the Moody Blues."

Warwick said in a statement that she was sad to lose a great performer and "dear friend."

Ms. Summer became a born-again Christian and was accused of making antigay comments in relation to the AIDS epidemic - a particular problem for a woman who remains a gay icon. She denied making the comments but became the target of a boycott.

Religion played an important role in her later life, said Michael Levine, who briefly worked as her publicist.

"Her passion in her life, besides music, was God, spirituality, and religion," he said. "She held a Bible study class at her home every week."

She released her last album, Crayons, in 2008. It was her first full studio album in 17 years. She also performed on American Idol that year with its top female contestants.

Ms. Summer is survived by her husband, Bruce Sudano, and daughters Brooklyn, Mimi, and Amanda.


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