Donna Summer, "Queen of Disco," dies at 63
Donna Summer, whose sultry voice and pulsating rhythms became synonymous in the public's mind with disco's popular zenith in the late '70s, has died.
The 63-year-old singer died Thursday morning (5/17) at her home in Florida after losing a battle with lung cancer, according to TMZ, which the website claimed Summer believed she had contracted by inhaling toxic particles from the collapse of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. Details are still incomplete, but Summer had been living in Englewood, FL, with her husband, former backup singer Bruce Sudano, with whom she had been married since 1980.
"Words truly can't express how much we appreciate your prayers and love for our family at this sensitive time," read a statement released by her family through Summer's record label, Universal Music. "While we grieve her passing, we are at peace celebrating her extraordinary life and her continued legacy."
Summer, born LaDonna Andrea Gaines in Boston in 1948, was one of seven siblings, all of whom, like Summer, sang in church from a young age. Inspired by the Motown girl groups of the day, a teenaged Summer set out on her own musical path early, leaving home for New York City at 18 to audition for a part in the Broadway musical "Hair." She lost out on the part to singer Melba Moore, but was offered the role she had sought in the European touring edition of the show. She spent the next several years living in Germany and touring Europe with the musical, quickly branching out to other local performing opportunities, such as working with the Viennese Folk Opera, and a stint with the pop group FamilyTree, created by German music producer Guenter "Yogi" Lauke.
Summer, who became fluent in German, married Austrian Helmuth Sommer in 1972, and gave birth to the couple's daughter, Mimi, the following year. She also began using her husband's name professionally, becoming "Summer" after an inadvertent misspelling along the way by a studio engineer on a master tape.
In the early '70s, while working as a backup singer for Three Dog Night, she met producers Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte, which would shape not just the future of her career, but the immediate future of pop music as well. In 1975, after releasing her debut album, "Lady of the Night," on European label Groovy Records, Summer approached Moroder with an idea for a song based around a single lyric: "love to love you, baby." The resulting collaboration, a single titled "Love to Love You Baby," would become the first disco single to be released in extended format, a 17-minute-long dance track that featured (according to the BBC, which counted them all) 23 "simulated orgasms" and was recorded in complete darkness whole Summer lay on the floor of the studio. The song, he first release for legendary Casablanca Records, became her first Top 40 hit, spending two weeks at No. 2 on Billboard's Hot 100 and topping the US disco chart. Her next two albums went gold in the U.S.
In 1977 Summer released "I Remember Yesterday," which contained her second Top 10 single, "I Feel Love." A year later, at the peak of her popularity, she appeared in the film "Thank God It's Friday," playing an aspiring disco singer. A song from the film, "Last Dance," co-produced by Moroder and written by Paul Jabara, would eventually end up becoming one of disco's great anthems, and one of Summer's most enduring musical moments.
Following her smash 1979 album "Bad Girls," which featured a pair of No. 1 hits in the title song and "Hot Stuff," Summer decided to take a break from disco and branch out musically. The desire created a rift between her and Casablanca, and she left the label to sign with Geffen in 1980. Although her first album for Geffen, 1980's "The Wanderer," with its New Wave-inspired sounds, did well and achieved gold record sales status, later results were decidedly mixed. She achieved another hit with 1983's "She Works Hard For the Money," but alienated many old fans in the mid-'80s after allegedly making anti-gay remarks after becoming a born-again Christian, allegations she would deny for years. Regardless, the perception of Summer as being anti-gay created a divide between her and many former fans, with many clubs refusing to play her work, even her older dance hits.
While she continued to record and produce moderate hits, especially in Europe, her output began to slow considerably as the '90s dawned. After Summer released the New Jack Swing-influenced "Mistaken Identity" in 1991, it would take 17 years, until 2008's "Crayons," for her to release another album of all-new material. The intervening years were marked largely by the release of greatest hits albums; Summer also dipped a toe back into Hollywood's waters during this period, making a pair of appearances as Urkel's Aunt Oona on the sitcom "Family Matters."
"Crayons," released in 2008 on Sony BMG's Burgundy imprint, would be her last hurrah. The set peaked at No. 17 on the Billboard 200 and sported three singles which took the top slot on US dance charts.
"Her records sound as good today as they ever did," said friend Elton John in a statement issued this morning. "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."
Summer is survived by husband Sudano, their daughters Brooklyn and Amanda, and daughter Mimi from her previous marriage.