Donna Summer was perhaps the greatest singer in disco history. She was a singer and songwriter, who became known as the “Queen of Disco” in the 1970s with hits songs; “Love to Love You Baby”, “I Feel Love” and “Last Dance.” She was a multimillion-selling singer.
According to The New York Times, Summer became the queen of disco and an idol with a substantial gay following. “Her voice, airy and ethereal or brightly assertive, sailed over dance floors and leapt from radios from the mid-’70s well into the ’80s”.
In the late ’70s, she had three double albums in a row that reached No. 1, and each sold more than a million copies. She also had 14 Top 10 singles in the United States, among them “Love to Love You Baby,” “Bad Girls,” “Hot Stuff,” “Last Dance” and “She Works Hard for the Money.”
She reportedly pioneered electronic dance music with the synthesizer pulse of “I Feel Love” in 1977, a sound that permeates 21st-century pop. Her styles were diverse ranging from funk, electronica, rock and torch song. Her recordings have been sampled by Beyoncé, the Pet Shop Boys, Justice and Nas amongst others.
Born LaDonna Adrian Gaines on Dec. 31, 1948, in the Dorchester neighbourhood of Boston to Andrew Gaines, a butcher and Mary Gaines, a schoolteacher. She was one of seven children.
Gaines grew up singing in church. “From the time she was little, that’s all she really did,” her mother recalled. “She literally lived to sing… She used to go through the house singing, singing. She sang for breakfast and for lunch and for supper.”
According to her biography, one Sunday when she was 10 years old, a singer scheduled to perform at her church did not show up so the priest invited her to perform instead. Her voice was overwhelmingly powerful and beautiful and that was Summer’s debut performance.
“You couldn’t see her if you were beyond the third row,” her father recalled. “But you could hear her.”
On her part, Summer said, “I started crying, everybody else started crying. It was quite an amazing moment in my life and at some point after I heard my voice come out I felt like God said to me, ‘Donna, you’re going to be very, very famous.’ And I just knew from that day on I was going to be famous.”
She attended Jeremiah E. Burke High School in Boston, where she starred in the school musicals and was very popular. A few weeks before her graduation in 1967, at the age of 18, Summer auditioned for and was cast in a production of Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical.
She flew to Germany, learned to speak fluent German, and after Hair finished its run, she decided to remain in Munich, where she appeared in several other musicals and worked in a recording studio singing backup vocals and recording demo tapes.
She worked as a studio vocalist in musical theatre and briefly as a member of the Viennese Folk Opera. She was married to Austrian actor, Hellmuth Sommer in the early 90’s. They later divorced. Gaines chose to keep his name, but altered the spelling.
As a backup singer, Summer caught the attention of Mr Moroder and Mr Bellotte. In 1974, her debut album with them, “Lady of the Night,” was released only in Europe. However, Summer became a sensation with “Love to Love You Baby” in 1975.
She said she recorded that song’s breathy, moaning vocals lying on her back on the studio floor with the lights out with her boyfriend serving as her fantasy inspiration. After hearing the song in its initial European version, titled “Love to Love You,” the American label Casablanca signed her and asked her to extend it for disco play.
The outcome, a 17-minute single became an international hit, reaching No. 2 on the American pop chart. She then released two more albums, “A Love Trilogy” and “Four Seasons of Love,” a romance concept album.
Her song “I Feel Love,” reportedly made the most impact. Its all-electronic arrangement was a startling new sound for a pop song, and its contrast of human voice versus synthetic backdrop would echo through countless club hits in its wake, according to The New York Times.
She was being promoted as a sex goddess and that did not resonate well with her. She told Ebony magazine in 1977 that “I’m not just sex, sex, sex. I would never want to be a one-dimensional person like that.”
She released an orchestral album, “Once Upon a Time,” a set of songs telling a Cinderella story, and then a live album in 1978, “Live and More,” which yielded a hit with a version of “MacArthur Park.” That was the first of four No. 1 singles she would have in a year, followed by “Hot Stuff,” “Bad Girls” and a duet with Barbra Streisand, “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough).”
Summer won her first Grammy Award for best R&B vocal performance, female with “Last Dance,” a song by Paul Jabara. It was introduced on the soundtrack to the 1978 movie “Thank God It’s Friday” and has ended many a wedding party ever since.
Her 1979 double album, “Bad Girls,” with songs like “Hot Stuff” won a Grammy for best rock vocal performance, female. Her first collection of hits, “On the Radio: Greatest Hits Volumes 1 and 2,” also reached No. 1 in 1979, and the newly recorded title song was a Top 10 single.
“Heaven Knows,” was another hit from 1979, a song Summer recorded with the group Brooklyn Dreams. It reached No. 4 on the pop chart. She then married one of the singers in the group, Bruce Sudano, in 1980.
She moved from Casablanca to Geffen Records. She tried new wave rock in 1981. She then switched to R&B in 1982. In 1983, her song “He’s a Rebel,” won a Grammy for best inspirational performance.
In the 1990s, Summer continued to record and perform. She and Sudano moved to Nashville and wrote songs together, including a No. 1 country single for Dolly Parton, “Starting Over Again.” A 1997 remix of a song she recorded in 1992 with Moroder, “Carry On,” won her the first Grammy given for best dance music.
In the 2000s, three songs from her last studio album, “Crayons,” in 2008, reached No. 1 on that chart, as well as, her final one, “To Paris With Love,” in 2010. “This music will always be with us,” Ms. Summer told The New York Times in 2003. “I mean, whether they call it disco music or hip-hop or bebop or flip-flop, whatever they’re going to call it, I think music to dance to will always be with us.”
The legend battled cancer and died on May 17, 2012, at her home in Naples, Fla. She was 63.