Known as the “Queen of Disco,” Summer will be remembered as perhaps the greatest singer in disco history. But she was so much more: a vocalist of incredible range and power whose voice was equally at home in German-language show tunes, racy disco dance tracks and powerful gospel ballads.
Donna Summer was born on December 31, 1948, in Boston, Massachusetts. She died on May 17, 2012 at age 63, after a years-long battle with cancer.
Part of a religious family, she first sang in her church’s gospel choir, and as a teenager performed with a rock group called the Crow. After high school, she moved to New York to sing and act in stage productions, and soon landed a role in a German production of Hair. Overcoming her father’s initial objections, she accepted the part and flew to Germany with her parents’ reluctant approval. Summer learned to speak fluent German within a few months, 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.
Her first solo recording was 1971’s “Sally Go ‘Round the Roses,” but success would not come until 1974, when she met producers/songwriters Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte while working on a Three Dog Night record. The three teamed up for the single “The Hostage,” which became a hit around Western Europe, and Summer released her first album, Lady of the Night, in Europe only. In 1975, the trio recorded “Love to Love You Baby,” inspired by Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin’s lush, heavy-breathing opus “Je T’aime…Moi Non Plus.”
Powered by Summer’s graphic moans, “Love to Love You Baby” became a massive hit in Europe, and drew the attention of Casablanca Records, which put the track out in America. A 17-minute, side-long epic on the LP of the same name, its single version topped the Billboard club chart and climbed to number two on the Hot 100.
Building on the success of “Love to Love You Baby,” Summer released two albums in 1976: A Love Trilogy and Four Seasons of Love, both of which were enormous successes. In 1977, Summer released two more hit albums, I Remember Yesterday and Once Upon a Time, and in 1978 her single “Last Dance” from the soundtrack of Thank God It’s Friday won the Academy Award for Best Original Song.
Summer’s 1978 live album, entitled Live and More, became her first to reach No. 1 on the Billboard album charts and likewise featured her first No. 1 single in “MacArthur Park.” A year later, she achieved the biggest commercial success of her career with the album Bad Girls, which instantly spawned two No. 1 singles, “Bad Girls” and “Hot Stuff,” making Summer the first female artist to score three No. 1 songs in a single calendar year. As the 1970s gave way to the 1980s, Summer briefly abandoned disco to release two R&B albums: The Wanderer (1980) and Donna Summer (1982). Returning to dance music in 1983, she scored her biggest hit of the decade with “She Works Hard for the Money.” The title track, based on Summer’s feelings upon encountering a sleeping bathroom attendant at a restaurant, has become something of a feminist anthem.
At the peak of her success, Summer decided to leave Casablanca, and became the first artist signed to the new Geffen label. Sensing that the disco era was coming to a close, Summer attempted to modify her style to include more R&B and pop/rock on her first Geffen album, 1980’s The Wanderer; the album and its title track were both hits. Not wanting to alienate her core audience, Summer returned to pure dance music on an attempted follow-up; however, Geffen deemed I’m a Rainbow not worthy of release (it was finally issued in 1996). Instead, Summer ended her collaboration with Moroder and Bellotte and teamed up with Quincy Jones for 1982’s Donna Summer. “Love Is in Control (Finger on the Trigger)” was a significant hit, but none of its follow-ups did very well. With producer Michael Omartian, Summer moved back into post-disco dance music and contemporary R&B with 1983’s She Works Hard for the Money. Its title track was another crossover smash, given an extra boost by its highly choreographed video, and was nominated for multiple MTV Video Awards.
By the late 1980s, Summer’s popularity began to wane and she achieved only one more Top 10 hit during the decade, 1989’s “This Time I Know It’s For Real” off the album Another Place in Time.
Summer released only two albums during the 1990s, Mistaken Identity (1991) and Christmas Songs (1994), neither of which made much of an impact. During these years, the multi-talented Summer also branched out into painting, holding several exhibitions per year and enjoying both critical acclaim and commercial success. She also became embroiled in controversy during the early 1990s, when New York magazine reported that Summer had made homophobic remarks and called the AIDS epidemic punishment for the sins of homosexuals. Summer vociferously denied making any such comments and sued the magazine for libel. The case was settled out of court.
Summer subsequently signed a deal with Sony, which primed her for re-establishment with 1999’s VH1 Presents: Live and More Encore!, which featured the new song “I Will Go with You (Con Te Partiro),” another number one club hit. After a couple additional non-album singles, she released the energetic and eclectic Crayons. Four of its singles scaled to the top of the dance chart. Summer remained intermittently active with concert and TV appearances during the next several years, and released “To Paris with Love,” her final chart-topping single, in 2010.
Donna Summer died on May 17, 2012 at her home in Naples, Florida, aged 63, from lung cancer. Generally a nonsmoker, Summer theorized that her cancer was caused by inhaling toxic fumes and dust from the September 11 attacks in New York City. Summer was survived by her husband, Bruce Sudano, and her daughters Mimi (with ex-husband Helmut Sommer), Brooklyn Sudano, and Amanda Sudano.