Yet unlike Michael Jackson or Aretha Franklin, it was a designation she wasn’t comfortable embracing.
“I grew up on rock ’n’ roll,” Summer once said when explaining her reluctance to claim the title.
Indeed, as disco boomed then crashed in a single decade in the 1970s, 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, would continue to make 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 Summer’s booming voice.
Yet it was with her disco anthems that she would have the most impact in music, and it’s how she was remembered as news spread of her death on May 17 at age 63.
Summer died of cancer in Naples, Florida, said her publicist Brian Edwards. Her family released a statement saying they “are at peace celebrating her extraordinary life and her continued legacy.”
Luminaries from Aretha Franklin to Dolly Parton and Barbra Streisand mourned the loss, as did President Barack Obama, who said he and Michelle were saddened to hear of the passing of the five-time Grammy winner.
It had been decades since that brief, flashy moment when 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 pulsing, pounding rhythms.
SCANDAL TO CLASSIC
Her rise was inseparable from disco’s itself, even though 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 song that represented her shift from disco to more rock-based sounds, and created another kind of anthem with She Works Hard for the Money, this time for women’s rights.
“That she has never been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is a total disgrace especially when I see the second-rate talent that has been inducted,” Elton John said.
Summer may not have liked the title and later became a born-again Christian, but many remembered her best for her early years, starting with the sinful Love to Love You Baby.
Summer had reservations about the lyrics – “Do it to me again and again” — but imagined herself as a movie star playing a part as if she were Marilyn Monroe. She simulated climax so many times that the BBC kept count: 23, in 17 minutes.
What started as a scandal became a classic. The song was later sampled by LL Cool J, Timbaland and Beyonce, who interpolated the hit for her jam Naughty Girl. It was also Summer’s U.S. chart debut and the first of 19 No. 1 dance hits between 1975 and 2008 — second only to Madonna.
Summer, real name 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. I had credit in my neighborhood, people would lend me money and tell me to pay it back when I got famous,” Summer said in a 1989 interview with The Associated Press.
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 pyschedelic 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 did
not last, but the singer did hold on to her ex-husband’s last name, changing it to “Summer.” By 1974, she had met producers Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte and released her first album, Lady of the Night, to success in Europe.
Then came Love to Love You Baby, her memorable U.S. debut. Through the rest of the disco era she burned up the charts: She was the only artist to have three consecutive double-LPs hit No. 1, Live and More, Bad Girls and On the Radio. 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 `n’ roll beat. Her diverse sound helped her earn Grammy Awards in the dance, rock, R&B and inspirational categories.
Summer later became a born-again Christian and was accused of making anti-gay comments in relation to the AIDS epidemic — a particular problem for a woman who was and remains a gay icon. Summer 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. She held a Bible study class at her home every week,” he said.
Summer released her last album, I, in 2008, her first full studio album in 17 years. She also performed on American Idol that year with its top female contestants.
Summer is survived by her husband, Bruce Sudano, and three daughters, Brooklyn, Mimi and Amanda.
Photo: Donna Summer