Five-time Grammy winner was icon of disco era
Disco diva Donna Summer, whose leading-edge hits with producer Giorgio Moroder made her the premier dance-music star of the late ’70s and early ’80s, died Thursday morning in Naples, Fla., after a battle with breast and lung cancer. She was 63.
A product of the Euro-disco boom of the mid-’70s, Boston-born Summer mated a lustrous R&B voice to lubricious material like her breakthrough 1975 hit “Love to Love You Baby.” But, while she was a product of the disco era, her career transcended the genre’s vogue.
Boasting vocal power and a wide range, Summer sported skills rivaled by few of her contemporaries of the disco era; there was little incongruity in her No. 1 1979 pairing with Barbra Streisand, “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough).”
Summer’s singles reached the top of the U.S. pop charts four times in 1978-79, but she continued to reach the charts into the late ’80s. She received five Grammys (two of them for best inspirational recording), her last coming with “Carry On,” a remix of another Moroder production, in 1997.
Born LaDonna Adrian Gaines, she began singing in church as a child, and took Mahalia Jackson as a model. After a brief stint in the Boston rock group Crow, she secured a role in the German production of the rock musical “Hair.” She married the German actor Helmut Sommer; the couple divorced in 1974, but she kept his name, respelled, as her professional moniker.
Working as a backup vocalist on the German studio scene, Summer linked up with producers Moroder and Pete Bellotte for the European hits “Hostage” and “Lady of the Night.”
The producers hit on the idea of a slow-burning groove that, in its unmistakably orgasmic vocal accompaniment, aped Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin’s recently reissued 1969 hit “Je T’aime…Moi Non Plus.”
The resultant track, “Love to Love You Baby” — 17 minutes long in its uncut club version — became a No. 2 U.S. hit in the U.S. for Moroder’s Oasis imprint and made Summer an international disco star.
Oasis would shortly become a division of Neil Bogart’s freewheeling L.A. label Casablanca Records, where Summer became a top star. Another get-down ode, “I Feel Love,” reached No. 6 in 1977.
The No. 3 dancefloor anthem “Last Dance” made an even deeper impact in 1978; drawn from the feature comedy “Thank God It’s Friday,” in which Summer appeared, the song captured a first Grammy for Summer and an Oscar for best song for writer Paul Jabara.
Summer reached her apex with a string of No. 1 pop hits that mated Summer’s lush voice and Moroder’s mechanized beats: the 1978 remake of the expansive 1968 Richard Harris-Jimmy Webb hit “MacArthur Park” and the 1979 trifecta of “Hot Stuff” (a Grammy winner as best rock vocal performance), “Bad Girls” and “No More Tears.” Three of her albums — “Live and More,” the concept set “Bad Girls” and “On the Radio — Greatest Hits Volumes 1 and 1” — hit No. 1 during the same period.
After an acrimonious split with Casablanca in 1980, Summer enjoyed some lesser hits on Geffen Records, with the biggest of them the feminist anthem “She Works Hard for the Money,” No. 3 in 1983.
Though Summer never completely abandoned the pop market thereafter, her career flagged in the post-disco epoch. She became a born-again Christian, winning Grammys for her gospel performances “He’s a Rebel” (1983) and “Forgive Me” (1984).
In the late ’80s, Summer found herself alienated from many of the gay fans who supported the singer in the early days of her career, after reports alleged she characterized the then-burgeoning AIDS epidemic as God’s punishment for the transgressions of homosexuality. She denied making the comments in a letter to AIDS activist org ACT UP, and sued New York magazine for reprinting the rumored remarks (the action was settled out of court).
She made her last appearance in the U.S. top 10 with “This Time I Know It’s For Real,” No. 7 in 1989. “Mistaken Identity,” her last album of original pop material for 17 years, was issued in 1991.
In later years, Summer focused on painting; her 2008 comeback album, released on the Sony imprint Burgundy Records, was titled “Crayons.” It reached No. 17 on the U.S. chart.
Survivors include husband Bruce Sudano.