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Donna Summer, disco and pop chart-topper, dies

Published: May 18, 2012 | 7:29 am
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Donna Summer, the graceful and commanding singer who ruled the disco era with hits such as “Last Dance” and “Bad Girls,” winning five Grammy Awards, died Thursday in Florida. She was 63.

The cause was cancer, according to a statement released by her family through her record label, Universal Music. “While we grieve her passing, we are at peace celebrating her extraordinary life and her continued legacy. Words truly can’t express how much we appreciate your prayers and love for our family at this sensitive time,” the statement said.

Ms. Summer, whose background as a gospel singer informed her sensual, uplifting voice, had kept her battle with the disease quiet, maintaining a regular performance schedule and even working on a new album. According to TMZ, the singer believed she acquired lung cancer from inhaling toxic particles after the Sept. 11 attacks on New York City.

Show honoring Obama

In 2009, Ms. Summer performed at the Nobel Peace Prize Concert in Oslo, honoring President Obama.

Ms. Summer was one of the most popular American singers of the 1970s, releasing a string of danceable pop hits such as “I Feel Love,” “Love to Love You Baby” and “Hot Stuff.” With her success rivaled only by the Bee Gees, she became known as the Queen of Disco – a title that never sat well with her dynamic influences.

She was the first artist to have three consecutive double albums reach the No. 1 position on the Billboard charts, with her hit streak continuing into the early 1980s with singles “She Works Hard for the Money” and “Love Is in Control.”

Influenced by Motown

Born LaDonna Adrian Gaines in Boston on Dec. 31, 1948, she was one of seven children in a devout Christian household. She sang in church as a child and formed several family groups while growing up, imitating the style of the popular Motown girl groups of her teenage years.

She later dropped out of school, reportedly inspired by singer Janis Joplin, joined a psychedelic rock group called Crow, and moved to New York. Ms. Summer auditioned for a part in the Broadway musical “Hair,” which she did not get. But when the musical moved to Germany, she took the role and relocated to Munich for several years.

In 1972, she married Austrian actor Helmuth Sommer and, a year later, had a daughter, Mimi. Their marriage didn’t last, but she kept the name, anglicizing it to Summer.

As a backup singer for the rock group Three Dog Night, she met producers Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte, and presented them an idea for a song around the lyric, “love to love you, baby.”

The finished tune, a 17-minute dance cut called “Love to Love You Baby,” became a hit in Europe and was released in America by Casablanca Records, the reigning label of the disco era. According to the BBC, the finished version featured her simulating the sounds of an orgasm no less than 23 times. The song became a crossover hit on the pop and R&B charts. Its album of the same name sold more than a million copies in 1976.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominee was the first female artist with four No. 1 singles in a 13-month period, as three consecutive double LPs hit No. 1, “Live and More,” “Bad Girls” and “On the Radio.”

In 1979, she appeared on a duet with Barbra Streisand, “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough).”

Transition into ’80s

Her chart dominance continued even after disco’s popularity faded, with her songs appearing in films such as “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” and “Flashdance.” A 1983 collaboration with the young British reggae group Musical Youth called “Unconditional Love” became a hit in Britain and on MTV.

Ms. Summer later became a born-again Christian, denouncing her past material. She caused controversy in 1983 when she allegedly made comments saying AIDS was “divine punishment” on gays for their “sinful lifestyle.”

She later denied making the comments and actively reached out to the gay community, playing fundraisers and telling the Advocate magazine, “What people want to do with their bodies is their personal preference.” Many of Ms. Summer’s hits became anthems for the gay community and were mainstays of dance clubs throughout the ’70s and ’80s.

Elton John, a close friend, released a statement shortly after news of her death spread.

“Her records sound as good today as they ever did. 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,” he said. “She is a great friend to me and to the Elton John AIDS Foundation and I will miss her greatly.”

Ms. Summer released her last album, “Crayons,” in 2008. It was her first full studio album in 17 years. She also performed on “American Idol” that year with its top female contestants.

Her 2010 single, “To Paris With Love,” topped the Billboard dance charts. Last year she appeared on television as a guest judge on the Bravo reality show “Platinum Hit.”

Musical allies stunned

Other peers reacted to news of Ms. Summer’s death on Twitter.

“For the last half hour or so I’ve been lying in my bed crying and stunned,” said producer and Chic hit-maker Nile Rodgers.

The Roots drummer and “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” bandleader Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson said, “I know that the whole ‘disco sucks’ stuff left a bad taste in the mouths of some. But Summer’s work was really a credible legacy.”

Fellow dance singer Gloria Estefan added, “Few singers have impacted music and the world like Donna Summer! It’s the end of an era.”

Ms. Summer is survived by her husband, Bruce Sudano, and three children. Funeral arrangements were not announced.


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