The late singer, Donna Summer, the undisputed Queen of Disco, will be laid to rest in a private ceremony, but her legacy will survive long after her death. From the heady days of disco to the quiet moments with family out of the glare of the limelight where she lived as a devout Christian, wife and mother, she never gave up her passion for singing.
The five-time Grammy Award winner had a mezzo-soprano vocal range, and much of the American audience didn’t realize her vocal prominence until she appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show in the early 2000s. She stunned the audience with her voice that they did not expect.
Few in the public knew of her early vocal training, so familiar were they with such sexually charged numbers as “Love to Love You Baby” (1975), which in some quarters proved extremely controversial due to its orgasmic moaning.
Almost immediately the rumors started flying: who was this woman? She was European, some said. She didn’t sound Black. She was probably mixed. But Summer became the Queen of Disco, and even hardcore R&B fans like myself had to bow to her greatness.
Born December 31, 1948, LaDonna Adrian Gaines, like a number of legendary Black singers, got her start in the church. She was one of seven children from a devoutly Christian family in Boston.
Her father, Andrew Gaines, was a butcher, and her mother Mary, was a schoolteacher.
As a child she was known to sing all the time at home. Her first singing break in church came when she was 10 years old. She was asked to replace an absent soloist; her big voice surprised everyone, including herself. She is quoted as saying “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 was saying to me, ‘Donna, you’re going to be very, very famous,’ and I knew from that day on that I would be famous.”
Donna Summer’s quest for fame took her to New York at 18. After a failed stint with a psychedelic rock band, she joined a touring version of the musical “Hair” and spent several years in West Germany. There, she met her first husband, actor Helmut Sommer. The couple had one child, a daughter Mimi. Eventually, she divorced Sommer, but Americanized his name to “Summer” and adopted it as her stage name.
Back in the States, her quest for fame continued. It got a huge spark with “Love to Love You Baby,” which she co-wrote with Pete Belotte and produced with Giorgio Moroder. By early 1976, “Love to Love You Baby” had reached No. 2 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100, while the parent album of the same name sold more than a million copies.
Singer/songwriter Summer was on her way. During the next few years, Summer followed that first success with a string of other disco hits, such as “I Feel Love,” “MacArthur Park,” “Hot Stuff” and “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough).”
Summer was the first artist to have three consecutive double albums reach No. 1 on the U.S. Billboard chart, and she charted four No. 1 singles in the United States within a 13-month period.
In the summer of 1979, she became the first female artist in music history to have two hits in the Billboard Top 3 at the same time with “Hot Stuff” and “Bad Girls.” She did it again in the fall with a No. 1 hit duet with Barbra Streisand and No. 2 hit “Dim All the Lights.”
“During her extraordinary career, Summer landed 32 singles in the Billboard Hot 100–including 14 in the top 10,” reported the New York Daily News. “She also scored at least one top 40 hit every year from 1976 to 1984. And though most connected with dance music, rocker Bruce Springsteen penned the song ‘Protection’ for Summer–and played guitar on the track.”
“Five Summer albums were listed in the iTunes Top 40, while seven selections from the Queen of Disco reached Amazon’s Top 50 following her Thursday death,” said the newspaper’ online site.
For what it’s worth, the website Celebrity Net Worth puts summer’s net worth at $73 million.
I remember attending the premiere of the 1978 movie, “Thank God It’s Friday,” which starred Summer as a would-be singer who just wanted her record played at a big event in the hopes that it would give her the big break she needed. The film didn’t do well at the box office, but her song “Last Dance” won an Academy Award for Best Song, as well as numerous American TV music specials.
Also in 1978, while working on the hit track, “Heaven Knows,” which featured Brooklyn Dreams, Summer met member Bruce Sudano. Within a few months, Summer and Sudano became a couple. They married on July 16, 1980. A year later, Summer gave birth to another daughter, Brooklyn, named after Sudano’s group. (Brooklyn would grow up and star in the hit ABC production “My Wife and Kids.”) A year later, Summer and Sudano had their second child, Amanda.
At one point in Summer’s career success, its demands began to take their toll. She reportedly began struggling with drug addiction and depression. To save herself, she returned to the church and her Christian roots.
In 1994, Summer and her family moved from Los Angeles to Nashville, where she took time out from show business to focus on painting, a hobby she began in 1985. As an artist, Summer would have to be considered successful, having realized more than $1.2 million in art sales since 1989.
The highest price realized from a single Summer artwork sale was $150,000.
Like all major icons, Summer had her share of detractors, but it never stopped her for doing what she loved best, singing. At the time of her death she was in Florida, reportedly working on a new album.
Summer died on the morning of May 17, 2012, at her home in Naples, Fla., at the age of 63. She had been diagnosed with lung cancer, though it was apparently not related to smoking since she was reportedly a non-smoker. Summer is survived by her husband Bruce Sudano and daughters Mimi (by Sommers), Brooklyn and Amanda.
Here’s a partial list of Summer tunes:
1. Last Dance
2. Hot Stuff
3. Bad Girls
4. State of Independence (original album version)
5. She Works Hard for the Money
6. Love to Love You Baby
7. This Time I Know It’s for Real
8. Love Is in Control (Finger on the Trigger)
9. Heaven Knows (with Brooklyn Dreams)
10. On the Radio
11. Could It Be Magic
12. Dim All the Lights
13. MacArthur Park
Gail can be reached at email@example.com