By Gil Kaufman
Legendary disco singer Donna Summer has been reported dead at the age of 63 after a long battle with cancer. TMZ reports that Summer died on Thursday (May 17) in Florida.
The five-time Grammy winner who set dance floors ablaze in the 1970s with such anthems as “Last Dance,” Hot Stuff” and her most iconic hit, “I Feel Love,” was 63-years-old. In a genre that was filled with many one-hit wonders and fly-by-night studio acts that were unable to keep the disco inferno stoked after scoring hits, Summer was a lifer, consistently charting even after the dance craze faded in the late 1970’s.
Unlike many of her contemporaries, Summer set herself apart with strong vocals backed by her songwriting skills, as well as some creative luck in hooking up with producers/songwriters Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte. The pair helped her pumped out hit-after-hit and provided her with a sensual, almost ethereal sound on tracks such as “I Feel Love,” which seduced both on and off the dance floor.
Born LaDonna Adrian Gaines on December 31, 1948 in Boston, Massachusetts to a butcher father and schoolteacher mother, Summer showed promise as a singer from an early age. She made her public debut at age 10 at her church when the scheduled singer didn’t show up and she filled in. After appearing in a number of musicals and plays in high school and singing with the psychedelic rock band The Crow, she joined the cast of German production of the musical “Hair” in 1967 at age 18.
She stayed in Munich after the show’s run ended and recorded her debut solo album there in 1974, Lady of the Night. Though it spawned a hit overseas with “The Hostage,” she didn’t crack the U.S. market until a year later with the song that would make her an international superstar, the seductive disco anthem, “Love to Love You Baby.” The tune she created with Moroder and Bellotte was a #2 hit in the U.S. and landed her an American record deal with the it label of the era, Casablanca Records.
The 17-minute club remix of the single, which featured such real-sounding ecstatic moans that some radio stations refused to play it, became a huge hit and set a new standard for sophisticated arrangements in a genre often marked by cheesy sounding instrumentation and lazy songwriting.
She released two albums in 1976, A Love Trilogy, which featured the nearly 18-minute epic “Try Me (I Know We Can Make It Work),” and the winter/spring/summer/autumn-themed Four Seasons of Love. In a singles genre where the song as the thing, Summer continued to put out consistently artistic albums, including 1977’s I Remember Yesterday, which featured the song that would secure Summer’s place at the top of the disco diva pecking order, “I Feel Love.” That hypnotizing song was also the first one recorded with a backing track made up entirely of synthesized sounds.
This being the era of excess, her second 1977 album, Once Upon A Time, was another concept disc, this one retelling the Cinderella story in the disco era on tracks like “Once Upon a Time,” “Fairy Tale High,” “Working the Midnight Shift” and “Queen for a Day.”
She transitioned into acting in 1978 in the disco comedy “Thank God It’s Friday,” which earned her a Grammy for Best Female R&B Vocal for the hit “Last Dance.” By 1979’s two-album Bad Girls she was indisputably a star, logging six weeks at #1 and scoring hits with the sexy “Bad Girls” and more rock-oriented “Hot Stuff.” When Summer released a double-album greatest hits disc later that year she became the first artists to ever score three #1 albums in a row with double-disc releases.
She went on to score hits with a Barbra Streisand duet and moved over to the then-new Geffen Records, where her success began to wane a bit. By 1983, she’d moved past the disco sound and into a synth-heavy R&B/new wave sound with the female empowerment anthem “She Works Hard For the Money.” That song, though, would effectively mark the end of her hit-making days. Summer continued to release albums through the late 1980’s, but was never again able to capture her disco peak. In fact, by the end of the decade she spoke out against the “sinful” nature of her disco hits and turned her back on her earlier material and focused on painting.
After a 17-year break, she released her first studio album of original material, Crayons, in 2008.