Donna Summer

Donna Summer

Courtesy of the Rock Hall Library and Archive

Donna Summer won five Grammys and was the first artist to have three consecutive double-LP albums reach Number One.

Her lifetime in music was a study in contrasts: The “Queen of Disco,” who was a church-reared gospel singer throughout childhood and wrote most of her own songs; the diva de tutti dive, the first true pop diva of the modern era, who spent her formative years singing in a rock band. She

Donna Summer was born LaDonna Adrian Gaines on December 31, 1948, in Boston. She was one of seven children. Her father was a butcher, and her mother was a school teacher. She began singing in church, and she made her performance debut with a church group when she was 10. She recalled that as she sang: "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 came 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.”

In 1967, shortly before high school graduation, Summer moved to New York and began singing with a hard rock band called Crow. She then auditioned for a role in the Broadway musical Hair. She did not get the part, but when Hair opened in Munich, Germany, she was cast as Sheila. She settled in Germany and married Austrian actor Helmut Sommer. The marriage did not last long, but after the divorce, she kept the Anglicized version of his surname.

While in Germany, Summer began a long-term association with Munich song¬writers-producers Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte. Together, they created a string of European pop hits for Moroder’s Oasis label. Then, in 1975, Moroder licensed Oasis to America’s Casablanca Records. That same year, Summer came up with an idea for a song featuring the lyrics “love to love you.” At the request of Casablanca president Neil Bogart, Moroder and Bellotte turned the song into a 17-minute opus of orgasmic delight. Summer said she was evoking Marilyn Monroe in her singing.

“Love to Love You Baby” became a huge disco hit and then crossed over to the pop and R&B charts, reaching Number Two on the pop chart and Number Three on the R&B chart. The song was Summer’s U.S. chart debut and first of 19 Number One dance hits between 1975 and 2008 (second only to Madonna). 

In 1977, Summer released a concept album, I Remember Yesterday. Moroder expanded the music’s stylistic range, adding more synthesizer. “I Feel Love,” one of the tracks from the album, went to Number Six on the pop chart and Number Nine on the R&B chart. That same year, Summer released another concept album, Once Upon a Time, which was a Cinderella fairy tale. The following year, Summer scored her first Number One hit, a cover of Jimmy Webb’s “MacArthur Park.” That same year, she also appeared in the disco film Thank God It’s Friday. Summer won a Grammy for one of the songs from the soundtrack, “Last Dance.”

Summer had one of her biggest years in 1979, when she released Bad Girls. The album featured two Number One hits, "Hot Stuff" and the title track. Another track, "Dim All the Lights,” went to Number Two. The success of "MacArthur Park," "Hot Stuff," "Bad Girls" and the Barbra Streisand duet "No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)" gave Summer four Number One hits in a little over a year. "Hot Stuff" also won her a second Grammy, this one for Best Female Rock Vocal Performance, the first time the category was included.

In 1980, Summer switched labels, moving from Casablanca to Geffen. Her first album for Geffen was The Wanderer. The title track reached Number Three. Then, in 1982, she released Donna Summer, which was produced by Quincy Jones. The album included another Top 10 hit, “Love Is in Control (Finger on the Trigger).” 

She Works Hard for the Money, released in 1983, was Summer’s biggest album since Bad Girls. The album reached Number Nine, while the title track went to Number Three. The album also included the song “Unconditional Love,” which featured backing vocals by Musical Youth. Summer’s success continued throughout the Eighties and into the Nineties. In 1992, Summer was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

In 2009, Summer issued her first album of all-original material in 17 years. Crayons included three songs – “I’m a Fire,” “Stamp Your Feet” and “Fame (The Game)” – that reached Number One on the U.S. dance chart. Then, in August 2010, Summer scored another Number One dance hit with “To Paris with Love.” Over the last decade, endless covers and sampling of Summer’s music by producers and DJs have kept the five-time Grammy Award–winner’s pioneering body of work on the front line.

Donna Summer died from lung cancer on May 17, 2012. She was 63 years old.