Early life and career
The future disco queen Donna Summer was born Donna Adrian Gaines on December 31, 1948 in Boston, Massachusetts. It seems that singing was an inborn passion for the young Donna, who eventually got her chance to show her talents by singing for their local church.
During her high school days, Summer became popular as she was taking part in several school musicals. Just weeks prior to her graduation, she moved to New York where she eventually auditioned for the musical Hair. She was then assigned to the musical’s German production, and after receiving her parents’ reluctant permission, she flew to Germany.
In addition to starring in Hair in Germany, she participated in other musical productions as well as embarked on a recording career there. She had learned to speak German fluently. In 1973, she married Austrian actor Helmuth Sommer but their relationship didn’t last long. She had her stage name by keeping her ex-husband’s last name and then Anglicized it into “Summer.”
On the way to becoming a disco superstar
Still in Europe, Summer released her debut album, Lady Of The Night in 1974. It was a pop/rock/folk offering was still far from the genre she became famous for. It went unnoticed. The following year she recorded the single she herself wrote “Love to Love You Baby,” which was released on her new label Casablanca Records. It became the title track of her second album (1975), and the final album version ran on almost 17 minutes long, which was quite unprecedented. As expected, the single version was clocked on only over three minutes. The records’ simulated orgasm left some radio stations initially refusing in playing it. Despite this, “Love to Love You Baby” climbed to the Hot 100 charts, peaking at #2 there and topping the dance charts in 1975.
Since then, success continued to roll for the singer, who was slowly building her fame in the disco circles. The next album A Love Trilogy (1976) also became successful, as did Four Seasons of Love later that year, with both albums becoming gold. She again scored another Top 10 pop hit single “I Feel Love,” from her 1977 I Remember Yesterday. It went to #6 on the pop chart, while it topped the UK singles chart. It peaked as high as #3 on the dance chart as well.
Later career, death, and legendary status as Queen of Disco
Summer reached the peak of her success toward the end of the 1970s. In 1978, she scored more hits with “MacArthur Park” (at #1, 1978) and “Last Dance” (at #3, 1978) both of which came from the album Live and More. “Last Dance” won the Oscar for Best Original Song.
In 1979, Summer released her eighth album Bad Girls, which became her most commercially successful album yet. It yielded two #1 singles “Hot Stuff” and the title track. Bad Girls went to #1 on both pop and R&B singles charts, going triple platinum. To cap the decade on perfect note, Summer released the chart-topping compilation album On The Radio: Greatest Hits Volumes I & II.
In the early 1980s, Summer temporarily went out of her usual disco repertoire to release The Wanderer (1980), and her self-titled 1982 album, which were more R&B. She ventured back into the dance territory again with the single “She Works Hard for the Money,” the title track of her 1983 album. It went to #3 on the pop chart and #1 on the R&B singles chart, and became rather a feminist anthem.
Towards the end of 1980s, Summer’s star was beginning to lose its luster, although she continued to be popular in Europe. In 1989 she released her 15th studio albumAnother Place and Time which yielded her final Top 10 hit on the Hot 100, “This Time I Know It’s For Real.”
During the mid-1980s, Summer became embroiled in a controversy for allegedly making homophobic remarks and saying that AIDS is a punishment from God upon the homosexuals for their immoral lifestyles. Summer vehemently denied this, and filed a lawsuit against the magazine for libel; the case was then settled out of court although both parties had refused to make public statements regarding about it. She then went on to release two more little-known albums Mistaken Identity (1991) andChristmas Spirit (1994) before releasing Crayons (2008) which became her strongest record in about 25 years. Sadly, it was to be her last studio album.
After a long battle with cancer, Donna Summer died on May 17, 2012 in Naples, Florida. The following year she was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She may be gone, but her continued reign as the Queen of Disco will forever remain in the hearts of fans and the people who have been influenced by her music and legacy.