Donna Summer: 1948–2012

Disco's greatest diva – and defining voice of the era – dies at 63

Donna Summer
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
Donna Summer
By |

Donna Summer, who topped dance, rock and R&B charts with some of the biggest hits of the Seventies and early Eighties, died of lung cancer on May 17th, 2012, at her home in Naples, Florida. She was 63.

Starting with 1975's "Love to Love You Baby," Summer became the defining voice of the disco era. She won five Grammys, and became a superstar with a string of hits including the proto-techno classic "I Feel Love" and four Number One smashes: "MacArthur Park," "Hot Stuff," "Bad Girls" and "No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)." Summer was known as the "Queen of Disco," but her music ranged much farther – through rock, New Wave, R&B and gospel. "She was a very astute woman," says soul singer Chaka Khan. "I used to hate dance music, but I was impressed by what she sang about, how she championed women and empowered chicks."

Summer was born LaDonna Adrian Gaines, one of seven children in a Boston working-class family with "deep spiritual roots," as she wrote in her 2003 memoir, Ordinary Girl. Her grandfather was a preacher, and Summer's parents were strict: "God forbid we did anything vulgar." Her father spanked her for using red nail polish, which, he told her, only prostitutes wore.

Obama Mourns Donna Summer

She sang In a gospel choir, trained in musical theater and traveled to Germany to appear in a production of Hair. While living in Munich, she married Austrian actor Helmuth Sommer, whose surname she adapted. Working with producer Giorgio Moroder, Summer cut the erotic "Love to Love You Baby," approaching the song "like an actress." She imagined herself as Marilyn Monroe, softly cooing lyrics like "Do it to me again and again." "My acting was done well, and people believed the story I was acting," Summer said in 1979.

Neil Bogart, the shameless, marketing-savvy head of disco label Casablanca Records, heard "Love to Love You Baby" and instructed Moroder to expand the song from three minutes to 17. "You're crazy," Moroder supposedly retorted, but he complied – and the song was a breakthrough smash. Summer had found the song "very difficult" to record, and she later said, "There were times when I hated the . . . sex-goddess image."

When her subsequent records with Moroder and co-producer Pete Bellotte didn't match "Love to Love You Baby," Casablanca worried that she would become a one-hit wonder. The retro-sounding title track from her 1977 album I Remember Yesterday was a dud, until DJs began playing the B side, "I Feel Love," on which Moroder and Bellotte layered synthesizers, drum machines and other otherworldly electronic effects. When Brian Eno heard the record, he told David Bowie, "I have heard the sound of the future." He was right: "I Feel Love" is one of the building blocks of modern dance music, and its influence has never waned.

From the Archives: Donna Summer: Is There Life After Disco?

As Summer's fame grew, she struggled with depression. She began balancing anti-depressants with Valium, and "went through years of walking into rooms . . . unable to remember anyone's name because I was so out of it." In her memoir, Summer wrote about an aborted suicide attempt in a hotel room in 1976, after which she became a born-again Christian. "She always tried to convince us to be born-again," says Harold Faltermeyer, who co-wrote "Hot Stuff." "We weren't allowed to use the 'f-word' in the studio. She was a tough, strong woman."

In 1979, Summer recorded "Hot Stuff" with a rock solo from Steely Dan guitarist Jeff "Skunk" Baxter. She won a Grammy for Best Female Rock Vocal Performance, becoming the first winner of the then-new award. Albums like the double LP Bad Girls were packed with multipart suites that showed off Summer's songwriting chops and ambition.

Bruce Springsteen wrote "Cover Me" for Summer to sing, and after deciding to keep it for his Born in the U.S.A. album, he wrote her another one, "Protection," which Summer recorded with Quincy Jones in 1982. (Springsteen played guitar and sang backing vocals.) A year later, she released "She Works Hard for the Money," an uplifting song about the struggles of working women; it was an MTV hit.

Summer came to dislike the term "disco singer," which she felt minimized her range. "When I was younger, I would wear wild costumes and paint my face," she said in 2010. "I'd been in Europe for years, and I was doing a lot of strange things. If I'd been white, it would have been seen as 'creative.' But because I was black, they couldn't understand me having that level of creativity."

Neil Bogart's son Evan, a producer and songwriter, worked with his "Aunt Donna" on her final album, Crayons, which came out in 2008. "You can count on one or two hands the voices as big as hers," he says. And Bogart hears her influence in electronic acts from Chromeo to Daft Punk: "David Guetta specifically told me he wouldn't be doing what he's doing without 'I Feel Love.' Disco never died – it turned into dance music."

Like most friends, Bogart was unaware Summer had lung cancer; not even her agent at William Morris knew. "I saw her a year ago, and she looked great," Bogart says. One of the few people who knew was Michael Omartian, who co-wrote and produced "She Works Hard for the Money." He'd been diagnosed with lymphoma, and they both began treatment at Cedars-Sinai hospital in L.A. in 2011. "She was adamant about keeping it private," Omartian says. In the last two months of Summer's life, Omartian talked often with her husband of 31 years, songwriter Bruce Sudano, with whom she had two daughters. "He said, We're fighting, Mike, we're fighting.' Those were his words. 'We're planning on winning.'"

Summer was sure that one day her music would be understood as more than disco. "When people go back, they're gonna be like, 'Whoa,'" she said. "'Where was her mind at? She was out there!"'

This story is from the June 7th, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 1158: June 7, 2012
x