Like the King of Pop or the Queen of Soul, Donna Summer was bestowed a title fitting of musical royalty — the Queen of Disco.
Yet unlike Michael Jackson or Aretha Franklin, it was a designation she wasn’t comfortable embracing.
“I grew up on rock ‘n’ roll,” Summer once said when explaining her reluctance to claim the title.
Indeed, as disco boomed then crashed in a single decade in the 1970s, Summer, the beautiful voice and face of the genre with pulsating hits like “I Feel Love,” ”Love to Love You Baby,” and “Last Dance,” would continue to make hits incorporating the rock roots she so loved. One of her biggest hits, “She Works Hard for the Money,” came in the early 1980s and relied on a smoldering guitar solo as well as Summer’s booming voice.
Yet it was with her disco anthems that she would have the most impact in music, and it’s how she was remembered Thursday as news spread of her death at age 63.
Summer died of cancer Thursday morning in Naples, Fla., said her publicist Brian Edwards. Her family released a statement saying they “are at peace celebrating her extraordinary life and her continued legacy.”
Luminaries from Aretha Franklin to Dolly Parton and Barbra Streisand mourned the loss, as did President Barack Obama, who said he and Michelle were saddened to hear of the passing of the five-time Grammy winner. “Her voice was unforgettable, and the music industry has lost a legend far too soon,” he said. “Our thoughts and prayers go out to Donna’s family and her dedicated fans.”
It had been decades since that brief, flashy moment when Summer was every inch the Disco Queen.
Her glittery gowns and long eyelashes. Her luxurious hair and glossy, open lips. Her sultry vocals, her bedroom moans and sighs. She was as much a part of the culture as disco balls, polyester, platform shoes and the music’s pulsing, pounding rhythms.
Summer’s music gave voice to not only a musical revolution, but a cultural one — a time when sex, race, fashion and drugs were being explored and exploited with freedom like never before in the United States.
Her rise was inseparable from disco’s itself, even though she remained popular for years after the genre she helped invent had died. She won a Grammy for best rock vocal performance for “Hot Stuff,” a fiery guitar-based song that represented her shift from disco to more rock-based sounds, and created another kind of anthem with “She Works Hard for the Money,” this time for women’s rights.
Elton John said in a statement that Summer was more than the Queen of Disco.
“Her records sound as good today as they ever did. That she has never been inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame is a total disgrace especially when I see the second-rate talent that has been inducted,” he said. “She is a great friend to me and to the Elton John AIDS Foundation and I will miss her greatly.”
Summer may not have liked the title and later became a born-again Christian, but many remembered her best for her early years, starting with the sinful “Love to Love You Baby.”
Released in 1975, a breakthrough hit for Summer and for disco, it was a legend of studio ecstasy and the genre’s ultimate sexual anthem. Summer came up with the idea of the song and first recorded it as a demo in 1975, on the condition that another singer perform it commercially. But Casablanca Records president Neil Bogart liked the track so much that he suggested to producer Giorgio Moroder they re-record it, and make it longer — what would come to be known as a “disco disc.”
Summer had reservations about the lyrics — “Do it to me again and again” — but imagined herself as a movie star playing a part as if she were Marilyn Monroe. So she agreed to sing, lying down on the studio floor, in darkness, and letting her imagination take over. Solo and multitracked, she whispered, she groaned, she crooned. Drums, bass, strings and keyboards answered her cries. She simulated climax so many times that the BBC kept count: 23, in 17 minutes.
What started as a scandal became a classic. The song was later sampled by LL Cool J, Timbaland and Beyonce, who interpolated the hit for her jam “Naughty Girl.” It was also Summer’s U.S. chart debut and the first of 19 No. 1 dance hits between 1975 and 2008 — second only to Madonna.
Summer, real name LaDonna Adrian Gaines, was born in 1948 in Boston. She was raised on gospel music and became the soloist in her church choir by age 10.
“There was no question I would be a singer, I just always knew. I had credit in my neighborhood, people would lend me money and tell me to pay it back when I got famous,” Summer said in a 1989 interview with The Associated Press.
Before disco, she had already reinvented herself several times. She sang Motown songs with local groups in Boston as a teenager, then dropped out of school in the late 1960s and switched to pyschedelic rock after hearing Janis Joplin. An attempt to get a part in the musical “Hair” led her to get the principal role in Munich. She stayed in Germany for five years, worked in other productions and modeled.
Meanwhile, she was performing in operas, singing backup for Three Dog Night and other groups and releasing songs of her own. A marriage to Helmuth Sommer didn’t last, but the singer did hold on to her ex-husband’s last name, changing it to “Summer.” By 1974, she had met producers Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte and released her first album, “Lady of the Night,” to success in Europe.
Then came “Love to Love You Baby,” her memorable U.S. debut. Through the rest of the disco era she burned up the charts: She was the only artist to have three consecutive double-LPs hit No. 1, “Live and More,” ”Bad Girls” and “On the Radio.” She was also the first female artist with four No. 1 singles in a 13-month period, according to the Rock Hall of Fame, where she was a nominee this year but was passed over.
Musically, she began to change in 1979 with “Hot Stuff,” which had a tough, rock ‘n’ roll beat. Her diverse sound helped her earn Grammy Awards in the dance, rock, R&B and inspirational categories.
Summer said grew up on rock ‘n’ roll and later covered the Bruce Springsteen song “Protection.”
“I like the Moody Blues, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones as well as Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick, the Supremes and Temptations,” she said. “I didn’t know many white kids who didn’t know the Supremes; I don’t know many black kids who don’t know the Moody Blues.”
Warwick said in a statement that she was sad to lose a great performer and “dear friend.”
“My heart goes out to her husband and her children,” Warwick said. “Prayers will be said to keep them strong.”