Donna Summer dead: Her voice soared through disco and beyond
Donna Summer died Thursday after a battle with cancer. The 63-year-old Summer was known for her soaring voice and sensual purrs that made her a queen of disco when the genre was in its heyday in the 1970s. And it was a title she held well beyond those years.
A statement from her family called Summer "a woman of many gifts, the greatest being her faith."
"While we grieve her passing, we are at peace celebrating her extraordinary life and her continued legacy," according to the statement released by Universal Music, her record label. "Words truly can't express how much we appreciate your prayers and love for our family at this sensitive time."
Summer had been living in Englewood, Fla., with her husband, Bruce Sudano.
She was a five-time Grammy winner. Although best remembered for her songs decades ago, Summer continued to tour and record, including a stint last year as a guest judge on the Bravo reality show "Platinum Hit."
Born LaDonna Andrea Gaines in suburban Boston on New Year’s Eve, 1948, Summer was one of seven siblings in a church-attending family who encouraged studies and singing in equal measure.
An early fan of gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, Summer sang in a Boston rock band called Crow in the late 1960s, and left home for New York City at age 18 to find work on Broadway, which she did quickly by landing a role in a touring version of the hot Broadway show “Hair.”
She spent the next three years living and touring in Europe. There she met and married the singer Helmut Sommer, whose last name she adapted as her stage name.
While in Europe she also met Italian music producer Giorgio Moroder, whose early dance tracks were making an impact across Europe. Moroder and Summer started working together, resulting in their first hit, the seductive 17-minute-long dance floor epic “Love to Love You Baby.” On it, Summer moans in ecstasy throughout, seeming to climax with the music. A shortened version of it was released by then-hot label Casablanca in 1975, and peaked on the Billboard singles chart at No. 2.
That was the first of a string of songs that not only helped bring disco to the mainstream, but predicted the rise of both techno and house music. Among those were “I Feel Love,” “Bad Girls,” “She Works Hard for the Money” and “On the Radio.”
But unlike some other stars of disco who faded as the music became less popular, she was able to grow beyond it and later segued to a pop-rock sound. She had one of her biggest hits in the 1980s with "She Works Hard for the Money," which became an anthem for women's rights.
Soon after, Summer became a born-again Christian and faced controversy when she was accused of making anti-gay comments in relation to the AIDS epidemic. Summer denied making the comments but was the target of a boycott.
Still, even as disco went out of fashion she remained a fixture in dance clubs, endlessly sampled and remixed into contemporary dance hits.
Her last album, "Crayons," was released in 2008 and marked her first full studio album in 17 years. She also performed on "American Idol" that year with its top female contestants.
-- Randall Roberts (the Associated Press contributed to this report)
Photo: Donna Summer in 1979. Credit: Larry Bessell / Los Angeles Times