Disco might have been an inherently silly genre, polyester style over organic substance, but Donna Summer flat-out owned the art form, trailblazing the way for scores of female pop stars who blend talent and sex appeal.
Ms. Summer, "the Queen of Disco," died Thursday (May 17, 2012) in Naples at age 63. Her publicist said she had been battling cancer. The singer had a home in nearby Englewood with her husband, Bruce Sudano.
Brazen and beautiful, the singer leaves behind a ground-breaking legacy as the Grammy-winning belter of such dance-floor burners as Last Dance, MacArthur Park, Hot Stuff and Bad Girls. As well as flashing that big voice, she wasn't shy about showing off her legs or cleavage, either. Madonna, Britney Spears and Lady Gaga all have Ms. Summer to thank.
"Her records sound as good today as they ever did," said Elton John in a statement. "That she has never been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a total disgrace especially when I see the second-rate talent that has been inducted."
Disco was her primary canvas, and at one point she charted four No. 1 hits in a 13-month period. 1975's Love to Love You Baby was her first smash, even though many radio stations banned it because of infamous bedroom moans — 23 of them in fact — Ms. Summer recorded for the song. She later said she was nervous about making the song and had to channel the moxie of Marilyn Monroe to get through the take.
Even Barbra Streisand, a serious-minded, G-rated vocalist, hitched a ride on Ms. Summer's saucy star, the unlikely duo scoring with chart-topping 1979 duet No More Tears (Enough Is Enough). That song was from the On the Radio LP, one of Ms. Summer's three double-albums that reached No. 1 on the U.S. Billboard chart.
In 1983, Ms. Summer scored perhaps her biggest hit: She Works Hard for the Money. The driving, defiant song didn't just prove that she was a music survivor — after all, disco was a bad joke by then — it also showed that she was more than just sex appeal.
In an interview with Nightline, Ms. Summer said about the song: "I was at a Grammys party … and I went to the ladies room and on my way in I saw this little old lady sitting at the end of the bar. And she was asleep. She was the bathroom attendant. And at that same moment, a group of ladies walked into the room and started spraying their hair and doing all these things. And my first thought was 'God, she works hard for her money, that lady.' "
Born LaDonna Adrian Gaines in Boston, one of seven children, Ms. Summer first started singing in her church, influenced heavily by Mahalia Jackson. She later toured internationally with a production of Hair, and before her big break she was a backup singer for Three Dog Night, by then influenced by Janis Joplin.
Despite all the "toot toot, beep beep" trappings of her disco hits, Ms. Summer was a first-rate singer with mezzo-soprano range. Although many of her songs ended with a boogie beat, they often started slow, the perfect showcase for vocals that crescendoed with great, moving power.
After promoting sex, drugs and disco for so long, Ms. Summer later returned to the church. She grew uncomfortable with her "Queen of Disco" tag and her more sexual songs. In the late '80s, the born-again Christian — although a gay icon for her glam style — was accused of making anti-gay remarks relating to the AIDS epidemic. But she denied ever saying such things, even going as far as suing New York magazine for writing that she did.
If Ms. Summer had trouble with her musical past, the rest of us sure don't. Most recently, her music has been sampled by the Pussycat Dolls and rapper Nas. On Broadway, Priscilla Queen of the Desert, The Musical features two of her songs, Hot Stuff and MacArthur Park.
The news of Ms. Summer's death spread immediately on the Internet, and just as quickly, so did condolences and appreciations from the musicians she helped shape. R&B star Mary J. Blige called her "a game changer," while techno artist Moby said, "words can't express the impact and influence she had on music."
Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Information from Times wires was also used. Sean Daly can be reached at [email protected]