I was shocked and saddened when I learned that Donna Summer was dead at the age of 63. When you think disco, you think of the queen of disco who belted out songs like “I Need Love”, “Hot Stuff” and “Bad Girls”. Of course, when you ask men which song they like best by her, the contender is more often than not, “Love to Love You, Baby”. They love the groans and moans. Not everyone was receptive. In fact, some American and European radio stations, including the BBC, refused to play it. “Love to Love You Baby” found chart success in several European countries, and made the Top 5 in the United Kingdom despite the BBC ban. Among her other disco hits was the song she did with Barbra Streisand, “No More Tears (Enough is Enough)”. Donna was a five-time Grammy Award winner and the first artist to have three consecutive double albums reach number one on the U.S.Billboard chart. She also charted four number-one singles in the United States within a 13-month period.
She was born LaDonna Adrian Gaines on December 31, 1948. Donna Summer was her stage name. She came from a Christian African American family. She first became involved with singing through church choir groups before joining a number of bands influenced by the Motown Sound. Donna was one of seven children. Her father was a butcher and her mother a schoolteacher. Mary Gaines later recalled that from the time she could talk, her daughter would often sing: “She literally loved to sing. She used to go through the house singing, singing. She sang for breakfast and for lunch and for supper.”
Donna made her singing debut in church at the age of ten when a vocalist failed to show up. She recollects: “I started crying, everybody else started crying. It was quite an amazing moment in my life and at some point after I heard my voice came out I felt like God was saying to me ‘Donna, you’re going to be very, very famous’ and I knew from that day on that I would be famous.”
Later Donna auditioned for the role in the musical Hair but Melba Moore was cast instead. Donna agreed to take the role in the Munich production and moved to Munich, Germany with her parents’ reluctant approval. Donna became fluent in German, singing various songs in the language. She lived there for several years before moving to Austria where she married Austrian actor Helmut Sommer, whose surname she adopted as her stage name. They met on the set of Godspell. The couple had a daughter, Mimi but the marriage ended as a result of her affair with German artist (and future live-in boyfriend) Peter Mühldorfer. Donna kept Helmut’s surname but anglicized it to “Summer”.
Becoming known as the “Queen of Disco”, Donna Summer regularly appeared at the Studio 54 club in New York City. Her music gained a particularly large following within the gay community, for whom she became a gay icon. There was, however, some controversy surrounding comments she made which angered the gay community. In the mid-1980s, she allegedly made anti-gay remarks regarding the then-relatively new disease, AIDS. This had a significantly negative impact on her career and saw thousands of her records being returned to her record company by angered fans. At the time, Donna was a born-again Christian and was alleged to have said that AIDS was a punishment from God for the immoral lifestyles of homosexuals. However, she denied that she had ever made any such comment and, in a letter to the AIDS campaign group ACT UP in 1989, she said that it was “a terrible misunderstanding. I was unknowingly protected by those around me from the bad press and hate letters… If I have caused you pain, forgive me.” She went on to apologize for the delay in refuting the rumours and closed her letter with Bible quotes (from Chapter 13 of 1 Corinthians).
Also in 1989, she told The Advocate magazine that “A couple of the people I write with are gay, and they have been ever since I met them. What people want to do with their bodies is their personal preference.” A couple of years later she filed a lawsuit against New York magazine when it reprinted the rumours as fact just as she was about to release her album Mistaken Identity in 1991.
Donna remarried 1n 1980. Her second husband Bruce Sudano. The two met in 1978 while Donna was working on the hit track, “Heaven Knows” which featured Brooklyn Dreams member Joe “Bean” Esposito on vocals. Bruce was a fellow member. A year later, Summer gave birth to another daughter (her first child with Sudano),Brooklyn Sudano, named after Sudano’s group. (Brooklyn would grow up to star in the hit ABC production My Wife and Kids.) A year after that, Summer and Sudano had their second child, Amanda. In 1994, Summer and her family moved from Los Angeles to Nashville, where she took time out from show business to focus on painting, a hobby she began in 1985. In 1995, Summer’s mother died.
Donna had a lot going for her in the 2000s. She continued to score top ten hits on Billboard’s Dance Chart in the new millennium. In 2000, she also appeared on the third annual Divas special, dedicated to Diana Ross, though Summer sang mostly her own material for the show. In 2004, Donna was inducted to the Dance Music Hall of Fame alongside the Bee Gees and Barry Gibb as an artist. Her classic song, “I Feel Love”, was also inducted that night. On December 11, 2009, Summer performed at the Nobel Peace Prize Concert in Oslo, Norway, in honor of United States President Barack Obama. She was backed by theNorwegian Radio Orchestra.
Before becoming a born again Christian, Donna struggled with drug drug addiction and depression. Diagnosed with lung cancer, Summer died on the morning of May 17, 2012, at her home in Florida after a battle with the disease. Singers and music industry professionals reacted to Donna Summer’s death Gloria Gaynor, a famous Disco performer during the late 1970s, said that she was “deeply saddened” and that Donna was “a fine lady and human being”. Speaking on the CNN Headline News, Gaynor said she was devastated by the death of her longtime friend, and that she had not known about Summer’s cancer. Harry Wayne Casey of KC and the Sunshine Band said he and Donna “ran in the same circles and are part of the same generation”. Barbra Streisand wrote on Twitter: “I loved doing the duet with her. She had an amazing voice and was so talented. . . It’s so sad.” Quincy Jones, on Twitter, wrote that Donna’s voice was “the heartbeat and soundtrack of a decade”. Aretha Franklin said, “It’s so shocking to hear about the passing of Donna Summer. In the 70s, she reigned over the disco era and kept the disco jumping. Who will forget ‘Last Dance.’ A fine performer and a very nice person.” Chaka Khan said: “Donna and I had a friendship for over 30 years. She is one of the few black women I could speak German with and she is one of the few friends I had in this business.”
President Obama expressed his sadness at the passing of such a great talent and icon, “Michelle and I were saddened to hear about the passing of Donna Summer. A five-time Grammy Award winner, Donna truly was the ‘Queen of Disco.’ Her voice was unforgettable, and the music industry has lost a legend far too soon. Our thoughts and prayers go out to Donna’s family and her dedicated fans.” Fans paid tribute to the singer by leaving flowers and memorabilia on her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Notes to Women salute this amazing and talented woman whose legacy will live on. Our thoughts and prayers are with her family.
Because I’m just an ordinary person that did some extraordinary things.
But I like to know that someone is stronger than I am. I want to be able to know that if I get tired, somebody is there to hold up the fort. I like knowing that I can’t pick a refrigerator alone. God did not make me strong enough to do that.
God had to create disco music so I could be born and be successful.
I don’t care if I’m beautiful; I don’t care what I am on the outside. It isn’t about the outside.
I don’t really try to predict what can and will happen with things. Sometimes you think something’s gonna be a huge success, and it isn’t. And sometimes you pay no attention to something whatsoever, and God just makes it into everything.
I want a private life, I truly do. I’m not just pretending to want one like lots of celebrities.