Five-time Grammy Award winner and disco icon Donna Summer died yesterday of cancer at the age of 63 at her home in Key West, FL.
Summer helped launch disco’s pop music craze in the 1970s, which served up a unique bass-thumping dance beat and unforgettable sing-along lyrics.
Summer was born in Boston as Ladonna Adrian Gaines in 1948, and was one of seven children. Her father was a butcher, and her mom, a schoolteacher who said that Ladonna always loved to sing. She began singing in church at the age of 10, and her talents were noticed and encouraged as she went on to perform in school musicals.
Weeks before her high school graduation in 1967, Summer left Boston for New York to sing in a blues rock band while trying to also pursue record labels, which failed to materialize. Her first break came a few years later when she auditioned for the rock musical, Hair. She lost out to Melba Moore who landed the original Broadway cast role, but Summer did get cast for the same part for the Munich production of the musical. She moved to Munich where she became fluent in German.
After appearing in several other musicals, Summer signed on as a back-up singer for the rock-and-roll band, Three Dog Night. During this period, she met record producer Giorgio Moroder, whom she partnered with to develop her first hit, “Love to Love You, Baby.” The song’s sexually provocative lyrics and her equally provocative performance drew global attention as some radio stations refused to air it. It went on to become the number two song on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 in 1976. And her 17-minute version of the song soon became a staple in disco clubs around the globe.
Years later she admitted in a Chicago Sun-Times interview that she would’ve preferred to have not recorded “Love to Love You, Baby,” and instead would have first recorded “Last Dance” which became her second big hit in 1978 and led to her first Grammy. She went on to record “Bad Girls,” “Hot Stuff,” “On the Radio,” and “She Works Hard for the Money” over the next few years which brought her more Grammys and accolades.
Although the disco era began to fade around 1980, Summer continued to sing and record up until her death. For my generation who spent our teenage years in the 1970s, we will forever hum and sing and dance to the songs made famous by this artist and trailblazer known as the “Queen of Disco.” And, we thank her for giving us the “Last Dance” and many others.