Last week, five-time Grammy Award-winning singer Donna Summer passed away of lung cancer at the age of 63.
Born in 1948 as LaDonna Andre Gaines in the Mission Hill section of Boston, Summer sang in her church’s choir and played in a rock band before moving to New York after finishing high school in the late 1960s to find her big break as a vocalist and actor. Summer’s talents eventually took her to Germany, where she sang and acted in a production of the musical “Hair.”
While in Europe, she performed with the Viennese Folk Opera in Austria and cut demos while working as a studio vocalist and singing background for other artists.
Summer paid her dues and eventually scored her first smash hit with the then-controversial “Love to Love You Baby” in 1975, recorded with the legendary producer/songwriter team of Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte.
Moroder had this to say on BBC Radio 5 about how Summer will be remembered: “For her incredible voice and talents,” he said. “She wrote good lyrics and sang great songs.”
Summer’s work with Moroder also set the template for what would become Eurodisco and techno, which dominate much of pop music today. 1977’s “I Feel Love” became one of the first hits made entirely with synthesizers. Summer helped create a Cinderella-themed disco album called “Once Upon a Time…” and became the first female artist to have three No. 1 hits in the same calendar year in 1979, with “Bad Girls,” “MacArthur Park” and “Hot Stuff.”
Summer’s tendency to work with material specifically designed to not only be a good song but to showcase her voice is what set her apart from many “one and done” singers at the height of the disco craze in the late 1970s. Her past in rock, soul and gospel helped mold her versatility, especially as she continued to have hits into the 1980s.
Summer bookended the beginning and end of the decade with the hits “She Works Hard for the Money” in 1983 and “This Time I Know It’s for Real” in 1989, and won a gospel Grammy for “Forgive Me.” In between, she got married, had children, got divorced and became a born-again Christian. She never stopped touring and recording, even as she raised her daughters, and she eventually remarried. Summer’s story is one of hard work paying off and being in the right place at the right time.
In a story common in the music industry, sales of her work are expected to spike in the aftermath of her passing, but (another story common in the music industry) half of her albums are currently out of print and are owned by her estate. Billboard has reported that her seven available greatest hits collections and a remix collection should see a rise in sales.
It’s not unusual for a musician to pass away and have whatever generation that’s currently in control give you the news from their angle. With certain artists, like Michael Jackson or Adam “MCA” Yauch of the Beastie Boys, several different generations had different impressions of them. Depending on when you were born, Jackson was the cute kid from the Jackson 5, the man-boy pop genius or the tabloid phenomenon. For Yauch, he was either one of the faux frat boys from “Licensed to Ill” or the cool hip-hop/alternative hybrid that made you aware of the plight in Tibet.
But no matter what generation you’re a part of, Summer is always associated with the disco era. And while she contributed much to legitimizing the genre in the eyes of music critics, it limits her legacy. Summer was more than just a disco queen; her voice sneakily influenced most other pop voices that came after her.
Anyone who was a casual music listener in the 1980s knows the names Irene Cara, Taylor Dayne and the pop group Expose. Their lineage, along with Janet Jackson, Jody Watley and even Lady Gaga, can be traced right back to Summer and her gift to pop music. Summer is the mother of the modern pop singer.
While there’s much to be said about Summer blaming her lung cancer on the air she inhaled in her lower Manhattan apartment in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the fact of the matter is that music just lost a legend. Music lost an icon. And as her life was never tabloid fodder, gossip media can never tear her down. For that, her fans should be proud.