Donna Summer 1948-2012

By | Published on Friday 18 May 2012

Donna Summer

Singer Donna Summer died yesterday, aged 63, succumbing to lung cancer.

Born LaDonna Adrian Gaines in Boston, Massachusetts in 1948, and one of seven children, Donna Summer’s first performance was in church aged ten when a scheduled singer failed to turn up. The story goes that the priest knew that she was fond of singing at home, and thought that, if nothing else, having a small child sing solo in front of a full church would be funny. Except, in fact, the young Summer’s voice was so good the audience was shocked, and some cried with emotion. It was at that point, Summer later said, that as a ten year she old knew that she would be a famous singer.

After this, she began performing in school musicals and then, at the age of eighteen, shortly before she was due to graduate from high school, she auditioned for and won a part in a production of ‘Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical’, which was due to be staged in Munich. Despite initial objections from her parents, she took the part, dropped out of school and moved to Germany, where she lived for a number of years.

While living in Munich, Summer began recording her own music with producer Giorgio Moroder, and adopted her stage name after marrying Austrian actor Helmuth Sommer in 1974 (they divorced two years later). The same year she released her debut album, ‘Lady Of The Night’, in The Netherlands, spawning two minor hits in the country.

In 1975, Moroder wrote what would become one of Summer’s most famous songs, ‘Love To Love You Baby’. However, due to the erotic moans required for the vocals, Summer said that she would only record a demo version in order for the producer to shop it around other potential vocalists. But so impressed was he with Summer’s rendition, he eventually convinced her to release it herself. Despite being seventeen minutes long and deemed too sexual for many US radio stations (and the BBC in the UK), it shot to number two in the Billboard Hot 100 and made Summer an ‘overnight’ success.

The album of the same name went to number eleven in the US chart, and capitalising on this success Summer released four more long players over the next two years, all of which reached the Top 30. The most successful of these, 1977’s ‘I Remember Yesterday’, reached number eighteen in the US charts and three in the UK charts, and spawned another of Summer’s most famous songs, ‘I Feel Love’, which was a UK number one. Her biggest album success came two years later, with ‘Bad Girls’, which went to number one in numerous countries, and became her second consecutive US number one, after 1978’s ‘Live And More’.

After this, a dispute over musical direction with her label Casablanca, which had released seven of her eight albums by that point (over a period of four years), saw her depart and sign to the then new Geffen label. Wanting to break away from disco, which was beginning to wane in popularity, she and Moroder worked on a more rock-focussed sound on her first album for the label, ‘The Wanderer’, in 1980. Despite reasonable success in the US, with the title track becoming a number three single, both the album and singles from it failed to break the top 40 in the UK.

Her second album for Geffen, ‘I’m A Rainbow’, was shelved because the label was unhappy with it (it was eventually released in 1996), and Summer was told to record a new album with Quincy Jones, 1982’s ‘Donna Summer’, her first without Giorgio Moroder. Geffen believed that Jones’ association with Mchael Jackson would guarantee the boost her career needed. However, while it was a moderate success, the album didn’t return Summer to the popularity of her 1970s heyday.

Geffen then refused to release the follow-up to ‘Donna Summer’, though by that point a legal battle with Casablanca had decided that Summer still owed her former label one more album anyway, so the record rejected by Geffen was handed over to them. By this point Casablanca was owned by PolyGram, so it was they who released 1983’s ‘She Works Hard For The Money’, which – despite Geffen’s reservations – actually went on to enjoy something closer to the success they had been hoping for since signing the singer.

Something Geffen presumably cursed when Summer returned to them for 1984’s ‘Cats Without Claws’ which, despite having the same producer as ‘She Works Hard For The Money’ (Michael Omartian) failed to break the top 40 in the US or UK. Its most successful single only reached 21 in the Hot 100.

In the mid-80s Summer also become embroiled in controversy after she was alleged to have made comments that AIDS was a punishment from God for homosexuals. Many people sent their copies of her records back to the labels that had released them in protest. She denied these claims and, seemingly unaware of just how fierce the anger against her had been up to that point, in 1989 finally wrote to AIDS campaign group ACT UP to apologise for any hurt she had caused.

During this time, Geffen also made another attempt to boost her career, hiring British producers Stock, Aitken and Waterman to write and produce ‘Another Place And Time’. However, again Geffen was unhappy with the results and refused to release the record, opting to drop Summer from its roster instead. The album was then picked up by Warner/Atlantic and found success in the UK, particularly with the single ‘This Time I Know It’s For Real’. Summer then recorded a second album with SAW, but fell out with them in the process and the tracks for it were later re-recorded by Lonnie Gordon.

Although she recorded again sporadically, Summer became a much less prominent figure in subsequent years. Nevertheless, she remains one of the most enduring performers of the disco era.

Summer died at her Florida home on 17 May 2012. She is survived by her husband Bruce Sudano, their daughters Brooklyn and Amanda, another daughter from a previous marriage, Mimi, and four grandchildren.