Feature

Donna Summer, 1948–2012

The reluctant diva of disco

In 1975, Donna Summer recorded a pop single that would change dance music forever. The former gospel singer, then unknown in her native U.S., was living in Germany and working with Italian producer Giorgio Moroder and British songwriter Pete Bellotte. Together they came up with “Love to Love You Baby,” a shockingly sexual disco track. Summer overcame her reservations about the lyrics by imagining how Marilyn Monroe would moan and groan the words. Lying on the studio floor with the lights dimmed, she simulated climax 23 times in 17 minutes, enough to cause the BBC and several U.S. radio stations to ban the track. The scandal propelled the song to No. 2 on the American pop chart, and pushed disco—previously the soundtrack of gay nightclubs—into the mainstream.

Before disco, Summer “had already reinvented herself several times,” said the Associated Press. Born LaDonna Adrian Gaines in Boston, she became the lead soloist in her church choir by age 10, and sang Motown songs with local groups as a teenager. But after hearing Janis Joplin in the 1960s, Summer switched to psychedelic rock. She auditioned for a part in the musical Hair, and traveled to Germany with the show, where she married fellow performer Helmuth Sommer. The relationship didn’t last, said The Wall Street Journal, but Summer retained an anglicized version of her Austrian husband’s surname.

After the release of “Love to Love You Baby,” Summer returned to the U.S., where she was hailed as “the first lady of lust.” But the singer was uncomfortable being promoted as a sex goddess, said The New York Times. “I’m not just sex, sex, sex,” she said in 1977. Summer became so depressed with her image that in late 1976 she attempted suicide. Yet it was during this low period that Summer crafted some of her most inspired work. The 1977 track “I Feel Love” was one of the first hit singles to be made entirely on synthesized instruments. Its steady disco beat and euphoric arrangement would inspire countless dance and pop producers. 

“Summer now yearned to break away from the disco format,” said The Guardian (U.K.). Her 1979 album Bad Girls injected rock guitar into songs like “Hot Stuff,” which won a Grammy for Best Female Rock Vocal Performance. But her career sputtered in the mid-’80s after she was quoted as having called AIDS a divine punishment for an immoral lifestyle. Summer denied making the statement, but by the time she had reconciled with her gay fans, her hit-making streak was over. Still, Summer continued to record and perform, and three tracks from her last album, 2008’s Crayons, hit No. 1 on the U.S. dance chart. “Whether they call it disco music or hip-hop or bebop or flip-flop,” she said in 2003, “music to dance to will always be with us.”

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