Donna Summer Dies: Disco Queen Dominated Pop Charts in Late 1970s

Donna Summer Performing 2012 - H 2012
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Donna Summer Performing 2012 - H 2012

She had 14 Top 10 hits, including four No. 1s, and won five Grammys during a long and influential career.

Donna Summer, the influential “Queen of Disco” who helped define the ’70s dance genre with such hits as “Love to Love You Baby,” “I Feel Love,” “Hot Stuff” and “Bad Girls,” died Thursday of cancer at her home in Naples, Fla. She was 63.

Her illness had not been made public, but her family confirmed her death in a statement to The Hollywood Reporter: “Early this morning, we lost Donna Summer Sudano, a woman of many gifts, the greatest being her faith. While we grieve her passing, we are at peace celebrating her extraordinary life and her continued legacy. Words truly can’t express how much we appreciate your prayers and love for our family at this sensitive time.”

Summer won five Grammys covering four genres – R&B, rock, inspirational and dance -- and racked up 14 Top 10 singles from 1975-89, including four No. 1s in 16 months. She also had three consecutive chart-topping albums in the late 1970s, led by the double-disc Bad Girls, which spent six weeks atop the Billboard 200 in 1979 and spawned three smash singles.

“Donna Summer had a dynamic voice and unique musical style that helped define the dance music genre in the '70s,” Recording Academy president and CEO Neil Portnow said Thursday. “Her talent was a true gift to the music industry.”

Quincy Jones said: “Rest in peace, dear Donna Summer. Your voice was the heartbeat and soundtrack of a decade.”

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LaDonna Gaines was born Dec. 31, 1948, in Boston. She played local clubs with the group Crow before settling in Germany during the late ‘60s. She performed in European stage productions of such musicals as Hair, Godspell and Porgy and Bess before pursuing a music career.

While in Germany, Summer recorded the sexually charged “Love to Love You Baby,” which became her first international hit. The song, which she co-wrote with Giorgio Moroder and producer Pete Bellotte -- with whom she would collaborate throughout the ‘70s -- featured Summer’s erotic moans and became an international smash, despite raising eyebrows and rankles over its blatant sexuality.  It peaked at No. 2 in the U.S., and the album of the same name – whose A-side was filled with a nearly 17-minute version of the song -- reached No. 11 and went gold

Her next two album reached the Top 30, but several follow-up singles failed to gain traction stateside. But her career was reignited in summer 1977 with the influential hit “I Feel Love.” While much of the era’s disco music had been flush with strings, the song featured Moroder’s electronic production and became a smash in dance clubs. Twenty-seven years after its release, Rolling Stone ranked “I Feel Love” No. 411 on its list of the 500 greatest songs of all time.

By 1978, Summer had solidified her standing as the Queen of Disco. Her album Live and More topped the Billboard 200 and generated three huge singles in “Last Dance,” which won a Grammy for best female R&B vocal performance;  “Heaven Knows”; and her take on British actor Richard Harris’ 1968 hit “MacArthur Park,” which spent three weeks at No. 1 that fall.

That summer, she also starred in the 1978 disc flick Thank God It’s Friday, but 1979 would be the singer’s biggest year.

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In late April she released the double album Bad Girls, which immediately was embraced by fans and critics, even The Village Voice’s notoriously hard-to-please Robert Christgau, who gave the set an A- rating. Its first two singles, the rock-tinged “Hot Stuff” – which would be featured 18 years later in a memorable scene from The Full Monty -- and the hooker-themed title track spent a combined eight weeks at No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100. Third single “Dim All the Lights” reached No. 2 in the fall. “Hot Stuff” won a Grammy for best female rock performance, and Billboard ranked her as the top singles act of 1979.

Summer continued her commercial roll with the October release of On the Radio: Greatest Hits Volumes 1 & 2, a double best-of that became her third consecutive chart-topper. Its lead single, “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough),” was a duet with Barbra Streisand that topped the Hot 100 and also was featured on the latter’s Top 10 album Wet.

“I was shocked to hear about Donna,” Streisand said Thursday. “She was so vital the last time I saw her a few months ago. I loved doing the duet with her. She had an amazing voice and was so talented. It’s so sad.”

In July 1980, Summer married Bruce Sudano, a member of the group Brooklyn Dreams. Also that year, she moved from Casablanca Records, her home since 1976, to Geffen. Her first album for the label, The Wanderer, went gold, and its title track reached No. 3. But two follow-up singles barely dented the Top 40 and the album failed to crack the Top 10. Her career had peaked, but it was hardly over.

She continued to tour and record through the 1980s, hitting the Top 10 three more times with “Love Is in Control (Finger on the Trigger),” “She Works Hard for the Money” and “This Time I Know It’s for Real.” Her 1983 album She Works Hard for the Money would be her last to go gold, ending a remarkable string of 11 consecutive gold or platinum discs (not counting a 1980 compilation that came out less than a year after On the Radio).

By the mid-’80s, Summer had become a born-again Christian and shifted her musical focus, earning back-to-back Grammys for best inspirational performance in 1983 and ‘84. But she would return to the dance-pop realm and continue to chart. Her last album was 2008's Crayons.

More recently, she played Urkel’s shy Aunt Oona on two episodes of the long-running sitcom Family Matters during the ’90s, performed solo and with Seal on the 2010 PBS special Hitman Returns: David Foster & Friends and was a guest judge on a 2011 episode of the Bravo competition series Platinum Hit.

In lieu of flowers, Summer's rep Brian Edwards requested donations be made in the singer's honor to the Salvation Army.

Watch Summer sing "Love to Love You Baby" on The Midnight Special below.