Celebrated singer Donna Summer, known as the Queen of Disco, died today at her home in Key West, Florida, the AP reports. She was 63 years old and had suffered from cancer. A five-time Grammy award winner, Summer’s electric stage presence — amplified by her fantastical wardrobe of sequins, tulle, and rhinestones and accented by her famous hairdos — made her an icon of the seventies disco era.
Born LaDonna Adrian Gaines to a devout Christian household in Boston in 1948, Summer began singing at church at a young age. During her teen years, she was inspired by Motown girl groups like the Supremes; later, she became a disciple of Janis Joplin. In 1968, she moved to Germany for several years after she got a part in the European tour of the musical Hair. While living in Munich, she became fluent in German and even joined a German pop group called FamilyTree. She moved to Austria in 1971 when she married actor Helmuth Sommer and then to L.A. in 1975 when they divorced (his surname was the basis for her stage name).
Summer got her first big international break when she recorded “Love to Love You” in 1975. The song got off to a slow start when some radio stations opposed Summer’s “suggestive” moaning and groaning on the track, but by 1976, it skyrocketed to No. 2 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100. Summer also made a seventeen-minute-long version of the song for discothèques, cementing her core audience in gay clubs. By 1979, she’d released seven more records and achieved international disco stardom. Her hit songs like “Bad Girls,” “MacArthur Park,” and “Hot Stuff” are considered some of the best music of the decade and are still beloved by gays and straights alike. She once described her inspiration for the song “She Works Hard for the Money” on Nightline:
I was at a Grammys party … and I went to the ladies room and on my way in I saw this little old lady sitting at the end of the bar. And she was asleep … She was the bathroom attendant. And at that same moment, a group of ladies walked into the room and started spraying their hair and doing all these things. And my first thought was “God, she works hard for her money, that lady.” … And then I thought, “man, that’s a song,” … So I went and grabbed my manager and we went back into the bathroom and started writing the song on a piece of toilet paper.
By 1980, Summer was suffering from anxiety and depression and decided she wanted to branch out from disco. Her subsequent albums were less popular, but they still achieved relative success. In the mid-eighties, her gay fans became furious when she was accused of making negative comments about those suffering from AIDS. She refuted the rumors, stating, “[It was] a terrible misunderstanding … If I have caused you pain, forgive me.” She asserted in subsequent interviews that she was supportive of the gay community.
Summer continued singing right up until last year, most recently recording a track with her nephew, the rapper O’Mega Red. She is survived by three daughters and her husband Bruce Sudano. In an official statement, her family said they “are at peace celebrating her extraordinary life and her continued legacy.” Enjoy our look back at some of her finest moments — all of which involved fabulous amounts of pomp and sparkle — in our slideshow.