One of my first doses of Donna Summer was when I heard her rendition of Jimmy Webb’s “MacArthur Park.” It was the melancholy ballad’s intro fused with Summer’s ethereal-yet-powerful vocals that captured my attention. More than a disco delight, this was one of the many records that showcased Summer’s unparalleled vocal stamina and knack for lyrical interpretation. And the moment she sang, “I don’t think that I can take it / ’Cause it took so long to bake it / And I’ll never have that recipe again,” with such intensifying anguish, I wept. My sentiments were simple: That sister can sing.
In her prime, no one could touch Summer. She broke down many barriers, becoming one of the first Black women to see her video enjoy heavy rotation on MTV with 1983’s “She Works Hard for the Money.” She was also the first woman in music history to score two singles (“Hot Stuff” and “Bad Girls”) on the Billboard Hot 100’s top 3 simultaneously. Though she reigned the disco era in the late ’70s, the five-time Grammy winner paid her dues long before she was dubbed the “Queen of Disco.”
She was so much more than the queen of disco she became known for; she was an honest and gifted singer with flawless vocal talent.
Born LaDonna Adrian Gaines in Boston, she discovered her voice at just 8 years old while belting out the words of Mahalia Jackson’s “I Found the Answer” at church. As a teen influenced by ’60s counterculture, she joined a rock band called Crow and moved to New York City. There, she auditioned for the musical Hair, landed a role in the show’s German production and spent the next eight years living in Munich. During her time in Europe, Summer met Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte, the two pioneer producers responsible for helping her create her signature sound.
Summer was as innovative as she was influential, and we don’t talk about it enough. She scored her first international hit in 1975 with “Love to Love You Baby.” Not only did the 17-minute erotic track change the trajectory of her career, it helped spawn the disco era and made waves as a bold example of female sexual expression. Following the song’s massive success, the public stereotyped Summer as merely a sex goddess and predicted her popularity would wane fast.
But in 1977, she proved critics wrong with the release of “I Feel Love.” The record ushered in the synth-pop era that revolutionized pop music, cementing Summer as an industry game changer. “When we started making music with the synthesizers, it seemed that my voice fit that feeling, and I felt at home in that kind of synthesized space and it worked for me … I felt that we were definitely doing something kind of on the cutting edge at that time,” she told Extra in 2003.
She scored her first international hit in 1975 with “Love to Love You Baby.” Not only did the 17-minute erotic track change the trajectory of her career, it helped spawn the disco era and made waves as a bold example of female sexual expression. Following the song’s massive success, the public stereotyped Summer as merely a sex goddess and predicted her popularity would wane fast.
Summer blessed a generation with a long string of disco anthems, including “Last Dance,” “On the Radio” and “Dim All the Lights,” which she originally penned for Rod Stewart. But thanks to her versatility, she’s one of the few artists who achieved post-disco success with “The Wanderer” and “She Works Hard for the Money,” experimenting with various sounds (e.g., new wave, blues, reggae) all the way up to her final studio album, Crayons, released in 2008.
At age 63, the icon passed away at home in Naples, Florida, after battling lung cancer. Modern-day artists have noted Summer as an influence, including Beyoncé, who famously sampled Summer in one of her earliest hits, “Naughty Girl.” “Donna Summer made music that moved me both emotionally and physically to get up and dance. You could always hear the deep passion in her voice,” she wrote on her website at the time of Summer’s death in 2012. “She was so much more than the queen of disco she became known for; she was an honest and gifted singer with flawless vocal talent.”
To me, Summer exemplifies what Black female artists can achieve when they’re not confined to a category. For instance, she was the first-ever artist to win the Grammy Award for best female rock vocal performance with “Hot Stuff.” Since then, we’ve seen several sisters glean from her rock ’n’ roll history, from Janet Jackson with “Black Cat” to En Vogue with “Free Your Mind.” In 2013, Summer’s rock star status was solidified when she was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
In the same Extra interview mentioned above, Summer talked about the legacy she wanted to leave behind for younger female artists: “I hope that my life will be an example, good and bad … I hope the foundation that I built on, someone will not have to go tear it down, but they’ll be able to build upon the foundation and keep going forward.”
In recent years, her legacy took center stage in Summer: The Donna Summer Musical. Inspired by her extraordinary life and career, the show is a reminder of Summer’s lasting impact on pop culture.
So, here’s to the memory of a trailblazing queen — we miss you, and we salute you.