Singer songwriter Donna Summer, called the “Queen of Disco,” was born on December 31, 1948, in Boston, Massachusetts. Her dad, Andrew Gaines, was a butcher and her mom, Mary Gaines, was a schoolteacher. From almost the moment she learned the best way to speak, Donna sang ceaselessly. “From the time she was little, that is all she actually did,” her mother remembered. “She literally lived to sing … She used to undergo your house singing, singing.
Summer’s debut performance came one Sunday when she was 10 years old, when a vocalist scheduled to perform at her church failed to appear. The priest, who understood from her parents Summer’s fondness for singing, invited her to perform instead—anticipating, at the least, an amusing spectacle. But to everyone’s surprise, the voice that bellowed out of Donna Summer’s miniature body that Sunday morning was irresistibly strong and lovely.
“You could not see her if you were beyond the third row,” her dad recalled. “But you can hear her.” Summer remembered, “I began shouting, everybody else began shouting. It was quite an incredible moment in my own life & and at some point after I heard my voice come out I felt like God said to me, ‘Donna, you are likely to be really, very well-known.’ And I simply knew from that day on I had been planning to be famous.”
She was also something of a troublemaker as a teen, sneaking out to parties to circumvent her parents’ rigorously enforced curfew. Beating her father’s initial objections, she accepted the part and flew to Germany with her parents’ unwilling acceptance. Summer learned to speak fluent German in just a couple of months, and following Hair completed its run, she chose to stay in Munich, where she appeared in other musicals and worked in a recording studio singing backup vocals and record demo tapes.
The exact same year, Summer wed German vocalist Helmuth Sommer. She embraced an anglicized version of his last name as her stage name, which she kept even following the couple divorced in 1976.
In 1975, Summer co-composed and recorded a demo version of a seductive disco track called “Love to Love You Baby,” initially thinking it for another musician. Producers enjoyed Summer’s demo version so much they chose to make it her tune instead. The last version released in America, an unprecedented 17 minutes long, featured Summer’s tantalizingly soft vocals and sexy moaning—sounds so indicative, in fact, that many radio stations initially refused to play the tune. Nonetheless, the path-breaking disco track became an overnight sensation, skyrocketing to No. 2 on the U.S. singles graph and functioning as the titular track of her second record. Building on the success of “Love to Love You Baby,” Summer released two records in 1976: A Love Trilogy and Four Seasons of Love, each of which were tremendous successes.
As the 1970s gave way to the 1980s, Summer briefly left disco to release two R&B records: The Wanderer (1980) and Donna Summer (1982). The title track, according to Summer’s feelings upon seeing a sleeping bathroom attendant in a restaurant, has become something of a feminist anthem.
From the late 1980s, Summer’s popularity started to wane and she reached just yet another Top 10 hit throughout the decade, 1989’s “This Time I Know It’s For Real” off the record Another Place in Time.
During these years, the multi-gifted Summer also branched out into painting, holding several exhibits annually and loving both critical acclaim and commercial success. She also became embroiled in controversy throughout the early 1990s, when New York magazine reported that Summer had made homophobic comments and called the AIDS outbreak punishment for the sins of gay. Summer vociferously denied making these opinions and sued the magazine for libel. The case was settled out of court. Summer released her first record in 14 years, Crayons, in 2008 to favorable reviews and adequate income.
Summer wed singer songwriter Bruce Sudano in 1980, and they had two kids. Summer expired on May 17, 2012 at age 63, after a years-long struggle with cancer. Known as the “Queen of Disco,” Summer will likely be remembered as possibly the best vocalist in disco history. But she was so much more: a vocalist of unbelievable range and power whose voice was equally at home in German language show tunes, racy disco dancing tracks and strong gospel ballads.
Not long before her departure, Summer said that her leading life aspiration wasn’t connected her singing. “What I aspire to in my entire life, really, would be to be loving,” she said. “And I do not consistently realize that, but that is my aspiration.”