Donna Summer was universally hailed as "the Queen of Disco," but the title didn't really do her justice. Summer had a big, powerful voice that would have served her well in any era. Such Summer hits as "Heaven Knows" and "On The Radio" were really just great pop records with a dance beat. But because of her strong association with disco, when the disco bubble burst in the early 1980s, Summer's career also suffered.
But while she was hot, she was on fire. Summer had eight consecutive top 10 hits, from "Last Dance" in July 1978 to "On The Radio" in February 1980. All eight were certified gold by the Recording Industry Assn. of America. "Last Dance," which Summer sang in the 1978 movie Thank God It's Friday, won an Oscar as Best Song.
Few would have guessed that Summer would become a major star from the sound of her first chart hit, "Love To Love You Baby." The steamy hit was noteworthy mostly for Summer's orgasmic moaning and its epic length. The heavy-breathing novelty was an inauspicious debut for an artist who turned out to have genuine talent.
Summer had 14 top 10 hits between "Love To Love You Baby" in January 1976 and "This Time I Know It's For Real" in June 1989. When she scored her 14th top 10 hit, she became only the fifth female solo artist to have so many top 10 hits in the rock era. She followed Aretha Franklin, who was then the leader among female solo artists with 17 top 10 hits; Connie Francis (16) and Olivia Newton-John and Madonna, who were then tied with 15 each. (Madonna has since moved up to 38 top 10 hits. Several other women, including Mariah Carey, Janet Jackson, Whitney Houston and Rihanna, have also pulled ahead.)
Summer was far and away the hottest artist of 1979. Bad Girls topped The Billboard 200 for six weeks that year. That same year, she had three #1 hits on the Hot 100: "Hot Stuff," "Bad Girls" and "No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)," a collabo with Barbra Streisand. The latter song was the first collaboration by two female stars to reach #1 on the Hot 100. (At the time, Summer was the hotter recording star, though Streisand was already an entertainment legend.) Two other Summer hits went top five that year: "Heaven Knows" (with Brooklyn Dreams) and "Dim All The Lights."
Summer landed her first #1 hit in November 1978 with a disco version of Richard Harris' epic ballad "MacArthur Park." Her version eclipsed the original, which had reached #2 in 1968. Summer's version remains the only #1 hit for legendary songwriter Jimmy Webb. Summer also charted with two other cover versions of major pop hits. In 1976, she scored with a disco version of Barry Manilow's 1975 hit "Could It Be Magic." In 1984, she had a hit with a remake of the Drifters' 1959 classic "There Goes My Baby."
Summer won five Grammys, spread out over four distinct musical fields. "Last Dance" won in R&B. "Carry On," a 1997 reunion with her long-time collaborator Giorgio Moroder, won in the dance field. "Hot Stuff" won in rock. The 1980s album cuts "He's A Rebel" and "Forgive Me" won for Best Inspirational Performance.
"Hot Stuff" made Summer the first winner of the Grammy for Best Rock Vocal Performance, Female. Her success paved the way for subsequent Grammy rock victories by such other African American artists as Michael Jackson (with "Beat It"), Tina Turner (with such hits as "Better Be Good To Me") and Lenny Kravitz (with such hits as "Fly Away").
Summer opened the Grammy telecast in February 1984 singing her then-recent hit "She Works Hard For The Money." She memorably performed the song in the pink waitress garb she had worn on the album cover.
Summer performed "Last Dance" on the Academy Awards in April 1979. It won in a competitive field which also included the Olivia Newton-John hit "Hopelessly Devoted To You" (from Grease) and the Barry Manilow hit "Ready To Take A Chance Again" (from Foul Play).
Summer was a prolific artist. In the space of just two years, she released four consecutive double-disk albums: Once Upon A Time…, Live And More, Bad Girls and On The Radio—Greatest Hits-Volumes I & II. The last three of these albums reached #1 on The Billboard 200, making Summer the first artist in history to top the chart with three successive double-disk albums. (The Beatles tied the feat with their three Anthology collections in 1995-1996).
Summer's sound was so ubiquitous that other singers copied it. Irene Cara's 1980s smashes "Fame" and "Flashdance…What A Feeling" and Laura Branigan's 1982 hit "Gloria" were very much in the Summer mold.
Summer wrote or co-wrote nine of her 14 top 10 hits. She wrote her 1979 hit "Dim All The Lights" by herself. She teamed with Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte to write "Love To Love You Baby," "I Feel Love" and "Heaven Knows"; with just Moroder to write "On The Radio" and "The Wanderer"; with the pop trio Brooklyn Dreams to write "Bad Girls"; with producer Michael Omartian to write "She Works Hard For The Money" and with the hot production team Stock-Aitken-Waterman to write "This Time I Know It's For Real."
Quincy Jones produced the singer's 1982 album Donna Summer. The album was released four months before Michael Jackson's Thriller, which Jones also produced. Jackson was featured in an all-star choir on "State Of Independence," which was one of three Hot 100 hits from Summer's album. That choir also featured James Ingram, Kenny Loggins, Lionel Richie, Dionne Warwick and Stevie Wonder. All of these stars (except Summer, regrettably) were also featured on USA for Africa's 1985 classic "We Are The World," the humanitarian anthem that Jones produced and that Jackson and Richie co-wrote.
Summer teamed with the pop-reggae group Musical Youth on 1983's "Unconditional Love," with Matthew Ward (of 2nd Chapter of Acts) on 1994's "Love Has A Mind Of Its Own" and with Bruce Roberts on 1996's "Whenever There Is Love." (Roberts co-wrote the Summer/Streisand opus "No More Tears (Enough Is Enough).")
Summer's icy, techno-edged hit "I Feel Love" echoed Kraftwerk. It went top 10 in October 1977. Her other top 10 hits, not mentioned elsewhere in this report, include the peppy "Love Is In Control (Finger On The Trigger)."
In 2008, Summer released her first studio album in 17 years (!). The album, Crayons, cracked the top 20.
As noted, Brooklyn Dreams backed Summer on her 1979 hit "Heaven Knows." She also teamed with the members of the trio to co-write her 1979 smash "Bad Girls." A third collaboration yielded the deepest rewards: On July 16, 1980, Summer married Bruce Sudano, the group's keyboardist.
Summer was 63 when she died today of cancer.