Hugely successful recording artist Donna Summer, who died today at age 63, is often referred to as "the Queen of Disco." And indeed Summer flourished and largely helped define that genre, but the moniker, despite its high title, is perhaps too limited. Summer had her biggest commercial successes in the disco realm, but really she was a genre unto herself.
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Born and raised in the rough Dorchester section of Boston, in her early 20s Summer fled the city she found stifling for Europe, to tour with a production of Hair (and learn German, evidently). She lived overseas doing theater and other odd singing gigs for a number of years, earning some artistic bona fides and absorbing disparate influences, until she made her way back to American shores when her fiercely sexual "Love to Love You Baby" became a hit in 1976. In the next few years she ascended to the throne of disco, but her songs were always more artistically intricate and stylistically complex than that much-maligned label usually implies. Songs like "Last Dance," one of her most enduring hits (for anyone who's ever been to a wedding, anyway), are certainly emblematic of disco, but they are specifically Donna Summer songs first.
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Even a song like "MacArthur Park," which was not written for her and was first recorded by the man who would be Albus Dumbledore, has really become Summer's own, owing to the specific nuance and depth of feeling she brought to it — her theater background shines through, as does some of the psychedelic abandon of a Boston girl who skipped town to sing about hippies in Europe. It's likely this extra-performative quality that made her an idol of the gay community, or at least the part of the community that appreciates a grand diva. Summer's songs were gay club anthems in the 1970s and '80s, her music at turns provocatively sexy and at others almost bittersweet — she's perhaps an older day Robyn.
Like the Queen of Disco title, Summer's status as a gay icon might not bave exactly fit her right. A devout born-again Christian, Summer got into some hot water in the mid-'80s after she was reported to have made inflammatory anti-gay remarks during several of her concerts. As is documented in a fascinating little time capsule piece (it reads like anything written today, and yet so much has changed) by the late, great Advocate columnist Adam Block, Summer became public enemy number one among certain gay activists for, among other things, trotting out Anita Bryant's old "Not Adam and Steve" routine. Though Summer did issue a sincere-sounding apology, she never quite reconciled herself with perhaps the most passionate core of her fan base.
Which is to say that Summer was of course more than a simple disco queen from a bygone era. She was an honest to goodness artist, troubled and conflicted and not without controversy. At root a deeply talented mezzo-soprano who sang with symphony orchestras and rock bands alike, Summer deserves a pretty prominent place on the mantle among great music acts of her generation. She may have been the queen of the discotheques instead of the "respectable" artsy venues, but that's a pretty significant kingdom to rule.