Disco legend Donna Summer died Thursday morning May 17 in Naples, Fla., at age 63 after a battle with cancer, said her publicist Brian Edwards. Her family released a statement saying they “are at peace celebrating her extraordinary life and her continued legacy.” The five-time Grammy-winning singer had numerous hits in both the 1970s and 1980s, including “Last Dance,” “She Works Hard for the Money” and “Bad Girls.”
“The City of Philadelphia and the music world are deeply saddened by the passing of an incredibly talented musical artist, Donna Summer,” said Mayor Michael Nutter, who was once known as club DJ “Mix Master Mike.” “For people in my generation and many others, she was one of the greatest vocalists of the second half of the 20th century. An innovator of note, she had a wide range of musical capabilities. She was one of the leaders of the disco wave in America and Europe, and she broke new musical ground with songs like ‘Love to Love You Baby,’ ‘Bad Girls,’ ‘MacArthur Park Suite’ and ‘Hot Stuff.’”
Summer was the first artist to have three double albums reach No. 1 on Billboard’s album chart: “Live and More,” “Bad Girls,” “On the Radio: Greatest Hits Volumes I & II.” She became a cultural icon, not only as one of the defining voices of the era, but also as an influence on future pop divas from Madonna to Beyoncé.
Nutter recalled playing “the Queen of Disco” during her heyday while deejaying at the Impulse Disco at Broad Street and Germantown Avenue. “For a young guy working in a night club at the high point of disco, and for everyone who came together in those days of joyful music and dance, she represented a singular musical style and a towering artistry. We all carry fond memories of Donna Summer. Whether performing alone or in duets with talents like Barbara Streisand, Donna Summer was one of the very best. I loved her music, her beautiful voice, and her grand musical talent.”
Summer reportedly did not embrace the “Disco Queen” title and later became a born-again Christian, but many remembered her best for her early years, starting with the sinful “Love to Love You Baby.” Released in 1975, a breakthrough hit for Summer and for disco, it was a legend of studio ecstasy and the genre’s ultimate sexual anthem. She simulated climax so many times that the BBC kept count: 23, in 17 minutes.
“All other erotic tunes, like ‘Jungle Fever’ and Pillow Talk,’ were mere foreplay to ‘Love To Love You, Baby.’ In the first place, it took up the whole album side and it set the scene for the 12-inch single,” noted author and cultural critic Richard Torres.
What started as a scandal became a classic. The song was later sampled by LL Cool J, Timbaland, and Beyoncé, who interpolated the hit for her jam “Naughty Girl.” It was also Summer’s U.S. chart debut and the first of her 19 No. 1 dance hits between 1975 and 2008 — second only to Madonna.
“The funny thing about that track is that it really does warrant that length,” explained Torres. “There is no filler on that track. It’s hypnotic. ‘Love To Love You, Baby’ is the American ‘Ravel’s Bolero’ — it’s the beginning and middle, and,” Torres reflects with a chuckle, “it gave a man something to shoot for.”
Musically, Summer began to change in 1979 with “Hot Stuff,” which had a tough, rock ‘n’ roll beat. Her diverse sound helped her earn Grammy Awards in the dance, rock, R&B and inspirational categories.
“She’s the most underrated great singer of the last 35 years,” noted Torres. “People would have thought of her as a — and this is pun intended — one-trick-pony based on the orgasmic ‘Love to Love You, Baby.’ But even in that song she showed tremendous range. What people forget is that she also received a lot of scorn, because there was this racist movement to anti-disco, and because she was the ‘Queen of Disco,’ her vocal and artistic contributions were diminished in the mainstream press. This is a woman, who by the way, more than held her own in a duet with Barbara Streisand on ‘Enough Is Enough/No More Tears.’ What she had was this unfailing rhythmic ability — and disco was all about could you ride the rhythm — she wasn’t a shouter, a la Lolita Holloway, but she was a chanteuse. She created a mood with every song.”
Summer released her last album, “Crayons,” in 2008. It was her first full studio album in 17 years. She also performed on “American Idol” that year with its top female contestants. Summer is survived by her husband, Bruce Sudano, and three daughters, Brooklyn, Mimi and Amanda.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.