May 17

This Day in History

Music

May 17, 2012:

Donna Summer, queen of disco, dies

On this day in 2012, singer and songwriter Donna Summer, who rose to fame during the 1970s with such disco anthems as “Love to Love You Baby” and “Hot Stuff,” dies at age 63 in Naples, Florida, after battling cancer. Also known for such 1980s hits as “She Works Hard for the Money,” the five-time Grammy Award winner influenced scores of other artists with her music, which has been sampled by Pet Shop Boys, Beyonce and Ne-Yo, among others.

LaDonna Adrian Gaines was born on December 31, 1948, in Boston. She grew up singing in church, and in the late 1960s moved to Germany after being cast in a touring production of the Broadway rock musical “Hair.” In the early 1970s, while continuing to work as a singer in Europe, she was briefly married to Austrian actor Hellmuth Sommer. When the two divorced, she kept a variation of his last name as her stage name.

Summer shot to prominence with the 1975 release of “Love to Love You Baby,” which became a hit in dance clubs across Europe and the United States. She had another hit single with 1977’s “I Feel Love,” whose synthesized sound is credited with helping to pioneer electronic dance music. In 1978 Summer had her first number-one hit in America with a disco arrangement of the Jimmy Webb song “MacArthur Park.” That same year, Summer played an aspiring disco singer in the movie “Thank God It’s Friday.” She won her first Grammy Award, in the best R&B female vocal performance category, for “Last Dance,” which appeared on the movie’s soundtrack. “Last Dance” also scored an Academy Award for best original song. In 1979 she had three more number-one singles: “Hot Stuff,” “Bad Girls” and a duet with Barbra Streisand, “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough).” Other hits that year for Summer, who had become one of the most successful singers of the disco era, included “Dim All the Lights” and “On the Radio.”

After disco’s popularity peaked in the late 1970s, Summer began recording in a variety of musical genres, from new wave rock to gospel. She even penned a song, “Starting Over Again,” that became a number-one country single for Dolly Parton in 1980. In 1983 Summer released her 11th studio album, “She Works Hard for the Money,” which reached number nine on the U.S. Billboard chart and whose title track became a pop-rock feminist anthem. She had the last top 10 single of her career in 1989 with “This Time I Know It’s for Real.”

Summer, who moved to Nashville with her second husband in the mid-1990s, continued to record and perform, earning her fifth Grammy in 1998, in the best dance recording category, for "Carry On." In 2008 she released her 17th and final studio album, “Crayons,” which included three songs that made it onto the dance music charts. In 2009 Summer performed at the Nobel Peace Prize Concert in Oslo, Norway, in honor of President Barack Obama. The music icon’s last single, “To Paris With Love,” was released in 2010.

On May 17, 2012, Summer, the mother of three daughters, died from non-smoking-related lung cancer. She was buried in Nashville.

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