LaDonna Adrian Gaines was born in Boston in 1948. She began singing in church and joined a band, Crow, while in high school. Crow failed to land a record deal and broke up, so she went to New York, where she auditioned for Hair in 1967. Losing the part to Melba Moore, Gaines accepted an offer to join the cast of the musical in Munich. She became fluent in German and began a successful singing career in Germany and Austria. She had a brief marriage to Austrian actor Helmuth Sommer, which gave her her daughter, Mimi, and the last name that — with a vowel switch — became legendary.
She hooked up with producers Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte, who helped her craft her sound. She had the bare bones of a song which they helped finish. In 1975, it became her first international hit, Love to Love You Baby, taking her to #2 on the Billboard Hot 100. Over the next three years she ruled the U.S. Dance charts (with eight top tens, five of which spent a total of 21 weeks at #1) but only managed one more pop Top 10, I Feel Love. In 1978, as disco fever began to sweep America, her persistence paid off.
Quickly gaining her crown as the Queen of Disco, Summer continued her Dance chart dominance and became a force to be reckoned with on the Hot 100, R&B, and Album charts. Unlike many other disco stars (such as the Bee Gees), she continued to evolve her sound, maintaining a strong chart presence into the 21st Century. Among her many awards were five Grammys (with an additional 12 nominations). Her Billboard chart performance is also remarkable.
- On the Hot 100, she was the #16 artist of the 70s (really only charting for three years of the decade), in the top 50 of the 80s, and comes in at #53 overall. She racked up four #1s, spending 13 weeks at the top, and another 10 Top 10 hits. She hit the top 40 every year from 1976 to 1984, a run beating the likes of Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney and only exceeded by Elton John for those decades.
- On the R&B chart, she is the #76 performer overall, with two #1s and a dozen Top 10s.
- On the Dance chart, she comes in at #3 overall, beaten only by Madonna and Janet Jackson, whose careers owe much to the Queen. She had 24 Top 10s, 12 of which went to #1, spending an incredible 48 weeks at the top.
- On the Album chart she comes in at #137 with three #1s for eight weeks. She’s the #18 female solo artist on that chart and is the only performer to hit the top three times with double albums.
All the awards aside, she’s also an icon. As the pre-eminent singer of the era when the gay community was finding its voice and before the AIDS crisis, she became one of the biggest gay divas. This relationship became strained when it was rumored that she used her Christian faith to bash the “gay lifestyle” but she fervently denied the charges and apologized for the misconceptions. She also raised money for AIDS causes and allowed free use of her song She Works Hard for the Money by feminist organizations. She leaves behind her three daughters and her husband of 32 years, Bruce Sudano.
I had left Donna Summer behind by the time I met my husband thirteen years ago. She was a major part of his formative years –he even performed along to Last Dance in his room in his platform shoes — so he reintroduced me to her music. It was a joy to learn her music again and enjoy it together. She was a powerful singer and a unique talent. Farewell, gracious Queen, let’s dim all the lights.