By JON PARELES MAY 17, 2012 NY Times
Donna Summer, the multimillion-selling singer and songwriter whose hits captured both the giddy hedonism of the 1970s disco era and the feisty female solidarity of the early 1980s, died on Thursday at her home in Naples, Fla. She was 63.
The cause was cancer, her publicist, Brian Edwards, said.
With her doe eyes, cascade of hair and sinuous dance moves, Ms. Summer became the queen of disco — the music’s glamorous public face — as well as an idol with a substantial gay following. Her voice, airy and ethereal or brightly assertive, sailed over dance floors and leapt from radios from the mid-’70s well into the ’80s.
She riffled through styles as diverse as funk, electronica, rock and torch song as she piled up 14 Top 10 singles in the United States, among them “Love to Love You Baby,” “Bad Girls,”“Hot Stuff,”“Last Dance” and “She Works Hard for the Money.” In the late ’70s she had three double albums in a row that reached No. 1, and each sold more than a million copies.
Her combination of a church-rooted voice and up-to-the-minute dance beats was a template for 1970s disco, and, with her producers Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte, she pioneered electronic dance music with the synthesizer pulse of “I Feel Love” in 1977, a sound that pervades 21st-century pop. Her own recordings have been sampled by, among others, Beyoncé, the Pet Shop Boys, Justice and Nas.
Ms. Summer won Grammy Awards for dance music, R&B, rock and gospel. Her recorded catalog spans the orgasmic moans of her first hit, “Love to Love You Baby,” the streetwalker chronicle of “Bad Girls,” the feminist moxie of “She Works Hard for the Money” and the religious devotion of “Forgive Me,” a gospel song that earned her another Grammy.
Through it all, Ms. Summer’s voice held on to an optimistic spirit and a determination to flourish. She garnered loyal fans. In 2009 she performed in Oslo at the concert honoring the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to President Obama.
On Thursday, the president released a statement, saying, “Her voice was unforgettable, and the music industry has lost a legend far too soon.”
Jon Landau, the chairman of the nominating committee at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, also issued a statement — an unusual one in which he said it was unfortunate that the hall had never inducted her.
“There is absolutely no doubt that the extraordinary Donna Summer belongs in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,” Mr. Landau wrote. “Regrettably, despite being nominated on a number of occasions, our voting group has failed to recognize her — an error I can only hope is finally and permanently rectified next year.”
LaDonna Adrian Gaines was born Dec. 31, 1948, in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston, one of seven children. She grew up singing in church and decided in her teens to make music her career. In the late 1960s she joined the Munich company of the rock musical “Hair” and relocated to Germany, where she became fluent in German and worked as a studio vocalist, in musical theater and briefly as a member of the Viennese Folk Opera. She married an Austrian actor, Hellmuth Sommer, in 1972, and after they divorced she kept his name but changed the spelling. She had already recorded her first single under the name Donna Gaines, an unsuccessful remake in 1971 of the Jaynetts’ “Sally Go ’Round the Roses.”
Her work as a backup singer brought her to the attention of Mr. Moroder and Mr. Bellotte. Her 1974 debut album with them, “Lady of the Night,” was released only in Europe. But with “Love to Love You Baby” in 1975, Ms. Summer became a sensation. She said she recorded that song’s breathy, moaning vocals lying on her back on the studio floor with the lights out, thinking about how Marilyn Monroe might coo its words.
The American label Casablanca signed her after hearing the song in its initial European version, titled “Love to Love You,” and asked her to extend it for disco play. The resulting 17-minute single contains more than 20 simulated orgasms and became an international hit, reaching No. 2 on the American pop chart. Ms. Summer quickly released two more albums, “A Love Trilogy” and “Four Seasons of Love,” a concept album tracing a romance over the course of a year.
But she was increasingly uncomfortable being promoted as a sex goddess. “I’m not just sex, sex, sex,” she told Ebony magazine in 1977. “I would never want to be a one-dimensional person like that.”
She became so depressed that in late 1976 she attempted suicide, she wrote in her 2003 autobiography, “Ordinary Girl: The Journey,” written with Marc Eliot. She began taking medication for depression and seeking consolation in religion, becoming a born-again Christian in 1979.
“I Remember Yesterday,” one of two albums Ms. Summer released in 1977, revolved around the concept of mixing disco with the sounds of previous decades. But it was a song representing the future, “I Feel Love,” that would make the most impact. Its all-electronic arrangement was a startling new sound for a pop song, and its contrast of human voice versus synthetic backdrop would echo through countless club hits in its wake.
Ms. Summer was still demonstrating her versatility. She followed up with an orchestral album, “Once Upon a Time,” a set of songs telling a Cinderella story, and then a live album in 1978, “Live and More,” which yielded a hit with a version of “MacArthur Park.” That was the first of four No. 1 singles she would have in a year, followed by “Hot Stuff,” “Bad Girls” and a duet with Barbra Streisand, “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough).” Ms. Summer won her first Grammy Award — for best R&B vocal performance, female — with “Last Dance,” a song by Paul Jabara. It was introduced on the soundtrack to the 1978 movie “Thank God It’s Friday” and has ended many a wedding party ever since.
Disco as a fad was peaking, and Ms. Summer strove to outlast it. Her 1979 double album, “Bad Girls,” put some rock guitar into songs like “Hot Stuff”; it won a Grammy for best rock vocal performance, female. Her first collection of hits, “On the Radio: Greatest Hits Volumes 1 and 2,” also reached No. 1 in 1979, and the newly recorded title song was a Top 10 single.
Another hit from 1979, “Heaven Knows,” reached No. 4 on the pop chart, with personal repercussions. Ms. Summer recorded it with the group Brooklyn Dreams, and she married its co-founder, Bruce Sudano, in 1980. He survives her, along with three daughters — Brooklyn Sudano, Amanda Sudano and Mimi Dohler — and four grandchildren. She is also survived by a brother, Ricky Gaines, and four sisters: Dara Bernard, Mary Ellen Bernard, Linda Gaines and Jeanette Yancey.
“On the Radio” was Ms. Summer’s last album for Casablanca. As disco receded, she moved to Geffen Records, seeking to hold her broader pop audience. She tried new wave rock on “The Wanderer” in 1981, then switched to the R&B produced by Quincy Jones for “Donna Summer” in 1982. But she would reach her 1980s commercial peak with “She Works Hard for the Money” in 1983, collaborating with the producer Michael Omartian. It was her last Top 10 album, and amid its gleaming pop productions it included “He’s a Rebel,” an indirect Christian rock song — “He’s a rebel, written up in the lamb’s book of life” — that won a Grammy for best inspirational performance.
Ms. Summer’s career waned in the mid-1980s. Pop fans paid little attention to two albums from that period, “Cats Without Claws” and “All Systems Go,” and she alienated gay fans when she was quoted as having described AIDS as divine punishment for an immoral lifestyle. Though she repeatedly denied making that statement, many gay listeners boycotted her music, and by the time she had reconciled with gay organizations, her hitmaking streak was broken. Her last Top 10 hit, “This Time I Know It’s for Real,” was in 1989.
But she continued to record and perform. She and Mr. Sudano moved to Nashville (they maintained homes there and in Florida) and wrote songs together, including a No. 1 country single for Dolly Parton, “Starting Over Again.” A 1997 remix of a song Ms. Summer recorded in 1992 with Mr. Moroder, “Carry On,” won her the first Grammy given for best dance music. Well into the 2000s, she continued to appear on the dance-music charts: three songs from her last studio album, “Crayons,” in 2008, reached No. 1 on that chart, as did her final single, “To Paris With Love,” in 2010.
“This music will always be with us,” Ms. Summer told The New York Times in 2003. “I mean, whether they call it disco music or hip-hop or bebop or flip-flop, whatever they’re going to call it, I think music to dance to will always be with us.”
Correction: May 22, 2012
An obituary on Friday about the singer Donna Summer misstated, in some editions, the connection between Jon Landau and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Mr. Landau, who said he regretted that Ms. Summer had not been inducted into the hall, is the chairman of the nominating committee, not of the Hall of Fame itself. The obituary also referred incorrectly to the musical background of Ms. Summer’s husband, Bruce Sudano. He was one of three singers in the group Brooklyn Dreams; he was not the lead singer.