Born LaDonna Adrian Gaines in Boston, Massachusetts, Donna Summer's rise to prominence was through the wild days of the disco era and though that cemented her musical reputation in the annals of history, her story runs much deeper than that.
Busting out of Boston with psychedelic outfit The Crow, Summer (then known as Donna Gaines) had already proven that though well-versed in the spirituals and singing traditions of her church, it wasn't just Mahalia Jackson records that kept her up at night. Filled with love for Motown girl groups like The Supremes, it would be Janis Joplin's work with Big Brother and the Holding Company that would prove a major influence in deciding her career path.
Her early New York City days were filled with missed opportunities but after losing a spot in the musical Hair, it would be an offer to follow the show to Europe that would prove the better bargain for Summer.
Not only did she meet success with the cast in Germany, she actually relocated there and learned to speak German fluently. She also met her first husband Helmuth Sommer there and had a daughter with him. After the marriage crumbled due to Summer's indiscretions with surrealist painter Peter Mühldorfer, it was then that she retained his last name and anglicized it to Summer.
Relocating back to the USA, Summer would go on to a working career doing backup vocals for numerous acts like Three Dog Night and getting session work in studios. Around this time, she was approached by producers Pete Bellotte and Giorgio Moroder and the slow walk to fame began. This yielded the notorious and extremely sexy single "Love to Love You Baby," one of the hottest and most boner inducing songs of all time. And we don't mean just the "simulated orgasm" of moans and groans: You truly feel loved.
Donna Summer - "Love to Love You Baby"
While her association with the disco scene of the late '70s is well known (and might actually be the "go-to" Donna Summer reference) and that her title "the First Lady of Love" came to be, it is this period in Summer's life that would cause her the most distress. With increasing appeal and success, the media interest in her took its toll on her relationship with Mühldorfer (who was eventually forced back to Germany) and most importantly on her.
Beginning with a whirlwind involving prescription medication addiction and the increasing competition of other musical genres vying for the spotlight and chart space, Summer's sound took a slightly more aggressive turn with 1979's Bad Girls. Conceptualized from the standpoint of a prostitute, Summer even appears dressed as an old school hooker on the cover. While the album art might seem cartoonish and dated, it is still (in my opinion) a pretty bold statement to this day. Immortalized for different reasons in the 1997 film, The Full Monty, "Hot Stuff" is still an awesome track and anybody who's ever liked Pat Benatar and/or Joan Jett can't deny this song's place amongst them.
Donna Summer - "Hot Stuff"
The 1980s would prove torrential for Summer through a mix of declining interest in her music, new-found Christianity, and a still confusing tangle of anti-gay comments at the beginning of the AIDS era that have never been fully cleared up. While Summer claims she never made such statements, there have been plenty of out-of-court settlements with media entities who claimed it as fact as well as the differentiating tales of management and sycophants.
Oh well, it certainly did not stop her music from animating many a gay bar across the world.
The 1990s were relatively quiet for her, but she did chip at the R&B charts with 1991's "When Love Cries" and a few television appearances in sitcoms. Largely out of the limelight by the 2000s, Summer still let her presence be known with a few dance numbers charting here and there as well as an appearance at the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize Concert.
Donna Summer - "When Love Cries"
Summer had been fighting lung and breast cancers for a while and passed away in her Key West home this morning and is survived by her longtime husband Bruce Sudano and their two daughters as well as her daughter from her previous marriage. She might've never been able to shake off the First Lady of Love title, but to us, she will always be a bad girl. Beep beep!!!
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Donna Summer - "Bad Girl"