Remembering Donna Summer

On May 17, 2012 the music world suffered a huge loss when singer Donna Summer lost her battle with lung cancer.  Summer was an icon of the 1970s, the undisputed Queen of Disco.  Her impact on the music world wasn’t simply confined to the disco genre; she legitimized it and her success helped disco evolve into the world of popular music. 

Summer was born LaDonna Adrian Gaines on New Years Eve in 1948, and entered the world ready to party.  At eight years old she began singing in church and it wasn’t long before she was singing regularly both in church and school. Just before graduation in the late 1960s she left her home in Boston, Massachusetts for New York, where she landed roles in musicals such as Hair, Godspell, and Show Boat.  In the early 1970s Summer performed and recorded in Europe, but it was 1975 that proved to be the year that would transform her from background vocalist to the voice of the decade.  That year she recorded and released her first single on Casablanca Records, “Love To Love You Baby,” which shot to the top of the charts.  The song was risqué and controversial, not only because of the sexually charged content but also because of the song length, an unprecedented 17 minutes long.  Shorter versions were subsequently released for radio but the clubs continued to jam the extended version.  Throughout the rest of the 1970s she would continue to top the charts with songs like “I Feel Love,” “Last Dance,” “Heaven Knows,” Hot Stuff,” “Bad Girls,” and “Dim All The Lights.”  She recorded the duet “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)” with singer Barbra Streisand, and Summer’s “MacArthur Park” became a disco anthem.  In 1978, Summer made her acting debut as Nicole Sims, a young singer with dreams of becoming a disco star in Thank God It’s Friday, a feature film capitalizing on the disco craze.  A year later the public began to jump off the disco train as new wave and hip-hop began to gain mainstream popularity.  In the summer of 1979, Chicago disco station WLUP played Summer’s “Last Dance” for 24 hours straight before pronouncing disco dead and then switching over to their Top 40 rock format.  Summer wanted to shed her disco roots as well, and in 1980 she kicked off a new decade with a new record label, Geffen Records.  Her first single, “The Wanderer,” was definitely a break from her previous disco recordings.  With its new wave/rock sound, “The Wanderer” went gold and made it to number three on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.  After two more albums on Geffen, Summer signed with Mercury Records and released her biggest hit of the 1980s, She Works Hard For The Money.  Story goes that the words for the song came to her after she noticed a female bathroom attendant working at a Grammy party.  Summer actually started writing the lyrics for the song there in the bathroom, on toilet paper.  The song shot to the top of the Billboard R&B chart, made it to number three on the pop and dance charts and the music video received two MTV Video Music Award nominations for Best Female Video and Best Choreography.  For the next two decades, Summer would release six more albums, continue to perform for sold out audiences worldwide, and worked in television on the Bravo series Platinum Hit as well as playing a recurring role on the sitcom Family Matters.  Her 89th single, “To Paris With Love,” would earn Summer her 16th number one single after making it to the top of the US Dance chart in 2010.  While her untimely death was a shock to us all, she leaves behind a rich musical legacy: One hundred-thirty million records sold worldwide, six American Music Awards, five Grammy awards, and memories of an era long gone, but not soon forgotten.

–Montrose Cunningham

Montrose Cunningham is an independent funk/rock/soul artist and devoted music aficionado residing in Dallas, Texas. When he isn’t digging through the crates–digital and analog–he’s jamming with his band or hanging with his daughters; sometimes both at the same time. Purchase his latest release “Inertia” at Visit him online at Facebook, and follow him on Twitter @MontroseC.


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