Born LaDonna Adrian Gaines in Dorchester, Massachusetts, she became Donna Summer when she married the actor Helmuth Summer in 1974. They divorced two years later, but Donna kept the name.
She was married twice, first to Helmuth Summer from 1974-1976, then to Bruce Sudano of the group Brooklyn Dreams from 1980 until her death in 2012. She had a daughter, Mimi (b. 1973), with Sommer, and two more with Sudano: Brooklyn (b. 1981) and Amanda (b. 1982). Mimi was raised by Summer and Sudano; Brooklyn became a popular actress, starring in the ABC sitcom My Wife and Kids.
When she was 20 years old, she began to audition as a Broadway performer. Her first role was in the musical, Hair, that was performing in Germany. She also performed in Show Boat and Godspell while in Germany. Summer learned to speak German during her show tune days.
Summer was a woman of faith who hewed to traditional values, but that didn't stop her from singing from the perspective of a sex kitten in songs like "Love To Love You Baby
" and "Hot Stuff
." That because she saw herself as an actress who sang, and in these songs, she was just playing a character. She did write some very personal songs, but they weren't the big hits most people know. A good example is "Friends Unknown," which is a tribute to her friends and family.
One of Summer's first singing gigs was as a background vocalist for the rock group Three Dog Night during the 1970s. Her association with Three Dog Night gained her connections with the recording label, Groovy Records, which produced her first album in 1974 titled Lady of the Night. Summer's first album featured a blend of folk-rock, similar to Three Dog Night's folksy style, and pop-rock. In fact, she later noted that she initially considered herself a rock singer, but since black female rock singers were not on anyone's radar, she turned to disco, which would become her trademark sound.
She had three Hot 100 #1 hits on her own, and a fourth with Barbra Streisand: "No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)
," which is the first duet between two female artists to hit the top spot.
The disco album Once Upon a Time
, released in 1977, was Summer's breakthrough record. The songs on the album were arranged as a concept; the songs told a story similar to Cinderella. Her first #1 hit, "MacArthur Park
," a cover of the song that was originally performed by Richard Harris, came from the album.
By 1978, Donna Summer was a household name for disco dancers. As a result of her ever increasing popularity, she was given an acting role as a singer whose main goal was to become a disco dancer at the hottest club on the scene. The movie, Thank God It's Friday
, was a moderate success. Summer recorded the song "Last Dance
" for the movie, which reached #3 on the Billboard Hot 100. The song also granted Summer her first Grammy Award for Best R&B Female Vocal Performance. The Queen of Disco was born during this monumental time in her career. Summer is quoted with saying "God had to create disco music so I could be born and be successful."
Summer is the mother to modern-day techno music. Her electronic dance tunes have encouraged all types of recording artists, such as Iggy Pop who stated Summer's music is the "future of music." Madonna is just one artist to sample Summer's tunes, as noted in the song "Music
" released in 2000 by Madonna.
She became the first black woman to get significant airplay on MTV when the network put "She Works Hard For The Money
" in rotation in 1983. When MTV launched, they passed on Summer's video for "The Wanderer
," even though she was a huge star.
Unlike most disco divas, Summer wrote many of her songs. In a Songfacts interview with her husband, Bruce Sudano
, he explained: "Donna wasn't somebody who put up walls. She didn't see barriers, she just saw what she could do and believed in what she could do. And when she would do it, there was no question because there it was and it was pretty obvious. So, it wasn't that she had to force anybody to allow her. Her talent spoke for itself and you knew she was going to take you to the mountain top."
Summer was known as a disco singer, but she could sing just about anything. This posed a conundrum for the Grammy Awards, which wanted to recognize her talent but weren't sure how to classify her. She ended up with trophies in four different genres:
R&B ("Last Dance," 1978)
Rock ("Hot Stuff
Inspirational ("He's A Rebel," 1983; "Forgive Me," 1984)
Dance ("Carry On," 1997)
There was a disco category for 1979; Summer was nominated for "Bad Girls
" but lost to "I Will Survive
She died of lung cancer in 2012 at 63. Summer didn't smoke, but was living in Manhattan in 2001 when planes struck the World Trade Center in terrorist attacks. Toxic particles in the air is a possible cause for her cancer.
She won lots of awards, but didn't display them because she didn't want her stardom hanging over her family.
It took five nominations, but she entered the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013, the year after her death. Kelly Rowland and Jennifer Hudson feted her in tribute at the ceremony.
Summer: The Donna Summer Musical opened on Broadway in April 2018. It closed in December, but continued as a touring production.