Donna Summer, the R&B songstress known best for her far-ranging voice and late-’70s dance-floor ballads who was dubbed the Queen of Disco at the height of the genre’s popularity, died Thursday from complications of cancer. She was 63.
Famous for her singing abilities as well as for her songwriting talents, Summer scored consistent hits at the height of her career with tunes that still get frequent radio airplay, like “Hot Stuff,” “Bad Girls,” “MacArthur Park” and “On the Radio.”
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A source from Summer’s family confirmed her death midday Thursday. She had been living in Englewood, Fla., with her husband, musician Bruce Sudano.
Born LaDonna Andrea Grimes on Dec. 31, 1948, in Boston, she grew up in a working-class household with six siblings and began singing in church choir, developing her voice as a fan of gospel legend Mahalia Jackson. As a teen she moved to New York City so she could find work on Broadway, and at age 18 she landed a role in the touring company of Hair, moving to Europe with the production.
While living and performing in Europe, she met and married actor Helmut Sommer, with whom she had one child before divorcing in 1976. During a recording session with Blood, Sweat and Tears, producers Pete Bellotte and Giorgio Moroder (with whom she would go on to record several classics) fell in love with her voice and quickly persuaded her to work with them. Summer’s first single, “The Hostage,” became a minor club hit in Europe.
But her clear breakout was in 1975, with a 17-minute slow-but-bumping soul groove that all but simulated a sexual encounter — and featured Summer’s own moaning — called “Love to Love You, Baby.” It hit the top of the U.S. charts by 1976.
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From there, Summer began to ride the worldwide disco wave and became perhaps the most well-known female performer of the genre, rivaling the Bee Gees in popularity. In 1977 she released a hit that served as a precursor to modern techno music titled “I Feel Love,” which made her among the first female artists to use synthesizers in a recording.
She appeared in the disco film Thank God It’s Friday, which flopped. But she still won a Grammy for the most popular song on the soundtrack, “Last Dance,” which also earned her an Oscar for Best Original Song.
“Music just evolves, people just get tired of it, and they move on to something else,” she told the New York Times in an interview. “In that period people were in a dance mood. They wanted to be lifted up, they wanted to have fun, they didn’t want to think.”
The 1980s brought further success for Summer, who by then was married to Sudano, when she released The Wanderer, which did not chart as well as her previous albums. Producer Quincy Jones collaborated with her on a self-titled album. She was required to do one more album for Casablanca records, which she was attempting to leave. The title track, a working woman’s anthem titled “She Works Hard for the Money,” charted at No. 3 in the U.S. in 1983.
Her last major hit came in 1989 with “This Time I Know It’s for Real,” which reached the Top 10 on U.S. charts. She did, however, have some continued success with a 1994 collaboration with Moroder on 1994’s “Melody of Love,” and 1997’s “Carry On,” earning the first Grammy for Best Dance Recording.
Summer continued to tour and perform through the 1990s and 2000s. She was diagnosed with breast cancer but remained private about it as she was preparing a new album. “If I can do it at my age and put myself on the line, I don’t know what will come of it, but you know what, I’m going for it,” Summer told ABC News in 2008. “I’m going to kick this ball as far as I can, and hopefully I’ll kick it out of the stadium.”
(LIST: All-TIME 100 Songs)