Donna Summer lived with a lot of contradictions in her life: She was a disco queen raised on rock, a religious woman who became the reigning sex symbol of late ’70s pop, a dominant singles artist who specialized in expansive concept records, a singer who epitomized mainstream music in her time and ended up influencing the underground for the next few decades. That life has come to an end, as has Summer’s battle with breast cancer. Summer died Thursday at her home in Key West, Fla. She was 63.
Summer’s first hit was the racy “Love To Love You Baby,” an orgasmic provocation that piled on the sultry, sensual emotion for 17 sweaty minutes. The song, which peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard singles chart in 1976, was concocted by an Italian record producer and songwriter named Giorgio Moroder, whose partnership with Summer also resulted in the relentless futurist robo-funk of 1977’s “I Feel Love.” The best dance song of the ’70s, if not the greatest dance track of all-time, “I Feel Love” didn’t do as well on the U.S. chart as “Love To Love You Baby” (it peaked at No. 6), but its influence proved to be a lot more lasting. “I have heard the sound of the future,” Brian Eno famously told David Bowie after hearing the song during the making of the duo’s Berlin trilogy, and he was absolutely right: Club music would never be the same after “I Feel Love,” nor would sizeable chunks of rock music. (Anyone who’s ever been called “dance-punk” owes half of everything they own to Summer and Moroder.) While its innovations have been borrowed countless times since, “I Feel Love” still sounds thrilling 35 years later.
Summer was born on New Year’s Eve in 1948 in Boston. She started singing in the church, and as a child emulated the girl groups of the early ’60s. By the time Summer was a young adult, she had moved on to Janis Joplin and bluesy psychedelia, and played in a rock band called Crow. Later, she left for Europe and performed in musicals like Hair and Godspell. She also worked as a session singer, and sang back up for Three Dog Night, which is when she met Moroder and his partner Peter Bellotte.
By the late ’70s, Summer was enjoying her greatest period of success, with three No. 1 albums—1978’s Live And More, 1979’s Bad Girls, and 1979’s On The Radio: Greatest Hits Volumes Vol. 1 And 2—and four chart-topping singles. Summer’s star rose (and subsequently fell) with the explosive popularity of disco, but her range as a singer (she was a mezzo-soprano) and artist couldn’t keep her confined to any one genre. While singles from this period like “Last Dance,” “On The Radio,” and “Bad Girls” remain her calling card, Summer was also a committed album artist. She released three ambitious double-records in the late ’70s that centered on big concepts, including the passage of time (1976’s I Remember Yesterday), the scope of a life from poverty to wealth (1977’s Once Upon A Time), and prostitution (1979’s Bad Girls). Summer also showed that she hadn’t lost her rock chops with “Hot Stuff,” which won her a Grammy for best female rock vocal, one of five she was awarded in her career.
Summer’s success came at a personal price: She fought drug addiction and anxiety issues, and struggled to come to terms with her sexy image. In 1979, she became a born-again Christian, and refused to perform “Love To Love You Baby” for the next 30 years. Summer scored one of her biggest hits, “She Works Hard For The Money,” in 1982 and returned to the charts in 1988 with “This Time I Know It’s Real,” but she never recaptured the popularity she had in her prime. Still, in spite of the predictions of anti-disco curmudgeons, Summer’s greatest hits continue to live on in pop history for their ineffable strength and inexhaustible soul. Her best songs still feel—whether it's love, sex, God, happiness, or that indescribable sensation that moves your hips.