Music > Genre
Genre busting: the origin of music categories
Where did the terms retro-nuevo and skronk originate?
Michaelangelo Matos runs through
an exhaustive catalogue
of music's phrasemakers
A History of Modern Music: the timeline
In a seven-part series,
Guardian and Observer critics
chart the history of modern music,
tackling a different genre each day
and picking 50 key moments.
Use this interactive guide
to travel through time and see their selections.
UK > late-1970s
> new wave USA
UK > early 1980s > New Romantic movement
BBC music show > Top of the Pops UK
USA > crooner
computer music USA
electronic music UK
electro pop UK
dance music UK
music EDM UK
dance punk UK
disco revival 2009
disco / pop > Bee Gees
disco / pop > Bee Gees > Maurice Gibb
Saturday Night Fever
UK / USA
hard rock UK / USA
A weekend of clashes
Mods and Rockers
culminates in a battle on Brighton beach
May 18 1964
street piano / organ
/ organ grinder USA
Chicago blues 1960s
Delta bluesmen / blues
African-American musical tradition
the black string band,
that predates the blues
and influenced country music
soul and blues balladeer
the 1970s Tulsa sound
- a blend of rockabilly, blues,
country and rock
Queen of Disco
Who Transcended the Era,
Dies at 63
May 17, 2012
The New York Times
By JON PARELES
Donna Summer, the multimillion-selling singer and songwriter
whose hits captured both the giddy hedonism of the 1970s disco era and the
feisty female solidarity of the early 1980s, died on Thursday at her home in
Naples, Fla. She was 63.
The cause was cancer, her publicist, Brian Edwards, said.
With her doe eyes, cascade of hair and sinuous dance moves, Ms. Summer became
the queen of disco — the music’s glamorous public face — as well as an idol with
a substantial gay following. Her voice, airy and ethereal or brightly assertive,
sailed over dance floors and leapt from radios from the mid-’70s well into the
She riffled through styles as diverse as funk, electronica, rock and torch song
as she piled up 14 Top 10 singles in the United States, among them “Love to Love
You Baby,” “Bad Girls,” “Hot Stuff,” “Last Dance” and “She Works Hard for the
Money.” In the late ’70s she had three double albums in a row that reached No.
1, and each sold more than a million copies.
Her combination of a church-rooted voice and up-to-the-minute dance beats was a
template for 1970s disco, and, with her producers Giorgio Moroder and Pete
Bellotte, she pioneered electronic dance music with the synthesizer pulse of “I
Feel Love” in 1977, a sound that pervades 21st-century pop. Her own recordings
have been sampled by, among others, Beyoncé, the Pet Shop Boys, Justice and Nas.
Ms. Summer won Grammy Awards for dance music, R&B, rock and gospel. Her recorded
catalog spans the orgasmic moans of her first hit, “Love to Love You Baby,” the
streetwalker chronicle of “Bad Girls,” the feminist moxie of “She Works Hard for
the Money” and the religious devotion of “Forgive Me,” a gospel song that earned
her another Grammy.
Through it all, Ms. Summer’s voice held on to an optimistic spirit and a
determination to flourish. She garnered loyal fans. In 2009 she performed in
Oslo at the concert honoring the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to President Obama.
On Thursday, the president released a statement, saying, “Her voice was
unforgettable, and the music industry has lost a legend far too soon.”
Jon Landau, the chairman of the nominating committee at the Rock and Roll Hall
of Fame, also issued a statement — an unusual one in which he said it was
unfortunate that the hall had never inducted her.
“There is absolutely no doubt that the extraordinary Donna Summer belongs in the
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,” Mr. Landau wrote. “Regrettably, despite being
nominated on a number of occasions, our voting group has failed to recognize her
— an error I can only hope is finally and permanently rectified next year.”
LaDonna Adrian Gaines was born Dec. 31, 1948, in the Dorchester neighborhood of
Boston, one of seven children. She grew up singing in church and decided in her
teens to make music her career. In the late 1960s she joined the Munich company
of the rock musical “Hair” and relocated to Germany, where she became fluent in
German and worked as a studio vocalist, in musical theater and briefly as a
member of the Viennese Folk Opera. She married an Austrian actor, Hellmuth
Sommer, in 1972, and after they divorced she kept his name but changed the
spelling. She had already recorded her first single under the name Donna Gaines,
an unsuccessful remake in 1971 of the Jaynetts’ “Sally Go ’Round the Roses.”
Her work as a backup singer brought her to the attention of Mr. Moroder and Mr.
Bellotte. Her 1974 debut album with them, “Lady of the Night,” was released only
in Europe. But with “Love to Love You Baby” in 1975, Ms. Summer became a
sensation. She said she recorded that song’s breathy, moaning vocals lying on
her back on the studio floor with the lights out, thinking about how Marilyn
Monroe might coo its words.
The American label Casablanca signed her after hearing the song in its initial
European version, titled “Love to Love You,” and asked her to extend it for
disco play. The resulting 17-minute single contains more than 20 simulated
orgasms and became an international hit, reaching No. 2 on the American pop
chart. Ms. Summer quickly released two more albums, “A Love Trilogy” and “Four
Seasons of Love,” a concept album tracing a romance over the course of a year.
But she was increasingly uncomfortable being promoted as a sex goddess. “I’m not
just sex, sex, sex,” she told Ebony magazine in 1977. “I would never want to be
a one-dimensional person like that.”
She became so depressed that in late 1976 she attempted suicide, she wrote in
her 2003 autobiography, “Ordinary Girl: The Journey,” written with Marc Eliot.
She began taking medication for depression and seeking consolation in religion,
becoming a born-again Christian in 1979.
“I Remember Yesterday,” one of two albums Ms. Summer released in 1977, revolved
around the concept of mixing disco with the sounds of previous decades. But it
was a song representing the future, “I Feel Love,” that would make the most
impact. Its all-electronic arrangement was a startling new sound for a pop song,
and its contrast of human voice versus synthetic backdrop would echo through
countless club hits in its wake.
Ms. Summer was still demonstrating her versatility. She followed up with an
orchestral album, “Once Upon a Time,” a set of songs telling a Cinderella story,
and then a live album in 1978, “Live and More,” which yielded a hit with a
version of “MacArthur Park.” That was the first of four No. 1 singles she would
have in a year, followed by “Hot Stuff,” “Bad Girls” and a duet with Barbra
Streisand, “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough).” Ms. Summer won her first Grammy
Award — for best R&B vocal performance, female — with “Last Dance,” a song by
Paul Jabara. It was introduced on the soundtrack to the 1978 movie “Thank God
It’s Friday” and has ended many a wedding party ever since.
Disco as a fad was peaking, and Ms. Summer strove to outlast it. Her 1979 double
album, “Bad Girls,” put some rock guitar into songs like “Hot Stuff”; it won a
Grammy for best rock vocal performance, female. Her first collection of hits,
“On the Radio: Greatest Hits Volumes 1 and 2,” also reached No. 1 in 1979, and
the newly recorded title song was a Top 10 single.
Another hit from 1979, “Heaven Knows,” reached No. 4 on the pop chart, with
personal repercussions. Ms. Summer recorded it with the group Brooklyn Dreams,
and she married its co-founder, Bruce Sudano, in 1980. He survives her, along
with three daughters — Brooklyn Sudano, Amanda Sudano and Mimi Dohler — and four
grandchildren. She is also survived by a brother, Ricky Gaines, and four
sisters: Dara Bernard, Mary Ellen Bernard, Linda Gaines and Jeanette Yancey.
“On the Radio” was Ms. Summer’s last album for Casablanca. As disco receded, she
moved to Geffen Records, seeking to hold her broader pop audience. She tried new
wave rock on “The Wanderer” in 1981, then switched to the R&B produced by Quincy
Jones for “Donna Summer” in 1982. But she would reach her 1980s commercial peak
with “She Works Hard for the Money” in 1983, collaborating with the producer
Michael Omartian. It was her last Top 10 album, and amid its gleaming pop
productions it included “He’s a Rebel,” an indirect Christian rock song — “He’s
a rebel, written up in the lamb’s book of life” — that won a Grammy for best
Ms. Summer’s career waned in the mid-1980s. Pop fans paid little attention to
two albums from that period, “Cats Without Claws” and “All Systems Go,” and she
alienated gay fans when she was quoted as having described AIDS as divine
punishment for an immoral lifestyle. Though she repeatedly denied making that
statement, many gay listeners boycotted her music, and by the time she had
reconciled with gay organizations, her hitmaking streak was broken. Her last Top
10 hit, “This Time I Know It’s for Real,” was in 1989.
But she continued to record and perform. She and Mr. Sudano moved to Nashville
(they maintained homes there and in Florida) and wrote songs together, including
a No. 1 country single for Dolly Parton, “Starting Over Again.” A 1997 remix of
a song Ms. Summer recorded in 1992 with Mr. Moroder, “Carry On,” won her the
first Grammy given for best dance music. Well into the 2000s, she continued to
appear on the dance-music charts: three songs from her last studio album,
“Crayons,” in 2008, reached No. 1 on that chart, as did her final single, “To
Paris With Love,” in 2010.
“This music will always be with us,” Ms. Summer told The New York Times in 2003.
“I mean, whether they call it disco music or hip-hop or bebop or flip-flop,
whatever they’re going to call it, I think music to dance to will always be with
This article has been revised
to reflect the following
Correction: May 17, 2012
A previous version of this article misstated Jon Landau’s title
as chairman of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
He is the chairman of its nominating committee.
Donna Summer, Queen of Disco Who
Transcended the Era, Dies at 63,
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