Born Donna Adrian Gaines (also cited variously as Donna Gaines and LaDonna Gaines), December 31, 1948, in Dorchester, MA; married Helmut Sommer (an actor), 1971, (divorced, 1976); married Bruce Sudano (a musician), c. 1981; children: (second marriage) Brook Lyn (daughter). Addresses: Record company--Mercury Records, 825 Eighth Avenue New York, NY 10019.
Pop vocalist Donna Summer's first U.S. release was, arguably, her most famous recording. The 17-minute disco anthem "Love to Love You Baby," replete with orgasmic moaning sounds, began Summer's undisputed reign as Disco Queen during the 1970s. In the last few years of that decade, she had numerous hit songs and albums both in pop and rhythm and blues. When disco finally faded from the musical scene, Summer became a born- again Christian, revealing a religious side to her music. Although no longer a dominating pop music force, Summer continued to make bankable albums during the 1980s, and her willingness to adapt to currently popular musical styles has suggested that she will continue to generate hits for the remainder of her musical career.
Born Donna Adrian Gaines, Summer grew up in Dorchester, Massachusetts, a working class city adjoining Boston. Her father was a butcher, her mother a school teacher. As a child she sang in Boston-area church choirs but by high school her tastes had grown more secular. She piled up hundreds of truancy slips, skipping school in order to sing with a local rock band. Two months before high school graduation, Summer dropped out. In 1967, at age 18, she debuted at Boston's Psychedelic Supermarket.
The following year found her abroad in the German production of Hair. Europe would be her home for the next eight years. After a year and a half of Hair, Summer moved to Austria, becoming a regular with the Vienna Folk Opera. The Opera offered productions of Porgy and Bess and Showboat during her tenure.
It was in Austria, in 1971, that she married local actor Helmut Sommer. Although their marriage would dissolve in 1976 under the pressure of Summer's disco success, she continued to use the anglicized version of his last name.
Back in Germany in 1973, performing in a production of Godspell and working as a session singer in Munich's Musicland studios, Summer met producer Giorgio Moroder. Moroder was to be called Summer's "Svengali" due to his influence on her career. On the Oasis label, owned by Moroder and partner Pete Bellotte, Summer made a couple of European hits that were never released in the United States.
1975 saw the end of Summer's relative obscurity, and "Love to Love You Baby" was the reason why: 17 minutes of romantic lyrics, disco beat, and feigned orgasm delivered while lying down on the studio floor with the lights dimmed. Spin magazine said of this song that it "launched the extended dance mix as we know it--the zygote of house and industrial ... and invented the 12-inch." Casablanca records received the U.S. license and became Summer's record company upon her return to the United States. The song was an immediate disco hit and within months found its way up both the pop and rhythm and blues charts, hitting Numbers Two and Three, respectively.
Summer released an album named for the hit single in 1976. Love to Love You Baby nearly made the U.S. Top Ten and reached Number 16 in the United Kingdom. She and her producers were determined not to be merely a flash in the pan. In June of that year, the Summer-Moroder-Bellotte team released A Love Trilogy and also managed to squeeze in The Four Seasons of Love by December.
The first of her albums with a title that did not contain the word "love," the 1977 release I Remember Yesterday generated the singer's second gold single "I Feel Love." The song, a synthesizer pop hit, extended Summer's stylistic range, according to The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock and Roll. In 1978, Summer contributed most of the lyrics to the disco/fairy tale concept album Once Upon a Time, which she claimed was mostly autobiographical. The Cinderella-toned lyrics talked of girls who "live in a land of dreams unreal / Hiding from reality ... trapped within their world." Later in 1978, on Live and More, Donna covered Jimmy Webb's "MacArthur Park" for an unpredictable massive hit--her first appearance in slot Number One on the pop charts.
As the 1970s ended, it seemed Summer could do no wrong. Between 1978 and 1980 she earned eight Top Ten hits. She even became a film star, portraying an aspiring singer in 1979's Thank God It's Friday. While one critic suggested audiences would thank god when this movie was over, the film's Number Three hit song "Last Dance" won an Oscar and two Grammys--one for Summer and one for writer Paul Jabara.
Bad Girls, a 1979 number one double album, was Donna's last recording for Casablanca. Four songs from this album reached the Top Ten, many sitting there for weeks, variously occupying the Number One and Two positions. But according to The Encyclopedia of Pop Rock & Soul Summer was depressed by her struggle with Casablanca to go beyond disco. She claimed that she'd been "stuck doing something that had been choking me to death for three years." She began including religious songs in her performances, a return to her church roots and a reflection of a desire for inner peace.
This soul weariness took formal expression in a lawsuit against manager Joyce Bogart and husband Neil Bogart's Casablanca Records to the tune of $10 million. When the legal dust settled, Summer was released from her contract and signed with Warner Brothers' newly formed Geffen label.
The Wanderer was Donna's first album for Geffen. The title track reached Number Three by 1981; the song addressed the singer's recent born-again Christianity. The religious thread in her music continued for the next few years but did not cost her much popular appeal, perhaps because the disco fever had already lifted. "He's a Rebel," from her 1983 Mercury release, She Works Hard for the Money, won a Grammy for best inspirational performance--a trick Summer would repeat the following year with the cut "Forgive Me" off Cats Without Claws.
A further abdication of Summer's reign as Disco Queen occurred when the singer allegedly remarked that AIDS was a form of divine ruling on homosexuality. Gay club enthusiasts who had embraced her and helped make her a star were angry. Despite Summer's denial of making the AIDS remark, the rift never healed. On the home front, the beginning of the 1980s saw her marriage to Bruce Sudano, lead singer of Brooklyn Dreams. They named their daughter Brook Lyn.
Donna continued to work steadily throughout the eighties, although six years were to pass after "She Works Hard for Her Money" before she penetrated the Top Ten again. "This Time I Know It's for Real," off 1989's Another Place Another Time, reached Number Seven. By this time Summer had moved into other areas of self-expression. Her neo-Primitive paintings and lithographs proved popular; in June 1990, a Beverly Hills gallery sold 75 such works for up to $38,000 apiece.
Summer has never stopped producing or changing. In a Billboard interview, she discussed her latest transformation--into a country music singer. Together with musician/husband Sudano, she has penned several country songs, including the hit "Starting Over" with Dolly Parton. Questioned by the interviewer regarding these many transformations, as well as the personal and professional ups and downs of her life, Summer responded with a painting metaphor. Think of a painting, she said, which is left in the sun. The painting fades but "also takes on new colors. And instead of the colors being as vivid as they once were, they change into different and perhaps richer colors." One cannot help but sense that Summer's rainbow of colors will continue to grow richer for many years.
by Joseph M. Reiner
Donna Summer's Career
Debuted as vocalist at Psychedelic Supermarket, Boston, MA, 1967; toured Europe with German production of Hair, 1968-69; joined Vienna Folk Opera, 1969-73; Musicland Studio, Munich, Germany, session singer, 1973; signed with Oasis Records (Germany), 1973-75; signed with Casablanca, 1975; had role in film Thank God It's Friday, 1979; released from contract and signed with Geffen Records, 1980.
Donna Summer's Awards
Grammy Award for best female rhythm and blues vocal performance, 1978, for "Last Dance"; best female rock vocal performance, 1979, for "Hot Stuff"; best inspirational performance, 1983, for "He's a Rebel"; and best inspirational performance, 1984, for "Forgive Me"; numerous gold and platinum albums and singles.
- Selective Works
- Love to Love You Baby, Oasis, 1975.
- A Love Trilogy, Casablanca, 1976.
- Four Seasons of Love (EP), Casablanca, 1976.
- I Remember Yesterday, Casablanca, 1977.
- Once Upon a Time, Casablanca, 1977.
- Live and More (includes "MacArthur Park"), Casablanca, 1978.
- Bad Girls, Casablanca, 1979.
- The Wanderer, Geffen, 1980.
- Donna Summer, Geffen, 1982.
- She Works Hard for the Money, Mercury, 1983.
- Cats Without Claws, Geffen, 1984.
- The Summer Collection, Mercury, 1985.
- All Systems Go, Geffen, 1987.
- Another Place and Time, Atlantic, 1989.
- Mistaken Identity, Atlantic, 1991.
- The Donna Summer Anthology (includes "Carry On"), Mercury, 1993.
- Pareles, Jon, and Patricia Romanowski, The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, Rolling Stone Press/Summit Books, 1983.
- Rees, Dafydd, and Luke Crampton, Rock Movers & Shakers, Billboard Books, 1991.
- Stambler, Irwin, Encyclopedia of Pop Rock & Roll, St. Martin's Press, 1989.
- Periodicals Billboard, September 25, 1993.
- Jet, September 18, 1989; October 16, 1991.
- New York Times, May 14, 1989.
- People, October 14, 1991.
- Rolling Stone, March 23, 1978.
- Spin, November 1993.
- Stereo Review, September 1989; January 1992.
- Variety, April 2, 1980.
- Village Voice, May 28, 1979.