A tribute to Donna Summer

African Update – 30/05/12

In this article, Stephen Atalebe pays the last respect to Donna Summer, the African American singer and songwriter who died on 17 May 2012. She was a five time Grammy Award winner and was the first artist to have three consecutive double albums reach number one on the United States Billboard chart.

She was born on 31 December 1948 and named LaDonna Adrian Gaines  by her devoted Christian African American family in Boston, Massachusetts. Her parents Andrew and Mary Gaines had seven children. Her father was a butcher and her mother a school teacher. Summer’s mother later recalled that from the time she could talk, Summer "literally loved to sing. She used to go through the house singing, singing. She sang for breakfast and for lunch and for supper.”

Summer’s debut performance began at church when she was ten years old. On that day, the church vocalist had failed to show up and the priest invited Summer to perform. Her voice that day recalled a voice older than ten years. Summer herself recalled that as she sang, "I started crying, everybody else started crying. It was quite an amazing moment in my life and at some point after I heard my voice came out I felt like God was saying to me 'Donna, you're going to be very, very famous' and I knew from that day on that I would be famous.”

From that day onwards, she started singing in the church choir groups after which she joined various music bands and soon became the front singer of a psychedelic rock band called the Crow and moved to New York where she will join the touring version of the musical Hair to Europe where she spend many years in West Germany. Summer eventually became fluent in German, singing various songs in German. She participated in the musicals Ich Bin Ich. After three years, she moved to Vienna, Austria and joined the Vienna Volksoper. She briefly toured with an ensemble vocal group called FamilyTree.  In 1968, Summer released her first single, a German version of the title Aquarius from the musical Hair, followed in 1971 by a second single, Sally Go 'Round the Roses, from a one-off European deal with Decca Records.  In 1972, she issued the single, If You Walkin' Alone, on Philips Records.

In 1973, she married Austrian actor Helmuth Sommer and had a daughter, Mimi, the same year. After a series of marital problems she divorced Helmuth but kept his last name and Anglicized it to "Summer". A demo tape of Summer's work with Moroder and Bellotte led to a deal with the European-distributed label, Groovy Records. The label issued Summer's first album, Lady of the Night. The album became a hit in selected countries with two songs, The Hostage and Lady of the Night, reaching the top of the charts in countries such as the Netherlands and Belgium.

When she returned to the United States, she wrote the song “Love to love You Baby with Pete Bellotte and sang it herself. When the song was released, it became an instant commercial success in 1975 especially on the disco scene. Summer upped her ant with a string of other disco hits such as I feel love, MacAthur, Hot stuff, No more tears. She soon became known as the Queen of Disco and gained a particularly large following within the gay community and became their icon.

By early 1976, Love to Love You Baby had reached No. 2 on the US Billboard Hot 100, while the album sold over a million copies. The song generated controversy due to Summer's moans and groans and some American and European radio stations, including the BBC, refused to play it but the song became a success in several European countries, and made the Top 5 in the United Kingdom despite the BBC ban.

Her career soared higher with more albums and singles including Try Me, I Know We Can Make It, Could It Be Magic, Spring Affair, and Winter Melody. Her subsequent albums Love Trilogy and Four Seasons of Love both went gold in the US.

In 1978, Summer released her version of the Jimmy Webb ballad, MacArthur Park, which became her first US number one hit. The song was featured on Summer's first live album, Live and More, which also became her first album to hit number one on the US Billboard 200 chart, and went platinum selling over a million copies. Other studio tracks included the top ten hit, Heaven Knows, which featured the group Brooklyn Dreams accompanying her on background and Joe "Bean” Esposito singing alongside her on the verses. Summer would later be romantically involved with Brooklyn Dreams singer Bruce Sudano and the couple married two years after the song's release on July 16, 1980. In 1981, Summer gave birth to another daughter and named her Brooklyn Sudano, after Sudano's group. In 1982, Summer and Sudano had their second child, Amanda Sudano. (Brooklyn would grow up to star in the hit ABC production My Wife and Kids.)

She also acted in 1978, in the film, Thank God It's Friday, playing a singer determined to perform at a hot disco club. The film met modest success, but a song from the film, titled Last Dance, reached number three on the Hot 100 and resulted in Summer winning her first Grammy Award. Its writer, Paul Jabara, won an Academy Award for the composition.

In 2000, Summer participated in VH-1's third annual Divas special, dedicated to Diana Ross, though Summer sung mostly her own material for the show. In 2003, Summer issued her autobiography, Ordinary Girl: The Journey and that same year released a best-of set titled The Journey: The Very Best of Donna Summer. In 2004, Summer was inducted to the Dance Music Hall of Fame alongside the Bee Gees and Barry Gibb as an artist. Her classic song, I Feel Love, was also inducted that night. In 2004 and 2005, Summer's success on the dance charts continued with the songs You're So Beautiful and I Got Your Love.

Her father Andrew Gaines died in 2004 from natural causes almost nine years after the death of her beloved mother, Mary Gaines who died of lung cancer in 1995.

In August 2010, she released the single To Paris With Love, co-written with Bruce Roberts and produced by Peter Stengaard. In October 2010, the single reached No. 1 on the US Billboard Dance Chart (it would be her last charted single).

According to long time synthpop/electropop musician Marc Almond, Donna Summer's collaboration with producer Georgio Moroder "changed the face of music".  Giorgio Moroder himself has stated in a BBC Radio 5 Live interview that her song I Feel Love was "really the start of electronic dance."

She became a cultural icon, not only as one of the defining voices of the era, but also as an influence on pop divas ranging from Madonna to Beyoncé. Unlike some other stars of disco who faded as the music became less popular in the 1980s and beyond, Summer was able to grow beyond the genre and later segued to a pop-rock sound. She had one of her biggest hits in the 1980s with "She Works Hard For the Money", which became another anthem, this time for women's rights.

Summer was nominated 17 times for the Grammy Award out of which she won 5, in 1979 with Last Dance, 1980 with Hot Stuff, 1984 with He’s a Rebel, 1985 with Forgive Me, and in 1998 with Carry On. She won many other awards including the NAACP Image Award, two Golden Globe Award nominations (one win for Last Dance Song and one nominated for The Deep and a Juno Award nominations for Best Selling International Single, I Feel Love. She was the first female African American to receive an MTV Video Music Awards nomination ("Best Female Video" and "Best Choreography" for She Works Hard for the Money).

Summer died on the morning of May 17, 2012, at her home in Englewood, Florida at the age of 63. She had been diagnosed with lung cancer not related to smoking, reportedly being a non-smoker. She believed she contracted the illness by inhaling toxic particles following the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York. Summer is survived by her husband Bruce Sudano, their daughters Brooklyn and Amanda, as well as her daughter Mimi from the previous marriage. Her funeral was held in Nashville, Tennessee on May 23, 2012. Her body was buried in Harpeth Hills Memory Gardens Cemetery in Nashville, Tennessee.

Fans paid a tribute to Donna by leaving flowers and memorabilia on her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.  A few days after her death, her album sales increased significantly, according to Nielsen SoundScan who reported that the week before she died, Summer sold about 1,000 albums. After her death, that number increased to 26,000.

Her death received worldwide attention and a lot of prominent artist and industry players all paid their tribute to her. Gloria Gaynor, a famous disco performer in the late 1970s said that she was “deeply saddened” and that Donna was “a fine lady”, all time country music star Dolly said that , "Donna, like Whitney, had one of the greatest voices ever. I loved her records. She was the disco queen, and will remain so. I knew her and found her to be one of the most likable and fun people ever. She will be missed and remembered." Janet Jackson wrote that Donna "changed the world of music with her beautiful voice and incredible talent." Elton John said, "I'm so sad. This woman was the queen of disco and so much more. Her records sound as good today as they ever did. That she has never been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a total disgrace, especially when I see the second-rate talent that has been inducted. She is a great friend to me and to the Elton John AIDS Foundation and I will miss her greatly."

United States President Barack Obama said, "Michelle and I were saddened to hear about the passing of Donna Summer. A five-time Grammy Award winner, Donna truly was the 'Queen of Disco.' Her voice was unforgettable, and the music industry has lost a legend far too soon. Our thoughts and prayers go out to Donna's family and her dedicated fans."

We here at Humanitas Afrika are also saddened by her sudden departure but we do hope that the many songs that she has left behind will continue to inspire people everywhere to aspire for greater achievement even from humble beginnings.

May her soul rest in perfect peace!

Author: Stephen Atalebe, African student of Economics, Mendel University Brno, Czech Republic

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