Donna Summer remains best known as one of the superstars of '70s Disco. But she transcended that genre by demonstrating a distinctive vocal talent that might have made her a star in any era.
Born LaDonna Adrian Gaines in Boston, Summer gained early experience singing in church choirs, school musicals, R&B cover bands and a psychedelic Rock combo, before joining a company of the Rock musical Hair based in Munich, Germany. She spent several years in Germany and Austria, acting in stage musicals, and released her first recordings there in 1968.
Summer began working with German producer/songwriters Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte in 1974; the following year, they cut "Love to Love You Baby," a song Summer had initially co-written for another artist. American record exec Neil Bogart agreed to release it on his new label, Casablanca, and the sexually charged track became an international smash, tapping into the nascent Disco scene.
"Love to Love You Baby" set the stage for more hits — "I Feel Love," "Last Dance," "MacArthur Park," "Hot Stuff," "Bad Girls" — that spotlighted Summer's alternately breathy and assertive vocals and Moroder and Bellotte's synth-flavored production. Her success reached a peak in the late '70s, when she became the first artist to reach No. 1 with three consecutive double albums: Live and More, Bad Girls and On the Radio: Greatest Hits Volumes I & II.
In 1980, Summer's desire to branch out into other musical styles led to her signing with the newly formed Geffen Records. But her Geffen releases were only moderately successful, and she soon parted ways with longtime producers Moroder and Bellotte. She returned to the top of the charts in 1983 with She Works Hard for the Money, whose title song became a hit, thanks in part to exposure on the then-new MTV.
Summer's public image took a hit when she allegedly made anti-gay statements in the mid-'80s. Although she denied making those comments, the controversy resulted in some fans boycotting her releases. Summer's reputation eventually recovered, and she continued to record and perform until shortly before her death from lung cancer in 2012.