LaDonna Adrian Gaines (1948 - 2012), known by her stage name, Donna Summer, is an American singer/songwriter who gained prominence during the disco era of the 1970s. She has a mezzo-soprano vocal range. Summer is a five-time Grammy winner and was the first artist to have three consecutive double albums reach number one on the US Billboard chart. She also charted four number-one singles in the US within a thirteen-month period.
Donna Summer was born on New Year's Eve 1948 in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston, Massachusetts, she was one of seven children raised by devout Christian parents. Influenced by Mahalia Jackson, Summer began singing in the church at a young age. In her teens, she formed several musical groups including one with her sister and a cousin, imitating Motown girl groups such as The Supremes and Martha and the Vandellas in Boston.
In the late 1960s, Summer was influenced by Janis Joplin after listening to her albums as member of Big Brother and the Holding Company, and joined the psychedelic rock group the Crow as lead singer. Beforehand, Summer dropped out of school convinced that music was her way out of Boston, where she had always felt herself to be an outsider, even among her own family who ridiculed her for her voice and her looks. The group was short-lived, as they split upon their arrival in New York. In 1968, Summer auditioned for a role in the Broadway musical, Hair. She lost the part of Sheila to Melba Moore. When the musical moved to Europe, Summer was offered the role. She took it and moved to Germany for several years. While in Germany, where she learned to speak German fluently, she participated in the musicals Godspell and Show Boat. After settling in Munich, she began performing in several ensembles including the Viennese Folk Opera and even sang as a member of the pop group FamilyTree – "invented" and created by the German music producer Guenter "Yogi" Lauke & the Munich Machine. She came to the group in 1973 and toured with the 11-people pop group throughout Europe. She also sang as a studio session singer and in theaters. In 1971, while still using her birth name Donna Gaines, she released her first single, a cover of "Sally Go 'Round the Roses", though it was not a hit. In 1972, she married Austrian actor Helmuth Sommer and gave birth to their daughter Mimi Sommer in 1973. Citing marital problems caused by his frequent absences, she divorced him but kept his last name, changing the "o" to a "u".
It was while singing background for the hit-making 1970s trio Three Dog Night that Summer met producers Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte. She eventually made a deal with the European label Groovy Records and issued her first album, Lady of the Night, in 1974. The album was not released in America, but found some limited European success on the strength of the song "The Hostage", which reached number one in Belgium and number two in the Netherlands. Summer's early material consisted of pop rock and folk rock material. She stated years later that had she not recorded disco she would have been a black rock singer, but considering there was not a market for black rock singers, Summer thought it would be hard to get promoted as such.
In 1975, Summer approached Moroder with an idea for a song he and Bellotte were working on for another singer. She had come up with the lyrics "love to love you, baby". Moroder was interested in developing the new sound that was becoming popular and used Summer's lyric to develop the song. Moroder persuaded Summer to record what was to be a demo track for another performer. She later said that she had thought of how the song might sound if Marilyn Monroe had sung it and began cooing the lyrics. To get into the mood of recording the song, she requested the producers turn off the lights while she sat on a sofa inducing moans and groans. After hearing playback of the song, Moroder felt Summer's version should actually be distributed. Released as "Love to Love You" in Europe, some radio stations refused to play it, but the song found modest chart success in several countries there. The song was a real piece of work with sensual elegance.
The song was then sent to America and arrived in the office of Casablanca Records president Neil Bogart in hopes of getting an American release. Casablanca was known around the industry for throwing lavish parties. At one of these parties, Bogart, still undecided about releasing the song on his label, had "Love To Love You" played so he could gauge the reaction of people on the dancefloor. The crowd took to the song (which was less than five minutes) so strongly that they kept asking for it to be played over and over consecutively so they could continue dancing in the same groove. Soon after that night, Bogart informed Summer and Moroder he would release the song but requested that Moroder produce a longer version, about 15 to 20 minutes in length. Moroder, Bellotte, and Summer returned with a 17 minute version that included a soulful chorus and an instrumental break where Summer invoked even more moans. Bogart stated the name would be slightly changed to "Love to Love You Baby" for the American release. Casablanca signed Summer and it released the single in November 1975. The shorter version of the single was promoted to radio stations while clubs received the 17 minute version (the longer version would also appear on the album). When Casablanca released the 17 minute version in its entirety as a single, it became one of the first record labels, to help make popular a format that would later be known as the 12 inch. By early 1976, "Love To Love You Baby" had reached #2 on the US Billboard Hot 100, while the parent album of the same name sold over a million copies. The song generated controversy for Summer's moans and groans and some American radio stations, like several in Europe, refused to play it. Time magazine would report that 22 orgasms were simulated in the making of the song. Other upcoming singles included "Try Me, I Know We can Make It", US #80; "Could It Be Magic", US #52; "Spring Affair", US #58; and "Winter Melody", US #43. The subsequent albums Love Trilogy and Four Seasons of Love both went gold in the US.
In 1977, Summer released the concept album I Remember Yesterday. This album included her second top ten single, "I Feel Love", which reached number six in the US and number one in the UK. These US Hot 100 entries on the singles chart would help get Summer deemed in the press as "The First Lady of Love", a title which she was not totally comfortable with.
Another concept album, also released in 1977, was the double album, Once Upon a Time, which told of a modern-day Cinderella "rags to riches" story through the elements of orchestral disco and ballads. This album would also attain gold status. In 1978, Summer released her version of the Richard Harris ballad, "MacArthur Park", which became her first number one US 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 involved romantically with Brooklyn Dreams singer Bruce Sudano and the couple married two years after the song's release. Also in 1978, Summer acted 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, entitled "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. Despite her musical success, Summer was struggling with anxiety and depression and fell into a prescription drug addiction for several years.
In 1979, Summer was a performer on the world-televised Music for UNICEF Concert. The United Nations organization Unicef had declared 1979 as the Year of the Child. Summer joined contemporaries like Abba, Olivia Newton-John, the Bee Gees, Andy Gibb, Rod Stewart, John Denver, Earth, Wind and Fire, Rita Coolidge and Kris Kristofferson for an hour's TV special that raised funds and awareness for the world's children. Artists donated royalties of certain songs, some in perpetuity, to benefit the cause.
Following her recovery from prescription drug addiction, Summer worked on her next album with Moroder and Bellotte. The result was Bad Girls, an album that had been in production for nearly two years. Summer based the concept of the album on a prostitute, as was made clear in the lyrics. The album became a success, spawning the number one hits "Hot Stuff" and Bad Girls, and the number two ballad "Dim All the Lights" With MacArthur Park, Hot Stuff, Bad Girls, and the Barbra Streisand duet "No More Tears (Enough is Enough)" (which appeared on Streisand's album Wet), Summer achieved four number-one hits within a thirteen month period. Those aforementioned songs, along with Heaven Knows, Last Dance, Dim All The Lights, and On the Radio (from her upcoming double-album) would give her eight US Top 5 singles within a two year period. "Hot Stuff" later won her a second Grammy in the Best Female Rock Vocal Performance, which was the first time that category was ever brought to the award's show. That year, Summer played eight sold-out nights at the Universal Amphitheater in Los Angeles.
Summer released her first greatest hits set in 1979, a double-album entitled On The Radio: Greatest Hits Volumes 1 & 2. The album reached number one in the US, becoming her third consecutive number one album. A new song from the compilation, "On the Radio", reached the US top five.
After the release of the greatest hits album, Summer wanted to branch out with other musical styles in addition to disco. This led to tensions between her and Casablanca Records. Sensing that they could no longer come to terms, Summer and the label parted ways in 1980, and she signed with Geffen Records, the new label started by David Geffen.
Summer's first release on Geffen Records was The Wanderer; it replaced the disco sound of Summer's previous releases with more of the burgeoning new wave sound and elements of rock, such as the material being recorded at this time by Pat Benatar. The first single, the title track, became a hit and peaked at #3 in the US, subsequent singles were moderate hits. The album achieved gold status in the US, but met limited success on the UK charts.
Summer's projected second Geffen release, entitled I'm a Rainbow, was shelved by Geffen Records (though two of the album's songs would surface in soundtracks of the 1980s films Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Flashdance). Summer reluctantly parted company with Moroder after seven years working together as Geffen had recruited Quincy Jones to produce her next album. The result was the 1982 album Donna Summer. The album had taken a lengthy six months to record. The album's first single, the dance track "Love Is in Control (Finger on the Trigger)", became an American top ten hit on the Hot 100, followed by more moderate hits "State of Independence"(#41 pop) and "The Woman In Me"(#33 pop). Problems then increased between Summer and Geffen Records after they were notified by Polygram Records, the parent company of Summer's former label Casablanca, that she needed to deliver them one more album to fulfill her agreement with them. Summer delivered the album She Works Hard for the Money and Polygram released it on its Mercury imprint in 1983. The title song became a hit reaching number three on the US Hot 100, and would provide Summer with a Grammy nomination. The album also featured the reggae-flavored top 20 UK hit "Unconditional Love", which featured the group Musical Youth who were riding high from the success of their single "Pass the Dutchie". The third US single, "Love Has A Mind of Its Own", reached the top forty of the Billboard R&B chart. The album was certified gold. During the '80's Donna Summers stage and wardrobe designer was James Hopkins of Jopkin Design designing costumes and wardrobe that help tell the story of her music.
In late 1984, with no more albums due to Polygram, Summer returned on Geffen Records with her next release. Geffen, wanting to keep the momentum going, enlisted She Works Hard For the Money's producer Michael Omartian to produce Cats Without Claws. The album, however, was not as successful as She Works Hard For the Money and failed to attain gold status of 500,000 copies sold in the US, becoming her first album since her 1974 debut not to do so. It did include a moderate hit in "There Goes My Baby", which peaked at #21.
Summer scored top ten hits on Billboard's Dance Chart in the beginning of the new millennium. In 2000, she also appeared on the third annual Divas special, dedicated to Diana Ross, though Summer sang her own material for the show. 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. Also, that year, she became one of the first acts, as both an Artist Inductee and a Record Inductee (for 1977’s “I Feel Love”) into the Dance Music Hall of Fame in New York City.
In 2008, Summer released her first studio album of original music in 14 years since 1994 (Christmas Spirit); years entitled Crayons, which peaked at #17 on the US Top 200 Album Chart, and achieved modest international success. The album was released on the Sony BMG label Burgundy Records. The songs "I'm A Fire", "Stamp Your Feet", and "Fame (The Game)" reached number one on the US Billboard Dance Chart. The ballad "Sand on My Feet" was released to adult contemporary stations and reached number thirty on that chart.
While commenting on the album, Summer said “I wanted this album to have a lot of different directions on it. I did not want it to be any one baby. I just wanted it to be a sampler of flavors and influences from all over the world. There’s a touch of this, a little smidgeon of that, a dash of something else…like when you’re cooking.” On the song “The Queen Is Back”, Summer reveals her wry and witty self-awareness of her musical legacy and her public persona. “I’m making fun of myself,” she admits. “There’s irony, it’s poking fun at the idea of being called a queen. That’s a title that has followed me, followed me, and followed me. We were sitting and writing and that title kept popping up in my mind and I’m thinking, ‘Am I supposed to write this? Is this too arrogant to write?’ But people call me ‘the queen,’ so I guess it's ok to refer to myself as what everybody else refers to me as. We started writing the song and thought it was kind of cute and funny.” Summer wrote “The Queen Is Back” and “Mr. Music” with J.R. Rotem and Evan Bogart, the son of Neil Bogart, Casablanca Records founder. Neil Bogart died from cancer at the age of 39. He signed Summer to his Casablanca Records label in 1975 and released most of her biggest records during the 1970s. “I adored him and would have given up everything for him to be alive,” says Summer, remembering a time backstage long ago “when the nail person didn’t show up and Neil got on his knees and did my toenails. In many ways he was my mentor and I didn’t get to say goodbye to him.” When Summer met Evan Bogart, she was struck by his uncanny resemblance to his father. “It’s almost like they chiseled him out of his father,” Summer observed. “I’m in the studio looking at him and I get tears in my eyes, he has no idea why. I just wanted to hug him because it’s like I’m seeing someone I haven’t seen since his father passed away. It’s almost like Neil is looking at me through him. Evan and I hit it off immediately; there was a synergy that happened really quickly.”
On December 11, 2009, Summer performed at the Nobel Peace Prize Concert in Oslo, Norway, in honor of US President Barack Obama. She was backed by the Norwegian Radio Orchestra.
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 #1 on the US Billboard Dance Chart. Also that month, Summer appeared in the PBS Television Special Hitman Returns: David Foster and Friends. In it, Summer performed with Seal on a medley of the songs "Unbreak My Heart / Crazy / On The Radio", before Summer closed the show with "Last Dance".
On July 29, 2010, Summer gave an interview with allvoices.com where she was asked if she would consider doing an album of standards. She replied:
"I actually am, probably in September. I will begin work on a standards album. I will probably do an all-out dance album and a standards album. I'm gonna do both, and we will release them however were gonna release them. We are not sure which is going first."
On September 15, 2010, Summer appeared as a guest celebrity singing alongside rising star Prince Poppycock on the television show America's Got Talent.
On October 16, 2010, she performed at a benefit concert at the Phoenix Symphony.
On June 6, 2011, Summer was a guest judge on the show, Platinum Hit in week two titled, Dance Floor Royalty. Platinum Hit is a reality competition series on Bravo launched in 2011 in which 12 singer-songwriters compete through innovative songwriting challenges that will test their creativity, patience and drive. Every episode features a different topic from a dance track to a love ballad, that require the contestants to write and perform lyrics from a multiple of genres, for a cash prize of $100,000, a publishing deal with songwriting collective The Writing Camp, and a recording deal with RCA/Jive label.
In July, 2011 Summer was working at Paramount Recording Studios in Los Angeles with her nephew, the rapper and producer O'Mega Red. Together they worked on a track entitled "Angel".