Day the disco music died: Donna Summer loses her fight against cancer

Donna Summer, whose soaring voice and effervescent stage presence ignited the disco craze of the 1970s, kick-starting a glittering career that spanned four decades, has died. She was 63.

The family of the singer, who was known as the “Queen of Disco”, issued a statement confirming that she had died following what is reported to have been a short but acute battle with cancer.

“Early this morning, surrounded by family, we lost Donna Summer Sudano, a woman of many gifts, the greatest being her faith,” it read. “While we grieve her passing, we are at peace celebrating her extraordinary life and her continued legacy. Words truly can’t express how much we appreciate your prayers and love for our family at this sensitive time.”

Summer, who is best known for pulsating dance hits such as “Hot Stuff”, “Bad Girls” and “Last Dance”, had attempted to keep the extent of her illness from fans, an acquaintance told the tabloid website TMZ, which broke news of her death. She was in Florida attempting to put the finishing touches to a final album – her 24th – when she passed away. As little as a fortnight ago, she had seemed cheerful and in robust health, the source added.

She is thought to have told friends that she believed the cancer had been caused by toxic particles inhaled when the Twin Towers collapsed in New York in the 9/11 terror attack.

The combative nature of Summer’s response to her final illness was true to form, given the energetic performances. Such early hits as “Love to Love You Baby” and “I Feel Love” are credited with ushering in the hedonistic disco era. “My heart goes out to her husband and her children,” said her contemporary Dionne Warwick. “Prayers will be said to keep them strong.”

While Summer’s music provided the soundtrack to a dance movement defined by sex, drugs and extravagant clothes, she was the very antithesis of a fast-living disco diva off-stage.

Born LaDonna Adrian Gaines, and brought up as one of seven children of a devoutly Christian family, she had learned to sing in the church choir, and began performing professionally in the late 1960s after landing a part in Hair.

She achieved fame after signing as a solo artist to the pioneering disco label, Casablanca, in 1975. It helped to propel her first single “Love to Love You Baby” to No 4 in the UK charts. The record was only the second 12-inch single released to the public; previously, they had been provided as promotional copies to radio stations. A debut album of the same name sold more than a million copies.

In the 1980s, her hit single “She Works Hard For The Money” became an anthem for the women’s rights movement. Yet Summer’s fanbase often seemed at odds with her conservative values. She became a born-again Christian in the 1980s, and was reported to have said Aids was “divine punishment” against homosexuals. Later she denied that, and described the ensuing controversy – which led to a boycott of her music – as a “terrible misunderstanding”.

She won five Grammys and was this year a nominee for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She achieved happiness after meeting second husband, Bruce Sudano, to whom she was married for more than three decades. He survives her, along with three children.

‘She reigned over an era’: Stars remember Summer

Marc Almond, singer

“Her work with Giorgio Moroder changed the face of music and changed my life. ‘I Feel Love’ was a truly original and barrier-breaking record.”

Barbra Streisand, singer

“She was so vital the last time I saw her a few months ago. I loved doing the duet “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)” with her. She had an amazing voice.”

Aretha Franklin, soul singer

“So shocking to hear about Donna. In the 70s, she reigned over the disco era and kept the disco jumping. A fine performer and a very nice person.”

Pete Waterman, record producer

“She used to warm up in the ladies’ toilet and everyone in our building would stop and it would come to a standstill to hear her warm up.”

Quincy Jones, record producer

“Rest in peace, dear Donna Summer. Your voice was the heartbeat and soundtrack of a decade.”

Sir Elton John

“Her records sound as good today as they ever did. She is a great friend to me and to the Elton John Aids Foundation and I will miss her greatly.”

Guy Adams, The Independent


About Marc Leprêtre

Marc Leprêtre is researcher in sociolinguistics, history and political science. Born in Etterbeek (Belgium), he lives in Barcelona (Spain) since 1982. He holds a PhD in History and a BA in Sociolinguistics. He is currently head of studies and prospective at the Centre for Contemporary Affairs (Government of Catalonia). Devoted Springsteen and Barça fan…
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