Disco Queen Donna Summer dies at 63

Associated Press Modified: May 17, 2012 at 9:32 pm •  Published: May 17, 2012
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NEW YORK (AP) — Like the King of Pop or the Queen of Soul, Donna Summer was bestowed a title fitting of musical royalty — the Queen of Disco.

Yet unlike Michael Jackson or Aretha Franklin, it was a designation she wasn't comfortable embracing.

"I grew up on rock 'n' roll," Summer once said when explaining her reluctance to claim the title.

Indeed, as disco boomed then crashed in a single decade in the 1970s, Summer, the beautiful voice and face of the genre with pulsating hits like "I Feel Love," ''Love to Love You Baby" and "Last Dance," would continue to make hits incorporating the rock roots she so loved. One of her biggest hits, "She Works Hard for the Money," came in the early 1980s and relied on a smoldering guitar solo as well as Summer's booming voice.

Yet it was with her disco anthems that she would have the most impact in music, and it's how she was remembered Thursday as news spread of her death at age 63.

Summer died of cancer Thursday morning in Naples, Fla., said her publicist Brian Edwards. Her family released a statement saying they "are at peace celebrating her extraordinary life and her continued legacy."

Luminaries from Aretha Franklin to Dolly Parton and Barbra Streisand mourned the loss, as did President Barack Obama, who said he and Michelle were saddened to hear of the passing of the five-time Grammy winner. "Her voice was unforgettable, and the music industry has lost a legend far too soon," he said. "Our thoughts and prayers go out to Donna's family and her dedicated fans."

It had been decades since that brief, flashy moment when Summer was every inch the Disco Queen.

Her glittery gowns and long eyelashes. Her luxurious hair and glossy, open lips. Her sultry vocals, her bedroom moans and sighs. She was as much a part of the culture as disco balls, polyester, platform shoes and the music's pulsing, pounding rhythms.

Summer's music gave voice to not only a musical revolution, but a cultural one — a time when sex, race, fashion and drugs were being explored and exploited with freedom like never before in the United States.

Her rise was inseparable from disco's itself, even though she remained popular for years after the genre she helped invent had died. She won a Grammy for best rock vocal performance for "Hot Stuff," a fiery guitar-based song that represented her shift from disco to more rock-based sounds, and created another kind of anthem with "She Works Hard for the Money," this time for women's rights.

Elton John said in a statement that Summer was more than the Queen of Disco.

"Her records sound as good today as they ever did. That she has never been inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame is a total disgrace especially when I see the second-rate talent that has been inducted," he said. "She is a great friend to me and to the Elton John AIDS Foundation and I will miss her greatly."

Summer may not have liked the title and later became a born-again Christian, but many remembered her best for her early years, starting with the sinful "Love to Love You Baby."

Released in 1975, a breakthrough hit for Summer and for disco, it was a legend of studio ecstasy and the genre's ultimate sexual anthem. Summer came up with the idea of the song and first recorded it as a demo in 1975, on the condition that another singer perform it commercially. But Casablanca Records president Neil Bogart liked the track so much that he suggested to producer Giorgio Moroder they re-record it, and make it longer — what would come to be known as a "disco disc."

Summer had reservations about the lyrics — "Do it to me again and again" — but imagined herself as a movie star playing a part as if she were Marilyn Monroe. So she agreed to sing, lying down on the studio floor, in darkness, and letting her imagination take over. Solo and multitracked, she whispered, she groaned, she crooned. Drums, bass, strings and keyboards answered her cries. She simulated climax so many times that the BBC kept count: 23, in 17 minutes.

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