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May 17, 2012 8:41 pm
Donna Summer, who has died aged 63, filled dance floors for nearly 40 years with anthemic disco evocations of a sexualised romance that were at once uplifting and poignant.
From “Love to Love You Baby”, her first US hit single taken from the 1975 album of the same name, through “I Feel Love” two years later and 1989’s “This Time I Know It’s for Real”, she captured and amplified the enthusiasm of an increasingly liberated age and its desire to party.
As recently as 2010, she topped the American dance charts with “To Paris with Love”, though that failed to register either in the main Billboard singles rankings or in markets elsewhere. The 2008 Crayons, hailed by some as a broadening out from her previous work, was the last album before her death on Thursday, which was attributed to lung cancer.
The releases from her 1970s heyday as the queen of disco were with Casablanca, now part of Vivendi’s Universal Music Group; later she was signed by David Geffen’s eponymous label. Crayons came from Burgundy Records, a unit of Sony.
LaDonna Adrian Gaines was born in Boston on New Year’s eve 1948 to a devout Christian family and the first audiences to hear her voice were local churchgoers. She later lived in Europe and two big relationships were with men from there – the first of whom, Austrian actor Helmuth Sommer, bestowed her tweaked stage name. Summer had a daughter with him and two more with Bruce Sudano of the group Brooklyn Dreams, whom she married in 1980 after a troubled time in Los Angeles with German painter Peter Mühldorfer.
It was around that intervening period with Mühldorfer that Summer battled an addiction to prescription drugs, underwent a nervous breakdown and subsequently declared she had become born again. In the mid-1980s, a comment attributed to her to the effect that Aids was God’s punishment for gay immorality for a while alienated a significant part of her fan base.
She later said she had been misquoted, adding: “If I have caused you pain, forgive me.” Gay clubgoers by and large did, but Summer’s ability to top the charts was on the wane. “This Time I Know It’s for Real” became her final single to achieve top-10 status on both sides of the Atlantic.
It remains her early work, since remixed in multiple ways, that lives on most strongly. From its 1978 release onward, “Last Dance” has ended many a packed club night. Doubtless, in Summer’s honour, it will again this weekend.