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Remembering the ‘Queen of Disco’ Donna Summer

May 17, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
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JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight, the last dance. We remember singer Donna Summer.

Donna Summer used to say she grew listening to rock ‘n’ roll, but she came to be known as the queen of disco, helping to define the genre with her sultry vocals and pulsing rhythms. She was born LaDonna Adrian Gaines in Boston in 1948, and first sang gospel music, becoming a soloist in her choir as a young child.

DONNA SUMMER, musician: I found the answer was the first song that I sang when I started signing solo in church. You know, I was only 8. I opened my mouth and this — this voice just shot out of me. It shocked me and it shocked everybody in the room. And I started crying. And everyone in the room started crying.

JEFFREY BROWN: Summer broke onto the disco scene in 1975 with her first hit, “Love to Love You Baby.” It was an instant classic, a sensuous and danceable anthem for the times.

As disco dominated the rest of the decade, Summer followed up with “I Feel Love,” “Last Dance,” and a string of other hits. In 1978, she appeared in the disco film “Thank God It’s Friday,” which won a best song Oscar for “Last Dance.”

Even as disco faded, Summer’s popularity survived, and she transitioned to develop a pop rock sound vibe with “Hot Stuff” in 1979. And that led to one of her biggest hits, “She Works Hard for the Money,” released in 1983, playing up women’s rights.

In all, Donna Summer scored 19 number-one dance hits, the final one in 2008. And she won five Grammys, spanning the dance, rock, R&B and inspirational categories.

In later years, she lived in Naples, Fla., where she died of cancer this morning. Within hours, fans were gathering at the singer’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

MAN: I always thought she was just on the edge, you know, pushing it out, the envelope. God bless her.

MAN: It’s really sad news to hear that she’s gone. So it’s a really day for everyone. She made some really great music.

JEFFREY BROWN: Donna Summer was 63 years old.