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'Queen of Disco' Donna Summer dead at 63

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donnasummer.JPGInto her 60s, the girl still worked hard for the money.

In fact, in 2008, just before turning 60, Donna Summer had a No. 1 dance hit with "I'm a Fire." That meant she, along with Cher, had scored a No. 1 song in each of the last four decades. Only Madonna has charted more dance hits than Summer.

But the record stops there: Summer has died at age 63 after a battle with cancer.

Her family released a statement, saying Summer died Thursday morning and that they "are at peace celebrating her extraordinary life and her continued legacy." Summer had been living in Englewood, Fla., with her husband Bruce Sudano.

The five-time Grammy winner sold more than 130 million albums and contributed, as much as the success of the Bee Gees, to making disco wildly popular in the 1970s with hits such as "Could It Be Magic," "Love to Love You Baby," "I Feel Love," "Bad Girls," "Last Dance" and the No. 1 "Hot Stuff."

Her title as "Queen of Disco" wasn't mere marketing. Summer's success continued well past disco and into the '80s, with more Top 10 hits -- "Love Is in Control (Finger on the Trigger)," "She Works Hard for the Money," "This Time I Know It's for Real" -- that expanded on Summer's cooing, sultry sexiness.

But Summer wasn't always comfortable with her sexy image. In 2009, she told the Sun-Times she relished the more ballad-focused music she was making because "there's no longer such an emphasis on the sex part."

"It wasn't ever really me," she said. "I was led down that path because that's what was working in the recording industry at the time. If I had to do it all again, I would probably insist 'Last Dance' should be my first song. Instead, I have 'Love to Love You Baby.' While that song has been very good to me, the way people approached my career initially, the image people had of me, it was all a bit of a challenge to overcome. It's almost like I had to prove I was a singer all over again."

She had released her last album, "Crayons," in 2008, her first full studio album in 17 years. She also performed on "American Idol" that year with its top female contestants.

The new music managed to regain Summer some of her former glitter -- but without going the standards-and-songbook route of peers.

"When my record company Burgundy/Sony BMG came to me about two years ago, they wanted me to do oldies, what Rod Stewart was doing," Summer said in 2008. "They said, 'Well, we don't know what market you'd be in at this point, and we don't know if we could get you into the mainstream market anymore.' That was a valid point, but I didn't feel it was necessarily the truth."

Still, Summer's disco tracks from the '70s, particularly under the guidance of famed producer Giorgio Moroder, gave electronic music its first significant foothold on the pop charts. After years of disco hits full of slashing string sections, Summer's "I Feel Love" was the first major hit song featuring a backing track that was entirely synthesized. In its swirling drone, one can hear the fountainhead of a lot of contemporary dance music. Likewise, the fluid hum of "Love to Love You Baby" was later sampled by Beyonce ("Naughty Girls") and others.

Summer has a place in Chicago radio history. When the radio station then known as WDAI-FM (94.7) ended its all-disco format in the wake of the late 1970s anti-disco backlash, it did so by playing Summer's "Last Dance" over and over and over -- nonstop, without commercials or any announcers to interrupt it through an all-"Last Dance" on the air weekend.

Born LaDonna Adrian Gaines, Summer was raised in Boston by devout parents. Summer returned to those roots later in the '80s, announcing she'd become a born-again Christian and winning a gospel Grammy for "Forgive Me."

Contributing: AP, Sun-Times staff


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Thomas Conner

Thomas Conner covers pop music for the Chicago Sun-Times. Contact him via e-mail.

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