Disco queen Donna Summer dies at 63

American singer Donna Summer, who rose to fame with disco-era hits including Love to Love You Baby, Last Dance and Hot Stuff, has died of cancer at age 63.

Singer 'a woman of many gifts'

American singer Donna Summer, who rose to fame with disco-era hits such as Love to Love You Baby, Last Dance, Hot Stuff  has died of cancer at age 63.

"Early this morning, we lost Donna Summer Sudano, a woman of many gifts, the greatest being her faith," the singer's family said in a statement issued Thursday.

"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 had been living in Englewood, Fla., is survived by her husband, singer Bruce Sudano, three daughters and four grandchildren. 

Though Summer is best remembered as one of the faces and voices of the disco decade, pop icon Elton John said the singer transcended the moniker Queen of Disco.

"Her records sound as good today as they ever did. That she has never been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a total disgrace especially when I see the second-rate talent that has been inducted," he said in a statement.

"She is a great friend to me and to the Elton John AIDS Foundation and I will miss her greatly."

Summer herself noted that she had grown up listening to rock 'n' roll and been influenced by a range of musical genres.

"I like the Moody Blues, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones as well as Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick, the Supremes and Temptations," she once said.

"I didn't know many white kids who didn't know the Supremes; I don't know many black kids who don't know the Moody Blues."

Church soloist

Born LaDonna Adrian Gaines in Boston in 1948, Summer was raised in a large, devout Christian family. She began her singing career at her local church, where she would become a featured soloist.   

On Donna Summer
  • My heart goes out to her husband and her children. Prayers will be said to keep them strong. —Dionne Warwick
  • For the last half hour or so I've been lying in my bed crying and stunned. Donna Summer RIP. —Nile Rodgers
  • Rest in peace dear Donna Summer. Your voice was the heartbeat and soundtrack of a decade. —Quincy Jones  
  • One of my earliest musical inspirations, RIP Donna Summer. —Kylie Minogue 
  • She represents an iconic diva in the sense of her power and the resonance of her art. She was an incredibly seminal figure in the disco era. —Suzanne Boyd 

"There was no question I would be a singer, I just always knew. I had credit in my neighbourhood, people would lend me money and tell me to pay it back when I got famous," Summer told The Associated Press in 1989.

Just weeks before her high school graduation in 1967, Summer auditioned for and landed a part in a production of the musical Hair that was travelling to Munich. With her parents' reluctant approval, she accepted the post and learned to speak German during the show's run.

Afterward, she chose to remain in Germany to work on other musicals, while also picking up gigs as a backup singer at a recording studio where she recorded demo tapes. In 1974, she released her solo album debut, entitled Lady of the Night. It failed to translate into U.S. success despite being a hit in Europe.

That same year, she married German singer Helmuth Sommer and adopted an anglicized spelling of his surname as her stage name — keeping it even after the couple's divorce two years later.

Defining the '70s sound

A five-time Grammy Award winner, Summer gained prominence during the 1970s, with her popular, genre-crossing sound resonating with a variety of audiences. Summer was dubbed the Queen of Disco for her many pulsating, danceable anthems, which became a defining sound of the era.

Her breakout hit was 1975's controversial Love to Love You Baby, which she co-wrote. Though initially intended for another singer, producers chose the demo Summer recorded, her sultry vocals punctuated with sexy moans.

The version ultimately released in the U.S. was an unprecedented 17 minutes long and, because of its suggestive sound, some radio stations refused to play it — at first. The track became an instant sensation, rocketed up the charts and eventually served as the title song of her second album.

Singer Donna Summer performs during the David Foster and Friends concert in Las Vegas in 2011. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Buoyed by the success, Summer released two more albums in 1976: A Love Trilogy and Four Seasons of Love.

In the early 1980s, she tested out R&B with two releases (The Wanderer and Donna Summer) before returning to dance music. Her biggest hits of the decade were 1983's She Works Hard for the Money, which became an anthem for women's rights, and 1989's This Time I Know It's For Real.

Even after the disco musical style fell out of fashion, Summer's hits turned up in movies, TV programs and stage shows, remained a fixture on dance club playlists and were sampled by contemporary artists.

Still, as interest in new original recordings waned in the 1990s, with not as much attention paid to her albums Mistaken Identity and Christmas Songs, Summer moved into other creative endeavours, like painting. 

Summer had multiple albums reach gold or platinum status and 19 No. 1 hits over the years, including: 
  • Love to Love You Baby.
  • Last Dance.
  • Hot Stuff.
  • Bad Girls.
  • I Feel Love.
  • She Works Hard for the Money.
  • This Time I Know It's for Real.

Summer also made headlines when New York magazine reported that the born-again Christian singer had made homophobic remarks. She denied making the comments and filed a $30-million US libel lawsuit against the magazine. The case was ultimately settled out of court.

Her latest album was 2008's Crayons. Her first new album of original material in 17 years, it was well-received by critics. Her high-profile appearances in recent years included a visit to the American Idol stage in 2008, a performance at the Nobel Peace Prize concert in honour of the 2009 recipient, U.S. President Barack Obama, and a David Foster and Friends concert in Las Vegas in October.

Prior to her death, the singer had reportedly been working on songs for a new album. In the past two years, she had discussed producing a new album of dance recordings as well as a release focusing on standards.

With files from The Associated Press