By Mesfin Fekadu
NEW YORK — Disco queen Donna Summer, whose pulsing anthems such as “Last Dance,” ”Love to Love You Baby” and “Bad Girls” became the soundtrack for a glittery age of sex, drugs, dance and flashy clothes, has died. She was 63.
Her family released a statement saying Summer died Thursday morning and that they “are at peace celebrating her extraordinary life and her continued legacy.”
The family did not disclose the cause of death. She had been living in Englewood, Fla., with her husband Bruce Sudano.
“Words truly can’t express how much we appreciate your prayers and love for our family at this sensitive time,” the statement said.
Summer came to prominence just as disco was burgeoning, and came to define the era with a string of No. 1 hits and her luxurious hair and glossy, open lips.
Disco became as much defined by her sultry, sexual vocals — her bedroom moans and sighs — as the relentless, pulsing rhythms of the music itself.
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.”
“Love to Love You Baby,” with its erotic moans, was Summer’s first hit and one of the most scandalous songs of the polyester-and-platform-heel era. The song was later sampled by LL Cool J, Timbaland and Beyonce, who interpolated the hit for her jam “Naughty Girl.”
Unlike some other stars of disco who faded as the music became less popular, Summer was able to grow beyond it and later segued to a pop-rock sound. She had one of her biggest hits in the 1980s with “She Works Hard for the Money,” which became another anthem, this time for women’s rights.
Soon after, Summer became a born-again Christian and faced controversy when she was accused of making anti-gay comments in relation to the AIDS epidemic. Summer denied making the comments, but was the target of a boycott.
Religion played an important role in her life in later years, said Michael Levine, who briefly worked as her publicist.
“She was very committed to God, spirituality and religion. Her passion in her life, besides music, was God, spirituality and religion. She held a bible study class at her home every week,” he said.
Summer, real name LaDonna Adrian Gaines, was born in 1948 in Boston. She was raised on gospel music and became the soloist in her church choir by age 10.
“There was no question I would be a singer, I just always knew. I had credit in my neighborhood, people would lend me money and tell me to pay it back when I got famous,” Summer said in a 1989 interview with The Associated Press.
“Love to Love You Baby,” released in 1975, was her U.S. chart debut and the first of 19 No. 1 dance hits between 1975 and 2008 — second only to Madonna.
The song was a breakthrough hit for Summer and for disco — 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 Morodor 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. 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.
Through the rest of the disco era she burned up the charts: She was the only artist to have three consecutive double-LPs hit No. 1, “Live and More,” ”Bad Girls” and “On the Radio.” She was also the first female artist with four No. 1 singles in a 13-month period, according to the Rock Hall of Fame, where she was a nominee this year but was passed over.
She was never comfortable with the “Disco Queen” label. Musically, she began to change in 1979 with “Hot Stuff,” which had a tough, rock ‘n’ roll beat. Her diverse sound helped her earn Grammy Awards in the dance, rock, R&B and inspirational categories.
Summer said grew up on rock ‘n’ roll and later covered the Bruce Springsteen song “Protection.”
“I like the Moody Blues, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones as well as Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick, the Supremes and Temptations,” she 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.”
Warwick said in a statement that she was sad to lose a great performer and “dear friend.”
“My heart goes out to her husband and her children,” Warwick said. “Prayers will be said to keep them strong.”
Musician Nile Rodgers tweeted: “For the last half hour or so I’ve been lying in my bed crying and stunned. Donna Summer RIP.”
Summer released her last album, “Crayons,” in 2008. It was her first full studio album in 17 years. She also performed on “American Idol” that year with its top female contestants.
Even as disco went out of fashion, she remained a fixture in dance clubs, endlessly sampled and remixed. Her music has also been sampled by the Pussycat Dolls and rapper Nas.
In a sign of her continued relevance, the Broadway musical “Priscilla Queen of the Desert, The Musical,” features two versions of Summer songs with “Hot Stuff” and “MacArthur Park.”
“It’s a tragedy to lose an icon at such a young age,” actor and singer Nick Adams, who plays Adam in the show, said in an email.