Donna Summer obituary

American singer with a string of sexually charged chart-topping hits in the 1970s

Though she will be remembered for disco classics such as Love to Love You Baby and I Feel Love, Donna Summer, who has died of cancer aged 63, notched up many achievements in a career lasting more than 40 years. She recorded three multi-platinum albums and three consecutive double albums topping the US chart. She reached a commercial peak in the late 1970s with a string of chart-topping singles, including a duet with Barbra Streisand on No More Tears (Enough Is Enough), and was able to bounce back from a subsequent slump with hit records in succeeding decades. She also branched out into television, with appearances on America's Got Talent and the reality show Platinum Hit.

Born LaDonna Adrian Gaines in Boston, Massachusetts, she and her six siblings were brought up in a religious household, since while her father earned a living as a butcher, he was also a minister. She sang in church choirs as a child, and claimed that when she was eight she heard God telling her she would become famous. During her teens she formed several groups inspired by Motown acts such as the Supremes and Martha and the Vandellas, and after leaving school to pursue a musical career, she sang with the psychedelic rock band Crow.

She then auditioned for a part in the musical Hair on Broadway, and though initially unsuccessful she was later hired for the German version of the show. This prompted a move to Germany, where she performed in several shows, including Godspell and Show Boat, learned to speak fluent German, and married the Austrian actor Helmut Sommer, from whom she took her performing name.

Living in Munich, she inevitably met the local (though Italian-born) writer and producer Giorgio Moroder, who supervised the recording of her album Lady of the Night (1974). All the songs were written by Moroder and his lyric-writing partner Pete Bellotte, and the album was released only in the Netherlands.

The following year, Summer herself presented the theme and title of Love to Love You Baby to Moroder and Bellotte. Moroder set about turning the song into a sexually charged disco track, encouraging the singer's moanings (which she later said were inspired by Marilyn Monroe). It was recorded for Moroder's Oasis label, but received major distribution through a deal with LA-based Casablanca Records. It sped to No 2 on Billboard's Hot 100 in 1976, and the ensuing album was certified gold in the US. Summer's lubricious performances prompted media controversy, which helped to launch her as "the first lady of love". A 17-minute version of Love to Love You Baby was a clubland smash and helped to create the vogue for 12-inch singles.

Summer followed up with two further gold albums that year, A Love Trilogy and Four Seasons of Love, and the 1977 concept album I Remember Yesterday yielded the single I Feel Love, which epitomised Moroder's vision of trance-like dance electronica. In 1978 she scored her first US chart-topping single, with a version of Jimmy Webb's MacArthur Park, and repeated the feat with Hot Stuff, Bad Girls and No More Tears (Enough Is Enough). Summer made her film acting debut as a disco singer in Thank God It's Friday (1978). A song from the soundtrack, Last Dance, was another big hit and won the singer her first Grammy. She won another for Hot Stuff.

Summer now yearned to break away from the disco format, though she always defended the genre and was proud of her role in it. She split from Casablanca, signed to Geffen Records, and made the rock-styled album The Wanderer (1980). Donna Summer (1982) was produced by Quincy Jones and generated the hits Love Is in Control and State of Independence, while the title song of her subsequent album, She Works Hard for the Money (1983), was another milestone.

Her career hit turbulence in the mid-80s after she was alleged to have made anti-gay remarks about Aids and its victims, which Summer (by then a born-again Christian) denied, though she later apologised for any pain she had caused. She bounced back into the charts in 1989 with Another Place and Time, overseen by the British producers Stock, Aitken and Waterman, and the single This Time I Know It's for Real was a major international success.

She embraced her Christian faith with the gospel-flavoured Christmas Spirit (1994), and accepted a role in the TV sitcom Family Matters. In 1999 she made a television special, Donna Summer – Live and More Encore, which achieved stellar ratings. The new millennium brought more dance hits. Crayons (2008) was her first studio album of new material for 17 years, and reached the US top 20. In 2010 the single To Paris With Love topped Billboard's US dance chart.

She is survived by her second husband, Bruce Sudano; their daughters, Brooklyn and Amanda; her daughter, Mimi, from her previous marriage, which ended in divorce in 1975; and four grandchildren.

• Donna Summer (LaDonna Adrian Gaines), singer, born 31 December 1948; died 17 May 2012


Adam Sweeting

The GuardianTramp

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