There may be reasonable debate about the greatest band to come out of Boston or even New England. Certainly and deservingly so, bands such as Aerosmith, Boston, The Cars, New Edition, J. Geils Band and others may come to mind. But when it comes to the most successful and influential solo performer in New England’s rich musical history, few can debate that it is Boston’s own, Donna Summer.
LaDonna Gaines and The Boston Years
Donna Summer would enjoy a career in music that would span some five decades including a five period (1976-1981) where she would dominate popular music like few have ever achieved. She would practically singlehandedly usher in the disco era where her music had not only crossover appeal but so did her audiences. Donna Summer’s extraordinary fame, for all its heights started right here in the neighborhoods of Boston MA. Born LaDonna Adrian Gaines on December 31, 1949, her mother, Mary, a Boston native whose parents immigrated from Nova Scotia, Canada, worked as a teacher, and her father, Andrew, originally from Alabama, worked tirelessly with multiple jobs including a butcher. Donna praised her Dad as a “father’s father.” Donna wrote that her father was good at fishing and caught ample fishes to feed the big family if her parents experienced financial difficulties. The Gaines family, with LaDonna and six brothers and sisters, lived briefly in Dorchester but spent her childhood and formative years in Boston’s Mission Hill neighborhood at 16 Parker Hill. The rule of the Gaines household included church and education. LaDonna, a fan of Mahalia Jackson, sang at Grant A.M.E. Church of South End. At the age of 10 years old she substituted one Sunday for a singer who did not show up for her performance. LaDonna stepped in and wowed the parishioners with her confidence and voice. Thus, “A star was born” (for the first time).
LaDonna attended Boston’s Jeremiah E. Burke High School where she was the star of many high school musicals. After school LaDonna used the Green Line street cars of Mission Hill to bring her to her favorite place in Boston, the Boston Commons. The Commons played an influential role in her life when it came to music. Like many, it was the Boston Commons where she was exposed to different types of music being performed live right on the Commons. She would even visit the Graveyard next to the Commons on Boylston Street to look at all the headstones.
LaDonna joined her first band when she was 17 years old, a Boston-based blues-rock band named Crow with six college students as a vocalist. She was the sole female and Black member of the band. While in the band, LaDonna also worked a job through (ABCD) Action for Boston Community Development as many of Boston’s youngsters had, including this writer. Donna Summer would support this organization her entire life, even performing at one of ABCD’s Gala Fundraisers. In Boston young LaDonna would enjoy live music at Boston clubs such as the Boston Tea Party in South End and Club 47 in Cambridge. Then “LaDonna Summer” would leave Boston for New York with Crow, looking for that big break. She had no idea how big a break she would receive as LaDonna Gaines would become “Donna Summer” and rule popular music like few female solo performers had done up to that time.
Donna Summer Is Born
With a strong, soulful and haunting voice, at the age of 18, LaDonna Gaines arrived in New York with her band Crow. On her own, she decided to audition for a role in the popular musical Hair. She got the role and joined the European production of Hair and was off to Germany to perform in the musical. While she was in Europe, she honed her craft at the Vienna Folk Opera and was part of the cast of Godspell and Show Boat as well. While in Europe she met and married a fellow performer, Helmut Sommer, in 1972. The couple had a daughter, Mimi. After their divorce a year later, LaDonna kept the last name with one little change, well, actually two, she went from “LaDonna” to Donna” and from “Sommer” to “Summer.” And the name “Donna Summer” was created! While in Europe she would meet the man with whom she would form one of the most successful songwriting teams in music history, producer Giorgio Moroder. Giorgio Moroder was enthralled with her voice. At the time, Giorgio was working with a new sound with synthesizers but needed his muse. Donna Summer, based on her collage of music taste from her Boston days, needed a mixture or new sound to feed her interest. They were a match made in music heaven.
In 1975, Summer recorded “Love to Love You Baby,” a sexual moody song with Donna’s provocative voice over a speedy disco beat. The song was nearly 17 minutes in length. Summer was signed to Neil Bogart’s disco-friendly Casablanca Records, and a shortened version of the song reached No. 2 on the American charts by early 1976. This song is one of those landmarks in music history. “Love To Love You Baby” was one of the songs that also ushered in the Disco era and Donna Summer was quickly anointed the genre’s Queen. After “Love to Love You Baby” became a sensation in the United States, Summer was celebrated as a sex goddess.
Donna Summer (without benefit of videos, MTV or the internet) seemed to be everywhere from 1976 to 1981. Live and More was her first album to ascend to #1 on the Billboard album charts, featuring “MacArthur Park,” her first #1 single. In 1979 she had two more #1 singles, “Bad Girls” and “Hot Stuff,” from her Bad Girl album. She was the first female singer to garner three #1 hits in the same calendar year. Over that five year period Donna Summer would release four No 1 singles (“Macarthur Park,” “Hot Stuff,” “Bad Girls,” and “No More Tears” w/Barbara Streisand) and six other top ten singles “Could It Be Magic,” “Try Me, I Know We Can Make It,” “Spring Affair,” “Winter Melody,” “I Feel Love, “I Last Dance,” and “I Remember Yesterday.” She also had ten No.1 Dance Hits. Most agree that “I Feel Love” is one of the most influential songs ever. It certainly is the song that anchored electronic dance music.
How popular was Donna Summer? Read this carefully. On the Radio: Greatest Hits Volumes I & II was her greatest hits album, released on October 15, 1979. It was her fourth consecutive DOUBLE album release, and also made her the first person ever to take THREE CONSECUTIVE double albums to the number one spot on the U.S. album charts. Donna Summer would win 5 Grammys and 6 American Music Awards. She even would a Grammy for Best Female Rock performance for “Hot Stuff.” That’s right, ROCK!
And incredibly, just about all of Donna’s hits were produced by Giorgio Moroder and written by Donna and Giorgio.
During the late 1970s, Summer’s record sales exploded and she recorded and toured nearly non-stop. Even when she starred in a movie that bombed — Thank God It’s Friday — Donna Summer could get a hit record. It was that movie that featured her classic, “Last Dance,” a song that will be played forever. But unknown to most, Donna battled internally with her sex goddess image. She became despondent with her reputation and tried to take her own life. After getting help, she reconnected with her faith. In 1979, she became a born-again Christian.
In 1980 Donna Summer married Bruce Sudano. You may recognize his voice on the duet “Heaven Knows.” They have two daughters. Donna announced she was a born again Christian around this time as well. She also worked with Quincy Jones on a self-titled album and scored a huge hit, “Love in Control (Finger On The Trigger),” and “She Works Hard The Money,” an anthem still played today.
Over the next three decades Donna Summer continued releasing albums showcasing her incredible voice and always successfully toured. She appeared in the popular TV series Family Matters. where she was cast as Aunt Oona. In 2003 Donna released her autobiography Ordinary Girl: The Journey, where she opened up about her battles with depression and drug addiction and spiritual journey as a born-again Christian. She performed in Oslo, Norway when President Barack Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. She sang a set of six songs at the concert including “MacArthur Park” and “Last Dance.” Through all the years, her fans remained loyal and grateful for her contributions to music.. After selling 100 million records worldwide and being listed as Billboard Magazine’s 14th Greatest female soloist of all time, all that was left was for Donna Summer to enter the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But she would not live to see that day. In one music’s most shocking music deaths, Boston’s Donna Summer died on May 17, 2012 at her home in Naples, Florida after a battle with lung cancer. She was 63 years old.
Tributes from around the world poured in from President Obama, Beyoncé, Aretha Franklin, Janet Jackson and artists of all genres of music. Elton John took to the media and lambasted the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for having Donna Summer wait until her death to get into the Hall. Most felt it was due to her connection to Disco. But what upset folks the most was that Madonna and ABBA, dance artists, went in to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame before Donna Summer. Donna Summer was posthumously inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in April 2013. Her husband and daughters accepted the award in her honor. Destiny Child’s Kelly Rowland gave a tribute. Jennifer Hudson performed “Last Dance.”
There would not be the crossover that music enjoys today were it not for artist like Boston’s Donna Summer not to mention how she broke down the male dominated world of combining sexual expression and music. Long overdue.
Boston Continues the Donna Summer Legacy
Boston continues to honor our Donna Summer with Boston City Hall’s Office of Tourism, Sports, and Entertainment annual “Celebration of Summer: Donna Summer Disco Party” on City Hall Plaza. And Broadway In Boston has announced that the North American Tour of “SUMMER: The Donna Summer Musical” in 2022. The Jeremiah E. Burke High School has a beautiful mural of their famous alumni in its hallway. Students of the Dream Builders Youth Project unveiled the mural in June 2014. There has been talk of a Hollywood film of Donna Summer’s life for several years now.
Donna Summer has been an inductee of the Music Museum Of New England for several years, I am honored to write this profile and hopefully reveal more of the story of not only the Queen Of Disco but the Queen Of New England Music and her Boston roots. When she was born her parents named her LaDonna whose translation is “woman who sings.” They got that right.
And if you are ever in the Mission Hill area, stop by 16 Parker Hill Avenue and pay respect to our Donna Summer. You cannot miss the house….it is the one with the disco ball hanging on the porch.
(by Edwin Sumpter)