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A look back at Donna Summer's career
02:35 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

NEW: Success by her mid-20s was tough and "always a surprise," Summer said in 2003

Donna Summer helped defined the disco genre of the 1970s

Later, she broke out of the disco mold, showing her vocal and stylistic range

In 2003, she wrote a memoir about her highs and lows, including suicidal thoughts

CNN  — 

Much like the expressive era that her music defined, Donna Summer danced her way through the 1970s with extraordinary success, posting successive hits that electrified dance floors and prompted her coronation as America’s queen of disco.

But her own life was marked by the highs and lows of the ballads that she energetically sang, and even at the height of her popularity, she once took steps toward suicide – only to be stopped by the interruption of hotel maids.

She overcame the negative dimensions of relentless public attention, and her legacy as a genre-leading vocalist endures decades later among music enthusiasts, even resulting in an appearance a few years ago on “American Idol.”

Summer died Thursday morning from cancer, her publicist, Brian Edwards, said. She was surrounded by her family in Florida, he said.

Said her family in a statement: “Early this morning, we lost Donna Summer Sudano, a woman of many gifts, the greatest being her faith. While we grieve her passing, we are at peace celebrating her extraordinary life and her continued legacy.”

Summer, who was born in Boston and whose father was a butcher and mother a schoolteacher, sang from the moment she learned to talk, and her debut performance came in church at age 10 when the scheduled singer didn’t show and the pastor asked Donna to step in.

Summer later recalled that the church performance left worshipers in tears.

In her singing career, she won five Grammys, and while she is iconic in the disco genre, her Grammy wins were also in the R&B, rock, inspirational and dance categories.

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“Her talent was a true gift to the music industry,” said Neil Portnow, president and CEO of the Recording Academy.

At the height of her career, she and Casablanca Records created a sex symbol persona for her, and in an October 1977 cover story for Ebony, she remarked about her other nicknames: Queen of Love and Symbol of Eros.

“Well, you have to get people’s attention some kind of way,” Summer told the magazine, “but I’m not just sex, sex, sex. I would never want to be a one-dimensional person like that.

Share your images or memories of Donna Summer

“I can sing songs like ‘Love to Love You, Baby,’ but I can also sing ballads, light opera, things from musical comedies, church hymns – all kinds of things. Plus I can write, act and think.”

Summer added that she didn’t “want to be known for just one thing.”

In a 2003 interview with CNN, she said the initial absence of a manager led her to do provocative photo shoots. Her public image as a sex symbol and diva conflicted with her religious upbringing, she said. Her grandfather was a minister and her father a church deacon.

“Yes, it was a big complex and the image was sort of created around me,” Summer said. “I was sort of there, but not consciously there. And I didn’t have anybody sort of on my side at that point, fighting for me, except for me, being in the middle. And then people would say, you know, ‘Lay down here and do this.’ And you know, whatever,” Summer said.

Her big break came when she was a teenager and auditioned in New York for a European version of “Hair.” She landed a role and went to Europe.

When she achieved success by her mid-20s, she wasn’t able to handle it well.

“It was tough,” Summer said. “I think success is always a surprise, you know.”

She eventually suffered depression and found herself in an abusive relationship.

“If people are in abusive relationships, I think they need to get out of them or at least get help,” Summer said.

She lived in fear during that relationship, she said.

“Thank God this person was from Europe, so they were deported. And then I was able to sort of be free, but I was afraid for years,” she said.

Her hits included “Hot Stuff,” “Bad Girls,” and “She Works Hard for the Money.”

Summer first rose to fame the mid-1970s, thanks to “Love to Love You Baby.” The song, with Summer’s whispered vocals and orgasmic groans supported by heavily synthesized backing tracks, fueled the decade’s disco mania and hit No. 2 in 1976.

Summer followed the song with such hits as “I Feel Love,” “Last Dance” and a disco version of the Richard Harris hit “MacArthur Park,” which outdid Harris’ version by hitting No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 singles chart. It was Summer’s first of four chart-toppers.

But with her 1979 album “Bad Girls,” Summer broke out of the disco mold as the genre, stimulated by the success of the Bee Gees’ “Saturday Night Fever” soundtrack, was feeling a backlash. “Bad Girls” demonstrated Summer’s vocal and stylistic range and produced two No. 1 hits, “Hot Stuff” and “Bad Girls,” as well as a Top 10 ballad, “Dim All the Lights.”

Fans, friends react to Summer’s death

However, Summer had some trouble adjusting to the changing times. Her next album, “The Wanderer,” went for more of a rock feel. It produced a Top 10 hit in the title track but fared relatively poorly on the charts – especially disappointing after the success of “Bad Girls,” a double album that spent five weeks at No. 1.

It wasn’t until 1983’s “She Works Hard for the Money,” which became a ubiquitous video as well as a big radio hit, that Summer’s fame approached its late ’70s zenith.

In 2003, she wrote of the demands of being superstar in a memoir, “Ordinary Girl: The Journey.” She disclosed the pressures associated with being a superstar and revealed that at the peak of her popularity, the disco queen even contemplated suicide.

In an interview with CNN that year, she was asked about sticking her foot out of a hotel window to get a feel of whether to jump.

“No, I wasn’t getting a feel. I was jumping over. I was attempting to go. I didn’t plan it. I just decided, I’m out of here,” Summer told CNN.

Then the maids walked in. She stopped herself.

“Then I sought help. I got help. I realized that I had a serious problem with depression, and I went to a doctor and he gave me some medication,” Summer said.

More recently, she appeared on the finale of the popular show “American Idol” in 2008 and performed some of her greatest hits with the show’s leading female singers.

That year, she released her album “Crayons,” and in an interview with CNN, she spoke of her musical “mission.”

“I don’t like to be categorized because I think that I am an instrument, and if you play me, I’ll make whatever particular sound is supposed to come out for that color,” Summer said. “And so, in the overall spectrum of things, I’m just trying to be true to my, what I feel my mission is.”

CNN’s Todd Leopold and Joshua Levs contributed to this report.