Donna Summer died of lung cancer, her family says
But she wasn't a smoker, and the cancer wasn't related to smoking
Her family issues a statement to correct inaccurate reports about the cause of her death
Summer, America's "queen of disco," died Thursday at age 63
Donna Summer died of lung cancer, but the singer wasn’t a smoker, and the cancer wasn’t related to smoking, her family’s representative said Friday.
Summer’s family issued the announcement in the wake of how “various reports currently surfacing about the cause of Ms. Summer’s death are not accurate,” representative Brian Edward said.
“Obviously, numerous factors can be attributed to the cause of cancer in general, but any details regarding the diagnosis and subsequent treatment of Ms. Summer’s case remain between her family and team of doctors,” Edwards said in a statement.
Five-time Grammy winner Summer, 63, known as the “queen of disco” during the 1970s, died Thursday at age 63.
Summer: A diva who defined the disco movement
Much like the expressive era that her music defined, Summer danced her way through the 1970s with extraordinary success, posting successive hits that electrified dance floors and prompted her coronation as America’s disco queen.
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 surrounded by her family in Florida.
Overheard on CNN: This ‘last dance’ goes out to Donna Summer
Said her family in a statement Thursday: “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.
While she is iconic in the disco genre, her Grammy wins were also in the R&B, rock, inspirational and dance categories.
“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.
“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.”
Listen to a playlist of Donna Summer’s greatest hits
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 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.”
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.
CNN’s Denise Quan and Todd Leopold contributed to this report.