Barriers Broken: What You May Not Know About Donna Summer by Thembisa Mshaka

LaDonna Adrian Gaines, aka Donna Summer
December 31, 1948 – May 17, 2012

Donna Summer passed away quietly on the morning of May 17, 2012. The news of her death however, rang loudly, sorrowfully, all over the globe. TMZ reports that she died after a protracted battle with an undisclosed form of cancer, which added shock to the disbelief, chiefly because Donna Summer personified vibrance. Everything about her was sensational, in the positive sense of that word: voluminous flowing tresses, a wide megawatt smile, toned and shapely figure that served as the perfect canvas for sequined gowns. Early in her career it took the shape of smoldering sensuality captured in songs like “Love To Love You Baby” and images like the shot of her resplendent in white, reclining in the curve of a crescent moon, her long legs on proud display. Later in her career, the undisputed Queen of Disco would continue to wow crowds with her empowerment anthem “She Works Hard For The Money” and win Grammy® Awards in categories you might not expect, like the two she garnered for Best Inspiration Performance (“He’s A Rebel” and “Forgive Me”). Donna Summer accomplished a lot in her five decades as an entertainer that you might not expect. Donna Summer is a shining example of the universality of the soul artist.

Donna Summer reached her zenith at a time when popular music was segregated; the rise of disco represented the convergence of genres that comingled in the clubs and on the streets, but rarely met on the charts. While rock ‘n’ roll and pop were code for “white music” and “R&B” and “soul” were code for “Black music”, in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Donna Summer sang—and scored hits—in whatever genre she chose.  In 1978, her cover of Jimmy Webb’s “MacArthur Park” went #1 and earned her a Grammy® nomination for Best Pop Vocal Performance. Summer also went #1 with “Hot Stuff”, which earned her a Grammy® Award for Best Rock Vocal Performance. “Last Dance”, from her star turn in the cult classic film Thank God It’s Friday, climbed to #3 on the Billboard Hot 100, scored her another Grammy® for Best R&B Vocal Performance, and earned an Academy Award® for its composer, Paul Jabara. “She Works Hard For The Money” brought the plight of women in the workforce to the top of the charts; arguably the first mainstream record to make the case for pay equity plain. Its music video was the first by a black woman recording artist to receive an MTV Video Award nomination—in 1984.

Perhaps her refusal to be categorized as an artist came from Summer experiencing international success as a theater performer and session vocalist in Germany before becoming a household name in the United States. When her rock band Crow failed to get a deal, instead of quitting, she auditioned for Hair in New York City. When Melba Moore got the part, instead of sulking, she took the role in the European production of Hair. The girl from Dorchester, Massachusetts kicked off her career in 1967 in Europe. Eventually becoming fluent in German, Summer appeared in German productions of Showboat and Godspell as well. By the time Summer starred in Thank God It’s Friday, she was a seasoned actor.

While the industry knew this full well, her gift as a songwriter was not often highlighted in the media. Donna Summer wrote a great deal of her own material. She also penned “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)” for Barbra Streisand. Her songs have worked their way into contemporary hip hop and R&B as samples (“Freaks of the Industry” by Digital Underground and “Naughty Girl” by Beyonce’ echo “Love To Love You Baby”). The club classic “I Feel Love” was inducted to the Dance Music Hall of Fame along with Summer in 2004.

Donna Summer was more than the Queen of Disco. She was a rock star. A pop icon. A gospel singer. A soul siren. A dance pioneer.  A sex symbol, when it meant something, when it took that certain something, to actually be one. The masses were her core audience; a rare feat for any artist to accomplish and sustain without losing their connection to that audience. Before Beyonce’, Rihanna, Kelly Rowland, before Madonna, Christina Aguilera, and Britney Spears, there was Donna Summer. While she is now gone, her voice and music live on. As hard as she worked for the money and the music, with all the barriers as she broke? You better treat her right.


Thembisa S. MshakaThembisa S. Mshaka is an award-winning recorded music campaign writer (The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill among many others) and journalist whose byline has appeared in Yahoo! Music and She is working on the second edition of her critically acclaimed business career guide, Put Your Dreams First: Handle Your [entertainment] Business Check out some of her work for soulhead.
Check out some classic Donna Summer:
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