When the “Queen of Disco” Donna Summer died Thursday, adoring fans and celebrities who had worked with her were stunned to find out she had been battling lung cancer for 10 months. Only a close circle of friends and family knew the singer was dealing with the illness. Her good friend Ceila Kasha said Summer’s last months had been challenging but in spite of it she had remained the same—“a positive, spiritual person who uplifted others.
“It was a tough year, but she fought a good fight,” said Kasha, who wept throughout her interview with BlackAmericaweb. “It was our constant prayers that helped her last this long.”
Kasha said she met Summer in 1978 when the singer “walked into my house for a Bible study.” After Summer started painting, Kasha became her agent.
“She was always helping others. She could never pass a homeless person without giving 10 or 25 dollars. If we ran into four or five homeless people, she did the same thing. She was very generous.”
Art dealer Carolyn Solomon of Las Vegas saw Summer this past Fall and said, “She looked terrific. She seemed great. She had her great sense of humor and laughed a lot.”
In interviews, people speak of Summer’s influence on music history but also of the kindness and upbeat spirit of a woman known for her humanity.
Summer died of cancer Thursday morning in Naples, Fla. Her family released a statement saying they “are at peace celebrating her extraordinary life and her continued legacy. Words truly can’t express how much we appreciate your prayers and love for our family at this sensitive time,” the statement said.
The singer was living in Englewood, Fla., with her husband Bruce Sudano at the time of her death. She had three daughters and four grandchildren. She was 63.
“God had to create disco music so that I could be born and be successful,” Summer once said.
Her songs were anthems that captivated a generation caught in a multi-faceted cultural revolution when people reconstructed views on issues such as sex, race and war. On ABC News, Diane Sawyer called Summer’s songs “a call to freedom.” The singer helped usher in the dance music known as disco and perhaps more than any artist became affiliated with it.
“She was a pioneer in the genre,” said Scooter Magruder, host of “Don’t Forget the Blues” on WPFW-FM in Washington, D.C. and manager of Roadhouse Oldies in Silver Spring, Md. “People still come in asking for her music even though they don’t play disco on the radio.”
She was a five-time Grammy winner who broke records that included being the first artist to win the Grammy for Best Rock Vocal Performance – Female; as well as the first-ever recipient of the Grammy for Best Dance Recording. In 1978, she became the first female artist in history to have a No. 1 single (MacArthur Park) and a No. 1 album (Live and More) simultaneously on the Billboard charts.
Patti LaBelle told BlackAmericaweb: “Today the world has lost a precious talent. Donna Summer was an amazing singer, songwriter and performer whose music changed the world in so many ways. She was fearless and fierce and she was one of those special artists whose music truly broke down barriers and brought people together. She will be missed, but never forgotten.”
Singer Aretha Franklin also released a statement calling Summer “a fine performer and a very nice person.” I will miss her very much,” said vocalist Chaka Khan. “Donna and I had a friendship for over 30 years. She is one of the few black women I could speak German with and she is one of the few friends I had in this business.”
Richard Harrington, former music critic at The Washington Post, said Summer’s “typecast” as “disco queen” was a burden, limiting the way people viewed her musicality. This meant once disco was declared dead, so was Summer’s career.
But Summer seemed to have different plans for her life, anyway. She grew tired of the disco queen title, saying in a 1999 interview, “I appreciate the reference and that I’ve gotten to be a part of people’s lives. But now I have to make a new title for myself. That diva thing is getting a little used.”
By this time Summer had started painting. She compared her paintings to recordings. On the website for Jack Gallery, the singer says, “With painting, whatever I put down on the canvas is there when I wake up the next day and forever. In that way, it’s more like a recording than an event—more permanent, like a live album of a show, rather than the show itself.”
Her death surprised Carolyn Solomon, President of S² Art Center in Las Vegas, whose company has published some of Summer’s artwork since the early ‘80s. She said she last saw Summer in the fall when she visited their gallery.
“She was looking great and working on projects,” said Solomon, whose voice faltered. “She was with Giorgio Moroder, who produced a lot of her albums I guess every artist’s work is personal but I think in her case she approached it from a personal sensibility because she was self-trained—and she painted about her feelings. She wasn’t trying to be anything other than herself in her work.
“I know people say nice things when someone dies. But I swear she was super. She was the warmest, with the biggest hugs.” Solomon paused to sigh. “Never in all these years have I heard a negative word come from her mouth, whether things were going good or bad. You always felt she was in an up spirit.”
Bobby Bennett, a former disc jockey and founder of one of XM’s major radio stations, “Soul Street,” said he had preconceived notions about the woman called a “diva. I thought she would be stuck-up, stinky; she was very pretty,” said Bennett, who interviewed Summer several times and saw her on other occasions. “She was always gracious and nice. And during disco, when a lot of the sound then was techno, she had a voice.”
Summer seemed to reject the big ego syndrome that plagues many famous people. She once commented on the impact of reaching a pinnacle of success by saying, “For me, after I had success on that level, my next goals were personal, they were my family, go on it’s time now, ‘You’ve done this, you’ve proven this, let’s get on with your real-life.”
Her good friend Kasha, speaking from her home in Beverly Hills, said, “She loved being a grandmother. She loved singing and painting. She was spiritual, a good Christian lady. She was married to a sweet, sweet man.” Of Summer’s husband, songwriter Bruce Sudano, Kasha said, “He is having a tough time. He’s been so strong for so long.
“She was always giving. I was on flight with her from London and the head of the Salvation Army was on the plane and Donna took out all the cash she had. She didn’t count it. She folded it and put it in a napkin and said, ‘Please, would you take this’ She did it anonymously,” Kasha said, crying before apologizing because she could not talk any longer.
Summer’s funeral will be Monday in Nashville. The family asks that in lieu of flowers, donations can be made in Summer’s honor to the Salvation Army.