Donna Summer: The life story you may not know

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June 30, 2021
Jeffrey Mayer/WireImage // Getty Images

Donna Summer: The life story you may not know

Donna Summer was a pop icon, five-time Grammy winner, and legendary songbird who scored 42 single hits on Billboard’s Hot 100. Songs like “Love to Love You Baby” and “Hot Stuff” illuminate her tremendous songwriting and singing talent. Anyone growing up in the disco era is familiar with her music, but not many know her story behind the headlines.

To celebrate the “Queen of Disco,”  Stacker scoured news and biography sites to highlight 25 facts about Donna Summer that help paint a fuller picture of her life beyond the disco ball. Summer spoke German fluently, took up painting later in life, and battled depression, even surviving a suicide attempt. Did you know that a sleeping bathroom attendant was the inspiration for “She Works Hard for the Money” or that she had a role in the TV series “Family Matters”?

Play your favorite Donna Summer songs as you breeze through our slideshow. You will discover fascinating facts behind the lyrics and life of Donna Summer.  

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1948: Born in Boston

The “Queen of Disco” was born on December 31, 1948 in Boston, Massachusetts—as LaDonna Adrian Gaines. Her first six years were spent in the Mission Hill projects.

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1948: Large loving family

Summer's father was a butcher and her mother was a teacher. The couple had seven children, including the Grammy-winning singer. Their home on Parker Hill Ave. still attracts faithful fans to this day.

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1958 : Debut performance

Summer first performance was at age 10 at church. Her priest summoned Summer to the stage when the singer slated to perform was a no-show. The audience was in awe of Summer’s powerful voice and talent. The seminal moment forecasted her fame.

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City of Boston Archives // Flickr

1960s: High school musicals

Summer was the star of many musicals at Jeremiah E. Burke High School in Boston. She auditioned for a life-changing role just before she graduated.

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1967: Off to perform in Germany

She went off to Germany to perform in the musical “Hair” when she was 18. 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.” In 1968, she released her first single, “Aquarius,” a German version of the song from the musical “Hair.”

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1972: Marries first husband

She wed her first husband, Austrian actor Helmuth Sommer, in 1972. The couple had a daughter, Mimi. They divorced in 1972, but she used the anglicized version of his name for her brand.

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1974: Signs contract

Summer inked a contract with Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte. The team released a few hits in Europe before launching Summer’s career with the steamy hit song “Love to Love You Baby.” The trio went on to define the disco music of the ’70s.

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1976: Suicide attempt

After “Love to Love You Baby” became a sensation in the United States, Summer was celebrated as a sex goddess. She became despondent with her reputation and tried to commit suicide. After getting help, she reconnected with her faith. In 1979, she became a born-again Christian.

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1976-1984: Top hit parade

Summer had a top 40 hit each year for eight consecutive years. One of her most favorite hits that she produced during that time was “Last Dance.” NPR reported that she told them she would perform that song for the rest of her life.

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Harry Langdon/Getty Images

1978: Number 1 trio

“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.

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1980s: Inspired by hardworking people

Summer’s inspiration for “She Works Hard for the Money“ was a bathroom attendant named Onetta Johnson at L.A.’s tony bistro Chasen’s. She has fallen asleep and Summer accidentally jolted her awake when she went to the ladies room. The experience inspired the lyrics for the hit song.

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1980: Marries fellow creative Bruce Sudano

Summer married fellow songwriter and musician Bruce Sudano in July 1980. Sudano helped manage Summer’s career and was a songwriter who co-wrote “Bad Girls” as well as hits for Dolly Parton and Jermaine Jackson.

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1980s: Transitions to R&B

She recorded a disco duet with Barbara Steisand before branching off to a new beat. By 1983, she transitioned from her signature disco sound into an edgy R&B vibe.

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1981-1982 Gives birth to two more daughters

Summer gave birth to daughters, Amanda and Brooklyn, in the early 1980s. Singer Amanda is married to fellow musician Abner Ramirez and the couple has three children. Actress Brooklyn is married to Mike McGlaflin and the couple has one daughter.

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Harry Langdon/Getty Images

1983: Appears on MTV

Donna Summer’s hit “She Works Hard for the Money” appeared on MTV. She was the first Black woman in a video that was frequently played on the platform.

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Late 1980s: Popularity wanes

Although Summer continued to produce music through the late 1980s, she never regained her disco magic. She became vocal about her feelings about her former music being sinful, and sought solace in painting.

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Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

1989: Paints the town with art

Donna tapped into her creative well and discovered a new passion for painting. She exhibited her works in galleries across the nation and established credibility as a visual artist.

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1990s: Scandal erupts

Summer’s popularity declined when she was embroiled in a controversy about homophobic comments she allegedly made about gay fans. Although she denied making the comments, her image suffered.

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Walter Cicchetti // Shutterstock

1992: Gets star on Hollywood Walk of Fame

Summer received the Walk of Fame’s 1,952nd star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in March of 1992. Dick Clark and Steven Seagal joined family and fans to celebrate the milestone.

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1990s: Joins cast of ‘Family Matters’

Summer appeared in the popular TV series “Family Matters.” She was cast as Aunt Oona.

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Early 2000s: Tops charts in 21st century

Summer continued to create hit songs early in the 21st century. After a 17-year hiatus, she again hit the top. Her 2008 album “Crayons” produced three songs that ascended to the top of Billboard’s music charts. The last single she created in 2010, entitled “To Paris with Love,” also topped the charts.

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Bruce Glikas/FilmMagic // Getty IMages

2003: Writes autobiography

Summer wrote candidly about her life in her autobiography “Ordinary Girl: The Journey,” which was co-written with Marc Eliot. Along with her stardom, she opened up about her battles with depression and drug addiction and spiritual journey as a born-again Christian.

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Performs for President Obama

Summer 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.”

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2012: Dies of lung cancer

Summer died on May 17, 2012 at home in Naples, Florida after a battle with lung cancer. She was 63 years old.

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2013: Posthumously inducted into Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

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 to the Queen of Disco. 

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