It is understandable, what with a war on in Ukraine, democracy on trial in Washington, and women being patted on the head and told they cannot control their own bodies, that news that Boston now has a street named after Donna Summer didn’t get as much attention as it deserved.
If you grew up in or around Boston during the 1970s or 80s, you listened to the Trammps and went to The Palace in Saugus, or Faces in Cambridge, or Lucifer’s in Kenmore Square and you knew that Donna Summer, a Boston kid, was the queen of disco.
Before she was Donna Summer, she was LaDonna Gaines, born at the old Boston City Hospital, brought up in Mission Hill. The street she grew up on, Parker Hill Avenue, was just renamed Donna Summer Avenue. Her sister, Mary Gaines Bernard, was at the annual Donna Summer Disco Party in Copley Square a couple of weeks ago when city officials announced their intention to rename the street.
That party, which draws one of the most diverse crowds in the city every year, has been Boston’s most visible way to honor her since Summer died of cancer at 63 in 2012. It is an annual homage to both the woman and the music that brought a lot of different kinds of people together.
As Alison Harvey, a Harvard Divinity School program manager who still listens to disco religiously, put it: “It is such a joyful event for all ages, and the best way to put 14,000 steps on your fitness watch.”
Summer grew up on the second floor of a triple-decker at 16 Parker Hill Ave, in an extended family living situation common throughout Boston neighborhoods. Her aunt and uncle lived on the first floor; her grandmother and cousins on the top floor. Her father was a butcher, her mother was a school teacher.
Her household was full of music: the Supremes, Dionne Warwick, Dinah Washington, Janis Joplin. And lots of gospel. Donna Summer developed her extraordinary voice singing at her family’s church, Grant AME Church in the South End.
She knew she would become a star when, as a 10-year-old, she stood up in Grant AME and belted out the old Mahalia Jackson standard “I Found the Answer,” and the minister wept.
The sexual innuendo in some of her hits, particularly “Love to Love You Baby,” led some preachers, even the Rev. Jesse Jackson, to denounce her overt sexuality. But then, the holier-than-thou crowd went after Ma Rainey, too, and what did that get them?
Donna Summer never cut her links with her faith, her church, or her hometown. Long after she moved from Boston and became an international star, she kept her tithes at Grant AME. She gave generously to Boston-based charities.
After Summer died, Representative Ayanna Pressley recounted that when she was a little girl she got separated from her mom in a department store. Donna Summer, by then one of the world’s most famous singers, found her wandering, took her to security and waited until Pressley’s mom got there.
As girls, Summer and her sisters held singing shows on their back porch. In her autobiography, she recalled moving the shows to the front porch so residents in the big brick nursing home next to their house could hear them better.
She took the Green Line to swim at the Brighton pool. She almost drowned at that pool once, and that near-death experience made her take her Christian faith more seriously.
She left Jeremiah E. Burke High School in Dorchester in 1967, shortly before graduating, to move to New York, got famous in Europe, then made it big everywhere. She had 42 hits on Billboard’s Hot 100, five Grammys, and launched countless romances on dance floors all over the world.
Donna Summer was a legend. There’s a whole generation or two who have grown up in Boston and probably know little or nothing about her.
England has its queen. We had ours, and she lived on Donna Summer Ave.
Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.