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Boston-bred pop star Donna Summer dies at 63

Donna Summer, the singer who turned disco anthems into ecstatic fantasias emblematic of the 1970s and became one of the most celebrated pop stars to emerge from Boston, died Thursday. Ms. Summer, who had not spoken publicly about her cancer diagnosis, was 63.

Her publicist, Brian Edwards, said in a statement that Ms. Summer died in Naples, Fla., at a second home she shared with her husband, Bruce Sudano.

Although not widely associated with her local roots, the Boston native attended Jeremiah E. Burke High School in Dorchester. She initially found her big voice belting in the gospel choir at a local church. Ms. Summer, whose given name was LaDonna, was known then as Donna Gaines.


Hits such as "Love to Love You Baby,'' "Last Dance,'' "Bad Girls,'' and "On the Radio'' made her one of the most commercially successful artists from Boston, in the league of bands such as Aerosmith, Boston, and New Kids on the Block.

Leaving for New York in the late 1960s, Ms. Summer first found success in Germany starring in a production of the musical "Hair,'' but her hometown was often in her thoughts.

"I consider Boston my main home,'' she told the Globe in 2008 in her last lengthy interview with the paper. "I think about Boston constantly. It's a part of me.''

Many in Boston never forgot her origins, either.

For 15 years, Julius Chisholm has been the sexton at Grant AME Church in the South End, which Ms. Summer attended while growing up, and where he said some of her relatives still worship.

Chisholm remembered that once after a funeral in the church he heard a "beautiful voice'' echoing from the main area of the first floor. He walked in to find Ms. Summer, by herself, singing. She had gone to the postfuneral reception, he recalled, but overwhelmed by "people grabbing her and wanting autographs,'' she sought an escape.


"She had a beautiful voice. She sounded real good,'' the 74-year-old Haverhill resident said in the church Thursday afternoon.

"She was a beautiful person,'' Chisholm added. "She was down to earth. If she came in the city, here in Boston, she would come by the church. She never forgot where she came from.''

Although Ms. Summer made her name as a disco diva in the 1970s, especially through her iconic work with producer Giorgio Moroder, she smoothly transitioned into the '80s. Hits such as "She Works Hard for the Money'' proved she wasn't tethered to a specific genre. Long after disco died out, Ms. Summer ruled the dance floor well into her final years.

Publicist Michael Levine worked with Ms. Summer in 2002 as part of a campaign to rebrand the singer beyond her reputation as the Queen of Disco.

"The thinking was that she was a victim of her own success,'' said Levine, who mentioned that even he had no idea Ms. Summer had been diagnosed with cancer. "She was so successful creating this image of herself as a disco singer, but she wanted to move beyond that.''

Her voice, a sturdy instrument that was erotic and sensuous, but also had operatic shadings, turned even banal material such as "MacArthur Park'' into musical euphoria. Her deep love of gospel, particularly the music of Mahalia Jackson, was apparent from the start and dovetailed with Ms. Summer becoming a born-again Christian. Faith was important to Ms. Summer throughout her life; she was known to host Bible study classes at her home.


Many considered Ms. Summer a singer's singer, perhaps the only woman who could upstage Barbra Streisand. "No More Tears (Enough Is Enough),'' their 1979 duet, was a marvel of sheer theatrics and a feminist call to arms against deadbeat men.

Within minutes of the announcement, Ms. Summer's death drew heartfelt testimonials and tributes on social media sites, cutting across genres and generations of musicians who revered her work. On Twitter, R&B singer Mary J. Blige called her "a game changer,'' and The Roots' Ahmir "Questlove'' Thompson spoke about Ms. Summer's enduring appeal: Despite divisions over disco, "Summer's work was really a credible legacy.''

Streisand, meanwhile, said on Twitter that Ms. Summer "was so vital the last time I saw her a few months ago.'' And Dolly Parton, who had a hit with a song Summer co-wrote, "Starting Over Again,'' said in a statement: "Donna, like Whitney [Houston], had one of the greatest voices ever.''

A superstar with multiplatinum record sales, Ms. Summer was also critically acclaimed. She was a five-time Grammy Award winner, but one particular honor eluded her.

"Her records sound as good today as they ever did,'' Elton John said in a statement. "That she has never been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a total disgrace, especially when I see the second-rate talent that has been inducted.''


Ms. Summer remained relevant, and her last studio album, 2008's "Crayons,'' fit comfortably in the realm of contemporary R&B and urban pop. It even yielded a few hits on the Billboard dance charts.

In concert, though, Ms. Summer really shone, peerless as a singer fueled by force and conviction. Reviewing Ms. Summer's final Boston concert, in 2010, Globe music critic Sarah Rodman wrote: "Her indomitable voice intact and her spirits high, Summer demonstrated how she ably withstood changing styles over the years.''

Robert Elias remembered that concert at the Bank of America Pavilion. Elias helped arrange the show, which raised money for Action for Boston Community Development, an antipoverty agency. He said that when Ms. Summer was growing up, she had been enrolled in some programs the nonprofit runs.

"I remember she was fun,'' Elias said by phone Thursday. "After the concert, she met with a lot of the ABCD folks. She was extremely gracious. I remember that well. I think she felt good about giving back to her community. She was a Boston girl who seemed to be very proud of being from here.''

Ms. Summer also made a lasting impression on a young woman who would rise in local politics. On Twitter, Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley posted a remembrance: "True story - I once got separated from my mom at dept store. Donna Summer found me, took me to security and waited with me until my mom came.''

Although a comprehensive list of her survivors was not immediately available, some of Ms. Summer's relatives still live in the area.


"I know she was a good girl. She used to get all the kids together on Parker Hill [Avenue, in Mission Hill] to do shows,'' Rita Rogers, her 83-year-old aunt, said on the phone from her Jamaica Plain home Thursday.

Reflecting on her legacy, Ms. Summer told the Globe in 1999 that she was proud of what she had accomplished.

"People say to me that I was the soundtrack to their lives,'' she said. "It makes you feel really good to feel you're a part of someone's life you don't even know. That something you've done has affected someone.''

Globe correspondents Matthew Rocheleau and Amanda Cedrone contributed to this report. James Reed can be reached at jreed@globe.com.