Donna Summer, a disco diva who defined an era

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Donna Summer performs in 2009. She defined the disco era but had much more depth of talent. JOHN McCONNICO / Associated Press

The news of Donna Summer’s passing Thursday at age 63 shook me to my dancing shoes. Of all the so-called disco divas, I thought Summer would be the one to live forever.

Ah, disco. The pulsating beat exploded onto the music scene in the mid-’70s like the inferno the Trammps sang about. A mirrored, rotating cherry bomb that just as quickly flamed out. Those one-hit wonders it produced, so relevant then, forgotten now. (Alicia Bridges? Dorothy Moore? Somebody? Anybody?)

But not Summer. Her mezzo-soprano could have earned her a place in opera, that’s how vocally adept she was. She not only was the Queen of Disco, she transcended it. A friend of mine, still an adoring Summer fan, captured her perfectly as we e-mailed each other: Summer “was equal parts sexiness and class, with a voice that embodied the yearning, playfulness and soulfulness of an era that defined a ... generation.”

Carefree days of disco, when it was all about dancing and the hypnotic reflecting ball. Glitter and platform shoes. Afro puffs. Nothing else mattered.

In 1975, Summer captured radio’s attention with “Love to Love You Baby,” the moaning, 17-minute erotica-on-vinyl ode to love — or was it sex — that she wrote. It was sensual all right, so sexy that Beyoncé sampled it for her hit, “Naughty Girl.”

The long-legged, long-haired beauty became a hit machine. The only artist to score three consecutive No. 1 double-LPs, Live and More,Bad Girls, and On the Radio, on her way to superstardom.

Summer’s music was pure anticipation. The intro showcased her voice, and built up to the infectious groove that sent my twirl into overdrive.

We couldn’t get enough: “Love to Love You Baby.” “Last Dance.” “MacArthur Park” (the unofficial high school marching-band theme song). “Hot Stuff.” “Dim All the Lights.” “On the Radio.” “She Works Hard for the Money.” And my fave, “Bad Girls,” not necessarily because I was one — or maybe I was — but because that “toot-toot-hey-beep-beep” breakdown was too funky.

Her songs were fun, danceable, but her voice always stood out the most.

And while Madonna’s catchy dance tunes ushered the genre into the ’90s, all the voguing in the world couldn’t help the Material Girl match Summer’s rich, resonant vocals.

My friend Marc gave her the highest compliment: ”She was the disco artist that those of us who wore ‘Disco Sucks’ T-shirts secretly enjoyed.”

Ode to love

Summer, born LaDonna Adrian Gaines in Boston, always had the chops to succeed. One of seven children raised by God-fearing parents, Summer, like so many black artists, honed her instrument in the church. And like other black artists, it’s a shame she had to be appreciated in Europe before she even got noticed here. In fact, Summer wrote many of her hits and is one of the most sampled artists of all time.

She wasn’t without controversy. In the early 80s, at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, the born-again songstress got into a major beef with members of the LGBT community — ironically among her biggest fans — for comments she allegedly made decrying gays for their “sinful lifestyle.” Though she denied it, she extended an olive branch by playing a series of AIDS fund-raisers.

She may have been a diva and done her share of partying, but at no time was her life Whitney-tragic. In later years, Summer seemed content: Happily married to Bruce Sudano, mother to three adult daughters, and still performing when she wanted, including the Nobel Peace Prize Concert in Oslo, Norway, honoring President Obama in 2009.

She also indulged her multidimensional artistry by creating paintings and lithographs — with the proceeds of some of her artwork benefiting many charitable causes, including the cancer she died of at her Naples, Fla., home.

Which stunned almost everyone. Especially those of us who feel like 63 is getting younger and younger.

“I was shocked to hear about Donna,” her friend and recording partner Barbra Streisand told the Associated Press. “She was so vital the last time I saw her a few months ago.”

Not many knew Summer was battling cancer, and I’m guessing she wanted it that way.

She seemed to live life on her terms. And her music made us think we could, too.

Contact Annette John-Hall at 215-854-4986, ajohnhall@phillynews.com or on Twitter @Annettejh.