Summer was trained as a gospel singer prior to her introduction in the music industry, as were many then-contemporary music artists. However, Summer's notable songwriting capabilities, in addition to her collaborations with producer-songwriters Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte, were able to set her apart from rivals in the industry.
Though she is most notable for her disco hits, Summer's repertoire has expanded to include contemporary R&B, rock, mainstream pop, and even gospel. Summer is one of the most successful female recording artists of the 1970s and 1980s, and still holds the record for having three consecutive double albums hit #1 on the Billboard charts. She also became the first female artist to have four number-one singles in a twelve-month period. According to her official MySpace page, Summer has sold over 130 million records worldwide
In 1971, Gaines released a single in Europe entitled "Sally Go 'Round The Roses", her first solo recording. The single was unsuccessful, however, and she had to wait until 1974 to launch a solo career. Gaines married Austrian actor Helmuth Sommer ("Summer" is an Anglicization of his last name) in 1972 and gave birth to daughter Mimi the following year. Summer did various musical jobs in studios and theaters for several years, including the pop group FamilyTree from 1974-75.
In the summer of 1975, Summer approached Moroder and Bellotte with an idea for a song. She had come up with the lyric "Love to love you, baby" as the possible title for the song. Moroder was interested in developing the new disco sound that was becoming increasingly popular, and used Summer's lyric to develop the song into a disco track. He had the idea that she should moan and groan orgasmically, but Summer was reticent. Eventually she agreed to record the song as a demo. She has stated that she was not completely sure of some of the lyrics, and parts of the song were improvised during the recording. Donna later stated on a VH-1 "Behind The Music" program that she pictured herself as Marilyn Monroe acting out the part of someone in sexual ecstasy). Moroder was so astounded with Summer's orgasmic vocals that he insisted she release the single herself. The song, titled "Love to Love You", was released to modest success in Europe. When it reached America and the hands of Casablanca president Neil Bogart, however, he was so ecstatic over the demo that he asked Moroder to produce a twenty-minute version of the song. Summer, Moroder and producer Pete Bellotte cut a seventeen-minute version, renamed it "Love To Love You Baby", and Casablanca signed Summer and issued it as a single in November 1975. Casablanca distributed Summer's work in the US while other labels distributed it in different nations during this period.
"Love To Love You Baby" was Summer's first big hit in America, reaching #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart in early 1976 and becoming her first Number-One Hot Dance Club Play chart hit. The album (side one of which was completely taken up with the full-length version of the title track) was also released in late 1975 and was soon certified Gold for sales of over 500,000 US copies. The song was branded "graphic" by some music critics and was even banned by some radio stations for its explicit content. Time magazine reported that 22 orgasms were simulated in the making of the song, and some of the music press dubbed Summer "the first lady of love." Two successful, Gold-selling concept albums followed: A Love Trilogy which featured the single "Could It Be Magic" and Four Seasons Of Love which featured the uptempo "Spring Affair" as well as the ballad "Winter Melody" which was a top 30 hit in the UK - the first of Donna's singles to be aired on Radio 1 and a hit on the US R&B charts.
The 1977 album I Remember Yesterday, another concept album, found the Summer/Moroder/Bellotte team combining the Disco sound with musical elements of the past, present and future. The song representing the future, "I Feel Love" became a landmark recording, giving Donna another Pop and R&B hit reaching #6 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart and number one in the UK. "I Feel Love" earned her a second US Gold Single as well. The song's use of raw techno and electronic sounds was revolutionary and popularized synthesizers in dance, rock, and the burgeoning new wave.
Summer released another album in 1977, Once Upon A Time, a concept album telling a modern-day Cinderella "rags to riches" story through the means of electronic disco.
That same year, Donna released her first live album, Live and More. It knocked Linda Ronstadt's triple Platinum 'Living In The USA' out of the #1 position on Billboard's Album Chart. This was Summer's first #1 album as well as her first to reach the million-selling Platinum mark. It included her first #1 American Pop single, a cover of the Jimmy Webb-penned "MacArthur Park" - another Gold-certified US 45 - originally made famous by the late actor/singer Richard Harris. The studio part of the album included the tracks "One Of A Kind" and "Heaven Knows" which also featured vocals by Joe "Bean" Esposito of the Brooklyn Dreams (group member Bruce Sudano would later become romantically involved with Summer). "Heaven Knows" became another Gold US Record and another Top 10 hit on the Billboard Hot 100.
Summer's first compilation album, On The Radio: Greatest Hits Volumes 1 & 2, was a global smash and her third straight #1 US album - also going multi-platinum. With this, Summer became the first artist to have three consecutive number-one double-albums. The album also contained two new tracks - "No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)", a Platinum-selling #1 duet with Barbra Streisand, and the Grammy-nominated Top Five Gold hit "On the Radio", a song written for the film Foxes. The Streisand-Summer duet was her fourth and final #1 Pop hit in the U.S - and her fourth #1 single in 12 months. Afterwards, disagreements between Summer and Casablanca Records led to her exit from the label in 1980. Summer was given a lucrative offer by David Geffen and became the first artist to be signed to his new Geffen label in 1980.
In 1982 Geffen released the Gold-certified, self-titled Donna Summer, and the new production from Quincy Jones was again in the Top 10 of the Pop, R&B, and Dance charts with the Grammy-nominated "Love Is In Control (Finger On The Trigger)". A second single, "State of Independence", on which Michael Jackson sang background along with a veritable "who's who" of the music world, became a sizable international hit but a minor hit in the US. One more single from the album followed, "The Woman In Me", later recorded by Ann Wilson & Nancy Wilson of the rock group Heart. It peaked at #33 on the Hot 100 and #30 on the R&B chart.
In 1983 Summer scored her biggest triumph since Bad Girls with the release of the album, She Works Hard for the Money. The title track became one of her most played songs. The Grammy-nominated hit also became a pro-feminist anthem and was a staple on MTV, making her the first black woman to have a video air in heavy rotation on the channel. The single was also Summer's biggest-ever R&B hit (#1 for three weeks) and had frequent play on BET. It was released on PolyGram's Mercury Records to settle a legal dispute following PolyGram's absorption of Casablanca. It was Summer's 6th LP in a row to feature a Billboard Top Ten Hit. A second single from the She Works Hard For The Money album, the reggae-flavored "Unconditional Love" featured vocals by British band Musical Youth and outsold the first single in the UK, but stopped short of the US Top 40.
The following few years were an interesting time for Summer. She continued to branch out, exploring new musical styles, while other singers like Laura Branigan, Irene Cara, and Madonna would experience commercial success performing in a very similar style to Summer's earlier work. Unfortunately, Summer's subsequent Geffen releases did not fare as well. 1984's Cats Without Claws peaked at #40 on Billboard's Album Chart while 1987's All Systems Go stalled at #122 on the chart with no major hits. The first single, Dinner with Gershwin was a sizable international hit as well as being a Top Ten US R&B hit. However, it was not enough to heal the difficult relationship with David Geffen. Summer left Geffen Records in 1988 to sign with Atlantic Records when he refused to release her next LP; ironically, it would become another hit release.
In the early 80's rumors began circulating that Donna had allegedly made anti-gay comments regarding the AIDS epidemic as punishment for homosexuality. Summer denied making such remarks, and finally filed a lawsuit against New York magazine for its reporting of the rumors in a concert review. According to an A&E Biography program which Donna participated, the lawsuit was settled out of court with neither side admitting guilt. Summer denies making them.
A gospel-influenced Christmas album entitled Christmas Spirit in 1994 became Summer's first full-length album in over three years, and a new compilation entitled Endless Summer (both released by PolyGram) also contained new tracks, including "Melody of Love (Wanna Be Loved)", which became the year's # 1 Billboard hit on the Hot Dance Music/Club Play chart.
In 1995, a re-release of "I Feel Love" (with newly recorded vocals) as a dance remix, became a hit again in the UK, reaching #8 there. The following year she would score another Top 20 there with a new remix of "State of Independence". In 1996, Summer's album I'm a Rainbow was finally released by Polygram's Mercury Records after a 15 year delay.
In 1994 and 1997 she played the role of "Aunt Oona from Altoona" on Family Matters. She also sang "Last Dance" in Oona's first episode.
In 1995, she also participated in the Edith Piaf: Tribute album, with her cover for the song"La Vie En Rose".
1996 saw Donna collaborating in several others artists' projects:
"Does He Love You?" duet with Liza Minnelli for Liza's album Gently; "Whenever There Is Love" duet with Bruce Roberts for the Daylight OST (recording also a version in Spanish); "From A Distance" with Nanci Griffith And Raul Malo for the "One Voice" project; and "Someday" for the CD Mouse House Remixes (Song From Disney's The Hunchback Of Notre Dame OST).
In 1998, Summer was the first artist to receive a Grammy award for Best Dance Recording for her 1992 collaboration with Giorgio Moroder, "Carry On", after the song was remixed and released as a single. In 1999, Summer starred in a televised live concert on the VH1 network entitled Donna Summer - Live and More Encore. The special earned the network their highest ratings of the year, second only to their annual Divas concert. Performing a string of her classics and new singles, she also sang "Dim All the Lights" as a tribute to Rod Stewart. Summer acknowledges that she wrote the song for Stewart but recorded it herself. She also performed an updated version of "No More Tears" with Australian pop diva Tina Arena. A live CD of the special (on the Epic label) and DVD of the special were released, returning the singer back to the U.S. albums chart, selling close to half a million copies in the USA. Summer scored two # 1 dance hits that year with "I Will Go with You (Con te partirò)" and "Love Is the Healer" (both found as new studio tracks on the live album). She also collaborated with the song "My Prayer For You" in the project Sing Me To Sleep, Mommy. During that year, Summer recorded the theme song for Pokémon: The Movie 2000, entitled "The Power of One". Around this time, Summer also recorded the song "Dreamcatcher" for the Naturally Native Original Soundtrack. In 2000, she continued collaborating with other artists in different albums: for the project Child of the Promise she delivered "When the Dream Never Dies" and the duet with Crystal Lewis, "I Cannot Be Silent". For The Mercy Project album, she recorded the song "Take Heart" and for Darwin Hobbs' Vertical CD, she duetted "When I Look Up".
In 2003, a greatest-hits compilation called The Journey was released, which reached the UK Top 10 in the following year. Here she included new tracks like "That's The Way", "Dream A Lots Theme (I Will Live For Love)" and also a new track "You're So Beautiful" in a remixed version.
On September 20, 2004, Summer was among the first artists to be inducted into the newly formed Dance Music Hall of Fame in New York City. She was inducted in two categories, Artist Inductees, alongside fellow disco legends The Bee Gees and Barry White; and Record Inductees, for her classic hit "I Feel Love". Summer added to her achievements in October 2004 when she performed "God Bless America" during the seventh-inning stretch at Game 2 of the 2004 World Series at Boston's Fenway Park.
The first official single, "Stamp Your Feet", was released in April, 2008. Crayons debuted at a lofty #17, making this her all-time highest debut on the US Album Chart and her highest charting album since She Works Hard For The Money reached #9 twenty-five years earlier.
Summer is the first artist ever to have a #1 Billboard Dance hit in each of the past four decades. "I'm A Fire" and "Stamp Your Feet" are Donna Summer's 19th and 20th #1 Billboard singles of her career and her 28th and 29th Top Ten Billboard singles.