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Donna Summer, Queen of Disco whose songs energized a culture; Dec. 31, 1948 -- May 17, 2012

NEW YORK -- Like the King of Pop or the Queen of Soul, Donna Summer was bestowed a title fitting of musical royalty -- the Queen of Disco.

Yet unlike Michael Jackson or Aretha Franklin, it was a designation she wasn't comfortable embracing.

"I grew up on rock 'n' roll," Ms. Summer once said when explaining her reluctance to claim the title.

Indeed, as disco boomed then crashed in a single decade in the 1970s, Ms. Summer, the beautiful voice and face of the genre with pulsating hits such as "I Feel Love," "Love to Love You Baby" and "Last Dance," would continue to make hits incorporating the rock roots she so loved. One of her biggest hits, "She Works Hard for the Money," came in the early 1980s and relied on a smoldering guitar solo as well as Ms. Summer's booming voice.

Yet it was with her disco anthems that she would have the most impact in music, and it's how she was remembered Thursday as news spread of her death at age 63.

Ms. Summer died of cancer Thursday morning in Naples, Fla., said her publicist, Brian Edwards. Her family released a statement saying they "are at peace celebrating her extraordinary life and her continued legacy."

It had been decades since that brief, flashy moment when Ms. Summer was every inch the Disco Queen.

Her glittery gowns and long eyelashes. Her luxurious hair and glossy, open lips. Her sultry vocals, her bedroom moans and sighs. She was as much a part of the culture as disco balls, polyester, platform shoes and the music's pulsing, pounding rhythms.

Ms. Summer's music gave voice to not only a musical revolution, but a cultural one -- a time when sex, race, fashion and drugs were being explored and exploited with freedom like never before in the United States.

Her rise was inseparable from disco's itself, even though she remained popular for years after the genre she helped invent had died.

She won a Grammy for best rock vocal performance for "Hot Stuff," a fiery guitar-based song that represented her shift from disco to more rock-based sounds, and created another kind of anthem with "She Works Hard for the Money," this time for women's rights.

Elton John said in a statement that Ms. Summer was more than the Queen of Disco.

"Her records sound as good today as they ever did. 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," he said. "She is a great friend to me and to the Elton John AIDS Foundation, and I will miss her greatly."

Ms. Summer is remembered best for her early years, starting with the sinful "Love to Love You Baby" in 1975.

A breakthrough hit for Ms. Summer and for disco, it was a legend of studio ecstasy and the genre's ultimate sexual anthem.

What started as a scandal became a classic. The song was later sampled by LL Cool J, Timbaland and Beyonce, who interpolated the hit for her jam "Naughty Girl." It was also Ms. Summer's U.S. chart debut and the first of 19 No. 1 dance hits between 1975 and 2008 -- second only to Madonna.

Ms. Summer, born LaDonna Adrian Gaines, was a native of Boston. She was raised on gospel music and became the soloist in her church choir by age 10.

"There was no question I would be a singer, I just always knew. I had credit in my neighborhood, people would lend me money and tell me to pay it back when I got famous," Ms. Summer said in a 1989 interview.

Musically, she began to change in 1979 with "Hot Stuff," which had a tough, rock 'n' roll beat. Her diverse sound helped her earn Grammy Awards in the dance, rock, R&B and inspirational categories.

Ms. Summer later became a born-again Christian and was accused of making anti-gay comments in relation to the AIDS epidemic -- a particular problem for a woman who was and remains a gay icon. Ms. Summer denied making the comments but became the target of a boycott.

Religion played an important role in her later life, said Michael Levine, who briefly worked as her publicist.

"Her passion in her life, besides music, was God, spirituality and religion. She held a Bible study class at her home every week," he said.

Ms. Summer released her last album, "Crayons," in 2008. It was her first full studio album in 17 years. She also performed on "American Idol" that year with its top female contestants.

Surviving are her husband, Bruce Sudano, and three daughters, Brooklyn, Mimi and Amanda.

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