Summer's career flourished in the late '70s and early '80s when she helped define the very concept of dance diva. "MacArthur Park," "Hot Stuff," "Bad Girls" and her duet with Barbra Streisand, "No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)" all went to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, but other singles of hers gained reputations that couldn't be measured by chart performance. Her breakthrough, 1975's "Love to Love You Baby," was 17 minutes of midtempo disco euphoria over which Summer purred and repeatedly climaxed (Time magazine counted 22 orgasms).
"I Feel Love," the first major hit to sport an entirely synthesized backing track, simply revolutionized music. Electronic disco followed then house then techno, all in major debt of Summer's collaboration with Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte. You can still hear its influence in the arpeggiated strains of the pop trance that's all over radio today. Though Summer didn't get a production credit on "I Feel Love," she took a risk on a wild idea and changed music history, much like Aaliyah, years later, would do when she was among the earliest to give a go at Timbaland's game-changing, skittering take on R&B. Sometimes being a trailblazer comes down to picking the best vehicle.
Summer's career faded soon after disco did in the mainstream, though she had a few hits sprinkled throughout the '80s, chiefly "She Works Hard for the Money" and her collaboration with British dance factory foremen Stock Aitken Waterman, "This Time I Know It's for Real." Released in 1989, that would be the last time she appeared in the U.S. pop Top 10.
Her career was overshadowed by alleged anti-gay remarks that she'd go on to deny having made (she reportedly settled out of court with New York magazine after suing them for printing the rumor). It did a little to alienate her fanbase, but not enough to revoke her crown as the queen of disco divas. Similarly, her music often overshadowed her powerhouse voice, the picture of clarity, control and force. As a listener, to isolate her vocals in the context of her music can be startling — they sound like an explosion set off by an effortless pull of a trigger.
Regarding her gift, Summer recalled, "One day I was at church and I was singing, and I had been practicing, Mahalia Jackson was my idol. I stood up to sing and all of a sudden, this voice came out that I didn't know. It just came out of me." And now, just like that, it's gone.
[Image via Getty]