Donna Summer was shopping for furniture in Naples, Fla., two months ago, when she ran into old friend Bob Deal. “I had never seen her look better,” Deal, an interior designer, says of the singer, who told him she’d lost 100 lbs. and was feeling great. At 63, she appeared decades younger. “She looked as good as she did in her ‘Love to Love You Baby’ days,” he recalls. “She was happy.”
Summer, however, wasn’t doing as well as she appeared: Last year she was diagnosed with lung cancer, a secret she shared only with her family and closest pals. So when the news broke on May 17 that she’d lost her battle to the disease, her fans and many friends were stunned. As for why Summer hid her diagnosis, her best friend, author Alice Harris, explains: “She handled it like a soldier. She didn’t want to burden anyone.”
After all, this was a woman who preferred to spread joy, which she did through music. As the Queen of Disco, Summer defined late-’70s pop music with euphoric classics including “Hot Stuff” and “Last Dance”-just two of the 14 Top 10 singles she recorded, many of which she cowrote. Even after the Studio 54 era faded, Summer reigned: In the ’80s she won four Grammys and scored hits, including the anthem “She Works Hard for the Money.” Decades later “deejays still play her songs in clubs,” says producer and friend Nile Rodgers.
It’s a legacy that was founded in Boston, where LaDonna Gaines (who had six siblings) grew up singing in a gospel choir. In the late ’60s the aspiring actress moved to Germany to perform in a production of Hair but switched her focus back to music after meeting producer Giorgio Moroder. “When ‘Love to Love You Baby’ came out [in 1975], we were surprised by its impact,” recalls Moroder. “It was a sign for the women of the world that they can do what they want.”
For Summer, success came quickly, but trouble wasn’t far behind. She struggled to balance her career with being a wife (to first husband Helmuth Sommer) and mother. By 1976 she found herself in the middle of a divorce and custody battle, and attempted suicide. “I felt emotionally destitute,” she wrote in her autobiography Ordinary Girl: The Journey.
Prescription drugs were a temporary fix for her depression, until she became a born-again Christian. Then, in 1980, she married producer Bruce Sudano, now 63, on what she called “the happiest day of my life.” In 1995 the couple moved their family from Los Angeles to Nashville, where Summer painted in her free time. Yet her troubles weren’t over. She was in New York City on 9/11, and the trauma sent her into a deep depression. “I couldn’t go out; I didn’t want to talk to anybody,” she told PEOPLE in 2008. The singer once again rediscovered peace through faith (and therapy). “Light came back into my soul,” she explained.
Still, nothing brought her more happiness than spending time with her daughters Mimi, 39, Brooklyn (an actress), 31, and Amanda, 29, and her four grandchildren. Says Harris: “Her commitment to her family was above and beyond.”
The rest of the world will remember her for her voice. Summer toured as recently as 2008, and last fall-even as she battled her illness-she performed “Last Dance” at the wedding of music producer David Foster. And she still wowed the crowd. Says the groom, a friend of 30 years: “Her voice was just as good as it was the day I met her.”