NEW YORK - Like the King of Pop or the Queen of Soul, Donna Summer was given a title befitting 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," Summer once said when explaining her reluctance to claim the title.
Indeed, as disco boomed and then crashed in the single decade of the 1970s, Summer, the beautiful voice and face of the genre with pulsating hits like "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 Summer's booming voice.
Yet it was with her disco anthems that she would have the most impact in music, and it was how she was remembered Thursday as news spread of her death at age 63.
Summer died of lung cancer Thursday morning at her home in Naples, Fla., said her publicist Brian Edwards.
Luminaries from Franklin to Dolly Parton and Barbra Streisand mourned the loss, as did President Obama, who said of the five-time Grammy winner. "Her voice was unforgettable, and the music industry has lost a legend far too soon."
It had been decades since that brief, flashy moment when 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.
Summer's music gave voice not only to a musical revolution, but a cultural one -- a time when sex, race, fashion and drugs were being explored freely.
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 she created another kind of anthem with "She Works Hard for the Money," this time for women's rights.
Summer never was voted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and the organization's chairman, Jon Landau, issued an unusual statement about that Thursday. "Regrettably, despite being nominated on a number of occasions, our voting group has failed to recognize her -- an error I can only hope is finally and permanently rectified next year."
Summer may not have liked the Queen of Disco title and later became a born-again Christian, but many remembered her best for her early years, starting with the sinful "Love to Love You Baby."
Released in 1975, a breakthrough hit for Summer and for disco, it was a legend of studio ecstasy and the genre's ultimate sexual anthem. Summer came up with the idea of the song and first recorded it as a demo in 1975, on the condition that another singer perform it commercially. But Casablanca Records President Neil Bogart liked the track so much that he suggested to producer Giorgio Moroder they re-record it, and make it longer -- what would come to be known as a "disco disc."
Summer had reservations about the lyrics -- "Do it to me again and again" -- but imagined herself as a movie star playing a part as if she were Marilyn Monroe. So she agreed to sing, lying down on the studio floor, in darkness, and letting her imagination take over. Solo and multitracked, she whispered, she moaned, she crooned. What started as a scandal became a classic. It was also Summer's U.S. chart debut and the first of 19 No. 1 dance hits between 1975 and 2008 -- second only to Madonna.
Roots in Boston
Summer, real name LaDonna Adrian Gaines, was born in 1948 in 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," Summer said in a 1989 interview.
Before disco, she had already reinvented herself several times. She sang Motown songs with local groups in Boston as a teenager, then dropped out of school in the late 1960s and switched to pyschedelic rock after hearing Janis Joplin. An attempt to get a part in the musical "Hair" led her to get a principal role in Munich. She stayed in Germany for five years, worked in other productions and modeled.
Meanwhile, she was performing in operas, singing backup for Three Dog Night and other groups and releasing songs of her own. A marriage to Helmuth Sommer didn't last, but the singer did hold on to her ex-husband's last name, changing it to "Summer." By 1974, she had met Moroder and fellow producer Pete Bellotte and released her first album, "Lady of the Night," to success in Europe.
Then came "Love to Love You Baby," her memorable U.S. debut. Through the rest of the disco era she burned up the charts: She was the only artist to have three consecutive double-LPs hit No. 1, "Live and More," "Bad Girls" and "On the Radio."
Summer is survived by her husband, Bruce Sudano, and three daughters.
The New York Times contributed to this report.