How Donna Summer revolutionised 20th-century music with ‘love, joy and healing’

The Queen of Disco’s era-defining tracks told powerful stories and changed the face of dance music

‘What I aspire to in my life, truly, is to be loving,’ Donna Summer once said. Throughout her storied career, the world-renowned singer, songwriter and performer led with love, leaving an indelible legacy. The winner of five Grammys and six American Music Awards, the undisputed Queen of Disco was the first solo artist to achieve three consecutive #1 platinum albums.

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Donna Summer, c. 1976. Photograph by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Beginning 15 June, Christie’s is honoured to present The Collection of Donna Summer, which traces the rise of the music legend through key objects from her career, including iconic costumes she performed in around the world, handwritten lyrics, and her numerous gold and platinum records. 

On view at Christie’s New York with an online sale from 15-29 June, the collection provides a glimpse into Summer’s private life with Polaroids from home and on the road. It also features a selection of artworks by Summer, for whom painting was a beloved pastime and creative outlet. A portion of proceeds from the auction will go to charities important to Donna Summer: Save the Music Foundation, St. Jude Children's Research Hospital and Elton John AIDS Foundation. 

The auction coincides with the release of Love to Love You, Donna Summer on HBO, a documentary directed by Oscar-winner Roger Ross Williams and Brooklyn Sudano, Summer’s daughter. At this key moment looking back on the artist’s legacy, The Collection of Donna Summer represents an opportunity to acquire a part of cultural history from one of the defining voices of the 20th century.

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Photograph of Donna Summer on stage, 1990. 11⅞ x 18 in (30.1 x 45.5 cm). Estimate: $200-300. Offered in The Collection of Donna Summer on 15-29 June 2023 at Christie’s online

From gospel to psychedelic rock 

Born LaDonna Adrian Gaines in Boston in 1948, Donna Summer grew up in the city’s Mission Hill neighbourhood, singing in her church choir and performing in school musicals. The famed gospel singer Mahalia Jackson was an early inspiration for Summer. 

In 1967 Summer moved to New York City as part of the psychedelic rock band Crow. The raw power of Janis Joplin was another influence on the young singer’s vocal style. 

The following year, Summer left New York for Munich after being cast in a touring production of Hair. Living in Munich, she became fluent in German and found success as a singer and model. ‘Being in Germany gave me license to be myself’, the singer later reflected on her time there.

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Casablanca platinum record award issued to Donna Summer for Live and More and Macarthur Park, 1978. 21½ in (54.6 cm) high, 26½ in (67.3 cm) wide. Estimate: $1,000-1,500. Offered in The Collection of Donna Summer on 15-29 June 2023 at Christie’s online

In Germany, Summer connected with the producers Giorgio Moroder and Peter Bellotte, with whom she released her famous single Love to Love You Baby in 1975. The alluring number broke boundaries with the sultry delivery of Summer’s vocals. The song rose to No. 2 on the US Hot 100 chart and the 17-minute version was a staple at disco clubs around the world. 

With continued hits throughout the 70s including I Feel Love and Last Dance, Donna Summer’s music changed disco and pioneered the use of electronics in dance music. David Bowie famously recalled being blown away listening to I Feel Love with Brian Eno, who called the track the ‘sound of the future.’ 

‘It just went on and on and you never wanted it to stop’, Elton John said of hearing I Feel Love at Studio 54. ‘It sounded like no other record.’ Among the many accolades offered in the upcoming collection is the American Music Award that Summer received for Last Dance in 1979.

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Five unused tickets to Donna Summer and Brooklyn Dreams at Forest Hills Stadium. 2 x 5 in (12.5 x 5 cm). Estimate: $500-800. Offered in The Collection of Donna Summer on 15-29 June 2023 at Christie’s online

A multifaceted talent and storyteller 

More than just a singer, Summer was an innovator, shapeshifter and multifaceted talent. Her concept albums, such as A Love Trilogy and I Remember Yesterday, were anchored by strong storytelling. In addition to Summer’s sound and lyrics, her creative vision spanned the set design and costumes of her live performances to form a cohesive experience. 

‘Donna’s voice was such a big and obvious gift,’ Bruce Sudano, Summer’s husband, told Christie’s. ‘That always drew the attention. But she was integral to every layer of her shows. There was so much that she created.’ 

A style icon, her glamourous 70s and 80s looks on and offstage defined the era. A number of her defining ensembles from live performances, as well as a series of fashion sketches by Summer are included in the upcoming collection at Christie’s.

‘Donna’s shows were theatrical. There was always a story. There was a heroine. There was a problem. And in the end she overcame,’ says Mary Ellen Bernard, Summer’s sister, in the documentary. 

Her music constantly evolving and advancing, Summer released chart-toppers beyond the disco era. Summer was the first Black female artist to have a music video in regular rotation on MTV with She Works Hard for the Money in 1984. 

An artist onstage and in the studio 

From shooting short films with her own camera while on tour to sketching her own costumes, for Summer, creativity was a natural part of her every day. Later in life she found particular freedom in painting, which became a beloved outlet. 

Summer’s vibrant abstract landscapes such as Faces of Rio, as well expressive figurative works like Two Women with Guitarist, are part of the auction in June.

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Donna Summer (1948-2012), Faces of Rio. Acrylic on canvas. 48 x 48 in (122 x 122 cm). Estimate: $4,000-6,000. Offered in The Collection of Donna Summer on 15-29 June 2023 at Christie’s online

‘I always felt like when she was painting she was really in her space’, says Summer’s daughter Mimi Dohler in the documentary. ‘Whatever she was feeling would come out on the canvas.’ The singer produced vibrant, compelling canvases imbued with the same spirit of love that guided her music. 

Nearly 50 years since the release of the defining disco single Love to Love You Baby, Donna Summer’s impact on contemporary music is undeniable. Her boundary-breaking songs with empowering lyrics transcended genre and paved the way for future innovations, especially in the realm of electronic music. Her tracks have been sampled by the likes of Nas and Beyoncé. Summer, who died at 63 from lung cancer in 2012, inspired and opened doors for the next generation of women artists and artists of colour in the music industry.

Brooklyn Sudano tells Christie’s, ‘Her legacy was one of great artistry that brought joy and love and healing to people.’

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