She was born LaDonna Adrian Gaines. She lived at 16 Parker Hill Ave in Mission Hill and attended the Jeremiah E. Burke School in Dorchester. As a youngster, she sang in the choir at the Grant African Methodist Episcopal Church.
The girl with the angelic voice would eventually become superstar Donna Summer, the Queen of Disco. The singer, songwriter, actress, and artist would change the face of music and gain a global following while earning five Grammy Awards, selling more than 130 million records worldwide, and scoring more than 32 hit singles on the Billboard Hot 100 charts.
There was no one like her. Blessed with perfect tone and an amazing range, she combined a purity of sound with powerhouse vocals that seemed to soar effortlessly from her soul.
Tragically, Summer died of lung cancer in 2012. However, her legacy and her music continue to be celebrated in “SUMMER: The Donna Summer Musical,” coming to Boston’s Emerson Colonial Theatre beginning Tuesday, Feb. 22, and running through March 6.
The show’s dynamic score features more than 20 of Summer’s biggest hits including “Love to Love You Baby,” “Bad Girls,” “MacArthur Park,” and of course, “Last Dance.”
The show examines Summer’s life in three phases, with three actresses playing the singer as she progresses from a young girl starting out in Boston to Disco Queen to an international icon at the top of her game.
Dorchester native Robert Grant is Donna Summer’s nephew. He’s the successful rap and recording artist known as O’Mega Red. He’s also an innovative CEO and producer, licensing and publishing music for film and television.
Grant remembers his aunt as a kind, down-to-earth woman. Far from an aloof celebrity, she remained warm and approachable, he said in an interview with the Reporter. “She was so humble. A people person. She was just a regular hometown girl. Purely authentic and real.
“What I remember most? She was a really funny person.” With a laugh, he added, “She used to call me her Little Pumpkin Head.”
While Summer will forever be connected to disco, Grant said she achieved far more than that. “She was a pioneer of electronic music. Her music is the soundtrack of an era.”
She eventually recorded across all genres from gospel to pop, soul, R&B and country. “She had so many different types of characters (in her songs) . . . As she got older, she just kept reinventing herself . . . As an artist, you want to be able to progress.”
Grant was fortunate to record with Summer on the single “Angel,” near the end of her life. He had worked on a remix of her “Crayons” album with Ziggy Marley and subsequently had an idea for an O’Mega Red song that they could do together.
The lyric had her saying she would be an angel “watching out over us.” She said, “I want to change the lyric. I want it to say ‘I’m gonna be an angel watching over YOU’.”
“She knew she was dying,” he said. “The record meant so much to her because she knew what the messaging was. Everything came from her spirit.”
There’s a mural at the Jeremiah Burke celebrating Summer’s local roots. Grant was behind the artwork’s campaign that raised the funding to install it in 2014. He felt it was important that Summer serve as a lasting inspiration for Burke students – to let them know that anyone can do anything with hard work.
The Boston-based author and journalist Dave Wedge agrees with Grant. He believes local acknowledgment of Summer’s life and career should be taken even further with a permanent public memorial to the singer. In the recent past, he worked closely with former Mayor Marty Walsh’s administration to address that initiative.
Speaking with the Reporter, he said, “As someone who lived in Dorchester for ten years and spent half my life in Boston, I love this region, and I love the city, and I would encourage our leaders at the city, and maybe even at the federal level, to try and get some funding for a fitting memorial for Donna Summer once and for all. She’s just an incredible artist and I hope the city finds a way to honor her fittingly.”
In the meantime, Boston audiences can experience Donna Summer’s remarkable life and career at The Emerson Colonial.
“SUMMER: The Donna Summer Musical,” Feb. 22-Mar. 6, Emerson Colonial Theatre. www.BroadwayInBoston.com
Watch Donna Summer singing “MacArthur Park” here.