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'Queen of Disco' Donna Summer 'thought she became ill after inhaling 9/11 particles' Donna Summer, the 1970s pop singer known as the Queen of Disco, has died of lung cancer, an illness she believes she contracted from inhaling toxic particles released after the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York.
By Mark Hughes, in New York and Andrew Hough
8:30PM BST 17 May 2012
The 63-year-old singer, who had hits including Hot Stuff, Love to Love You, Baby and I Feel Love, died in Florida on Thursday morning.
She had largely kept her battle with lung cancer out of the public eye. But the website TMZ reported that the singer had told friends she believed her illness was the result of inhaling toxic dust from the collapsed Twin Towers.
On Thursday night tributes were paid to the singer, considered by many to be the voice of the 1970s.
A statement released on behalf of her family — husband Bruce Sudano, their daughters Brooklyn and Amanda, her daughter, Mimi from a previous marriage and four grandchildren — read: “Early this morning, surrounded by family, we lost Donna Summer Sudano, a woman of many gifts, the greatest being her faith.
"While we grieve her passing, we are at peace celebrating her extraordinary life and her continued legacy.
“Words truly can’t express how much we appreciate your prayers and love for our family at this sensitive time.”
She had spoken at length about September 11.
In a 2008 interview with The Daily Telegraph, she said she had a premonition about the attacks a month beforehand. Afterwards she said she suffered from severe depression and could not leave her Manhattan flat.
“I didn’t want to talk to anybody. I had to keep the blinds down and stay in my bedroom,” she said.
Music industry heavyweights spoke of their respect for Summer.
Sir Elton John said: “I’m so sad. This woman was the queen of disco and so much more.
"That she has never been inducted into the Rock 'n’ Roll Hall of Fame is a total disgrace, especially when I see the second-rate talent that has been inducted. Her records sound as good today as they ever did.”
Quincy Jones, who produced albums for Summer, wrote on Twitter: “Rest in peace dear Donna Summer. Your voice was the heartbeat and soundtrack of a decade.”
Gloria Estefan wrote: “Few singers have impacted music and the world like Donna Summer! It’s the end of an era.”
Kylie Minogue said that Summer was “one of my earliest musical inspirations”, while the musician Moby said: “Words can’t express the impact and influence she had on music.”
Aretha Franklin said: “So shocking to hear about the passing of Donna Summer. In the 70s, she reigned over the disco era and kept the disco jumping. Who will forget “Last Dance.” A fine performer and a very nice person.”
Barbra Streisand added: “I was shocked to hear about Donna. She was so vital the last time I saw her a few months ago. I loved doing the duet with her. She had an amazing voice and was so talented. It’s so sad.”
Neil Portnow, the Recording Academy President said: “Donna Summer had a dynamic voice and unique musical style that helped define the dance music genre in the ‘70s. She also was an artist who crossed many musical genres...”
The record producer Pete Waterman, who worked with Summer in the 1980s, said: “Whenever you were with her she made you feel so special. She had all the talent but she gave you all the credit. She was not a diva in any shape or form.
“But what a voice she had. She used to warm up in the ladies lavatory and everyone in our building would stop and it would come to a standstill to hear her warm up.”
Summer’s career began in the early 1970s and she was still recording until recently. She was reportedly working on a new record when she died.
A Christian who was “born again” in 1979, Summer was credited with defining the disco era, laying the foundations for modern dance music.
She was said to have pioneered the fusion of European electronic music with American disco and to have influenced acts including David Bowie and Duran Duran.
She won five Grammy Awards, six American Music Awards, and had three multi-platinum albums.
In America the title track from her 2008 album, I’m a Fire, took Summer to number one in the dance charts, making her the first artist to reach the slot in the Seventies, Eighties, Nineties and the first decade of the new millennium.
At least 55 rescuers have died as a result of cancer since 9/11. Although many had been diagnosed with the disease prior to the tragedy. At least 75 have been diagnosed with cancer since the attacks.
More than 18,000 people claim to have fallen ill due to inhaling dust particles from the collapse of the towers, with the primary issue being repspitory problems. And the number is constantly increasing.
The majority of those affected are rescue workers who spent extended periods at Ground Zero. Several people who died of illness following 9/11, including eight police officers, have their names on the World Trade Center memorial.
Many families have sued the city for illnesses brought on by the tragedy with cases still making their way through the courts.
According to air polluton experts the dust contained asbestos as well as traces of Lead, mercury and dioxin. More than 2,500 contaminants were found in the dust including known carcinogens.
Donna Summer was convinced -- inhaling toxic air after 9/11 gave her the lung cancer that eventually killed her ... TMZ has learned.
Sources close to the singer tell TMZ what we were hearing this morning -- that Donna was in New York City during 9/11, living at an apartment near Ground Zero.
Donna became almost paranoid about breathing the air, which was heavy with a rancid odor.
In the months and years following 9/11, Donna's feelings intensified. One source tells us when he was around Donna, she would constantly spray some sort of disinfectant in the air. Deney Terrio, the host of "Dance Fever," tells us ... when he was around Donna post 9/11, she would hang silk sheets in her dressing room to prevent dust from coming in.
And one source says ... Donna, who was a fervent practicing Christian, believed 9/11 was an attack on Christianity and in some metaphysical way Christians like her were targets. She somehow felt that her illness was a byproduct of the attack.
And, we're told, after Donna was diagnosed with lung cancer, several people told her that cigarette smoke may have been the culprit -- she was a smoker, and she also frequented clubs where people smoked. But Donna simply didn't buy it.
A devout Christian, Donna Summer was an unlikely queen of disco, particularly one who wore her crown with such raunchy abandon. Now a 59-year-old grandmother, she talks to Craig McLean about having her bottom painted, being banned by the Beeb, and her scarily accurate 9/11 premonition
Donna Summer, the queen of lubricious disco, knows a thing or two about epiphanies. Or, as she might term them, angels. Or the voice of God. One such heavenly intervention led to a near seven-year delay in the making of her latest album. An impeccably up-to-the-minute pop-dance CD, Crayons features contributions from songwriters who have penned hits for Lily Allen, Natasha Bedingfield and Shakira. In America the thumping single from the album, I'm a Fire, has already given Summer a number one in the dance charts, making her the first artist to reach the slot in the Seventies, Eighties, Nineties and Noughties.
'Why would I do a record that doesn't work [in the contemporary market]?' Summer asks rhetorically. 'I'd be just stroking myself.' Similarly, why release - as her label initially suggested - an album featuring interpretations from the Great American Songbook? Summer makes a comical snoring noise at the very thought. 'I said to them, "Oh, just what the American people need, another oldies record." It was great for Rod Stewart' - he has made two such dinner-jacket-and-tie-undone records - 'because it's sort of an oxymoron: him being out of rock'n'roll, doing that is interesting. And it was coming off his throat problems at the same time so it was a lot easier on him to sing it.'
Summer has no such vocal worries. 'And I've already done the standards. I've done them through the years on my show. So I wasn't really excited about it.'
Crayons is her first studio album in 17 years, the latest peak in an internationally successful music career that, well, moaned into life with 1975's Love to Love You, Baby, the 17-minute-long dance-floor smash that contained - according to a contemporary tally by Time magazine in an article headlined 'Sex Rock' - the sound of Summer enjoying 22 orgasms.
Summer, who was 'always a Christian' but was also 'born again' in 1979 after a series of personal and physical setbacks (including a suicide attempt), has been trying to live down the embarrassment ever since.
But back to those epiphanies. Her first 'God moment' was in 1957, when she was eight. Summer - then plain old LaDonna Andrea Gaines - and her devout parents and six siblings were attending a service in Boston's Grant AME Episcopal Church. A congregation member who was supposed to sing that day hadn't shown up. Summer took her place, for a rendition of Mahalia Jackson's I Found the Answer.
'And during the course of that song,' Summer recalls, 'I heard a voice in my head say to me, "You're going to be famous. This is power, and be careful never to misuse this power." Now, to me it was the voice of God. There was such an authority in the voice, I just started crying.' She thinks everyone else must have heard what she heard, 'because when I opened my eyes a few minutes later, everyone else was crying. It was one of those spooky moments. They felt something, whatever that was.'
Even her father was affected. Andrew Gaines was a strict disciplinarian, a butcher who had served in Germany during the Second World War (her mother, Mary, was a schoolteacher). 'Normally he didn't cry at all,' Summer says. 'He said his tear ducts were dried up. But even he was crying.'
A decade later, there were two further taps on the shoulder, one celestial, one more earthy. It was 1967, and on the advice of the leader of her first band, Crow ('the crow being me, because I was the only black member of the group'), 18-year-old Summer went to the Psychedelic Supermarket, a music venue in Boston, to check out a singer. 'I went in and there was a woman with a big huge porcelain keg of whisky, and she was holding it over her shoulder and drinking from it. And she had no bra on, and very large boobs, and what we called a granny dress at the time, it had sort of rubber under here,' Summer says, indicating a line under her own chest. 'And it was Janis Joplin.'
Joplin was in the early stages of her career, still a singer with Big Brother and the Holding Company. She wasn't yet fully in the grip of the alcohol and drug addiction that would kill her in 1970, at the age of 27. But her voice was already a raw, primal force. 'It was more than just rawness,' Summer says. 'It was the life that was embossed on her voice.'
Summer wanted a different kind of life to be embossed on her voice. The following year she was in New York, auditioning for a musical. While walking through the Bowery neighbourhood, resplendent in her teenage miniskirt, she was accosted by a man. He had a long white beard. 'I believe he was an angel,' Summer says. 'He said, "You're going to meet a man, you're going to take a test, you're going to pass the test, you've got an opportunity to cross the waters, then you'll meet another man there." And that's exactly what happened.'
Summer passed the audition and landed a part in the 1968 German production of the hippie-era musical Hair. She married an Austrian actor named Helmut Sommer, a member of the troupe (the marriage did not last, but she kept an anglicised version of his surname). Then, while recording some television commercials, Summer met Giorgio Moroder, a Munich-based Italian record producer. With Love to Love You, Baby and the equally classic, almost as risqué I Feel Love, Moroder and Summer crafted huge transatlantic hits that would soundtrack the first heady rush of disco. By the time Summer returned to America in 1975 she was a huge pop star in her homeland and - to her mortification - a sex symbol.
Mostly it was just as the angel had predicted. 'I've had these things happen to me my whole life,' Summer says chirpily. 'People probably think I'm nuts but I don't care. The proof of the pudding is sort of in the pie,' she says, referring to her success. 'When people don't have that level of belief they don't think it's real, they think that you're maybe psychotic. And I might be that too!'
Sitting across the table from me in a New York hotel suite, Donna Summer doesn't look, or seem, psychotic. A little diva-ish, maybe. In the gloom of a room in the Trump International on Central Park, she wears huge sunglasses. What I can see of her face suggests that, for a 59-year-old grandmother of three, she wears her years well. And she is dressed fairly appropriately: patterned scarf, long cream cardigan with gold-coloured buttons, flowing black dress. The only hint of the bling you can presumably afford when you have sold 130 million records and won five Grammy awards is a chunky gold and diamond ring.
Against the wall at the far end of the room sit three men: her 'Los Angeles manager', someone from her record label, and her second husband (also her manager) of 19 years, a former musician named Bruce Sudano. All three watch and listen. Summer is so chatty that the air of regal formality quickly dissipates.
She recalls how, in Europe, a world of musical possibilities opened up for her. The conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein came to see Hair when it played in Vienna. 'He absolutely hated the show in New York,' Summer says, 'but he felt we were so genuine and real that he jumped on stage and started dancing with all of us and hugging us.'
The head of the Viennese Folk Opera, who also saw the production, duly hired Summer. During her two years with the company, she appeared in productions of Showboat and Porgy and Bess. But she hated her time in Austria 'like the plague. People were so mean to me.' Not because she was a young black American girl - 'I don't see myself through colour, I see myself as a person who happens to have colour' - but because the other light operatic singers were so snooty, always wanting to know at which institution she had studied. Summer hadn't studied anywhere: she just had a naturally strong, expressive and adaptable voice.
She returned to Germany, to a touring production of Godspell and her meeting with Moroder. Their first, Europe-only hits - 'funny songs' such as 1974's The Hostage and Lady of the Night - did not prepare her for the sensation precipitated by Love to Love You, Baby's marriage of cutting-edge electronic beats and her simple, mantric lyrics. She had been away from the US for seven years, and had missed much of the social, political and cultural revolutions of the time.
'Oh my gosh, that was very strange. Being a sex symbol was just a joke to me: "You've got to be kidding me. How am I going to do that?" And Giorgio was like, "You're an actress, just act."?'
So she did. A scantily clad Donna Summer gyrated suggestively with her microphone stand. To write the lyrics, 'I let go long enough to show all the things I've been told since childhood to keep secret,' she claimed in Time magazine in December 1975. 'So I took on this character,' she says now, 'and eventually it just fitted me.'
But others didn't see the act. In Britain the BBC banned the song. In the US, the Rev Jesse Jackson attacked her. 'They were afraid of what it would perpetrate among the youth,' Summer says. 'And I don't disagree with them on this end of it as a mother. I would not have chosen that specific song to open my career with. But I accept that's what happened. And I tried my best to parlay the success of that record into something else and get away from that imagery as soon as I could.'
The late 1970s were a whirl for Summer. She partied at the legendary New York club Studio 54. 'It was a very wild time, and you could get lost. Lots of people did, and they died too.' She has admitted that she dabbled with drugs. This, pre-awareness of Aids, was the disco ethos: party hard and party fast, 'because back then, people thought when the year 2000 comes we're all going to die. I'm serious! That was a subconscious mindset.'
By 1979 Donna Summer was the biggest-selling female artist in the world. Were there any artists she felt a kinship with? 'I think at times I felt a kinship with Michael, Michael Jackson - at some point,' she says. 'Then of course he went on to do other things.' Jackson was a member of the all-star chorus on Summer's 1982 hit State of Independence, alongside Stevie Wonder, Kenny Loggins and two of her sisters, Mary Ellen and Dara. 'A couple of other people I met along the way - Roberta Flack,' she continues. 'But I really never had that much interaction with other people.'
But by the end of the 1970s Summer was beset by crises. She was in legal dispute with her record label, Casablanca, run by Neil Bogart, a major figure in the disco era and the man responsible for hyping up the sexual aspect of his hot new disco signing. She sued for $10 million, saying she was 'physically and emotionally ill' when she signed with the label - in part a reference to myocarditis, inflammation of the heart muscle, which she battled with shortly before returning to the US (she still has to manage the condition today). The label countersued.
Eventually the courts 'set me free' - she did not receive any money, but was awarded the lucrative rights to her own song publishing. But she bears no grudges to Bogart, who died of cancer in 1982 aged 39. 'I love Neil very much,' she says. 'Without him I probably wouldn't be the Donna Summer people know. He was me, you know?' Bogart's son, Evan, is one of the writers who has contributed to Crayons.
'What's the likelihood of that, huh? He looks exactly like his father. Unbelievable,' Summer says dramatically. 'And he acts like him. It was almost spooky to have him around me. I'd get a glimpse of his father and I'd get tears in my eyes.'
Summer endured a further string of bereavements that almost beggars belief: two of her sisters' husbands died in car crashes, an uncle was killed in a hit and run, another sister lost a baby to cot death, a nephew accidentally shot himself, a cousin was shot by the police.
All this on the back of further physical trials Summer had weathered in the 1970s: as her sudden, disco-era fame knocked her sideways Summer, who had already been suffering from headaches, insomnia and ulcers, was prescribed antidepressants, and developed what she described in a 1981 interview as 'a very heavy' dependence. In her 2003 autobiography, The Journey, she describes how she almost committed suicide by jumping out of a hotel window.
That was very candid, I say.
'I know,' Summer replies, her ebullience subsiding. 'Sometimes I wish I hadn't. But I think other people need to know what really goes on. And I got through it - that's the healing part of it all. But it was very difficult, '79 was a rough year.'
That year, after joining a prayer group, Summer was born again. How did that manifest itself?
'Well, I was Christian my whole life, but I didn't really execute it - I didn't live it. And I came back to realising that without it I couldn't get through this stuff I had to go through. I needed something that grounded me and it had to be really strong.'
Reborn and refocused, Summer kept the hits coming. In 1980 she was one of the first three signings to Geffen, the new label being launched by the industry legend David Geffen. Her labelmates were Elton John and John Lennon. She branched out, too. She talked of writing a musical based on her life. It never came to pass, but the autobiography did.
In 1989 she and her husband, Bruce Sudano, had an idea for a new kind of television show, a reality-based sitcom inspired by their 'crazy household' - an Italian-American/Afro-American couple sharing their home with three children (their two daughters, Amanda and Brooklyn, and Mimi, Summer's daughter by Helmut Sommer), a 'kooky and funny' Spanish maid and two sets of in-laws.
It was, in effect, The Osbournes, 13 years ahead of the curve. But Sudano says the television network started 'watering down' the premise, making it less funny. 'And because we were an inter-racial couple they didn't want us to be married any more.' Incredibly, in 1989 this was 'an issue. So with that mentality we just backed out of it.'
In the early 1990s the family lived in Connecticut, then in Nashville, Tennessee. It was a good place to raise her girls, away from the big cities and the hubbub of the entertainment world. And Summer enjoys the countryside: 'I like talking to birds - I'm kind of a naturalist.'
Does she have animals on her Nashville farm?
'Just him,' she says, jerking a thumb at Sudano. 'Yeah, we have cows and horses.'
Since releasing her last studio album, Mistaken Identity in 1991, Summer has also devoted more time to painting. She used to produce only small works. 'But then I was at Sylvester Stallone's house for dinner; he was married to Brigitte Nielsen at the time. And he had these two big paintings that he had done, actually quite good - a little bit abstract but you could see what it was. It was like a lightbulb went off in my head: I'm painting too small. I've got to think big!' She had her framer make her a pile of big canvases, 'and I just went crazy. The same way I did with this new album, I just went in every direction I could. And out of that started to emerge a Picasso-esque style…'
Donna Summer is fairly well regarded as an artist, it seems. She was part of a Steven Spielberg-sponsored exhibition of American artists in China. Her gallerist has asked her to do four pencil lithographs before she starts her American tour next month, 'just to sell. Some people want to collect them. They won't be complicated ones.'
If I wanted one, how much would it cost me?
'Well, some of the older lithos are between $1,500 and $3,500. But one of my first pieces sold for $39,000.'
Aside from Picasso, Summer says she is also very influenced by Austrian art. She mentions Gustav Klimt and Ernst Fuchs.
Didn't he paint your bottom?
'Ssssh!' she whispers stagily. 'Where did you get that information? I'm going to smack you. Yeah, well, it's a long story. So I sat for Ernst and he became a very good friend of mine.'
So was it a nude painting, from behind?
'I cannot say,' she says, with something like a smirk. 'I don't know if he ever exhibited it. His wife wasn't that happy about it at the time.'
Now Summer is talking about another epiphany, the one that led, eventually, to the making of Crayons. It was 2001, and she had a contract with Sony to make a new album. Her youngest daughter, Amanda (now 26 and a musician; Brooklyn, an actress, is 27; Mimi, the mother of her three grandchildren, is 34), had moved to New York to study acting at the Lee Strasberg school. Summer and Sudano decided to leave their farm outside Nashville (they also have a place in Nashville itself and a condominium in Florida) and go to live in New York for a while, too.
But in August that year, while she was gearing up to begin writing for the new record, Summer had a 'premonition. My husband and I were walking down the street over on the West Side [of Manhattan], and I had this feeling. I said, "Honey, I feel like terrorism, high on top of the buildings…"' Summer gives a little snort. 'Obviously he thought I was a nut. He's like, "What are you talking about?" I'm like, "I don't know, I think we've got to get out of here, we've just got to leave."'
As well as renting an apartment in New York, they had rented a house out in the Hamptons, Long Island. 'I said to Bruce, "I'm going to the Hamptons and I'm not going to go into the city unless I have to."'
Summer told Amanda to avoid subways and clubs, and gave her a 'car pass' so she could call on a private car service whenever she needed it. 'I knew something was going to happen,' Summer says. 'I just had this impending sense of fear. Then when 9/11 did happen it flipped me out.'
Sudano decided to go to their home in Florida. Summer, not wanting to leave Amanda, stayed in New York. But she couldn't write. Well, she could, but everything was 'so dark I couldn't even listen to it myself'. Dabblings in poetry and her occasional diary entries didn't help either.
'I just couldn't record,' she says. 'I didn't feel happy inside. And it was just so devastating to everybody. Everything went topsy-turvy. For me it took a few years just to get beyond - like, I didn't want to fly, so that put a big damper on me travelling. Everybody was really paranoid. And I had to go get help. Finally I overcame it, but it took me a good two years to get beyond it. It was like a ghost that followed you everywhere. It was not a good time.'
Summer stayed in the city with Amanda for a few months before moving back to Nashville. 'Then I didn't leave Nashville for quite a while.' But you can't keep a good diva down. She began touring again - casino venues were a particular favourite, offering crowds who were either seeking 'golden oldie' nostalgia thrills, or were a young party set who enjoyed immortal pop classics such as I Feel Love, State of Independence and Hot Stuff.
In 2005 her comeback stepped up a gear when she was asked to be the guest of honour at Dolce & Gabbana's 20th anniversary celebrations in Italy. 'They went literally gung ho,' she told the fashion magazine V. 'They had recently purchased a building in Milan, which they renovated for the night into a discotheque with gold leather everywhere,' she recalled. 'Dolce & Gabbana made me these outfits that I will wear for the rest of my life, believe me. They're so drenched in Swarovski crystals that I feel like a walking diamond.'
It all sounds wonderfully, magically, outrageously camp. Just like the songs that kickstarted Donna Summer's career. No wonder she is such a gay icon. But for a long time she wouldn't perform her signature tune - Love to Love You, Baby.
How about now though? Will it be the climax of shows on her upcoming tour? 'Would it be the climax of the show?' Behind the sunglasses I think an eyebrow is being hoiked. 'No. If I were to do that song like I did it in the old days, the fire department would have to be at the show. Seriously. Riots broke out in, like, Argentina and Italy.
'I was in a tent in Italy, 5,000 men, almost no women, and I was doing Love to Love You, Baby and I was fairly scantily clad - I was fairly young,' she adds hastily. 'And the guys got so… wrapped up that they began to push the stage back. And I had to run off the stage, to my trailer out the back. And they came to the trailer and started to rock it. Five thousand guys in a little village in Italy! I just thought, "I'm going to die today, I'm not going to get out of here." It's not the kind of song you just want to throw out there.'
And you wouldn't want your epitaph to read: 'Donna Summer: she died for disco'.
'No, not at all! I'd rather live and sing something else. But that song was pretty racy.'