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The ‘Queen of Disco’ never forgot her Boston roots

The ‘Queen of Disco’ never forgot her Boston roots
Donna Summer holds up her honorary high school diploma presented to her after 17 years of working in the music business. (Photo: Don West)

Several city neighborhoods can rightfully lay claim to Donna Summer, “the queen of disco” who was born in Boston and died from cancer a week ago in Florida. She was 63.

Originally known as LaDonna Adrian Gaines, Summer grew up on Mission Hill in the large, musical family of Andrew and Mary Gaines, and went to Grant AME Church on the South End-Lower Roxbury line. She attended Jeremiah E. Burke High School in Dorchester. Her first recording session was held on Newbury Street in the Back Bay.

Summer left the city in 1967 as a precocious teenager with a phenomenal voice to pursue her musical career, which over 40 years would see her win five Grammy Awards and live in New York, Germany, California, Florida and Tennessee. Despite her global fame, she remained attached to her hometown, where relatives and childhood friends still live.

“Boston was always her home. She never lost her Boston accent,” said political consultant Joyce Ferriabough, a classmate at Burke, then a girl’s school that geared students to be secretaries in that era’s constricted job market for women.

That line of work would not be for Summer, who in high school was already performing as a singer in nightclubs and on college campuses. She went to Burke irregularly and dropped out not long before graduation to go to New York, soon joining a production of the rock musical “Hair” in Germany. It was a gamble that, in her case, paid off.

“Everybody knew she had a great voice. If she was in school, she’d be humming in the hall coming to class,” Ferriabough recalled. “Donna is a legend. Her mark on the music world is right up there with Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston.”

City Councillor Charles Yancey was another longtime friend of Summer. Her older sister Jeanette married his late brother Howell in the early 1960s, bringing together two large local families. During the couple’s courtship, their younger siblings got to know each other, and stayed in touch over the decades.

“We’re very proud of her international presence and her philanthropy. She was down to earth in spite of her fame and wealth,” Yancey said. “We are proud of the fact that she was a daughter of Boston.”

So too is TOUCH 106.1 FM, which featured Summer’s songs on the Saturday before her death on May 17. General manager Charles Clemons said the radio station did not have inside information that the singer was suffering from lung cancer —  although she was not a smoker — and was in precarious health.

“Basically, we really push a lot of our local artists. It just so happened the local artists we were pushing were Donna Summer and Noel Gourdin,” Clemons explained.

After her death, the station played another round of her songs to commemorate the local girl who made it big.

Last Sunday, parishioners of Grant AME Church on Washington Street, where Summer, at age 10, sang in public for the first time, remembered her during worship services. A memorial service at the church is planned but as yet unscheduled.

A private funeral was held Wednesday in Nashville, Tenn. Since 1995, Summer and her husband, keyboardist/producer Bruce Sudano, had lived nearby in suburban Brentwood.

There they raised two daughters, Brooklyn and Amanda, and Summer’s daughter Mimi from her previous marriage to Helmut Sommer, an Austrian whose last name she Anglicized and adopted as her own.

Summer, who became a born-again Christian in 1979 and married Sudano in 1980, left Los Angeles for family reasons.

“Raising my kids in Hollywood, there wasn’t enough of a core of a moral structure there,” she told The Tennessean newspaper in 2008.

Summer last performed in Boston two years ago, at the Bank of America Pavillion. Yancey said he went backstage and chatted with her.

She gave a concert at the same venue in 2008. That performance was a fundraiser for Action for Boston Community Development. ABCD’s records show that when Summer was 17 she worked in its summer jobs program.

Yancey said Summer was also a financial supporter of the Boston Home, a venerable Dorchester institution for physically-challenged people.

In 1983, she returned to Burke High to finally receive her high school diploma. School officials credited her life experience and coursework in drama, diction and voice toward her unfulfilled graduation requirements.

Ferriabough went to Logan Airport to meet Summer, who summoned her former classmate by name from a limousine to share the luxury ride to Dorchester.

On the way to Burke, Ferriabough recalled Summer saying, emotionally: “Of all the awards I’ve ever had in my life — and I’ve won a lot of awards — coming back home to get my diploma means more than anything to me except the birth of my daughters.”

Summer won five Grammy awards and six American Music Awards, with her creative output all together selling more than 130 million records around the world.

Her first Grammy was for Best Female Rand B Performance on “Last Dance,” which also won an Academy Award for Best Song as part of a 1978 movie’s soundtrack. She won the next year in Best Rock Vocal Performance, Female for “Hot Stuff.”

“He’s a Rebel” and “Forgive Me” won back-to-back Inspirational Performance Grammys in 1983 and 1984. Her last, in 1998, was in Best Dance Recording for “Carry On.”

Not bad for a woman born on New Year’s Eve in 1948 who spent her first six years living in the former Mission Hill housing project. The Gaines family, which grew to have seven children, six girls and one boy, moved from there into a triple-decker that still stands on Parker Hill Avenue near Roxbury Crossing.

Summer is survived by her brother Ricky Gaines and four sisters: Dara Bernard, Mary Ellen Bernard, Linda Gaines and Jeanette Yancey. She also leaves her husband Bruce Sudano, daughters Brooklyn Sudano, Amanda Sudano and Mimi Dohler, and four grandchildren.

Hometown friends said the title of Summer’s 2003 autobiography, “Ordinary Girl,” was apt. Despite fame and fortune, she remained approachable.

“She was a great person. She helped put Boston on the map as far as music goes,” Yancey said.