The ‘Queen of Disco’ never forgot her Boston roots

Kenneth J. Cooper | 5/23/2012, 8:10 a.m.
Donna Summer holds up her honorary high school diploma presented to her after 17 years of working in the music business. 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.