May 18, 2012— -- Donna Summer may be best remembered as the Queen of Disco, but she became an enduring artist whose legacy extends to some of today's biggest pop stars.
"When you talk about Beyonce, who wants to be known for several things, Donna Summer made that possible," Billboard editor Joe Levy told ABCNews.com. "She was a dance artist and a disco artist, but she also wanted to do rock songs and Broadway-like ballads. She continued to work well beyond her prime and remained relatively active throughout her life. She started as a sensation and became a career artist."
Summer was finishing up an album when she lost her battle with lung cancer. Summer died Thursday at age 63 in Florida.
Her family released the following statement Thursday: "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."
News of her death shocked the music world.
"RIP Donna Summer. Pls RT to show your condolences," Beyonce posted on Twitter.
Mary J. Blige tweeted, "RIP Donna Summers!!!!!!!!! You were truly a game changer!!!"
Levy said Summer changed the course of music for years to come with her hits "Love to Love You Baby" and "I Feel Love." "She and her producers not only pioneered the electronic sound but changed the music format by doing 17-minute versions, which lead to the popularity of the 12-inch dance single."
Born LaDonna Gaines outside Boston, Summer was raised by devout Christian parents who introduced her to both gospel and classical music. In a 2008 interview with ABC News' "Nightline," Summer remembered her mom singing songs to her before going to bed each night.
"As long as the classical station was playing on the radio, I wouldn't cry," she said. "If it was on for 20 hours, I would sleep for 20 hours. I would be calm. So I think that my mother probably helped my sense of musicality just by doing that."
Summer left home at age 18 to audition for the Broadway production of "Hair" and got a role in the show when it moved to Germany. There, she met producer Giorgio Moroder, who had an idea for a highly sensualized repetitive record and asked Summer to record the demo, Levy said. He liked the recording of "Love to Love You Baby" so much that he released it, and soon the label was asking for a longer version to be played in the disco clubs.
Summer's next hit, "I Feel Love," was considered groundbreaking for its robotic, synthesized sound which would soon set the standard for disco. David Bowe, who was making a record in Berlin at the time, described it as the sound of the future, Levy said.
But Summer was not to be typecast. The mezzo-soprano went on to sing disco ballads like "Last dance" and the Barbra Streisand duet "No More Tears" and pop songs like "MacArthur Park" and "She Works Hard for the Money," a song that was inspired by a washroom attendant.
"I was at a Grammys party … and I went to the ladies room and on my way in I saw this little old lady sitting at the end of the bar. And she was asleep," Summer told "Nightline." "She was the bathroom attendant. And at that same moment, a group of ladies walked into the room and started spraying their hair and doing all these things. And my first thought was 'God, she works hard for her money, that lady.'
"And then I thought, 'Man, that's a song,'" she said. "So I went and grabbed my manager, and we went back into the bathroom and started writing the song on a piece of toilet paper."
Summer won five Grammy awards, and became the first artist to have three consecutive double albums reach No. 1 on the U.S. Billboard chart. She continued to record into the '80s, '90s and 2000s, releasing her last album, "Crayons," in 2008.
At the height of her fame in 1979, Summer declared herself a born-again Christian and relied heavily on her faith. "God, spirituality and religion -- she was very sincere about that part of her life," her former publicist Michael Levine told ABCNews.com. "She had a weekly Bible study at her house."
Levine added that Summer exuded "great optimism" and was "exceedingly polite, seldom visiting without bringing a gift."
"She was someone who felt love and made other people feel it," Levy said.
Summer is survived by her husband, Bruce Sudano, their daughters Brooklyn and Amanda, as well as her daughter Mimi from her previous marriage to Helmuth Sommer.