July 19, 2017
It was the proclamation that turned out to be a prediction.
In 1979, Gloria Gaynor released “I Will Survive,” one of the most enduring and resonant singles not only in the history of dance music, but pop music in general. The song’s sense of self-celebration, empowerment and defiance meshed perfectly with a feminist movement that was beginning to come into its own.
The song won the 1980 Grammy Award for Best Disco Recording in 1980 (the only year that honor was bestowed). It is ranked #492 on Rolling Stone magazine's list of "the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time" and ranked 97th on Billboard magazine's "All-Time Hot 100.” In 2000, “I Will Survive” topped VH1's list of the 100 greatest dance songs of all time, and in 2016, her recording of it was added to the Library of Congress’ National Recording registry.
Impressive to be sure. But it turns out “I Will Survive” is also a summation of Gaynor’s life.
By the time she recorded the track, she had already been the victim of three separate acts of sexual abuse (all occurred before her 18th birthday), had lost her mother and was recovering from spinal surgery when she was recording it. Subsequent to its release, she faced weight issues, financial problems and substance abuse.
But here she is, almost four decades later, still recording and touring. Sunday, she performs at the Music Pier in Ocean City, N.J.
So what’s her secret? How did she manage to overcome circumstances that proved debilitating—and sometimes fatal—to so many of her colleagues and contemporaries?
“I believe…God has essentially done it for me,” she said during a recent phone chat. “He showed me the way out of no way.”
Perhaps her most emphatic example of what she described as “divine appointment” is the tale of how she came to record “I Will Survive,” a song that was, originally, not on the table when she entered the recording studio in 1979.
“I was sent out by the record company [Polydor] to record a song that the record company president had chosen,” she recalled.
“When I got there, I asked them what would be the B-side [of the single]. They asked me what kind of songs do I like to sing? [I said] ‘Songs that are meaningful, that have good lyrics.’”
That, it turned out, was the answer producer Dino Fekaris, who co-wrote “I Will Survive” with Freddie Perren, was longing to hear.
“They said, ‘We think you’re the one we’ve been waiting for to record this song that we wrote two years ago.’ When I read the lyrics, I said, ‘What are you, nuts? You’re gonna put this on the B-side? This is a timeless lyric. Anybody can relate to it.’”
It certainly struck a chord (as it were) with Gaynor.
“At the time, I was relating to it because I’d had surgery on my spine,” she said. “I was standing there [in the studio] with a back brace up to my armpits, hoping I would survive it. My mother had passed away a few years prior—something I never thought I’d survive. And while I was in the hospital thinking about all of that, I was praying and asking God to help me.”
When I read the lyrics, I said, ‘What are you, nuts? You’re gonna put this on the B-side? This is a timeless lyric. Anybody can relate to it.’”
Not that her prospects were so bright.
“I thought I couldn’t go back to work because the record company had said they were going to end my contract,” she offered.
“When I came out, I got a letter saying they didn’t want to [terminate the contract], they wanted me to do a song.
“I believe it was divine appointment.”
Gaynor’s faith is the impetus for Gaynor’s forthcoming “Testimony” CD.
“It’s finally finished,” she declared. “We hope to release it at the end of the summer. It is my testimony of the love and knowledge of God, and how that has helped me through all of the difficulties in my life and how it is available for anyone to have that power, to have that love, to have God’s grace and mercy through faith in Jesus in your life.
“These things are available to anyone; I try to make that clear through this new album.”
Despite its theme, Gaynor insisted “Testimony” is not just a recycling of well-worn hymns.
There are “no standards,” she explained. “Most of it is absolutely new. There’s a Bob Dylan song, ‘Man of Peace,’ but that’s the only cover. It’s what we call ‘roots gospel,’ because it has that old-time flavor.”
Chuck Darrow is a veteran entertainment columnist and critic. Listen to “That’s Show Biz with Chuck Darrow” 3 p.m. Tuesdays on WWDB-AM (860), WWDBAM.com, iTunes, iHeartRadio, and TuneInRadio.
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