Gloria Gaynor and her disco anthem still survive


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Love it or loathe it, "I Will Survive" is one of the most familiar songs on the planet, and one that turned Gloria Gaynor into the kind of household name that makes her a Light Up Night headliner 35 years later.

Amazingly enough, it was originally a B-side to a cover of the Righteous Brothers song "Substitute." At the time, Ms. Gaynor was desperately in need of a hit. The singer from Newark, N.J., had released her first single in 1965 and had her first mainstream success in 1974 with "Never Can Say Goodbye."

But four years later, she had eight singles that had failed to hit the Top 40 and her career was in jeopardy. Along came this self-empowerment anthem set to a disco beat, written by Freddie Perren, who had struck gold for the Jackson 5, and fellow Motown writer Dino Fekaris.

Ms. Gaynor swears she knew it was no B-side.

"I knew it before I even heard the melody," she says in a phone interview. "I knew it when I read the lyrics, because right then I had recently been released from the hospital with surgery on my spine, my mother passed away just a few years prior, and the record company had said just before I recorded that song that they were not going to renew my contract. I was wondering how I was going to survive, so when I read those lyrics, I believed and still believe that the song was the answer to prayers, and it really spoke to me about how I survive these difficulties that recently happened to me."

"I Will Survive" topped the Billboard charts and became the first and only song to win the Grammy for best disco recording, in 1980, as the category was discontinued in the face of a harsh disco backlash. Ms. Gaynor, who had become one of the faces of the dance craze, went down with that ship, as "I Will Survive" would be the last Top 40 hit of her career.

"The only thing it did was make me less ... I can't even say less popular because I don't think I'm still any less popular than I was back then," she says. "I was less called-upon for performances here in the United States because the promoters, when they heard about the backlash, they were not willing to use their money to find out what effect it had on my career, so they kind of steered clear of anybody in disco music, pretty much."

On the bright side, she says, there were about "80 other countries" that were more than willing to welcome Gloria Gaynor, so while she suffered her share of emotional and financial hardship, she was able to sustain a performing career. Fortunately for her, unlike a lot of disco songs, "I Will Survive" has a way of cycling back into the culture, both in comic (a la Andy Kaufman, Conan O'Brien or Miss Piggy) and straight-up fashion ("Glee" cast). Her favorite use of the song, she says, was the pug singing it out the window in "Men in Black 2."

On a more serious note, it's the focus of her new book, "We Will Survive," compiling 40 stories of survivors who used the song to help overcome tragedy or challenges in their lives. She and co-author Sue Carswell found the stories through social media and nonprofit organizations such as Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) and Mothers Against Drunk Driving MADD.

Among the most inspiring, Ms. Gaynor says, are "the woman who suffered and survived the horrors of the death camps in Auschwitz, Germany. And there was a story of a woman who was in a car accident, a young girl going somewhere with college friends. They made a decision to drink and drive, and there was an accident and all of them died except her. It was like their theme song already and she turned to that song to get through."

The book was released earlier this year, and on Tuesday it will be accompanied by her first gospel CD, also titled "We Will Survive." Ms. Gaynor had been doing faith songs since she embraced Christianity in the early '80s but never to this extent.

"I'd done one song here or there on different CDs but had never done a full Christian CD, and that was because of my management. My husband was my manager, and he didn't see it was viable, and instead of just saying that he kept putting me off and putting me off, and years turned into decades."

They divorced in 2005 and now, she says, she has a woman managing her "who respects my opinions and my choices." The album, recorded in Nashville starting in 2011, features songs she had been working on for years, as well as others meant to tie in with the book.

It's a new direction for the 64-year-old singer whose website boldly declares her "The Queen of Disco." The title, of course, has also been applied to the late Donna Summer. Is this a genre that has room for more than one queen?

"I don't know," Ms. Gaynor says. " 'Queen of Disco' is a title that was bestowed on me by the International Association of Discotheque Disc Jockeys [in 1976]. They actually had an election and I won that. Whether Donna Summer replaced me as Queen, that happens in the hearts and minds of individuals, and they're the ones who can answer that question."

Gloria Gaynor performs as part of the Macy's Light Up Night celebration, beginning at 6 p.m. Friday on Smithfield Street.


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