It was 40 years ago that diva Gloria Gaynor won her first (and, surprisingly, only) Grammy Award for her classic empowerment anthem, “I Will Survive.” The smash single received the Grammy for Best Disco Recording in 1980 — the only year, unsurprisingly, when that specific award was handed out.
But while disco had fallen out of favor by the time the ‘80s arrived, “I Will Survive,” which was recorded in 1978, has not only survived but thrived, taking on different meanings for multiple generations. It was adopted as a rallying crying by the LGBTQ community during the 1980s’ AIDS crisis; alt-rockers Cake recorded a snarky, grizzled remake in the ‘90s (though Gaynor disapproves of that version’s profanity); cancer survivor Tommy Chong sang it while wearing a pineapple headdress on The Masked Singer; and Gaynor even released a book, We Will Survive: True Stories of Encouragement, Inspiration, and the Power of Song, compiling 40 real-life tales of everyday people inspired by the single.
While Gaynor didn’t write “I Will Survive” (that credit goes to Freddie Perren and Dino Fekaris), it was her passionate delivery that no doubt made it an anthem for the ages, with hers forever being the definitive version. And it turns out Gaynor was in behind-the-scenes survival mode herself during its recording, which made the lyrics resonate so deeply with both herself and listeners.
“I was in a back brace,” Gaynor tells Yahoo Entertainment/SiriusXM Volume when discussing the ‘78 recording session that took place at the Mom & Pop’s Company Store studio in Los Angeles. “I had fallen onstage at the Beacon Theater in New York. I jumped back up, finished the show, went out to breakfast, went home, went to bed. And I woke up the next morning paralyzed from the waist down.
“I ended up in the hospital. I was there for four months, because at that time they really didn't know what to do with spinal injuries. They couldn't tell exactly what was wrong, and it was difficult for them to determine exactly what was wrong and what needed to be done. So finally they did a spinal surgery with a fusion and a bone graft — and I was still in that brace when I recorded ‘I Will Survive.’”
For Gaynor, who was nearly 30 at the time and about to be dropped by her label (“The record company had sent a letter saying they were not go to renew my contract; people were going around the company saying ‘the queen is dead’”), the song was the answer to a prayer, a literal gift from God. “I was doing a lot of praying and reading the Bible, resting on my faith. Finally, when I left the hospital, I was sure that God was going to do something. I just didn't know what,” she says. “So with the outcome of ‘I Will Survive,’ I've always believed that He told those two producers, ‘Look, sit down and write a song. Hold on to it. I'm going to send you somebody.’"
Gaynor knew right then in the studio that she had been given a special song — though, bizarrely, executives at her above-mentioned problematic record label were less convinced. “I went out to record a song that the record company president had chosen,” she recalls. “When I asked the producers what the B-side would be, they said they weren't sure and asked me what kind of songs I liked. I said, ‘I like songs that are meaningful, that touch people's hearts, that have really good lyrics and good melodies.’ They said, ‘We think you're the one we've been waiting for to record this song that we wrote two years ago.’ … So we worked really hard to get it played, because when we took it back to the record company, they wouldn't even listen to it.”
As it turns out, Gaynor’s label, Polydor, wanted to release another song as “I Will Survive’s” A-side. “The A-side was a song called ‘Substitute.’ Isn't that ironic?” she chuckles.
“I said, ‘Well, if it is up to me, it won't stay on the B-side, because everyone is going to be able to relate to this song. This is a timeless lyric.’” Luckily, America’s radio DJs agreed and played the flipside instead; “I Will Survive” ended up becoming one of the biggest pop songs of all time, making the top 10 in 23 countries around the globe.
Now, 40 years later, Gaynor is nominated for two Grammys, but not for dance music – she’s up for Best Gospel Performance/Song for “Talkin’ ‘Bout Jesus” and Best Roots Gospel Album for Testimony. A devout Christian, Gaynor says it was not long after her first Grammy victory when she realized that she’d only survive, so to speak, if she gave up the hard-partying disco lifestyle and fully focused on her faith.
“I was already a Christian and believed very firmly in God, but you know how we do — you can believe what your mother told you, but you don't always do it. Mom raised you right and then you go astray, and so did I. I went astray. I did that [party] stuff for a minute. Then I realized, ‘This is not the answer. This is not what I want. This is not helping me to maintain the life that I want, and I've got to stop this.’ So I did,” she says.
“I never had a drug problem, never had an alcohol problem. … I had very low self-esteem, and I wanted to be in with the in-crowd. I wanted it to be considered one of them,” Gaynor says of her brief time in the club scene. “So I went along with whatever they were doing, just enough so that they would consider me a part of the group. But I was at a hotel in L.A. in 1984, and we had invited a group of people. There was 20 people, and they were doing marijuana, drinking champagne. Champagne was my drink. My drug of choice at the time was marijuana, because I liked how it made me feel mellow. But some of [the partygoers] started doing cocaine. My husband was a woman magnet, so I was afraid that if they were all doing cocaine, I was going to fall asleep and leave my husband with these women! I didn't want to do that, so I started to dabble in the cocaine.
“If I live to be 300 years old, I will never forget how at one point I was sitting on the couch and I felt the hand of God grab me by my collar — literally grab me by my collar — pull me up, and say, ‘That's enough.’ I was visibly shaken. Everybody was looking at me as I made my way, stumbling to the bathroom because I was so shaken up. I closed myself in the bathroom. Then I realized that was God saying: ‘This is not how you were raised. This is not who you are. This is not your scene. You need to get away from this and never look back.’”
Gaynor’s life, and musical direction, changed from that point on, but the music-business survivor, now age 70, is still fiercely proud of her disco-era breakthrough hit and how it has changed other people’s lives. “No matter what the situation is, people are trying to survive things, and this song is encouraging, uplifting, empowering. I'm never surprised no matter what cause the song lends power or encouragement to,” she says. “People are always going through the things that they think are insurmountable and hope they'll survive. This is timeless.”
The above interview is taken from Gloria Gaynor’s appearance on the SiriusXM show “Volume West.” Audio of this conversation is available on demand via the SiriusXM app.
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