Gloria Gaynor, Disco's Ultimate Survivor, Discusses That Song
You know "I Will Survive." Everybody knows "I Will Survive." Aliens know "I Will Survive." Dogs know "I Will Survive." Dogs who are aliens know "I Will Survive."
Gloria Gaynor's 1979 disco anthem, written by the same producers who wrote "Heaven Must Be Missing An Angel" and "Reunited," has long since taken on a life of its own. VH1 named it the No. 1 Dance Song of All Time; the late George Carlin pegged it at No. 9 on his "Most Embarrassing Songs of All Time" in his 2001 book Napalm and Silly Putty. He didn't say why, but it might have something to do with its ubiquity at karaoke bars across the globe. It has also, as Gaynor told Rocks Off Wednesday, literally saved at least one person's life.
The Newark native had actually notched several club hits by the time "I Will Survive" conquered the globe, including the Top 10 "Never Can Say Goodbye," "Casanova Brown" and "Let's Make a Deal." Today, she's the national spokeswoman for the W.A.K.E. Up & Flexx campaign, a pharmaceutical-sponsored initiative to raise awareness of knee osteoarthritis, and will sing her most famous hit at tonight's opening ceremonies of the 2011 Summer National Senior Games at the George R. Brown Convention Center.
Rocks Off: How did you get connected with these Senior Games?
Gloria Gaynor: I'm here to bring about awareness of osteoarthritis of the knee, especially as it occurs in women, as well as bring awareness of how they can go about easing the pain and ill effects of osteoarthritis.
RO: Is this something you have personal experience with?
GG: Absolutely. Yeah.
RO: What are the details of your performance here?
GG: Well, I'm going to be performing "I Will Survive." That's the only song I'm performing.
RO: What is it like to have recorded such an iconic song?
GG: It's great. It's wonderful to know that I have a song that gives people something that lasts beyond the duration of the concert. It gives them hope, it gives them encouragement, it empowers them. Very often it becomes part of the musical backdrop of people's lives. It's very encouraging and uplifting for me, and adds meaning and purpose to my life.
RO: How did it find you?
GG: The song was written by a couple of producers [Freddie Perrin and Dino Fekaris] who had been asked to record me on another song, and they said they would be pleased to if they could write the B-side. So after speaking with me about the kind of songs that I like to sing, the subject matter I like my songs to contain, they decided that I was the one they had been waiting for to record this song.
RO: It was actually a B-side when it came out, right?
GG: Exactly. Yeah.
RO: What made it take off?
GG: When the song was recorded, I went to the record company and said to them that it was a hit song. I felt that when I first read the lyrics, that it was a timeless lyric that everyone would be able to relate to, and that I thought it was the song they should promote rather than the other side.
They wouldn't even listen to the song. So I and my management team took the song to Richie Kaczor at Studio 54. When he played it, the audience immediately loved it, which signaled to us that I was right about it, and they were right to agree with me. New York audiences are so jaded they don't immediately like anything.
So Richie was pleased to see that response in his club, and agreed to give the record to other DJs in the New York area, and they began to play it and people began to request it from them. Then they went on to request it from radio, because now they wanted to hear it on the way home, on the way to work. Radio stations started calling the record company, asking "Where is this record we're getting requests for?"
And the record company had to say with much chagrin, "You've already got it. It's on the B-side of that other song."
RO: Do you have any idea how many movies, commercials and TV shows have used that song?
GG: Well, it's been at least eight movies I've seen it in, but as far as TV shows, I can't be sure because it's been done on a lot of quiz shows, played in a lot of club and performance scenes, so it's difficult to know.
RO: Of the movies, do any of them stand out to you?
GG: I think the one that stands out to me the most is Men In Black , when the dog was singing it (laughs). I met that dog in first class on a flight I was taking. Nice dog. Not a good voice, but nice dog.
RO: It's also been covered several times. Do you have a favorite version besides yours?
GG: My favorite version is by Chantay... I always say Chantay Savage, but I understand that's the wrong last name. [Ed. Note: It is Chantay Savage, the 1990s R&B/dance singer and songwriter who had a minor hit in 1996 with her version.] I thought she did a perfect job with it.
RO: It's such a huge song. Do you ever feel like it overshadows your other songs?
GG: Well, I'm certain it does. No other song has had the impact on people that that song has had.
RO: Your fans must tell you all the time stories about how that song has affected their lives. What's a good one?
GG: The story that always sticks out in my mind is one that happened in Italy. I was over there performing. I had just changed the lyrics of the song. Originally it said "it took all the strength I had not to fall apart," and I changed the lyrics to say "only the Lord can give me the strength not to fall apart" because I had recently become a born-again Christian, and I wanted to make the song more true to my life.
Right after doing that, I was in Italy and this young Asian lady came to me and said that she had missed her flight that morning. I said, "I'm really sorry," and she said, "No, I'm happy that I missed the flight. In fact, I think God called me to miss the flight so I could see your show."
I said, "Oh, that's really sweet" and she said, "No, you don't understand. Where I'm living here, I don't have much privacy and I've been really depressed recently, so I was going home so that I could commit suicide. But now that I've heard you sing that song, I know where my strength can come from and I don't have to die."
RO: How does it make you feel when somebody tells you something like that?
GG: It makes me feel as if I've been given a gift from God that I have to share with the world.
RO: Tell me about being inducted into the Dance Music Hall of Fame.
GG: That was wonderful. It was an event that happened in New York. It was great, because I was in with a number of my peers whose work I admire as well. It was lovely, and a great honor.
RO: Who else was there with you?
GG: Whew. There was Jellybean Benitez, Kathy Sledge of Sister Sledge. Oh, gosh - it was quite a while ago. Let me remember. Donna Summer was conspicuous by her absence. She had been invited, but she was performing that night so she couldn't make it. I can't think of who else was there, but it was a huge event.
RO: Would you like to say a word or two about your charity work? I know you do quite a bit of it.
GG: I work a lot with cancer research. I work with arthritis as well. One of the reasons I'm her for this event is because so many people suffer from arthritis, especially women. It's a huge number of people from the United States suffer from osteoarthritis of the knee and 60 percent of them are women, so I'm here to let them know there are a number of things they can do - exercises - and that they can go on to euflexxa.com or gloriasknee.com and hear about all of that.
I also work with a diabetes foundation, because my mother had diabetes. My mother also had cancer and arthritis - a lot of medical problems. I also do some work with the Alzheimer's foundation and it's now called Child's Fund; it used to be called Christian Children's Fund. I just try to share the blessings that I have been given. My mother always told me that when you give, God makes sure you have enough to share. So I try to share.
RO: Assuming you have any, what do you like to do in your spare time?
GG (laughs): That's the thing. I love to cook, and I do a lot of traveling, especially in foreign countries, so I like to come home with recipes and invite family and friends over and cook strange things. A friend said once, "Gloria, do you ever cook normal food?" (laughs) I'm always trying out these recipes and using them as guinea pigs to see if I've done it right or at least made it taste good.
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