Survivor Gloria Gaynor talks the gospel of resilience, performs at Wilson Center this weekend

Gloria Gaynor will perform at the Wilson Center on Saturday, Nov. 6, 7:30 p.m. Tickets are still available here. (Port City Daily/Courtesy photo)

Gloria Gaynor’s 1978 hit “I Will Survive” was destined to become her song.

Through the countless interviews the New Jersey native has done in her career, the iconic track still remains at the forefront of conversation 43 years later. Only now it’s transformed into an anthem of resilience for millions of people. 

Turns out, that’s how the performer laid its foundation.

From her second home in Murrill’s Inlet, S.C., where she has been residing while waiting for her home to be built in New Jersey, Gaynor told Port City Daily that months before recording “I Will Survive,” she didn’t even think she would be walking again — much less touring. She encountered an injury at a show she was sure would put her career in peril.

“I was performing in New York at the Beacon Theater and fell backwards over a monitor on stage,” she said. 

The singer described how back then her band choreographed a tug-of-war bit with her to perform during one of the tracks. One member, she said, didn’t have a tight grip on the chord, which led to Gaynor falling.

“But I jumped up, finished the show, went out to breakfast afterwards, went home, went to bed, and woke up the next morning paralyzed from the waist down,” she said.

Gaynor made it to the hospital where she was admitted for three months with a spinal injury. During that time, life around her began to crumble: She lost her apartment and thought her record company wasn’t going to renew her contract. 

“I didn’t go home, I went to my boyfriend’s house — because I had nowhere else to go,” she said.

Preparing for the worst, Gaynor was surprised when her record company, Polydor, called and offered to extend their commitment to working with her. As fate would have it, the company had a new president from England who happened to be a fan of Gaynor’s. 

“I was quite popular there,” she said. 

Before “I Will Survive” skyrocketed her fame, Gaynor had released four albums and charted two No. 1 hits on the U.S. Dance Clubs Charts with the Jackson 5’s “Never Can Say Goodbye” in 1974 and “(If You Want It) Do It Yourself” in 1975.

When the Polydor president met Gaynor, she was fully armored with a back brace. He handed her a song, “Substitute,” in hopes of attracting the same interest with stateside audiences as he garnered in the UK.

“I didn’t really like the song at all,” Gaynor admitted. 

In fact, the artist said she wasn’t the biggest fan of disco music in general. She entered the industry at a time when the genre was surging in popularity. Gaynor leaned into it, she said, because of its financial viability, especially since she and the band had been touring the club circuit to packed audiences. 

“I always wanted to perform jazz standards,” Gaynor explained — Nat King Cole, Cole Porter. “But this was paying the bills, so I was, like, whatever, as long as I still have my contract.”

As Gaynor began discussing with producers possible B-sides to “Substitute” — this was a time when vinyl records, 45s especially, were the prime source of music consumption outside of radio — they asked her what kinds of songs she enjoyed performing most. 

“I told them, ‘I like songs that are meaningful, you know, thoughtful — one’s that touch people’s hearts, that have good melodies,’” she said.

Freddie Perren and Dino Fekaris pulled out one they wrote two years prior and handed Gaynor the lyrics.

“I was blown away,” she said. “I remember standing there, relating to it, the fact I was recovering and surviving from surgery and injuries. I remember standing there, thinking about the fact that my mother just passed away a few years ago, something I never thought I would have survived. I said, ‘Everybody is going to relate everything that they’re going through to this song, so how can you put it on the B side?’”

Knowing “Substitute” would be the track pushed to radio stations, Gaynor fought for “I Will Survive” to reach the masses. She decided to take a grassroots approach and handed out copies of the record to the DJ at Studio 54. 

“He played it and the audience immediately loved it,” Gaynor said. “What more of a sign do you need than a jaded audience immediately loving something?”

She then handed him more copies to turn over to his DJ friends around the Big Apple. Before long, the song was being requested on the radio and in clubs.

“The rest is history,” Gaynor said. 

“I Will Survive” ranked in the top three on multiple charts throughout the world in 1978 and 1979, from Finland to Ireland, South Africa to Sweden, the UK to the U.S. (“Substitute” ranked 78 on the U.S. R&B). It has remained Gaynor’s most popular song to date, and won the Grammy in 1980 for Best Disco Recording. Yet, it hasn’t pigeonholed her a one-hit wonder. 

The singer gained popularity again in the early aughts with two more No. 1 chart-toppers: in 2001 with “Just Keep Thinking About You” and 2002’s “I Never Knew.” Her career overall has included the launch of 20 studio albums, two live albums and 10 compilations. 

“Today, I stop in the middle of performing ‘I Will Survive,’” Gaynor said, “and I say to the audience: ‘Do you know I’ve been telling you for 20, 30, 35, 40 years, I will survive? But I never told you how.’ And then I go into this really funky beat and sing, ‘Only the Lord could give me strength not to fall apart / Kept trying hard to mend the pieces of my broken heart / because he made me somebody new.”

In 2021, the artist received the top honor in music by winning her first Grammy for an album. But the work stood out differently from the tunes that sent folks to the dance floor at the height of the disco era. Instead, Gaynor honed in to her gospel roots, songs she had been singing since youth.

Gaynor said she always desired to record an album of hymns, featuring original tunes and classics. A former manager, she said, always deterred her from doing it: “He didn’t think it would do well and he wanted to first get a Grammy.”

Gaynor eventually parted ways with him and moved forward to record “Testimony” in 2019. At the 62nd annual Grammy Awards, it scored Best Roots Gospel Album, with the original song “Talkin’ ‘Bout Jesus” nominated for Best Gospel Performance/Song. It was penned by Gaynor.

“​​I’ve written many, many songs over the years,” she said. “But most of the time, either they weren’t recorded or they weren’t released.”

Other times she said they would get buried on B-sides.

“[P]roducers were always, like, you sing, just sing — you don’t have to do all this other stuff,” Gaynor said. “It really, really bothered me.”

Six originals can be heard on “Testimony,” many of which were co-written with her producer Chris Stevens. Sounds of blues and R&B are married with soul and brass. 

Gaynor also included traditional hymnals like “Amazing Grace” and “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” recorded with different tempos. She covers Bob Dylan’s “Man of Peace” from 1983’s “Infidels” (the album that welcomed Dylan’s return to secular music after he converted to Christianity and released three evangelical records in the late ‘70s).

Gaynor is already planning her next album, again which will be gospel-based. She said she is working on a documentary of her life and a book, both of which will come out next year.

“The book is like short stories,” she noted, “experiences I’ve been through — some comical, some spiritual, some just profound — but it’s not an autobiography.” 

Gaynor has endured crippling spinal pain from her injuries since the late ‘70s stage mishap and even had to undergo numerous surgeries throughout the years. The last one in 2018 required the doctor to break her spine and reconstruct it. Still, she’s continued to perform, write, tour and even do music videos. Recently, she was tapped by the “Princess of Pop,” Kylie Minogue — Australia’s highest-selling female artist of all time — to appear in a soon-to-be-released video.

“She’s in England, so she did her part on the green screen, and then I did my part,” Gaynor said. “She was on Zoom while I was performing, so she could watch what I did and comment on it. It was very different but fun.”

Gaynor also recently played for a prince — the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the end of October for the Future Investment Initiative Institute, which is attempting to reach a zero carbon-footprint society. The prince made a pledge to eradicate by 2060 planet-warming emissions in his country; Gaynor opened the initiative with a performance of none other than “I Will Survive.”

Gloria Gaynor will play Wilson Center on Nov. 6 in downtown Wilmington, followed by a few more stateside concerts before she heads overseas to Poland, Czech Republic, Austria, and Burgarena. Tickets to Saturday’s show are $29 and up, and can be purchased here. Wilson Center requires all audience members to remain masked unless eating or drinking during the concert.

The original piece stated “Testimony” was Gaynor’s first Grammy, but it should have said “first Grammy for an album.” She won for Best Disco Recording in 1980. The article has been updated.

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