It has been remade in punk, salsa, country, and rock versions. It has been recorded in Turkish, Japanese, Russian, Korean, French, and Portuguese. It has been warbled on The Muppet Show, parodied in an American Greetings e-card, and used to satirize Queen Elizabeth on a British TV puppet show. It has turned up on soundtracks ranging from Men in Black II to Ally McBeal—and a football movie called The Replacements. It has become an anthem for survivors of breast cancer, domestic violence, HIV/AIDS, and other causes.“If this is the only song I will be remembered for, I am so thankful,” says the woman whose high-voltage vocal rocketed it to number one in 1979.
“I Will Survive” has, to put it mildly, survived—and so has 58-year-old Gloria Gaynor, who began singing shortly after she graduated from Newark’s Southside High School and had her first professional gig soon thereafter at the Orbit Lounge in the city’s Ironbound section.
Trivia buffs note that when the song was first released in late 1978 it was actually the B side of the single, but disc jockeys liked it better than the A side. Nonetheless, Gaynor says, “I knew it was destined to be a hit. It’s more than just a feel-good song; it provides hope and encouragement and can be empowering.”
With Gaynor’s soaring vocal immortalizing lines like “I’ve got all my life to live, I’ve got all my love to give,” the song won the only Grammy ever bestowed on a disco tune. (In 1980, the category was eliminated in an anti-disco backlash.)
The song had great meaning for Gaynor even when she first recorded it. “I could relate to the lyrics,” she says. “I had boyfriend trouble, and was dealing with being a woman in show business. It made me think of my mother, who died from cancer in 1970. The lyrics truly celebrate the tenacity of the human spirit.” Next May, Gaynor will serve as honorary chairwoman of the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure, the breast-cancer research fundraiser that for the first time will be held in Newark.
Gaynor and her six siblings grew up in the care of their mother, Queenie Mae, who was separated from their father, Daniel Fowles, a vaudeville performer who was usually on the road. “My dad saw me one time, at the Paradise Lounge in Newark,” Gaynor recalls. “He came to a show where Cannonball Adderley and Yusef Lateef were also playing. It meant a lot to me because I know he could understand what I’d gone through to get to that place.
“My Mom sang, so I knew where my talent came from, but she wanted me to have something to fall back on,” Gaynor says. “I took bookkeeping and cosmetology, but I didn’t tell her that the reason I was taking the classes was so I could do my own makeup and finances when I became a performer!” Mike Curb, head of MCA Records, heard her sing, and signed her in 1974.
She has just released her seventeenth album, Christmas Presence, and hopes to release a jazz album next year. She’s still writing music and performing. “I do 50 to 100 shows a year,” she says. When she’s not touring, Gaynor enjoys cooking and spending time with her husband, Linwood Simon, family, and friends. She’s also pursuing a degree at Ellis College of New York Institute of Technology. Staying in New Jersey was a natural decision. “My family is here. I love Somerset County. It’s got rural charm and it’s a short ride to New York. I also love the New Jersey tap water.”