BY ELLIOT STEPHEN COHEN
“My memories of the Disco years are wonderful,” says ’70s Disco queen Gloria Gaynor, whose recording of “I Will Survive” remains one of the most iconic of that era. “We passed on from the 'me' generation. People started dancing together on the dance floor, and it’s an undeniable fact that it was the very first music to bring together people from every nationality, race, creed, color or age group.”
Born Gloria Knowles in Newark, New Jersey, her family may have been poor, but there was always music and laughter in the project apartment they all shared. Prior to her singing career, she studied cosmetology and business, while also working many odd jobs. Her first recording success came in 1974, reworking a three-year-old hit by Michael Jackson and his brothers, “Never Can Say Goodbye.”
However, it was her 1979 mega hit “I Will Survive” that turned her into a superstar performer. The song, has since been recorded by more than 200 artists including Diana Ross and Gladys Knight, and was awarded a 1980 Grammy for best Disco Recording.
Gaynor, who recently released her autobiography (naturally called “I Will Survive”) will be relating her life story Monday evening at Manhattan’s 92 Y. She proudly states, “After all these years, I get five year olds asking for my autograph!”
Examiner: How did Gloria Knowles become Gloria Gaynor?
Gaynor: It was through Johnny Nash (of “I Can See Clearly Now” fame – ed.). I did my very first recording with him in 1966, and it did nothing. He said, “Gloria Knowles is not a good stage name. People won’t even know how to pronounce it. Why don’t you pick a name that starts with “G.” Your fans will start thinking of you as “GG.” I said, “OK. That sounds good.”
Examiner: Who were some of the very first singers you heard on the radio that made you think singing was something you could do?
Gaynor: The first one was really Frankie Lyman who did “Why Do Fools Fall In Love?” When I was 13, I sang it all the time. One day I was in the hallway of my apartment building waiting for a friend, and I was singing very loud. A neighbor came down, and said, “Gloria. Was that you singing?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “Wow, I thought that was the radio.” That made me think, “I can do this…I’d love to this.”
Examiner: When and where did your first major singing appearance occur?
Gaynor: It was '62 or '63 at Symphony Hall in Newark. I performed there a couple of times. There was this guy who would advertise shows saying there’d be people like Marvin Gaye, Gladys Knight and The Pips, and Nancy Wilson heading, as well as some local talent like myself and someone named Norma Jackson. Well, he’d put up these (bogus) flyers, and then he’d sit by the doorway selling tickets, and as soon as the show started, he would disappear. None of those big acts were going to be on the show, just me and Norma. He did it like several times around Newark, and people continually fell for it. (Huge laugh.)
Examiner: Was there any one particular singer you saw in concert who really influenced your performing style?
Gaynor: I saw Mavis Staples from The Staples Singers, who had that big hit, “I’ll Take You There.” Seeing her sing made a very big impression on me. She came onto the stage, and stayed in one spot. She just moved her head and arms a little bit, but her movements were so expressive of what she was singing. She really commanded that audience. I just adored her.
Examiner: What is the story behind “I Will Survive?”
Gaynor: After I recorded that song, I fell onstage at The Beacon Theater. I went right home to bed, but the next morning, I realized I was paralyzed from the waist down. I had surgery on my spine, and while I was recovering, my record company said they weren’t going to renew my contract. I thought my career was over. Fortunately for me, they got a new president from England where I was very popular, and he wanted to try to repeat my success over here.
Examiner: …but how did it go from being the B side of a record, to such an incredible success?
Gaynor: They had hired these two songwriter to write a B side for me, after reading the lyrics, I thought, “What are you stupid? This is a hit song, and you’re gonna put it on the B side?” After I recorded it, I brought it to my record company and said, “You need to be promoting it, because it will be a big hit,” but they wouldn’t listen to me. So, we took it over to Studio 54 (then the Disco mecca – ed.), the DJ played it, and the audience immediately responded. That was a sign for me, because you know how jaded New York audience can be. Soon I it started getting radio airplay. People started calling up my record company saying, “Where can we buy this song?” and much to their chagrin, people who had bought it for the A side, “Substitute,” already had it.
Examiner: What was the Studio 54 scene like, back in the ’70s, when it was known for excessive drug use, and promiscuity?
Gaynor: I don’t really know too much about those things, because when I worked there, about maybe five or six times, I went right to my dressing room, and left through the back door as soon as I was finished. I didn’t usually hang around. My manager felt it was good for me to be conspicuous by my absence. However, one night I went there to party with some friends from England, and the guy behind the velvet rope, came up to my car window and said, “Ms. Gayor. You really don’t want to come in here tonight.” So, I said, “Thank you, and we drove off.”
Examiner: What prompted your becoming a Christian in 1981?
Gaynor: I was at this party, and they were doing all kinds of drugs. Me and some people were on this big plush shag carpet on the floor. We were just lying around having fun, and I didn’t know what was going to happen, but I’ll never forget, I felt the holy spirit just lifting me off the floor. It was like a cat being picked up by the scruff of the neck. My knees never even bent. I said, “That’s enough.” I was probably getting ready to do some drug cocktail that was gonna kill me.”
Examiner: Do you have any upcoming recording plans?
Gaynor: Yes I do. I’m planning on writing some new Christian songs. That’s where my heart is now. I’ve been writing songs since I started recording, but I’ve recorded very few of my own. I’ve tried to write Disco songs, Rhythm and Blues, … but now when I write nothing comes to mind but Christian songs, because I was truly saved.
Examiner: Final question, as you and Donna Summer were probably the two biggest female disco stars, was there any kind of friendly rivalry between both of you?
Gaynor: I always saw us as colleagues. We were peers; that’s it. We did some shows together, and were friends, much as you can be being passing ships in the night. We were once on a flight coming back from Germany, and we were talking so loud for hours, everyone on the flight must have been sick of us!