Singer Gloria Gaynor

The disco icon, who continues to perform, recounts inspirational stories from her book, We Will Survive.

Only 19 when she signed her first record deal, Gloria Gaynor would ultimately make history with the birth of Billboard's disco charts. Her recording of “Never Can Say Good-Bye” became the first dance song to reach #1 in dance music, and her song, “I Will Survive,” became a banner for social survival and was the only song to earn a Best Disco Recording Grammy. It's been inducted into the Grammy and Dance Music Halls of Fame and re-recorded over 200 times. Gaynor got her start as a singer with a jazz-pop band and has toured extensively and appeared on Broadway. She earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology and plans to open a center for teenage parents in her Newark, NJ hometown.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: Grammy winner Gloria Gaynor gained international fame with the mega-hit “I Will Survive,” which of course has become something of an anthem for people going through tough times.

She’s now written a tome that pays tribute to those who confront challenges and tragedies, titled “We Will Survive: True Stories of Encouragement, Inspiration, and the Power of Song.”

But first, a clip of Gloria Gaynor singing “I Will Survive” at a Mandela Day celebration.

[Clip]

Tavis: Do you have any idea how many countries you have performed that song in?

Gloria Gaynor: Seventy-nine.

Tavis: Seventy-nine.

Wow. Who’s counting? (Laughter) Seventy-nine countries.

Gaynor: I did, recently.

Tavis: It is amazing to me, maybe not to you, but this song has itself survived, and not even just survived, but it has thrived all these years later.

Gaynor: Yes, yes, yes, yes.

Tavis: What do you make of that?

Gaynor: Just that people are always going through situations in their lives that they think are insurmountable and hope they’ll survive.

Tavis: For those who have not ever heard this story – I know it but I want to hear it again – for those who’ve never heard the story of how this song came to be and the condition you were in when you recorded the song, take me back.

Gaynor: Well, I did a show in New York at the Beacon Theater and fell on stage. Woke up the next morning paralyzed from the waist down. Went into hospital for surgery on my spine.

While I was there – well actually, just before that happened I had been told by the record company that my contract was coming to an end and they were not going to renew.

So now here I am in hospital with this surgery on my spine and I’m crying out to God, saying okay, what do you mean by this? What’s going on? What am I going to do? Where am I going? What’s next for me?

When I was released from the hospital, pretty sure that God was going to do something, didn’t know what, I received the phone call from the record company saying they’ve got a new president and he wanted me to record a song very aptly named “Substitute.”

When I went out to California to meet the producers we had chosen for the song, they had made a deal with the record company to write the B side. In those days, two sides.

So I’m asking them what’s going to be the B side, and they wanted to know from me what kinds of songs I liked to sing, what kinds of emotions I like to emit when I’m singing the song, and after that said they felt that I was the one they’d been waiting for to record this song that they had written a couple of years prior.

So now I read the lyrics of the song and I’m thinking, what are you, nuts? You’re going to put this on the B side? But while I’m reading it I’m relating to it, the fact that I’m in a back brace, that my mother had recently passed away, that the record company had said they weren’t going to renew my contract.

I’m thinking, this is the answer to my prayer. This is it. This is the answer. This song is not only something that I can relate to, but the song that others will relate to. It’s a timeless lyric.

So I really just felt that this was God’s answer to my prayer, and that it would be something that would go on for as long as people would play it.

Tavis: See, I always love hearing that story, because it is both instructive – not just both. It is instructive, it is informative, it is inspiring to know that you were on the eve of being dropped by your record company, you basically record the song in a back brace in a wheelchair.

They’re putting the song out on the B side, so it’s not even the A side, it’s the B side, just a throwaway, basically, and it ends up being this monumental blockbuster all these years later.

Let me jump from that now to the book, “We Will Survive: True Stories of Encouragement, Inspiration, and the Power of Song.” Give me some sense of how you started to collect these stories of persons around the globe who in fact have used this song to help them survive their own rough spots in life.

Gaynor: Well I first started collecting the stories in my head because people were telling them to me. Ever since I first recorded the song, people have been telling me these stories, and the stories have been uplifting, encouraging to me, so I thought I’m being a little bit selfish here.

I need to share this encouragement, this inspiration, with the world, and hence the idea for the book. When we decided to do the book, then my manager, Stephanie Gold, who is full of great ideas, decided that the best way to collect these stories, current stories, would be to go to the media, to electronic media -

Tavis: Social media.

Gaynor: – and social media, and to different support groups. Parents of Deceased Children, MADD, and NNEDV and different organizations like that. They were very happy to submit their stories and tell how the song had encouraged them and inspired them.

Tavis: Were you – I don’t want to color the question. Let me rephrase that. How taken were you by the range of stories, and by range I mean there are people in this book who tell stories of surviving all kinds of things -

Gaynor: Exactly.

Tavis: – literally from A to Z.

Gaynor: Exactly. Through the years I’ve been amazed at the different areas of trauma and predicament and difficulty.

Tavis: Illness.

Gaynor: Illnesses and death and parents of deceased children, and just all kinds of stories where people have been inspired by this song. It has been amazing, it really has been, and I feel so honored and so blessed to have a song that impacts people’s lives so positively for so many years.

Tavis: I suspect, and I want to be delicate in framing this question, but I suspect if I were an artist, and I love to sing – I wish I had been blessed with that gift, as all my friends know.

But I suspect if I were an artist and there were a song that I was going to be known for, this ain’t a bad one to be known for.

Gaynor: Hardly.

Tavis: If you’re going to have to be known by a song, this would be the song.

Gaynor: My sentiments exactly.

Tavis: Okay. But the flip side of that is, the B side, if I might, the B side of that point is that you get known by that song, and in some ways it boxes you in, it categorizes you.

Your true fans know that for one year the Grammy awards had a disco category. It came and it went, but it came for one year and in the one year that there was a disco Grammy, this song and you won the disco Grammy, and that was the end of that.

Gaynor: Yes.

Tavis: So the timing of this obviously meant everything.

But talk about the B side, the flip side of being known by this song, a song, one song.

Gaynor: What I’ve learned is that when I’m thinking about me and my desires and my hopes and dreams and aspirations and what I’d like to do and all of that, it becomes a hindrance.

It becomes kind of a thorn in my side, so to speak, that people don’t know I’ve done these other songs, and people don’t know I’m able to do this and that and the other.

As I’ve matured, I’ve come to understand that what this has done, it has framed my purpose. It has framed my purpose, and therefore it’s bigger, much more important, than my ego. Yeah.

Tavis: Yeah, I take that. I just got checked, and I – (laughter) I accept that. I’m just asking the questions around here. Speaking of your music, there is a companion CD. There’s the book in one hand as I mentioned; there’s a companion CD. Tell me about the CD.

Gaynor: The CD is a collection of seven songs that compliment the stories in the book. The stories in the book are about how the song “I Will Survive” inspired people and helped them to recognize that they could inspire them to want to survive. The songs on the CD are about the things that helped them to survive.

Tavis: The song titles say it all: “You’re Right on Time,” “If I Love You,” “Please Let Me Show You,” “I Forgive,” “I’m Grateful,” “He Gave Me Life,” “On It Goes.” But one can look at the titles and tell that it, to your point, mirrors the stories in the text.

Gaynor: Yeah.

Tavis: I know this is an unfair question to ask you with a minute to go. Was there, is there – just pick one – I was going to say your favorite story. I won’t say favorite, but give me one story of survival in this book that just really resonated with you when you read it.

Gaynor: That might be the story of a young boy who was sexually abused by his father’s friend, two of his father’s friends, one at a time, on many occasions by each one of them.

When he told his father and his mother about it, expecting that his father would champion his cause and go to bat for him, it was all about we don’t want to stir up any trouble, we don’t want people to look at us like something’s wrong with our family, all these kinds of things.

He was left feeling that there was no one to protect him, no one in his corner. I’m sure that that is something that happens, has happened to millions of young men and women, and certainly it happened to me.

No one came to my defense because I didn’t tell anybody, but this young man told his family and they did not come to his defense. So that was just really a heart-wrenching story for me.

Tavis: Yeah. It’s a powerful song, it’s a poignant song, it is a moving song, it’s an uplifting song all these years later. “I Will Survive,” by the one, the only, Gloria Gaynor.

There is a new text out now called “We Will Survive: True Stories of Encouragement, Inspiration, and the Power of Song” from the Grammy winner Gloria Gaynor, and a CD along with it called “We Will Survive” with seven tracks on it that I’m sure will get you going as you are reading or when you finish reading the text.

Gloria Gaynor, an honor to have you on this program. Congratulations on the success all these years later, ongoing. Good to have you on the program.

Gaynor: Thank you so much.

Tavis: My pleasure. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

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  • Roger Spencer

    I have been a fan of Gloria Gaynor since late 1973 when her single “Honeybee” on Columbia Records was pre-released. The song became an instant discotheque hit (the term “disco” not yet widely used). She then followed up with her massive hit “Never Can Say Goodbye” and the companion album which spawned additional club and top 100 hits like “Reach Out (I’ll Be There)” and “Real Good People”. She continued her string of club hits on subsequent albums such as “Walk On By” “If you Want It (Do It Yourself)” among many, but it wasn’t until late 1978 when “I Will Survive” was released on the B side of “Substitute” that another massive hit emerged, so massive that the record company “flipped” the label and made “I Will Survive” the A side. I believe this was the first time that ever happened. After “I Will Survive” Gloria has gone on to have other big hits like 1983′s “I Am What I Am” 1994′s “Perfect World” and “Oh What A Life”, 1999′s “Last Night” and 2002′s “Just Keep Thinking About You” and “I Never Knew”. Check out her catalogue of recordings. You will be amazed!

Last modified: January 24, 2014 at 4:05 pm