'I Will Survive' Saves Marginalized People A Spot On The Dance Floor

Sep 24, 2019
Originally published on September 24, 2019 7:39 pm

This story is part of American Anthem, a yearlong series on songs that rouse, unite, celebrate and call to action. Find more at NPR.org/Anthem.


Gloria Gaynor has said she's pretty sure her signature song, the 1978 disco smash "I Will Survive," was created just for her. But the singer had to go through a lot before she and the song found each other.

Her mother had died a couple years earlier, and Gaynor was still coping with that loss. Then her record label, Polydor, told her they were declining to renew her contract: She'd had a hit in 1975 with her cover of The Jackson 5's "Never Can Say Goodbye," but nothing huge since then, and they'd decided she was no longer a good investment. Gaynor soldiered on, but was slogging through a fog of grief and anxiety.

Shortly after Polydor told her she was being dropped, Gaynor slipped onstage during a performance at New York's Beacon Theatre. She finished the performance, then went out to breakfast, and finally, home to bed. "I woke up the next morning paralyzed from the waist down," she said in a 2013 interview with Audible, adding: "I've always believed that God allowed that to happen so he could get my attention."

Attention secured, Gaynor focused on her recovery. She endured spinal surgery and a three-month hospital stay. When she was released, she left the hospital in an unwieldy back brace that she wore for many more months.

Finally, after a few rough years, her luck began to turn. Polydor changed presidents, and the new guy was a fan. In fact, he was pretty sure he had a comeback hit for Gaynor: a song that a South African girl group had recently done well with, called "Substitute."

As it turned out, Polydor's new president was unique in his enthusiasm for the record. In his eagerness to get it out, he cut a deal: Producer-songwriters Freddie Perren and Dino Fekaris agreed to record "Substitute" if they could put one of their own songs on the B-side of the single. They invited Gaynor in for a meeting to hear what kinds of lyrics felt most comfortable with performing. In the interview with Audible, she described what happened next.

"They said, 'We think you're the one that we've been waiting for to record this song that we wrote a couple of years ago,' " Gaynor explained. "When I read the lyrics, I realized the reason they'd been waiting for me to record that song was that God had given that song to them for them to set aside, waiting for him to get everything in order for me to meet up with them. And that song was 'I Will Survive.' "

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Drummer James Gadson, who in his career has backed up Marvin Gaye and Bill Withers and been featured on hundreds of hit records, was part of the studio band put together for the session. He tells NPR they spent hours laying down tracks for "Substitute," and were about ready to wrap things up when Freddie Perren asked them to stay a little longer and do one more song.

"He said, 'Well, man, I know everybody's tired, but let's just do this one song. In fact, I'll do the intro.' He was a great producer, played keyboards," Gadson says, describing the arpeggio Perren played that became the song's unmistakable opening sting.

"We just cut it and that was it, went home," he says. "Three weeks later: bam."

Gaynor took advance copies of the single to Studio 54, the mecca of US discotheques — she'd often sung there, and knew the DJ. "He played it while we were standing there," she said in an interview with World Cafe on NPR member station WXPN. "The audience immediately loved it, which told me this is a hit song. New Yorkers don't immediately love anything — they are so jaded." The DJ liked it too — enough that he agreed to take copies and pass them along to other DJs.

Released in October 1978, "I Will Survive" was a near-instant hit, eclipsing the planned comeback song on the other side of the record. Within weeks it was playing everywhere, including Europe, where Gaynor was a longtime favorite. The song also coincided with the very beginning of the AIDS crisis, and found a particular resonance within the LGBT community.

Karen Tongson, a professor at the University of Southern California who often lectures on pop culture, says she remembers first hearing the song in the 1990s through its cover versions, then learning the history behind Gaynor's original.

"It was especially significant for me, because I'd just come out," she recalls. "The song had long associations with the LGBT community as an anthem ... but in my newfound activism, in my new awareness around the different struggles the community faced — particularly around the AIDS crisis — I heard the song with new ears."

She wasn't the only one. Beyond gay communities, "I Will Survive" has become a global anthem for those who have felt politically oppressed, physically challenged or otherwise pushed to society's margins.

That includes survivors of domestic abuse, for whom Gloria Gaynor herself has become a spokesperson. Cindy Southworth heads the National Network to End Domestic Violence, where Gaynor is an advocate; she remembers when the singer appeared at the organization's global conference in 2012.

"She sang her song," Southworth says, "and singing along with her were 1,500 advocates from across the globe — many of them survivors themselves, singing in beautiful accents."

Today, it's hard to go through life without hearing some version of "I Will Survive." Its operatic sweep makes it perfect for divas; Diana Ross, Aretha Franklin and Miss Piggy have all had a go. But it's also been covered by Johnny Mathis and Cake, performed by marching bands and symphony orchestras.

Karen Tongson says it's the progression of the lyrics from despair to empowerment that make "I Will Survive" a deeply personal song for a lot of people: "That chorus is like coming out of the dark and into the light." Set to a driving beat, its message is one that anyone who hears it can claim as their own. It is an anthem for people who have survived whatever life has thrown at them.

Gloria Gaynor interview audio provided courtesy of Audible and WXPN's World Café.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The song "I Will Survive" ends with uplift, but it begins with angst.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WILL SURVIVE")

GLORIA GAYNOR: (Singing) At first, I was afraid. I was petrified, kept thinking I could never live without you by my side.

SHAPIRO: That combination of angst and uplift might explain why it has endured and why the song has been a source of empowerment for so many, including the woman who first sang it. As part of our American Anthem series, Karen Grigsby Bates from our Code Switch team tells us why the song has survived.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: Gloria Gaynor likes to say "I Will Survive" was born in New York's Studio 54, the country's most famous, hardest-to-get-into discotheque. Celebrities behaved outrageously there and danced all night to pulsing disco beats.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LE FREAK")

CHIC: (Singing) Ah, freak out. Le freak, c'est chic.

BATES: Gaynor often sang there. She told WXPN's World Cafe that one night, she and a friend took advance copies of "I Will Survive" to the club back in 1978.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GAYNOR: We gave it to the DJ there. He played it while we were standing there, and the audience immediately loved it, which told me this is a hit song. New Yorkers don't immediately love anything. They are so jaded.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WILL SURVIVE")

GAYNOR: (Singing) And so you're back from outer space.

BATES: Studio 54's DJ shared the record with other DJs, and the rest is disco history.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WILL SURVIVE")

GAYNOR: (Singing) I should've changed that stupid lock. I should've made you leave your key if I had known for just one second you'd be back to bother me.

BATES: In important ways, "I Will Survive" is the story of Gloria Gaynor's own survival. A few years earlier in 1975, Gaynor hit Billboard's top 10 with this Jackson 5 cover.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NEVER CAN SAY GOODBYE")

GAYNOR: (Singing) I never can say goodbye. No, no, no.

BATES: After that, she had no big hits, so Polydor, her record label, told her her contract wouldn't be renewed. And then she had a horrific accident. She described it to Beth Anderson, Audible's publisher.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GAYNOR: I had fallen onstage doing a show at the Beacon Theatre in New York and woke up the next morning paralyzed from the waist down, and I have always believed that God allowed that to happen so that he could get my attention.

BATES: Gaynor had spinal surgery and spent three months in the hospital. When she got out, she wore a heavy brace for several more months, but then, some luck. Polydor changed presidents, and the new guy had a song he was sure would be a hit for her. It was called "Substitute."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUBSTITUTE")

GAYNOR: (Singing) I'll be your substitute whenever you want me.

BATES: But Polydor's president was the only one convinced it could be a hit. Producers Freddie Perren and Dino Fekaris agreed to do it if they could put a song they'd written on the flip, or B-side. They'd been looking for the right person to sing it. Gaynor told Audible she came into the studio still strapped into that big back brace.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GAYNOR: They said, we think you're the one that we've been waiting for. When I read the lyrics, I realized that the reason they had been waiting for me to record that song was that God had given them that song to set aside, waiting for him to get everything in order for me to meet up with them. And that song was "I Will Survive."

BATES: Master drummer James Gadson was part of the studio band that day and remembers Freddie Perren coaxing them to stay a little longer and do one more song.

JAMES GADSON: And he said, oh, man, I know everybody's tired, but let's just do this one song. In fact, I'll play the intro. There was a great producer playing keyboards.

(SOUNDBITE OF GLORIA GAYNOR SONG, "I WILL SURVIVE")

GADSON: On that one - that was the B-side - we just cut it, and that was it. We went home. Three weeks later, bam.

BATES: Bam indeed. "I Will Survive" became an almost instant hit. It felt like you couldn't go anywhere without hearing it, including Europe, where Gaynor was already popular. Demand for her soared.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WILL SURVIVE")

GAYNOR: (Singing) Oh, as long as I know how to love, I know I'll stay alive.

BATES: The song coincided with the very beginning of the AIDS crisis. Karen Tongson was young then. Now she's a professor who often lectures on pop culture at the University of Southern California.

KAREN TONGSON: I was around 19. It was especially significant for me to hear it in the 1990's because I had just come out.

BATES: The song took on a deeper meaning for her. Tongson connected with the lyrics through a cover version. She'd never heard Gloria Gaynor's original, but she learned its history.

TONGSON: The song had long associations with the LGBT community as an anthem, but in my newfound activism and in my new sort of awareness around the different struggles the community faced, particularly the AIDS crisis, I've heard the song with new ears, and I heard its urgency through that lens.

BATES: "I Will Survive" became a global anthem not only for the gay community but for people who felt politically oppressed, physically challenged or pushed to society's margins. In fact, Gloria Gaynor became a spokesperson on domestic violence issues. Cindy Southworth heads the National Network to End Domestic Violence, where Gaynor is an advocate. Southworth says Gaynor appeared at the organization's global conference in 2012.

CINDY SOUTHWORTH: She sang her song, and singing along with her were 1,500 advocates from across the globe, many of them survivors of abuse themselves, singing in beautiful accents "I Will Survive." It was one of the highlights of my career.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WILL SURVIVE")

GAYNOR: (Singing) And I spent oh so many nights just feeling sorry for myself. I used to cry, but now I hold my head up high.

BATES: Last year, "I Will Survive" celebrated its 40th anniversary, and it's still going strong. It's sung in karaoke bars, played by marching bands, even symphonies. It's almost operatic in scope, so of course, it's perfect for divas.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WILL SURVIVE")

DIANA ROSS: (Singing) I grew strong, and I learned how to get along. And so you're back from outer space. I just walked in to find you here with that sad look upon your face.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WILL SURVIVE")

ARETHA FRANKLIN: (Singing) I should've changed that stupid lock. I should've made you leave your key if I had known for just one second you'd be back to bother me.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE FANTASTIC MISS PIGGY SHOW")

FRANK OZ: (As Miss Piggy, singing) Go on now. Go. Walk out the door. Just turn around now 'cause you're not welcome anymore.

BATES: That was Miss Ross, Miss Franklin and Miss Piggy, respectively. Karen Tongson says the driving beat coupled with lyrics going from despair to empowerment make "I Will Survive" a deeply personal song for a lot of people.

TONGSON: That chorus is like coming out of the dark, coming into the light.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WILL SURVIVE")

GAYNOR: (Singing) Oh, no, not I. I will survive. Oh, as long as I know how to love, I know I'll stay alive.

BATES: It's an anthem for people who can exult that they've survived despite what life has thrown at them.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WILL SURVIVE")

GAYNOR: (Singing) And I'll survive. I will survive. I will survive.

BATES: Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WILL SURVIVE")

GAYNOR: (Singing) Go on now. Go. Walk out the door. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.