Gloria Gaynor has been hailed “The Queen of Disco ” – a title she solidified in 1978 when she catapulted a B-side single to unimaginable stardom, creating a legendary track that has inspired generations of listeners. To this day, “I Will Survive” remains a dominant anthem of resilience for communities and individuals, who turn to it for its empowering strength and courage.
Born Gloria Fowles, in Newark, New Jersey in 1943, Gloria Gaynor grew up surrounded by music. Gloria began singing around Newark, and was introduced to Johnny Nash while singing at the Orbit Club. Nash became one of her first mentors, and encouraged her to begin writing songs and to choose a stage name. Gloria explained in her autobiography: “The name Gloria Gaynor came from Johnny Nash. My real name was Gloria Fowles, but Johnny said, “That is not a stage name. There’s no way you can use that name. Why don’t you choose a name that starts with a G, so people will call you G.G.? It will stick; it will be like a little affectionate nickname.”
Gaynor was the first name that popped into his head, and she stuck with it. Nash also brought her into his record company, Josida, which was named for his family who ran it: JOhnny, SIssy (his wife), and DAnny (his brother-in-law). In 1973, Gloria was signed to Columbia records but found little success there. Her first big hit came with MGM with her 1975 album Never Can Say Goodbye, which very memorably placed the first three songs (and the album’s singles) without any breaks between the tracks…essentially creating a massive 19 minute dance song medley to kick off the album.
Gloria was gaining a reputation as one of the key players in disco music and released four more albums in a few short years: Experience Gloria Gaynor (1975), I’ve Got You (1976), Glorious (1977), Gloria Gaynor’s Park Avenue Sound (1978).
But it was a song from her 6th album that took her from a successful disco artist into iconic star status, cementing her legacy in the history of popular music. That song was “I Will Survive”
To understand the full meaning behind the song, we have to not only look at the incredible performance captured in the recording, but also its history and songwriting. The song was written by Freddie Perren and Dino Fekaris. Prior to their work with Gaynor, Perren and Fekaris had both worked for Motown records. Perren had been a part of The Corporation – Berry Gordy’s collection of songwriters and producers who were specifically working to create hits for the Jackson 5. Fekaris had worked with Rare Earth, including on their hit “I Just Want to Celebrate.”
By 1978, both Perren and Fekaris had parted ways with Motown. Perren had established himself as a record producer, creating hit tracks for groups like Peaches and Herb out of his own professional recording studio in Los Angeles, Mom and Pop’s Company Store. Engineer Jack Rouben explained that Perren had created an ideal environment for producing hit records, beginning with “…really good equipment, including a Harrison 32—the same board Thriller was recorded and mixed on—a 3M 24-track, plenty of good mics and some nice outboard gear. There were two [echo] chambers and offices upstairs. And he had his group of A-team musicians: James Gadson, who was one of the premier R&B drummers; Scotty Edwards and Eddie Watkins were bass players; Melvin ‘Wah-Wah’ Ragin on guitar; Paulinho da Costa on percussion; and Freddie himself or John Barnes on keyboards.”
In mid-1978, Polydor records approached Perren to produce a new track for Gloria Gaynor called “Substitute.” Needing a B-side for the track, Perren brought in Fekaris, who had become one of his regular writing partners. Fekaris wrote most of the lyrics, drawing on his experiences losing his job at Motown, and struggling as an unemployed songwriter. He recalled “They let me go after almost seven years. I was an unemployed songwriter contemplating my fate. I turned the TV on, and there it was: a song I had written for a movie theme titled ‘Generation’ was playing right then […] I took that as an omen that things were going to work out for me. I remember jumping up and down on the bed saying, “I’m going to make it. I’m going to be a songwriter. I will survive.”
It was that empowering spirit that resonated with so many people, including Gloria. The first time she saw the lyrics, they were scribbled on the back of a torn, brown paper back. Not having them on hand, Fekaris had quickly written them down from memory for Gloria to see, and she was immediately struck by their impact. “Substitute” may have been the original vision for a hit A-side track but Gloria’s team immediately began making plans for “I Will Survive” to become the signature song at the end of her live performances.
Like every great disco song, “I Will Survive” boasts a fantastic percussive/bass groove. Drums on the track were played by James Gadson, with Paulinho Da Costa credited for percussion. All three were regulars at Mom and Pop’s whom Perren would often call on to record. The conga part especially adds to the danceable groove that these elements create together. To record the drums, Rouben recalls that he likely used a Sennheiser 421 or an AKG D-112. The hi-hat was a [Neumann] KM84. The guitars on the track are credited to Bob “Boogie” Bowles and Melvin “Wah Wah Watson” Ragin. Ragin was also a regular at Mom and Pop’s. Bowles was in town at the time and brought in to play for the sessions. He played the guitar lines you hear on that iconic opening intro, alongside the piano and Gloria’s expressive opening lines. The keyboard part was played by Perren.
Rouben explains that in the short week they had to put together both the A and B sides of the single, most of the time was spent on “Substitute.” The majority of the tracks for “I Will Survive” were recorded in just about two days, with guitars, keyboard, drums, percussion and bass on the first day and Dave Blumberg’s string and horn parts on the second. Bowles also recalled a quick recording session for the song, especially since – as the B-side – the musicians didn’t expect it would get much playtime. Bowles explained: “When we played the arrangement for “I Will Survive,” everyone was relaxed and had the attitude that this song wouldn’t get airplay anyway.”
All of these parts together created a fantastic dance groove, but it was Gloria’s incredible performance of those empowering lyrics which really took the song to legendary heights. Rouben recalls using an AKG c414 for the vocals. “I found this LA-4A compressor/limiter and I also used one of the chambers. There were two—a short chamber or a long chamber—and for this song I remember picking the long chamber.”
Early in the vocal sessions, Rouben had recorded Gloria’s practice takes – never intending to actually use them. However, after a full day of recording Gloria was struggling with back pain from spine surgery and couldn’t come back to finish the sessions. At that time, they only had two verses and two choruses that they were really content with. However, after going back through all the practice session recordings, they were able to fill in the rest of the song with those performances. In particular, they went with the very last practice take which actually resulted in an almost complete performance of the song.
The story about Gloria’s back pain during the recording also connects with her own personal interpretation of the song’s lyrics. After an on-stage accident the New York’s Beacon Theater in 1978, Gloria woke up the next morning paralyzed from the waist down. After a painful recovering from spine surgery, she was still wearing a back brace at the time of recording “I Will Survive.” She writes in her autobiography: “Whenever I sang “I Will Survive” at that time, I was relating it to my recovering from spine surgery. The word was going around after my accident that “the Queen of Disco is Dead” so one of my main thoughts was that my career would now survive. And in a funny way also, it felt as though it had to do with surviving the death of my mother. I know the song is about abusive relationships and women asserting their independence from men, and for most people that’s what they identify with. I have suffered in that way myself, of course, but for some reason, I never think of that when I sing it.”
That is, perhaps, what makes this song so meaningful to so many people. Of course, there are literal interpretations of the lyrics, but there is also the overarching effect of believing in one’s own resilience. And as generations of listeners have listened, the song has continued to take on meaning to so many people. “I Will Survive” may have been originally written as a B-side track, but it did not take long for it to surpass all expectations.
Part of its rise to stardom came from Gloria’s own efforts, as she began sharing the song with DJs around New York. After asking a Studio 54 DJ to play the track and seeing the audience’s immediate reaction, Gloria realized: “‘This is a hit song. New York audiences don’t immediately love anything.’ Encouraged by the audience’s reaction, she gave the DJ a whole stack of singles, encouraging him to share with his own colleagues. Pretty soon, “I Will Survive” was a club favorite around New York and then across the country. Released on October 23, 1978, the song entered the Billboard Hot 100 by December. By March of the next year, it had hit number 1. It also topped the charts in the UK, Ireland and Canada The song received the first and only Grammy given for ‘Best Disco Record’ in 1980.
Not only was it a hit of the disco era, but it remains one of the most lasting anthems of all time. “I Will Survive” carries so much meaning to so many groups and individuals, through its empowering lyrics, irresistible groove, and brilliant performance. In 2016, it was chosen by the Library of Congress to be preserved in the National Recording Registry for its cultural, historical and artistic significance.