Singer and one-time disco music queen Gloria Gaynor is hardly the first entertainer to say she received her life’s calling from above.
But the voice that called down and encouraged her to consider sharing her musical gift with the world wasn’t from God.
“I was 13-years-old and I was standing in the hallway — I’ll never forget it — in the building in front of our house waiting for a friend to come down and play,” Gaynor says. “And I started singing ‘Why Do Fools Fall in Love’ by Frankie Lymon.”
A neighbor was coming down the stairs and heard young Gloria belting out the number.
“And she looked over the banister and said, ‘Gloria, was that you singing?’” Gaynor remembers.
It was indeed. The neighbor was confused at first.
“She said she thought she was hearing the radio,” Gaynor adds. “I thought I must be pretty good. Maybe this is what I want to do (with my life).”
No girls allowed
Growing up in Newark — yep, she’s a Jersey girl — Gaynor kept her singing mostly to herself. Her older brother had his own singing group, but he never let his little sister join in “because I was a girl.”
“Chauvinism reigned then, and, besides, I don’t even know to this day if they knew I could sing,” Gaynor, 67, adds with a laugh.
Gaynor spent most of the 1960s singing with a variety of groups that didn’t make much of an impression. It wasn’t until the 1970s, when she began recording as a solo artist, that people began paying attention to her music.
And then came the big break — only she didn’t know it at the time.
A producing team had written a couple of songs, and she was asked to record them for a single. The A side of the record, the one that would be heavily promoted by the label to the nation’s radio disc jockeys, was a song titled “Substitute.”
A ‘substitute’ hit
In 1978 the song didn’t even crack Billboard’s Hot 100. At best, it peaked at No. 78 on the R&B charts and quickly disappeared. But Gaynor knew the record company made a big mistake by not flipping the A and B sides.
The B side was “I Will Survive.”
“When I first heard the lyrics (to ‘Survive’), I realized it was a timeless lyric that everyone would be able to relate to,” she says. “Because I myself was relating to it. I had recently had surgery on my spine. I was recording wearing a back brace from the spinal surgery. My mother had passed away about a decade before that, and that (loss) is something a lot of people think they will never survive. It went on and on.”
Unable to convince the label to make the switch, Gaynor and her management team took the song to New York City’s fabled Studio 54 and gave it to the deejay. He played it and the audience went wild.
Gaynor and her team gave the deejay extra copies of the song to spread around the city to his deejay friends. Soon, people in other clubs began asking for the song. Then they began calling radio stations requesting it.
“The radio stations began to call the record company and (ask) where is this song that people kept requesting?” she says. “And (the label) had to tell them that they already had it, that it was on the B side of (‘Substitute’).”
Although the song was about recovering from a failed romance, the song quickly became more than an anthem for the disco era. It was hailed as a tune of empowerment for anyone dealing with a difficult situation in life.
Gaynor will sing “I Will Survive” and her other hits when she performs 8 p.m. Sunday, July 23, with the Ocean City POPS playing behind her on the Music Pier.
Singing that particular song with a couple dozen musicians backing her up is something Gaynor enjoys.
“It’s one of my favorite ways to perform that song,” she says during a recent chat. “The music, when it comes from a big band like that, is very, very inspiring, and you can’t help but do your best.”
Helping people survive
The song has done more than make Gaynor an artist who is synonymous with the disco era. It’s a song the entertainer is now using to raise money for various charities through a unique online giving program: IWillSurvive.org.
The web site allows different merchandisers to sell their products through the website with the stipulation that 10 percent of the sales get donated to charity. One of the pages on the website is donated to “I Will Survive” merchandise.
“So now I’ve got all this stuff coming together around the website because all of these charities are all trying to help people survive something,” Gaynor adds with unmistakable pride in her voice.
“And it all came out of ‘I Will Survive,’” she adds.