Library of Congress
Continues through Saturday, May 6
Friday, May 5:
Music & Veterans Panel Discussion
Noon in Whittall Pavilion
Saturday, May 6:
• ‘Bibliodiscotheque’ symposium with Gloria Gaynor, “Good Morning America” host Robin Roberts et. al. (1 p.m. in Coolidge Auditorium)
• “The Craft of Making Disco Balls” (1 p.m.)
• “Two Perspectives on Beyonce’s African Dance References” (1:30 p.m.)
• “Disco: the Bill Bernstein Photographs” (2 p.m.)
• “Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture”
• panel discussion, 3 p.m.
• Robin Roberts interviews Gloria Gaynor (4 p.m.)
• Gloria Gaynor, et. al., book signing (5 p.m.)
• Gloria Gaynor in concert (7 p.m. in the Library of Congress Great Hall, sold out)
All events are free and open to the public but tickets must be secured in advance.
Gloria Gaynor cracked the U.S. Hot 100 several times throughout the 1970s but, of course, it’s her legendary 1978 No. 1 hit “I Will Survive” for which she’s most identified and remembered.
So universally beloved is the song that the Library of Congress has included it in its National Recording Registry, a list of sound recordings that have been deemed “culturally, historically or aesthetically important and/or inform or reflect life in the United States.” Begun in 2000, it includes everything from Scott Joplin piano rags, Bessie Smith blues, Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats, Abbott and Costello comedy routines and much more.
The Library wraps up its disco-tribute series ‘Bibliodiscotheque’ this weekend with an afternoon of events featuring Gaynor culminating with a free concert in the Great Hall. Gaynor spoke with the Blade by phone from her New Jersey home in March.
WASHINGTON BLADE: How do you feel about “I Will Survive” being inducted into the National Recording Registry and how did your involvement in this weekend’s festivities come about?
GLORIA GAYNOR: The song was inducted into the Library of Congress music registry last year and I honestly don’t know how it came about except that I got a message from my manager that they’d called and wanted to do this event. They first called her and said they were inducting the song and then they called a month later and said they wanted me to do this event, so who actually came up with the idea, it probably came out of the meeting we had with them, but I’ve forgotten now. But I was extremely happy about it. Flattered beyond belief.
BLADE: Had you ever been to the Library of Congress before?
GAYNOR: Not before that meeting. I went down and met with them and looked at the Thomas Jefferson building, the archives and oh my God, it’s an awesome building and an awesome room. It’s going to be acoustically a challenge for my sound people to do the concert there, but what a beautiful place, a beautiful room.
BLADE: When were you there?
GAYNOR: That was in November, I believe.
BLADE: You’ll also be signing copies of your 2013 book “We Will Survive: true Stories of Encouragement, Inspiration and the Power of Song.” What kind of reaction have you received from the book?
GAYNOR: A lot of people write and say how the book encouraged and inspired them, which was my whole purpose in writing the book because I’m thinking if you’re going through something, how encouraging, inspiring and uplifting would it be to read about someone who’s gone through what you’re going through or perhaps something even more difficult and yet they came out of the other side victorious? So when people call me and tell me the book or the song has accomplished my purpose, then of course that’s very encouraging, inspiring and uplifting to me.
BLADE: Why do you think the song still resonates so strongly all these years later?
GAYNOR: It taps into the tenacity of the human spirit. It encourages you and inspires you to reach down inside and pull up whatever support you have inside of you to get you through the difficult times in your life. … We all have situations, circumstances in our lives from time to time that we think are insurmountable and hope we’ll survive.
BLADE: Is it true it was originally slated to be the B-side? That seems inconceivable.
GAYNOR: Oh yes, absolutely. The record company had sent me to these producers out in California to record a song that the president of the company had chosen because he’d had a hit with it in England and wanted to repeat that success here in the United States and he specifically wanted me to help him do that so he sent me out to record that song which was called “Substitute.” And when I asked the producers what was going to be the B-side, they asked me in turn what kind of songs did I like, what kind of songs did I like to sing and record. I told them I like songs that are meaningful and that touch people’s hearts and have good melodies and they said, “Oh, we think you’re the one we’ve been waiting for to record this song that we wrote a couple years ago.”
BLADE: Did you realize right away it had strong hit potential?
GAYNOR: Well, the fact that my mother had passed away just a couple years prior and I never thought I’d survive that and the fact that I was standing there in a back brace from my hip up to my art pit because I’d fallen on stage and woke up the next morning paralyzed from the waist down and was in the hospital for four years wondering what was going to happen to my life, I immediately related to the lyrics and immediately believed that since I was relating a couple of situations to the song that had nothing to do with the unrequited love that the song speaks about, I believed other people would do the same thing. I believed it was a timeless lyric that everybody was going to be able to relate to and time has proven me right.
BLADE: There was such a backlash against disco for years. When did you start seeing it appreciated again? Was that in the ‘90s?
GAYNOR: I always believed when people pulled away from it, that was something that was engineered and was more of an economic decision on the part of people whose bottom line was being negatively affected by the fact that people were buying so much disco music and they probably thought this was taking away from people buying their music so I think they came up with this idea for this big rally in Comiskey Park (in Chicago in 1979) but of course my question has always been if all those people who burned all those disco records hated disco music so much, why did they have those records to start with?
BLADE: It seems like it takes a long period after any pop musical genre is super popular — doo-wop, new wave, whatever — to be revived in a nostalgic way. Do you think it was any different with disco or pretty much the same phenomenon?
GAYNOR: Well I think it was a similar thing, but I don’t think it was that incident that caused it. I think that disco music very unfairly became associated with negative things like drugs and all different kinds of overindulgences and I think that contrary to what people believe, California, Miami and New York don’t run the world, middle America runs the world and middle America said I don’t want my children associated with that, so that was the end of it. It wasn’t really the end of it, but it went more into the underground and went more into the dance music that we have today.
BLADE: What’s your favorite cover of “I Will Survive”?
GAYNOR: Chantay Savage.
GAYNOR: Because she’s the only one who really made it her own. She really changed it and made it her own and did a good job of it.
BLADE: How did it come about that you sang it with Diana Ross at her concert in New Jersey in 2013?
GAYNOR: A friend of mine asked me to go to the concert with her. I didn’t know that she had it in the back of her mind that was she using me to try to meet Diana Ross, but that’s what she did. She had called the management of the theater, I don’t know which now, but she got us really great seats using my name and then they came and got us — I don’t know if she asked for me to meet her or how it went, but that’s how we got backstage. They came and got us from our seats just before the show was over and then Diana Ross invited me onstage, which I never expected. I just thought we were standing there, she was going to come back and say hi, my friend’s gonna get her autograph and we’ll be on our way. But she did invite me on stage and I was very flattered and I thought it was really gracious of her to do that and we had a good time. The audience was ecstatic.
BLADE: Her ‘90s cover was just sort of a modest hit but nothing huge yet she’s been closing all her concerts with it for the last several years. Why do you think she keeps doing that when she had so many big hits of her own that would work in that slot in her show? Any theory on that?
GAYNOR: Well I don’t really need a theory on it because I have the truth of it. My brother was her chauffeur and bodyguard for 15 years and he told me that she said she always wished she’d recorded that song. She just liked it and she’s adopted it.
BLADE: Do you ever feel like maybe she’s hoping casual fans will forget it wasn’t she who had the big hit with it in the ‘70s or that she just likes it?
GAYNOR: I think she just does it because she likes it. She thinks it’s a great song.
BLADE: Was it ever challenging for you to reconcile your Christian faith with being open on gay issues or to gay fans?
BLADE: Did gays and straights mix more in the disco clubs back in the ‘70s or do you recall?
GAYNOR: Well, we all know that there are gay clubs. At my concerts it was always mixed. It was never just all gay or all straight. It was always mixed.
BLADE: Did gays embrace “I Will Survive” right away or that something that grew over the years?
GAYNOR: I honestly don’t know. When they came to the concerts, as I said, it was always mixed. I don’t really separate my fans into categories and see who’s liking what. My fans are just my fans and they like me and whatever I sing, whatever it is. Some, of course, there are certain songs that certain individuals like more than others because they relate to them more than others, but I don’t think any particular group related more to “I Will Survive” more than any other group because it’s a song about human problems, human trauma.
BLADE: But “I Will Survive” is sort of the ultimate shorthand for gay anthem. It’s been voted the top gay anthem of all time by various publications. Did that come about more after the AIDS years perhaps?
GAYNOR: I really don’t know.
BLADE: You’re a native of Newark, New Jersey, but you were obviously already famous and traveling often when Whitney Houston was coming up. Did you know she and Cissy in Newark when Whitney was growing up?
GAYNOR: I knew (Cissy) as an artist I admired and went to see, but I didn’t know her personally. I met Whitney, you know, after she became famous and we had a mutual admiration for one another. She told me on a number of occasions how inspiring I was to her and how she would pull out my song whenever she was feeling down. She looked up to me and admired me and thanked me for being a positive influence in her life.
BLADE: What’s your favorite hymn or gospel song?
GAYNOR: One that was originally called “I Will Survive” but I recorded it and changed the title so people wouldn’t think it was the same song. Now it’s called “He Gave Me Life.”
BLADE: Have you kept all your career mementos? Do you have clippings and gowns and all that?
GAYNOR: Some, yeah. I’ve kept some clippings and gowns but most of my gowns I’ve given away to friends who are in the music business. That’s primarily what I’ve done. If I’m not using something, I’d rather see someone use it.
BLADE: About how much of the year do you travel?
GAYNOR: Now I’m not traveling as much. I’ve slowed down on purpose. It used to be that I was rarely home for more than two weeks at a time but I was rarely gone for more than two weeks at a time, too. Now it’s more like I’m going out maybe once a month, twice a month. Maybe two or three shows a month.
BLADE: You had other hits but “I Will Survive” has become so much more than just a hit record. Some singers feel it’s a blessing and a curse to be so heavily identified with one song. How do you see it?
GAYNOR: I used to see it as a double-edged sword because I recorded so many other songs that in my opinion are great songs, but I’ve come to understand that this song is the core of my God-given purpose and it’s fine, I’m very pleased for it and I’m very happy for it. I just really believe that God said, you know, I want you to have this, I want you to do this with it, I want you to use it to uplift, encourage and empower people with this song and I am very happy and honored for this purpose. I’m very honored for the opportunity and a kind of responsibility to do that for people and it’s wonderful when people come to me and tell me that this song has encouraged them. And the wonderful thing about it is they don’t just say this song did this for me, they say you did this for me. So it adds meaning and purpose to my life and it’s still very, very encouraging and uplifting for me.