Gloria Gaynor: All Her Life to Live, All Her Love to Give
by Owen Keehnen

Her name is synonymous with disco. She had several Top 40 albums; her songs included such hits as "Honey Bee," "Never Can Say Goodbye," "I Am What I Am," and the biggest record of the disco era, "I Will Survive," which also won her a Grammy for best disco song. Gloria Gaynor was crowned the Queen of Disco in 1979, hosted The World's Largest Disco at Madison Square Garden, and sold out The Palladium. Is it any wonder she has become a gay icon? But those days of mirror balls and glitter had a darker side.

I Will Survive is Gloria Gaynor's new autobiography covering her poor but loving upbringing, signing to Columbia Records at 17, her meteoric rise to the top and years of fame which eventually caused her to reject the decadence all around her. For her survival, Gaynor found a renewed commitment to Christ and the Bible, which remains a large part of her life today.

Recently, I had the chance to talk with Gaynor about her career, status, her take on '70s retro, recording what is considered to be the first disco song ("Never Can Say Goodbye"), her new book and new album, and a whole lot more.

(This interview originally appeared in Chicago Outlines and Watermark in Orlando in Dec. 1997)

Owen Keehnen: What made this the right time to write your autobiography?

Gloria Gaynor: Well, it was a request that came from Harper Collins in England in 1994. So the book actually came about as an answer to their request. After I wrote it I thought, yeah, it was a good idea to share with the public some of the problems I've had and some of the solutions I've come to and hopefully be of some help to somebody.

OK: And there was never any question about the title. "Never Can Say Goodbye" and "I Am What I Am" were never contenders?

GG: The original title in England was Soul Survivor and then when the book came here St. Martin's Press came up with I Will Survive. I thought that was a good idea-only I wanted to call it I Will Survive: The Book, but they thought that was too frivolous.

OK: "I Will Survive" was the biggest dance hit of the disco era and has become such an anthem. How does it feel to know your song has been a source of strength to so many?

GG: It's wonderful. That's the reason I recorded it. The song was written for me after the writers talked to me about what sort of subject matter I liked to sing about and what kinds of emotions I liked to disseminate. The song was written for me because I like to bring encouragement to people. I like to bring hope.

OK: Is it true that Polydor, your record company at the time, wanted it as a B-side?

GG: They wrote it as a B-side because they were contracted to produce a song that the president of the record company had chosen called "Substitute." They said, "Okay, we'd like to do that, but we'd also like to write the B-side."

OK: Your 1974 recording of "Never Can Say Goodbye" is often cited as the first disco song to cross over to AM radio and popular culture. Were you aware at the time you were recording something so groundbreaking?

GG: My purpose in doing that was that my manager, my producer, and myself had seen the discos happening. We saw clubs in America being changed from cabarets into discotheques and purposely wanted to supply music to that market.

OK: In addition to other dance hits like "Honeybee" and "I Am What I Am" you had several Top 40 albums, were crowned The Queen of Disco, won a Grammy for Best Disco Song, hosted The World's Largest Disco in Madison Square Garden, and sold out The Palladium. What's been the proudest moment of your career?

GG: When I won the Grammy.

OK: Why do you think '70s retro has come back with such strength?

GG: I think that's the way of the world. Music is always indicative of the social climate. People today are not so optimistic about the future so they become nostalgic and look back to a time when things were better. The '70s are far enough behind that all we remember are the good times.

OK: What's something about the '70s you're happy to see back?

GG: I'm happy to see a lot of the songs coming back from the disco era. A lot of them were really great songs not because of the music but because of the song itself, the lyrics and the melody. I'm also hoping that along with it comes the camaraderie that needed to come about in the disco era. Music cut across every age group and cultural line and brought about that camaraderie.

OK: In the past few years you've appeared in disco revival shows with Donna Summer, The Village People, The Hues Corporation, The Trammps, Sister Sledge, etc. What is it like coming together like that?

GG: It's fun. It's a lot of fun because we all talk about what we've been doing for the past 10 or 15 years. We share what's been going on in our lives, the similarities and the differences. We talk about the old times and it's just a lot of fun.

OK: And you're still friends with Thelma Houston ("Don't Leave Me This Way"), Carol Douglas ("Doctor's Orders"), Vicki Sue Robinson ("Turn the Beat Around"), and Candi Staton ("Young Hearts, Run Free"). How are they?

GG: They're all doing great.

OK: Your story is also one of loss and lawsuits, weight problems, drugs and alcohol before your eventual triumph through The Bible. Through all your trials what has been the greatest test of your strength?

GG: Really pulling myself away from the decadence. I had low self esteem, was very insecure, and in order to pull away from the group I had to go into what I feared most and that was being alone. In order to be in the "in" crowd and not be alone I had to indulge in things that were totally separate from my upbringing. I never allowed those things to overcome me, but certainly I had to indulge to be with these people. Pulling away from that I can't even say was a test of my strength. It was more a test of my faith that God would give me the strength to carry out the decisions I'd been making -- to pull away from those things and live a life that was going to be productive and help me reach my potential. I wanted a life that would allow me to be at peace and happy with myself and with God.

OK: You have such a large gay following. Has that ever come in conflict with your beliefs as a Christian?

GG: No.

OK: Has singing always been a spiritual experience for you?

GG: No, at first I think singing was a way to be recognized and accepted. It was very shallow because always in the back of your mind is what happens if I lose my voice? Will I no longer be accepted? There is nothing more rewarding or more reassuring than to come to the knowledge of the love of Christ and how he loves you unconditionally and how he can make you be all that you were made and meant to be and how no one's opinion of you is more important than His.

OK: Tell me about your new album.

GG: The New album The Answer should be released within a couple of months. I wrote six of the songs on the album that I was very pleased to have the opportunity to do. It has some rhythm and blues, some pop, some dance music, and some gospel.

OK: With the new book and the new album, how's it feel to be back in the spotlight?

GG: It's great in America. I've had it consistently in many countries in Europe, South America, the Middle East, and the Far East. I've been consistently working and performing there, but it's great to be back in America.

OK: What are your plans for the future?

GG: To bring about real popularity here again with the new album and to begin to travel more in the United States.