Gloria Gaynor: 'I Will Survive' Is 'The Core Of My Purpose'
Gloria Gaynor: 'I Will Survive' Is 'The Core Of My Purpose'
NPR's Sarah McCammon speaks with singer Gloria Gaynor about her Grammy-nominated album, Testimony.
SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:
And finally today, Gloria Gaynor, a voice that defined the disco era.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NEVER CAN SAY GOODBYE")
GLORIA GAYNOR: (Singing) Hey, I never can say goodbye, boy. Oh, baby. I never can say goodbye...
MCCAMMON: In the 1970s, Gloria Gaynor released a string of disco hits that have gone on to become classics, including this one, "Never Can Say Goodbye," and, of course, "I Will Survive." Earlier this year, Gloria Gaynor released her 18th studio album. It's a gospel record called "Testimony," and it was recently nominated for two Grammy Awards.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TALKIN' 'BOUT JESUS")
GAYNOR: (Singing) I'm talkin' 'bout love, talkin' 'bout freedom, talkin' 'bout the one you can depend on when you need him.
MCCAMMON: And joining me now from the studios of WBGO in Newark, N.J., is Gloria Gaynor herself.
Thanks so much for being with us.
GAYNOR: Oh, it's my pleasure. Thank you for having me.
MCCAMMON: So first, congratulations on your Grammy nominations.
GAYNOR: Thank you.
MCCAMMON: How's it feel?
GAYNOR: Feels awesome. Yeah, it feels really great.
MCCAMMON: How did you first connect with gospel music?
GAYNOR: Oh, I've been listening to gospel music since I was a baby. My brothers all sang gospel music. They didn't sing professionally, but they all had very good voices, and they sang together at home. And most of what they played was gospel music. So I was - and my mother loved gospel music as well.
MCCAMMON: And you grew up in a house full of brothers, didn't you?
GAYNOR: Yes, I did - five.
MCCAMMON: Did they let you chime in?
GAYNOR: No, because I was a girl.
MCCAMMON: And so how'd you get interested in music for yourself?
GAYNOR: Well, I mean, I - my house, my home was always full of music. One of my brothers even liked hillbilly music. We told him we found him on the front steps. But (laughter) - but yeah. There was always - I was always surrounded by music at home. And so I just grew up with it and have always loved it.
MCCAMMON: I want to listen to another song from your new album. It's called "Amazing Grace."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMAZING GRACE")
GAYNOR: (Singing) There was a time when I was broken. Didn't know which way to turn. I was paralyzed, wondering why, hanging onto hope by a thread. My faith was failing me.
MCCAMMON: So clearly, this is inspired by the famous hymn that we've all heard. But you decided to take it a little bit of a different direction. How did you think about it?
GAYNOR: Well, I wanted to make it more autobiographical. It is a song that I've loved for many, many years and have come to love even more as years went on, and this song took on a greater meaning for me.
MCCAMMON: How so?
GAYNOR: It starts out saying, there was a time when I was broken, which is true. I was paralyzed, which is true - you know, and things like that that happened throughout the song. And certainly God's mercy and grace have shown up in my life every single time I needed it. And I wanted all of that to come out in the song.
MCCAMMON: And that is literally true, isn't it? I mean, you were temporarily paralyzed at one point after an accident. You've talked publicly about suffering sexual abuse as a child, and I believe, in 2005, going through divorce after 25 years.
MCCAMMON: How do you find resilience in these situations?
GAYNOR: Well (laughter), it's all about him. It's all about God. It's my faith in Christ and knowing that he's there for me, and he just pulls me through.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMAZING GRACE")
GAYNOR: (Singing) That's when I dropped to my knees, and I prayed, amazing grace, amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me...
MCCAMMON: I want to ask you about something you said earlier this year in an interview. You said that the Holy Spirit grabbed you by the collar in 1985. What do you mean by that?
GAYNOR: I mean exactly what I said.
MCCAMMON: What happened?
GAYNOR: Literally I felt a hand grab me on my collar. And I heard a voice say, that's enough forcefully.
MCCAMMON: What was happening in your life?
GAYNOR: I was at a party full of debauchery (laughter). And I wasn't raised that way. I wasn't - I mean, I - what I'm saying is I was raised to know that alcohol, drugs and the like are not the way. I'm not saying that anyone shouldn't have a drink or shouldn't, you know, drink. But you are not to get drunk. You are - and things were being done at that party to excess. And, you know, you're never to have drugs.
But those things were around me and I was quite honestly dabbling just enough to be accepted as one of the in crowd. I was trying to be in with the in crowd. I suffered desperately from low self-esteem, and I just felt that I needed to do these things so they could see me as one of them. And yeah. God just said to me, that's enough. That's enough. Get away from there. Move out of - move away from that. And I left that party and never looked back.
MCCAMMON: Gloria Gaynor, I can't do this interview without asking you, of course, about "I Will Survive." I mean, it's such a great song. It's been 40 years now - more than 40 years since its release. What does it mean to you today?
GAYNOR: It's the core of my purpose. It really is. I - for a long time, I felt that it was kind of a double-edged sword, maybe even a - kind of a albatross around my neck (laughter). And people weren't recognizing that I did other songs, that I had other great songs. And, you know, I just didn't really like the idea that it was the only popular song in my repertoire.
But now I've come to understand that it is the core of my purpose, and I'm very, very happy with it. It is still the song that I like to sing most in my shows - except for "Amazing Grace" now. But yeah, the song has done so much for so many people, and I am pleased and proud to have been the one to record it.
MCCAMMON: Do you ever get tired of being asked about it?
GAYNOR: No. I don't get tired of being asked about it, and I don't get tired of performing it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WILL SURVIVE")
GAYNOR: (Singing) Now go, walk out the door, just turn around now 'cause you're not welcome anymore. Weren't you the one who tried to hurt me with goodbye? Do you think I'd crumble? Do you think I'd lay down and die? Oh, no, not I. I will survive.
MCCAMMON: Speaking of "I Will Survive" and it being such an empowering song for so many people, it's been embraced by the LGBTQ community. You can hear it at pride parades. It was even featured on an episode of the popular drag queen competition show "RuPaul's Drag Race." And I'd like to ask you about something you said to the BBC in 2007. You were asked if you had religious opposition to homosexuality, and you said, I want to lead them to Christ and what he has for them. I want to lead them to him. I want to lead them to the truth.
MCCAMMON: Now, some people took this to mean you were against homosexuality and against LGBT people. Would you like to explain what you meant by it?
GAYNOR: I'm not against (laughter) - I thought it was self-explanatory, what I said. I'm not against anybody. I just am a full believer that God knows and wants only what's best for each and every one of us and is the only one that can bring it to pass if we rely on him. That is the beginning and end of my thoughts about it.
I - my fan club president is gay. My - I have several gay brothers - I mean, not brothers, but nephews. My social media person sitting here with me right now is gay. I have several gay friends. My fan club president is gay. None of them have any misgivings or any misunderstanding about how I feel about homosexuality, OK? But they also know that I will go to my grave loving them.
So none of what I feel about homosexuality or my faith in God and my absolute belief in the Bible, which I believe to be the word of God, has anything to do with my - has - none of it taints my ability to love them. And I think that is what is important.
MCCAMMON: How does your faith shape how you think about sexuality?
GAYNOR: It shapes it completely. I agree with the word of God from Genesis to Revelations, and I would advise or hope that anyone who wants to know what that is would read it for themselves.
MCCAMMON: You know, you came from disco, a genre that was known for being inclusive. And I have to ask because we're living in such a divided time right now, and with the upcoming 2020 election, it's bound to get even more divisive. Are there lessons that you think we can learn from the disco era?
GAYNOR: I think the greatest lesson we can learn from the disco era is the camaraderie that was going on then. People were coming together on the dance floor. Just dancing with one another in close proximity on the dance floor seemed to bring about a camaraderie. I mean, blacks and whites began to come together in clubs, and we just became more amenable to being together, to working together, to playing together.
And so I think that's something that happened during that era. And I've often said the one thing that I think disco music never got credit for - probably in many instances was never recognized for - is that it is the only music in the history of music ever to bring together people from every nationality, race, creed, color and age group. And I think that is what we need, we could learn from and need to hearken back to that was prevalent in the disco era.
(SOUNDBITE OF GLORIA GAYNOR'S "I AM WHAT I AM")
MCCAMMON: "Testimony" - and it's been nominated for two Grammys.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I AM WHAT I AM")
GAYNOR: (Singing) I am what I am. I don't want praise. I don't want pity. I bang my own drum. Some think it's noise, I think it's pretty. And so what if I love each sparkle and each bangle? Why not try to see things from a different angle? Your life is a sham till you can shout out, I am what I am. I am what I am, and what I am...
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