Gloria Gaynor’s legendary career spans more than 50 years with hit songs in all five decades, including Never Can Say Goodbye, I Will Survive and I Am What I Am. The pop icon will sing her global anthems when she returns to Montreal with her 10-piece band to co-headline the Strangers in the Night benefit gala on August 26.
The New Jersey native, First Lady of Disco and two-time Grammy Award winner received the first and only Grammy for Best Disco Recording in 1980, then won her second Grammy 40 years later, in the Best Roots Gospel Album category, for her critically-hailed album Testimony.
But Gaynor’s road to stardom was never easy. The acclaimed documentary Gloria Gaynor: I Will Survive which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in June 2023 chronicles the tough journey of the indomitable Gaynor who – despite incredible hardship – wielded her musical talent to change the course of her life.
Gaynor has overcome illness, paralysis, her sister’s murder, a 25-year traumatic marriage (and divorce) and a cleaned-out bank account. Facing ageism in the music industry – “I ignore it and just do my thing” – she invested her own resources to self-produce her Grammy-winning album Testimony.
Still a force of nature at age 79, Ms. Gaynor recently sat down for a candid Q&A to preview her show at the Strangers in the Night benefit gala in Montreal on August 26.
First of all, congratulations Ms. Gaynor on the great reception at the Tribeca Film Festival for your documentary Gloria Gaynor: I Will Survive. What has it been like for you to see this film get so much acclaim and take on a life of its own?
Gloria Gaynor : It has been wonderful and affirming. It makes me feel like I’m heading in the right direction.
The film shares themes of owning who you are and love, perseverance and inclusivity, and breaking down barriers.
Gloria Gaynor : The underlying message is one of faith. It takes hard work and perseverance. If you have all of that, you not only survive, but you’ll thrive.
After you fell onstage at New York’s Beacon Theatre in 1978, you woke up paralyzed from the waist down. Determined to make a comeback, you recorded I Will Survive while wearing a back brace.
Gloria Gaynor : I went to California to record another song and for the B side the producers presented me with I Will Survive which they had written a couple of years prior. They thought I was the one they had been waiting for to record this song because I was relating to those lyrics that matched my physical condition at the time. I also figured anybody going through difficulties in their own lives would also relate to those lyrics.
Forty years after your traumatic fall at the Beacon Theatre, you underwent extensive spinal realignment surgery in 2018. During those decades, how did you live and perform in chronic pain?
Gloria Gaynor : Well, I wasn’t always in pain. I’ve gone onstage with a doctor standing in the wings, but the love of the audience and the exhilaration of performing just keeps you going. Then I’d come offstage and crumble. But I exercised to keep the muscles surrounding the weak parts of my body as strong as I could. I did Pilates, a lot of walking, and I still try to keep my weight down, eat right and get plenty of rest.
You won the only disco Grammy ever for I Will Survive. What does that first Grammy win symbolize for you?
Gloria Gaynor : Triumph and validation.
In Montreal in the 1970s there was a very famous disco called The Lime Light where you performed. The house DJ there from 1973 to 1981 was the legendary Godfather of Montreal Disco, Robert Ouimet. He told me that one night after a David Bowie concert at the Montreal Forum, he brought Bowie and Iggy Pop back to The Lime Light to see you perform at the club. I was wondering if you remember anything from that night?
Gloria Gaynor : I absolutely remember that, I’ve told that story many times. I didn’t know they were there until afterwards! I was honoured they came to watch me perform.
I first saw you perform on a double bill with the Village People at the Montreal Forum in 1979. Forty-five years later, why is disco still important?
Gloria Gaynor : People tried to kill disco music. They did some damage but they certainly didn’t kill it. I always say disco is alive and well and living in the hearts of music lovers around the world. I’m pretty sure the reason for disco’s sustained popularity is that it’s the only music in history to bring together people from every race, creed, colour, nationality and age group.
You are also a gay icon, adored by the LGBTQ community where I Will Survive became a part of the soundtrack of gay liberation, as has your recording of I Am What I Am. How does that make you feel?
Gloria Gaynor : It makes me feel great! It makes me feel the same as with all of my family and I appreciate them as people who find my music uplifting, encouraging and enjoyable, and they appreciate me as an artist who makes music they can relate to and enjoy. It’s a love affair that I also have with all of my other fans.
You won a second Grammy in 2020 for your album Testimony. How was that different than winning your first Grammy?
Gloria Gaynor : My first Grammy was for a song that was given to me to record, but the second was for an album that was my idea, that I had wanted to do for years. It was further validation from my fans and from people in the industry.
How do you feel when people call you a living legend? Because you are, Ms. Gaynor!
Gloria Gaynor : I tell them, “Are you talking to me?” Because I’m not dead yet! I think a legend as being someone who’s gone on. But I know what they mean by it and it’s quite an honour. I am thankful I’m still alive and still performing!
INFOS | Gloria Gaynor and Kool & The Gang co-headline the 19th annual Strangers in the Night gourmet charity gala on August 26, benefitting The West Island Women’s Shelter, The West Island Black Community Association and Shriners Hospitals for Children.