‘I Will Survive’: The Story Behind Gloria Gaynor’s Beacon Of Empowerment

The Perren & Fekaris composition became not just Gloria’s signature tune, but one of the most anthemic songs in pop history.

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Gloria Gaynor 'I Will Survive' artwork - Courtesy: UMG
Gloria Gaynor 'I Will Survive' artwork - Courtesy: UMG

Gloria Gaynor had some memorable moments in the 1970s, notably her 1974 smash hit version of the Jackson 5’s “Never Can Say Goodbye.” But as 1978 came to an end, she charted in America with the track that would go on to be not just her signature tune, but one of the most anthemic and inspiring recordings in all of pop, “I Will Survive.”

Written by Freddie Perren and Dino Fekaris, the song has become a symbol of female empowerment, and a beacon of hope and positivity among the LGBT community. “I’ve got all my life to live, and I’ve got all my love to give,” sings Gloria, “and I’ll survive.” It’s a statement of personal confidence and determination that has brought encouragement and belief to the marginalized and oppressed, be it politically, sexually, mentally, or physically, from one generation to the next.

All of which is the more remarkable because Gaynor’s version was originally a B-side. The first single from her Love Tracks album was “Substitute,” a version of a song previously recorded by the Righteous Brothers. “I Will Survive” was tucked away as the flip side, but soon started to win support from radio stations and in discos.

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The lyric was also one that Gaynor identified with. The momentum of her career in the earlier 1970s, not just with “Never Can Say Goodbye” but such covers as “Reach Out I’ll Be There” and “Walk On By,” had slowed. To make matters worse, she was hospitalized with spinal injuries after a fall at a concert in Europe. When Gloria got out of the hospital and started recording again, “I Will Survive” was a song with personal relevance, and the sentiment came true.

‘God had given them that song’

Referring to songwriters Perren and Fekaris, Gaynor told NPR: “They said, ‘We think you’re the one that we’ve been waiting for to record this song that we wrote a couple of years ago.’ When I read the lyrics, I realized the reason they’d been waiting for me to record that song was that God had given that song to them for them to set aside, waiting for him to get everything in order for me to meet up with them. And that song was ‘I Will Survive.’’’

Listen to the 70s playlist for more classic songs from the decade.

The early radio support for the track was enough to take it into the Billboard Hot 100 for December 16, 1978 at a modest No.87. But the record gathered momentum over the Christmas and new year period, hitting the Top 10 in early February. Before that month was out, it was already a million-seller, and on March 10, the single unseated Rod Stewart’s “Do You Think I’m Sexy” to spend two weeks at No.1.

On the second of those, “I Will Survive” went to the top of the British chart, stayed there for four weeks, and became the hit of Gloria Gaynor’s life. Countless versions over the years have embraced every style from country (Billie Jo Spears) to easy listening (Johnny Mathis) to alternative (R.E.M., Cake) to diva-esque soul (Diana Ross, Aretha Franklin). It’s an anthem that has done far more than just survive.

Buy or stream “I Will Survive” on Gloria Gaynor’s Love Tracks album.

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