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From Disco to Gospel: ‘Gloria Gaynor: I Will Survive’

Singer’s documentary recounts life after success of song, her gospel album and going to college at 65

VIDEO: How ‘I Will Survive’ Changed Gloria Gaynor’s Life

When singer Gloria Gaynor was released from the hospital after an accident in 1978, the record company said they weren’t going to renew her contract. But a new company president wanted her to sing a song that had been popular in Europe.

“It wasn’t a song that I liked,” Gaynor, 80, says in an interview with AARP. “As a matter of fact, I pretty much hated the song, but I wanted my career to continue.”

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She asked the producers about the song on the B side of the album. She says the producers had a song they wanted her to sing that was written a couple of years earlier.

“When I read the lyrics, I’m like, what, are you stupid? You’re going to put this on the B side?”

The song, “I Will Survive,” spoke to her. Gaynor spent three months in the hospital after spinal surgery and hoped she would survive the ordeal. She hadn’t thought she would overcome and survive the death of her mother years earlier. Yet, she did. She thought others would be able to relate to the song.

“Immediately my belief that everyone that was going through anything that they thought was, could be insurmountable and yet hoped they’d survive would relate to this song,” Gaynor says. “I immediately thought the song was going to be a huge hit. A huge success.”

For Gaynor, the song “is a gift that was entrusted to me by God to share with other people, to bring hope, to bring encouragement, to uplift and empower people.”

After the song became a hit, Gaynor was in demand. She had more U.S. engagements and performances outside of the country. But there’s more to Gaynor’s story than “I Will Survive.” She recounts her life’s journey in the 2023 documentary, Gloria Gaynor: I Will Survive. The documentary, in theaters Feb. 13 only, “is really kind of the story of my life and the struggles that I’ve had and my determination to get through all of it,” she says. “To survive it all.”

In 2020, Gaynor won a Grammy Award for best roots gospel album for 2019’s Testimony. It was her second Grammy, after winning best disco recording for “I Will Survive” in 1980. The making of the gospel album is documented in the film. Gaynor wanted to create a gospel album for some time, but it wasn’t until 40 years into her career that her desire came to fruition.

Though the album was recognized by the Recording Academy, Gaynor says it hasn’t been widely played and that she can’t wait for more people to hear it.

“I’m looking forward to this happening because I want to share the music on that album, because I think that music is as uplifting, inspiring, encouraging, empowering as is ‘I Will Survive.’”

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Gaynor also recounts going to college at 65. It was something she said she didn’t have a chance to do when she was younger. Gaynor says it’s something she can share with young people: “I’m constantly telling them, ‘I did this at 65. If I could do it at 65, you surely can do it now.’”

Gaynor continues to perform, with coming private shows in Paris and Monaco and a performance at SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida.

I Will Survive” continues to be embraced by new generations who apply the anthem to their own lives. Gaynor knew that when New York audiences quickly responded to the song 45 years ago, it would be a hit.

The enthusiastic response continues.

“It has been so uplifting, empowering, encouraging and validating to me to have a song that has been passed down from generation to generation,” Gaynor says. “I call it a family heirloom that they’re passing it down. Women are telling their daughters about it, and their daughters are telling their friends about it. And they’re all latching onto it and calling it their own.”

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