Magazine Features

You Will Survive

Gloria Gaynor shares her story

“Her name would come up among those listed who gave regularly to The Salvation Army,” said Burt Mason of the Greater New York Division. “Then one day, someone asked, ‘Do you think that’s Gloria Gaynor—the singer?’ Indeed, she was. We were surprised to learn that she had been a donor for years!”

Gloria Gaynor’s unsolicited support of The Salvation Army is indicative of a sincere desire to express her heartfelt love for the global organization and for the people who it serves. Her signature song, “I Will Survive,” became an anthem for women in the 1980s and was awarded the first and only Grammy Award for Best Disco Recording. Today, Gaynor sees parallels between that song’s worldwide appeal and the Army’s legacy of bringing diverse people together.

“When I think about The Salvation Army, I think it has something in common with disco music in that it is the only music in the history of music to bring together people from every race, creed, color, nationality, and age group.

“The reason for that is because disco music helps people release all the tension and concerns and worries of the day. Everybody. No matter where you come from, who you are, what you do, you need to do that. You need that release. You need something to draw you into peace.”

On November 22, the iconic singer drew her audience into that peace while in concert for the Salvation Army’s Greater New York Division’s 72nd Annual Gala at the historic Centennial Memorial Temple on 14th Street in Manhattan. She also shared her personal testimony of survival.

House of music

“I’m from Newark, N.J., so I’m not far from home,” she said while standing in her palatial mansion near Princeton. As her beautiful voice rises into a circular, sunlit foyer, its acoustics amplifies and echoes the richness of that voice. “Even though I am not far from home now, I did live in New York for a minute—for about four years; two in Manhattan and two in Queens.”

Born Gloria Fowles in 1943, she was the daughter of a seamstress and a father who sang professionally. Although the family was poor financially, Gloria and her seven siblings grew up in a house rich with music. Photography and sewing were her hobbies.

Gloria’s dad was away most of her childhood, but her mom also had a lovely singing voice, as did her brothers. After her mom’s throat surgery robbed her of her voice, Gloria began to sing even more. At age 13, her voice sounded as if she was already an accomplished recording artist.

In pursuit of her dream, Gloria soon learned that sounding as if she was on radio was a far cry from actually being on it. But in 1975 her first real success came with the release of “Never Can Say Goodbye,” an album of three songs, which established her as a disco artist. That lead song became the first to top Billboard magazine’s dance chart.

She released her second album, “Experience Gloria Gaynor,” later that year.

In 1978, Gaynor released her most successful album of all. “Love Tracks” featured her biggest hit, “I Will Survive.” One year later, it reached number one on the pop charts and was forever embraced by generations of Americans as their personal anthem of victory over hardship.

By faith

Gaynor’s performance came from deep within her soul, a place most people rarely reach in life. Only a few months before she recorded “I Will Survive,” tragedy struck. “One of the most difficult things that I’ve had to go through in my life was when I was performing at the Beacon Theater in New York. I fell backwards over a monitor on the stage,” she remembers. “I jumped back up; I finished my show. Afterwards, I went out to breakfast, went home, and went to bed. The next morning when I woke up, I was paralyzed from the waist down.

“I ended up in a hospital with surgery on my spine. I was there from the 13th of March until the 4th of July. Back then, the care for back injuries was not very sophisticated and they didn’t really know what to do with me. By the time I went home, I’d lost everything. That was a difficult time for me.”

Doctors told Gaynor that she might be paralyzed for life. Her record company told her that they would terminate her contract. “I turned to God and I said to Him, ‘You know, You gotta’ help me. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t have a job. I don’t know what to do!I don’t want to go back to working in an office. I don’t even know if I can do that after spine surgery. Can I even sit long enough to maintain a job in an office? What are You going to do?’

“What brought me through that was my faith. I turned to God; you know. We can always turn to God when we get in trouble. I did that. When I left the hospital, I was certain that God was going to do something.”

Indeed, Gaynor defied the odds. While wearing a back brace that extended from under her arms to her hips, she flew to Los Angeles, Calif., and recorded the song that would go on to become an anthem for survivors everywhere. It was the performance of her life.

Other trials and tribulations followed, but God’s presence remained constant. Paradoxically, even as her popularity soared on the strength of “I Will Survive,” spousal problems and domestic discord loomed over her life.

Born again

In the early 1980s, Gaynor turned from the nightlife to become a born–again Christian. In the fall of 1995, another devastating ordeal tested her faith. Irma, Gaynor’s sister and the mother of three, was beaten to death by a suspected drug dealer after trying to break up a fight on a Newark street.

Through these life challenges and tragedies Gloria has relied on the timeless song that she recorded while recovering from her spinal injury and on her faith in God to persevere. “‘I Will Survive’ is a timeless lyric,” Gaynor said. “This is something anybody and everybody can and will relate to, if they hear it. No matter what somebody is going through, those words are going to give them hope and inspiration. The rest is history, but all of this boils down to my faith in God; trusting Him and waiting on Him.”

A teacher

Gaynor’s new roots gospel album, “Testimony,” was released earlier this year and received praise from critics and fans alike. The album debuted in the top five on the Billboard Magazine Top Gospel Albums Chart and it was featured in Rolling Stone, TIME magazine, Billboard Magazine and more. “Testimony, is a joyous and revelatory collection of soulful and inspirational tunes recorded at Nashville’s RCA Studio A,” wrote Rolling Stone magazine. “Testimony,” also debuted in the top three on the iTunes Christian & Gospel Albums Chart. When talking about the new album Gaynor notes, “The greatest blessing has been the messages that I receive from fans all around the world on social media letting me know how much the lyrics of the new songs mean to them and how the new album has had an impact on their lives.”

Responding to the joy that she feels in connecting with fans through these new songs, Gloria adds, “I decided to share my testimony with this gospel album because I believe that I was born to be a teacher. Although I’m not teaching in a brick–and–mortar school or in a classroom, I believe that the Bible is meant to teach the love and knowledge and mercy and grace of God.

“I think that gospel music should do the same thing. So, all of that brings together several of my purposes; certainly, several of my gifts. My purpose with this album is to share my testimony in an effort to show, through my experiences, the love, the knowledge, the mercy, the grace, and the goodness of God.

“If you know anything about the Bible, you know that music is important to God. Armies in the Bible sent the musicians and the singers ahead of them; the angels also sing in heaven.

“I feel privileged and honored to have been given this gift to bring forth music with my voice. I have a strong faith in God, and that faith plays a strong role in my life in that it permeates every area of my life.”

“What The Salvation Army does and why it does it, is so important. I think it is a wonderful organization because it services people from every walk of life; from every nationality, race, creed, color, and age group. The Army provides them with the things that they need when they need them and as they need them—with no strings attached.

Giving back

“In 2017 Hurricane Harvey hit Texas. I read the reports and saw the pictures. My heart went out to them. I just thought I had to do something. So, I had T–shirts made up that read, ‘Texas Will Survive’ with the map of Texas. My team and I printed up a couple thousand of these T–shirts and I sold them on my website with 100 percent of the proceeds going to the Salvation Army’s relief efforts for the hurricane victims. Later that same month we flew to Houston with an additional 2,000 of the ‘Texas Will Survive,’ shirts. We visited several shelters there, talked to the people, and gave out the shirts to give them hope. You know, recovery was going to take a little time, but it was going to be all right,” Gloria recalls.

When asked about selling the “Texas Will Survive,” T–shirts and giving 100 percent of the proceeds to The Salvation Army, Gloria adds, “It was just my way of giving back. I was just thinking about helping people who were in need. I love the fact that this is what The Salvation Army does. I’m glad to be a part of it. There is nothing stronger than the tenacity of the human spirit. Accept God, call on Him, and —You will survive.”

by Warren L. Maye