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Documentary tells Gloria Gaynor's story from the top of disco to rock bottom

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

All right, go ahead, wherever you are, and sing along, because you know that you know the words.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WILL SURVIVE")

GLORIA GAYNOR: (Singing) At first I was afraid. I was petrified. Kept thinking I could never live without you by my side.

MARTÍNEZ: That, of course, is Gloria Gaynor singing her iconic song "I Will Survive." Now, while the world has been singing those painful yet redemptive lyrics for four decades, Gaynor has actually been living them.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WILL SURVIVE")

GAYNOR: (Singing) I just walked in to find you here with that sad look upon your face. I should have changed that stupid lock.

MARTÍNEZ: A new documentary, "Gloria Gaynor: I Will Survive," tells her story of going from the top of the disco world to rock bottom. But she didn't crumble. In fact, she recorded a Grammy-winning gospel album in her 70s. But first, let's go back to the '70s - 1978, in fact. That's when Gaynor recorded this song while wearing a back brace after falling during a live performance.

GAYNOR: Because I was doing this kind of tug of war thing with my two male background singers. They caught the wire, but they didn't hold it. When I pulled back, therefore, I fell backwards over the monitor. Woke up the next morning paralyzed from the waist down.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WILL SURVIVE")

GAYNOR: (Singing) I will survive. Hey, hey.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, her record label originally didn't even want "I Will Survive" to be a single. Instead, they had her record a song that was popular in the U.K. at the time called "Substitute."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUBSTITUTE")

GAYNOR: (Singing) I'll be your substitute whenever you want me.

MARTÍNEZ: That became the A-side of her single and on the other side, the one radio DJs usually ignored, yeah, "I Will Survive." Gloria Gaynor protested.

GAYNOR: When I read the lyrics, I recognized that this was a timeless - in fact, I said that this is a timeless lyric. How can you put that on the B-side? They said, well, that's the deal we made.

MARTÍNEZ: No one - why wouldn't people listen to you? I don't understand. Why didn't they listen to you?

GAYNOR: Well, because they're smarter than I am. I'm only the one who's there with the audiences every night, knowing what they want and what they need and what they like and what they don't like, you know? So why would you listen to me?

MARTÍNEZ: Right. Yeah, of course not. And then it winds up winning you your first Grammy in 1980. Your career then after that, I mean, for lack of a better word, Gloria slowed down. Why did it slow down?

GAYNOR: Well, because my management found that I was becoming popular in other countries and so started booking me in other countries and just kind of forgot about the United States. And I was a young artist. I didn't know any better. I thought he knew what was best and whatever. He, by the way, was my husband. And so I just agreed with him and went along with him. And therefore my career ended up being very, very shallow here in the United States, but huge in over 90 other countries.

MARTÍNEZ: Going back then to your husband, Linwood, he was your manager and your husband, right?

GAYNOR: Right. Exactly.

MARTÍNEZ: I saw in the film how you admitted that you allowed yourself to be controlled by him because of a fear of abandonment.

GAYNOR: Yes.

MARTÍNEZ: Did your life feel like it was out of control, like you weren't in charge of your life?

GAYNOR: Well, I mean, I knew I wasn't in charge. The sad thing is that for years, I thought that someone was in charge who really cared about me and was going to do what was best for me and knew better than me. I didn't know how to take control. I didn't think I was worthy of taking control. You have no idea - unless you've experienced a fear of abandonment, you have no idea how controlling that element can be.

MARTÍNEZ: Did it ever creep into your head that you, the singer of "I Will Survive," one of the most iconic songs about empowerment, felt powerless?

GAYNOR: You know, you don't dare think about those things. You just live it.

MARTÍNEZ: I wanted to play this clip from the film that really struck me in terms of you getting a wake-up call. Let's hear this clip from this film.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "GLORIA GAYNOR: I WILL SURVIVE")

GAYNOR: So I decided I'm going to snort some cocaine. And just at that time, I tell you, I felt a fist grab me in my chest like this and said, that's enough. I heard it as clear as I'm hearing myself speak right now. And I'm shaking. I'm going, oh, my God, oh, my God, oh, my God. And I realized at that moment that's what that was. That was God giving me - literally giving me a wake-up call.

MARTÍNEZ: So, Gloria, take us to that place where you would do something that seemingly for you was out of character, to try cocaine, and then just completely deciding, OK, this is it. What changed after that?

GAYNOR: I don't think I've ever told anybody this - in an interview, this story. Someone had given me a Bible, and the girl who gave me the Bible gave it to me because she wanted my husband to think I was a religious fanatic and he'd have more fun with her. I just threw this thing in the corner somewhere. But when I got back from that party, I went looking for it. I sat down at my dining room table with it, blew the dust off of it and just let it fall open. It was like Jesus was standing in front of me saying, I'm the one. And I was all his 100% my entire life - from that moment on, belonged to him.

MARTÍNEZ: So you divorced your husband, Linwood, in 2005, right?

GAYNOR: Yeah.

MARTÍNEZ: Financially, what kind of a position were you in?

GAYNOR: I wasn't in a great financial position at all. I had very little work. I didn't know - I had let him handle everything, so I didn't even know how to continue with my career.

MARTÍNEZ: So, Gloria, what made you want to reinvent yourself, I mean, after so many years as a singer and performer and then just recorded a gospel album, one that won a Grammy?

GAYNOR: That was something that I had wanted to do for many, many years that my ex-management kept telling me, wait till we win a Grammy, and then we'll do that. But as God would have it, I didn't win the Grammy until I did that.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, the gospel album - this was 2019 - it's called "Testimony," and it has collaborations with artists such as Jason Crabb, Bart Millard and this song with Yolanda Adams. It's called "Talkin' 'Bout Jesus." Let's hear that song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TALKIN' 'BOUT JESUS")

GLORIA GAYNOR AND YOLANDA ADAMS: (Singing) 'Cause I know somebody who came to save your life. And without his hand leading every step of the way (GG), you won't survive. I'm talking about love, talking about freedom.

MARTÍNEZ: When you won that Grammy, how did that feel like? I mean, this is, like...

GAYNOR: Oh, my God, yes. Like...

MARTÍNEZ: ...Your life's work, right? Yeah.

GAYNOR: Yes. I mean, you know, like, yes. It was awesome.

MARTÍNEZ: You could have taken a picture with that Grammy and sent it to all the record executives that said, no, that we - that would have been the coolest thing if you'd have done that.

GAYNOR: You don't need revenge when you have victory.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TALKIN' 'BOUT JESUS")

GAYNOR AND ADAMS: (Singing) I'm talking about Jesus. Well, I don't know what you're talking about, but I'm talking about Jesus.

MARTÍNEZ: That is two-time Grammy Award winner Gloria Gaynor, the subject of the documentary film "I Will Survive." That's coming to theaters for one night only on February 13. Gloria, thank you so much.

GAYNOR: Thank you. It's been a pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TALKIN' 'BOUT JESUS")

UNIDENTIFIED CHORUS: (Singing) J-E-S-U-S.

GAYNOR: (Singing) Talking about...

UNIDENTIFIED CHORUS: (Singing) J-E-S-U-S. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Phil Harrell
Devan Schwartz
Devan Schwartz is an editor for NPR's Morning Edition. He is an experienced audio professional who, in addition to his work with NPR, has worked with such organizations as BBC, Slate, the New York Times, and various public radio stations.
A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
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