At first she was afraid — even petrified — after she fell onstage in 1978. “I woke up the next morning paralyzed from the waist down and was in the hospital for four months,” Gloria Gaynor shares exclusively with Closer Weekly in the magazine’s latest issue, on newsstands now.
But after doctors removed a ruptured disc and fused two vertebrae in her lower spine, the powerhouse disco singer made a miraculous recovery, “and just a few months after that, I recorded ‘I Will Survive!’” That 1978 hit earned her a Grammy and cemented Gloria’s status as the Queen of Disco. Her life since then hasn’t been without its trials, including the 1995 murder of her stepsister Irma Proctor, the breakup of her longtime marriage to manager Linwood Simon and more risky spinal surgeries which finally ended her chronic pain. “I’m saying to people, ‘I’ve been telling you for 40 years I will survive —now it’s time to tell you how!’” says Gloria, who’s spreading her message with a new gospel album, Testimony, a reflection of the faith that’s helped her persevere. And at age 75, she has no plans to retire. Says Gloria, “I’m just getting started!”
You’ve been religious for decades. Why did you decide to do a gospel album now?
I’ve wanted to do one for many years, but I had management who kept putting it off, feeling that it wasn’t going to have the financial success of my other works.
How do you feel now that you’ve done it?
It’s just a really fun time in my life. Very rewarding, like my dreams have come to fruition.
Any moment that set you on your path?
I know exactly when I wanted to be a singer. I was standing in my hallway singing “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” by Frankie Lymon, and an adult neighbor said, “Oh my, I thought that was the radio!” I thought, Oh my God, I can do this!
Looking back, what songs are the most meaningful to you?
“Never Can Say Goodbye,” because it was my first real hit, and it’s known as being the first disco record ever to be played on AM radio, which I feel opened the door for other disco artists. And the songs on Testimony are the fruition of all the work I’ve done in my life.
How did “I Will Survive” happen?
The record company president chose “Substitute” for me to sing, because he was newly placed here from England where he’d had a hit with it. The producer [Dino Fekaris] told me [he and his cowriter Freddie Perren] made a deal that they’d record it if they could write a B-side. I asked what it was going to be and he said, “What kind of songs do you like?” I said, “I like songs that are meaningful, that touch people’s hearts, that have good melodies.” They said, “We think you’re the one we’ve been waiting for to record this song that we wrote a couple years ago.” They didn’t have it with them, so they actually wrote it on a bag!
Wow. What was your first reaction?
It was like, “Are you stupid? You’re going to put this on the B-side?” They said, “That’s the deal that we made.” I said, “Listen, I love the song, I want to record it, but if I have anything to do with it, it’s not going to stay on the B-side.” So it didn’t!
Why did you connect with it so strongly?
The song is about unrequited love, but I was relating it to my back injury and the fact that I was standing there recording it in a brace! [Laughs] I thought everybody can relate to these words “I will survive,” whatever it is they’re going through. So I believed it was going to be a huge hit if it ever got the chance, and less than a year later, I was proven right!
You and Donna Summer were called the Queen of Disco at different times…
[Donna Summer] one of the few artists who made me cry when I heard that she passed away. I didn’t know her well, but once we were on the same flight coming from Germany and talked the entire time. I’m sure the other passengers wanted to throw us off the plane, ’cause we never shut up! [Laughs] We were across the aisle from each other, so you have to talk a little bit louder. It was so nice to spend that time with her, and it was such a terrible loss.
When people said disco was dead in the early ’80s, how did you react?
I’m a practical person, so I believed that it was an economic decision made by someone whose financial bottom line was being negatively affected by disco music. When they came up with this idea to burn records, I thought, “Explain why you had disco to burn in the first place?”
Were you afraid when Top 40 changed?
I just left the country and went to where disco music was still appreciated, and starting traveling to the 90 countries that I’ve been to since then. [Laughs]
What led you to turn to God?
In 1982, my husband and I were partying all the time. I was very insecure, trying to be in the “in crowd,” and he was the life of the party. We threw a get-together in a hotel suite, and in the middle of it, I felt like I was going to collapse. I felt the Holy Spirit grab me by the collar and say, “That’s enough.”
Any reason you never had kids?
I did want children. As a matter of fact, out of seven siblings, I was the only one that did and the only one who doesn’t have any, so that’s probably why my nieces and my nephews, a couple of them, are so close.
Ever considered adopting?
Well, my husband didn’t want children, period, so that wasn’t going to happen.
Would you ever marry again?
I’ve thought about it, but as I said to my friend the other day, one less bell to answer and one less egg to fry don’t sound like no sad time to me. [Laughs] I am happily single.
What’s your biggest life lesson?
Mine’s been kind of immortalized recently. There are photos in Newark Airport with people’s sayings, and mine says that the most important thing that you can do in life is to seek truth and surrender to it.
That’s great! Any advice on being happy?
You have to know who you are, learn what your purpose is, do the best you can to accomplish it and be at peace with yourself and happy with yourself before you can be happy with anybody else.
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