(March 13, 2019). As far as songs go, if ever there was a gift that keeps on giving, it would be the iconic No. 1 smash that topped the Billboard Hot 100 chart exactly 40 years ago this week in 1979.
With an anthem that the singer hasn’t stopped singing since and a message that all people can relate to about getting crushed in a relationship and overcoming the odds to put the pieces back together, Gloria Gaynor’s disco smash “I Will Survive,” did just that by topping the chart in March 1979 and completing a 3-month climb that, given the circumstances, wasn’t actually supposed to happen.
With lyrics and music created two years earlier by Dino Fekaris and Freddie Perren, respectively, “I Will Survive” easily could have been a statement about the song’s own fate as it was NOT initially planned as the A-side of Gaynor’s latest single in October 1978.
Instead, the triumphant tune, a relatively sparsely produced disco number set to a 4/4 beat at 117 bpm, was originally released by Polydor Records as the B-side to “Substitute,” another disco song the label intended to spark Gaynor’s comeback (and salvage her recording contract) after three years of relative dormancy on the pop scene.
(For those folks out there who aren’t familiar with the 20th-century lingo, “B-side” refers to the second side of a vinyl 7-inch single record. The flip side, the A-side, is the one intended by the company or the artist to be the hit.)
Gaynor, the first queen of disco, had hit big in early 1975 with her dance remake of the 1971 Jackson 5 (and Isaac Hayes remade) ballad “Never Can Say Goodbye,” just as disco was beginning to emerge. But her star faded somewhat as another disco queen, Donna Summer, took the genre and the world by storm from 1976-78 with hits like “Love To Love You Baby,” “I Feel Love,” “Last Dance” and “MacArthur Park.”
By the time Gaynor and her second label Polydor Records released “Substitute” in late 1978, disco had exploded internationally thanks to big movies like “Saturday Night Fever” and “Thank God It’s Friday.” The genre’s main ambassadors by this time, the Bee Gees and Donna Summer, were now household names enjoying mega crossover success in multiple formats, while Gaynor hadn’t hit the pop chart since “How High The Moon” dimmed out at No. 75 three years earlier.
Not surprisingly, “Substitute” showed no promise, getting off to a slow start in a somewhat crowded disco market and failing to even make the Hot 100.
Then a Boston radio station DJ named Jack King flipped the record over – reportedly after Gloria’s lobbying – and began playing the B-side, which created a massive response and prompted the label to repackage the single with “Survive” as the A-side…
And the rest – as they say – was history.
On the chart dated March 10, 1979, “I Will Survive” became the third disco song in a row to reach No. 1 on the pop chart in a year that would see its first half dominated by disco.
The song Gaynor displaced? It was Rod Stewart’s “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy,” the British rock star’s vivid tale of a budding love encounter.
Conversely, “I Will Survive” was about love ending, and it was the first of a trio of No. 1 pop songs that gave very different takes on the aftermath of failed relationships.
After its first stint at the top, “I Will Survive” was knocked out of No. 1 by the Bee Gees’ “Tragedy.” Both songs spoke of the dejection that often accompanies a broken heart at the end of a relationship, except whereas “Tragedy” dealt with the feeling of “going nowhere” after a lost love, “I Will Survive” was all about coping and finding the strength to move on.
Gaynor’s message won out in the end, as it returned to No. 1 for another week, before relinquishing the throne to a third failed relationship tune. This time it was the Doobie Brothers’ “What A Fool Believes,” a song about one person in the relationship – a male in this case – foolishly believing there’s still something there and refusing to let go of the past, offering yet another antithesis to Gaynor’s bootstraps-pulling anthem.
When all was said and done, “I Will Survive” spent three weeks at No. 1, 13 weeks in the top ten and 27 weeks on the Hot 100, while selling more than three million copies in the U.S. alone and earning platinum certification status.
Unfortunately, however, Gaynor’s chart comeback was short-lived.
The followup single, “Anybody Wanna Party?,” didn’t come close to the success of “Survive,” failing to even crack the Hot 100 just as the “Disco Sucks” backlash was kicking into high gear.
By the end of 1979, disco had worn out much of its welcome with pop radio, and Gaynor was one of the many casualties. She’d never reach the top 40 again after “Survive,” which ranked as the 6th-biggest Hot 100 single of the year and left its mark as one of disco’s last true anthems.
In 1980, “Survive” took home the Grammy for Best Disco Recording in the only year the award was given, as disco’s days and the days of Gloria’s hit-making career were both numbered.
But true to the song’s title, “I Will Survive” has had a life of its own since that initial success and has indeed survived.
Gaynor recorded a Spanish version of the song, called “Yo Viviré,” in 1979. In 1993, remixes or both the Spanish and English versions were released with the English version re-charting at No. 5 on the UK Singles list.
Many other artists have also covered the song in various formats, including a country version (Billie Jo Spears), a soul version (Chantay Savage, retitled “I Will Survive (Doin’ It My Way)”), and a rock version (Cake).
Even legendary pop/soul divas Diana Ross, Gladys Knight and the late Aretha Franklin all took their turns recording the tune, though none were as successful as Gaynor’s original.
That original has since appeared on several all-time best song lists, including VH1’s list of 100 Greatest Dance Songs (No. 1) and Rolling Stone Magazine’s Best Disco Songs of All Time (No. 2), as well as No. 492 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
In 2016, the Library Of Congress recognized “I Will Survive” for being “culturally, historically, or artistically significant” by preserving it in the National Recording Registry.
The song’s significance has also expanded beyond its original spurned-lover theme and into more cultural ones.
In addition to being a long-standing symbol of female empowerment, it became a gay anthem, particularly in the wake of the AIDS epidemic in the years following the song’s release.
It’s taken on even more victim empowerment significance during the #MeToo movement of the past few years.
But perhaps most interestingly, Gloria Gaynor, who has no songwriting credits for “Survive,” has parlayed its beloved status into a proverbial “golden egg” for herself. She’s recorded multiple versions of it, written books incorporating its theme, and continues to sing the song around the world…wherever she appears.
In 2013, for example, Gaynor recorded a gospel album We Will Survive, which contained a re-recording of “I Will Survive,” along with a couple of remixes.
In the wake of Hurricane Harvey in 2017, Gaynor rewrote the lyrics to create a YouTube video titled “Texas Will Survive” in support of her “neighbors in Texas” who were devastated by the storm. Here’s a sample of that song’s lyric: “At first we were afraid, we were petrified…kept thinking Texas couldn’t live in flood waters this high…”
She’s even created a website called IWillSurvive.org, an online community and charity fundraising site where people can share their own stories of survival.
And finally, she’s written several books focused on survival themes including “I Will Survive: The Book,” “Soul Survivor” and “We Will Survive: True Stories of Encouragement And The Power Of Song.”
One song that has proven powerful is the one that inspired all of this.
Since its initial release, ”I Will Survive” has sold 14 million copies – more than any other disco record ever and one of the biggest-selling singles of all time in any genre.
Not bad for a disco song about a spurned boyfriend, a song that – if label execs had their way – should never have been a hit in the first place.
But then, after all these years, I think we can all agree that this classic has taken on a far greater significance than just that of a jilted ex-lover’s lament.
Indeed, “I Will Survive” means so much more to so many people who’ve faced long odds, but have somehow found the strength to pull through.
So congratulations to Gloria Gaynor and “I Will Survive” on their 40th anniversary of reaching No. 1 and, more importantly, on 40 years of the song’s unwavering popularity and its continued presence in worldwide popular culture.
DJRob is a freelance blogger who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff! You can follow him on Twitter @djrobblog.