We celebrate the 40th anniversary of Grammy winning single “I Will Survive” and discuss “Back on Top,” a song that Gloria Gaynor feels is its sequel from her new CD Testimony, Grammy nominated in the Best Roots Gospel Album category.
By Warren Kurtz
GM:Congratulations on the Grammy nomination for Testimony. It opens with a personal and powerful version of “Amazing Grace,” where you immediately sing about a time when you were broken and paralyzed.
GG: I had this skit in my concerts where I would take the microphone, whip the cord across the stage and the two male background singers were supposed to grab it and we would do a tug of war. This time, in 1978, they didn’t hold the cord, so when I pulled on it and there was no tension, I fell backward over the monitor, but I jumped back up and finished my show. I went out to breakfast after the show. Then I went home and went to bed, and woke up the next morning paralyzed from the waist down. Once I got to the hospital, they did some injections and that helped to release the paralysis but I was bedridden for a month. I was in the hospital from mid-March until the 4th of July. I recorded “I Will Survive” in a back brace, giving it extra meaning.
GM:I am happy that you survived. I was working at Peaches Records and Tapes in Cleveland at the time and we would play Side 2 of your Love Tracks album beginning with that eight minute version of “I Will Survive,” which I just played for my daughter Brianna at Thanksgiving, and she enjoyed the brass parts. I recently played her songs from Testimony in my car, driving around central Florida to a concert, and we both love “Back on Top.” It is an edgy, fight song, reminding me of the Rocky film series that my wife Donna and I have watched with each release.
GG: I guess we had some fight in us at the studio in Nashville. “Back on Top” is kind of a sequel to “I Will Survive,” very autobiographical, as you know, about overcoming all these different difficulties in my life. I have not only survived, but I am thriving.
GM:Brianna, who went to college in Nashville, and I then enjoyed the next song, “He Won’t Let You Go,” with its Stax, Staple Singers soul sound. You are joined by Bart Millard from the group MercyMe.
GG: The funny thing is that I have four duets on that album. Bart Millard and Jason Crabb both wrote songs with me but neither of them sang the song that they co-wrote. They wanted to sing other songs for the album.
GM:Bergen White’s brass arrangments on that song and others are so powerful.
GG: We had stellar musicians on this album because we were able to choose the best of the best.
GM:On “Only You Can Do,” there is a steady piano opening that I just love.
GG: That was Chris Stevens who co-produced the album and co-wrote over half of the songs with me, including that one.
GM:There is a Jackie Wilson song called “Whispers (Getting’ Louder),” that I learned from my DJ friend Sandi Conner on her beach music radio show, where he sings, “The whispers gettin’ louder, calling your name.” Then there is a rest and he sings the name or nickname “Peaches.” It is subtle. I think of that when I hear you sing, “Only you can do” followed by a rest and then “Jesus.” It is so tasteful.
GG: I love Jackie Wilson. He was such a great singer.
GM:You are with Yolanda Adams on “Talkin’ ‘bout Jesus” and between the two of you there is this Gladys Knight-like power. No wonder you have received a Grammy nomination for Best Gospel Performance/Song for this track. Congratulations.
GG: Thank you. Yolanda is definitely a powerhouse. She brought the thunder to that song. I had recorded it alone. I had wanted her from the beginning but we couldn’t get our schedules to coincide until one day after the song was already recorded. So we scrapped my original vocal track and I rerecorded it with Yolanda in New York while Chris remotely produced it from Nashville. Being in the studio with her was great.
GM:On “Singin’ Over Me,” Jason Crabb reminds me of Sam Moore of Sam & Dave.
GG: Yes, you are right. He is another powerhouse. He sings with so much soul.
GM:It is a wonderful album and I must say that the cover photograph for Testimony is absolutely stunning. It is beautiful.
GG: Ah. Thank you. Thank you so much. It is amazing how that photo came about. I had a car accident in New York. Somebody rear ended me and totaled my car. Thank God this man came to help, because I had come around a corner to get out of traffic and not get hit again. I never saw the driver or his car, but this man came over to my car. He stopped his car behind me and told me that the other car was back there. He helped me call the ambulance. I got into the ambulance and one of the attendants, with the paramedics, told me that he was a photographer. My manager had come to meet with me out there and they got to talking and we kept in touch with him and he is the one who took that photo. His name is Alex Arroyo.
GM:Now, let’s take a look back forty years. “Substitute,” which became the flip side of “I Will Survive,” I know was intended as the A side, is so catchy, reminding me of hits by The Honey Cone who sang “Want Ads” and other hit songs in the early 1970s.
GG: What amazes me about that song is how opposite it is lyrically to “I Will Survive.” This girl is offering herself as a doormat on “Substitute” and on the other side you have a girl saying that she is tired of being a doormat on the empowering “I Will Survive.”
Flip side: Substitute
A side: I Will Survive
Top 40 debut: January 20, 1979
Peak Position No. 1
GM:Also on your Love Tracks album is such a beautiful song called “Please, Be There.” I wish that would have been released as a single for us to hear a lot on the radio.
GG: If you go through my albums, you will find lots of songs that I wish would have been released as singles. There were so many great songs through the years that never got a chance because the record company just refused to promote more than one single per album.
GM:Along that line, “Say Somethin’,” that you co-wrote on the next album, I Have a Right, is another personal favorite of mine. It is such a beautiful song with a great bridge, falling somewhere between Motown and what would we would later see from Whitney Houston.
GG: A lot of my fans have the same frustration, buying the albums, wondering when will these songs be released as singles on the radio, and never were.
GM:Fortunately we have the albums and on this one, there is trumpeter Doc Severinsen, a family hero. Brianna plays trumpet and we have a photo of her with Doc.
GG: What a pearl! It is so nice that she got to meet him too.
GM:You do a couple of songs with him, the single “Let Me Know (I Have a Right)” and one that should have been a disco hit in 1979, your version of “Tonight” from West Side Story. You and Doc bring incredible excitement to this classic.
GG: I tried to get them to release our version of this Broadway song as a single.
GM:Speaking of Broadway, you performed in a show that Donna, Brianna and I have seen a couple of times, Lieber and Stoller’s Smokey Joe’s Café.
GG: Yes. I did a couple of weeks of that show. It was fun. We had a wonderful time. The cast was wonderful. I enjoyed working with that great cast. I only wish that I had a video of it. Now I am promoting the new album, Testimony, all over the world. People are saying that not only do they like the music but they feel encouraged listening to the songs and feel uplifted and empowered. Of course, this is my purpose, to live life with integrity and enrichment. I will be part of a carols by candlelight concert on December 7, which Goldmine readers can check out on my website and along with information on how to get the new album, and then listen to it, let it warm your heart, build you up, encourage and empower you, and we’ll all be blessed. Thank you. God bless.
Photo by Albert Sanchez, courtesy of Reybee
Warren Kurtz is a Contributing Editor at Goldmine, writing the In Memoriam and Fabulous Flip Sides series. “Warren’s Fabulous Flip Sides” can be heard most Saturday mornings, in the 9 a.m. hour, Eastern time, as part of “Moments to Remember” at wvcr.com or iHeart Radio – search WVCR.