Throughout Gloria Gaynor's illustrious career she has traversed the globe countless times, bringing music and message to international and domestic audiences. Yet the acclaimed entertainer and disco-era icon, who made an indelible mark with her anthem "I Will Survive," always finds solace in returning to her native New Jersey. And for 20 years she called Bergen County home, residing for two decades high atop Cliffside Park's view of the New York City skyline.
In the Beginning
Born in Newark's Third Ward in 1949, Gaynor and her six siblings were raised by their single mother, whom she describes as "a no-nonsense, take-no-crap-from-anyone kind of person." An honors student, Gaynor was a member of her school choir, mixed chorus and glee club, although, she muses, no one in the family paid much attention to her singing at that time.
Soon after her high school graduation, Gaynor accompanied her brother, Arthur, to a local nightclub. The band leader noticed Gaynor singing along with the music and persuaded her to go onstage to sing with the band, the Soul Satisfiers. That night fortuitously brought forth the beginning of her career, as she went on to sing with the Soul Satisfiers for the ensuing year.
Her first "big break" arrived when Johnny Nash heard her perform and asked her to sing on a record he was producing. A modest hit, that recording secured a broader audience for Gaynor, who was subsequently signed by legendary music producer Clive Davis to the Columbia record label in 1973.
Shortly thereafter, Gaynor recorded "Never Can Say Goodbye" for MGM, a song that had previously been recorded by both Isaac Hayes and The Jackson Five. Gaynor's version became one of the first disco hits, anointing her "the First Lady of Disco." She released an album every year from 1973 to 1981, but her biggest hit, "I Will Survive," came in 1978 on the album Love Tracks.
The raw emotion captured in the original version of "I Will Survive" may be attributed to Gaynor's recording of the song from a wheelchair, as she battled back from a harrowing onstage injury. And in the 35 years since its release, the song has become a veritable anthem of strength, triumph and perseverance for millions worldwide. It has been translated into many languages, and the prophetic lyrics hauntingly seem to foretell the very survival skills Gaynor herself would call upon in the years following its initial release.
A Song, an Inspiration
To be certain, the valleys of Gaynor's path rival its peaks. Yet it is her enduring commitment to survival and to emerging from life's tribulations victorious that leaves her awash with happiness and gratitude today.
In her new book, We Will Survive: True Stories of Encouragement, Inspiration and the Power of Song, Gaynor reveals several incidents of sexual molestation and assault, which she says set the stage for "being rejected, disrespected and neglected in every male relationship from puberty up to and including [her] marriage." She credits both the success of "I Will Survive" and its message of hope with guiding her through challenges and ultimately fortifying her.
"I learned that internal scars...put holes in your soul," Gaynor says. "Those scars can be just as deep as physical ones. They are just as painful and damaging, and generally hurt longer and are more debilitating. It took a while, but I grew strong, and I truly learned how to get along."
At age 25, Gaynor had to survive the death of her mother. With that death, she says, she also lost her "sense of acceptance and belonging."
Since then, five of Gaynor's six siblings have died, and in 2005, she endured a difficult divorce after 25 years of marriage. Gaynor, though, says she is more content now than she has ever been. She describes herself as "happily single," although she leaves the door ajar to the possibility of one day remarrying.
In the years since the release of "I Will Survive," countless people have shared their stories of survival with Gaynor and noted how the song fueled their fight. We Will Survive is a compilation of such stories from people who, like the singer, have overcome tremendous adversity, with a little help from the song's mantra.
The stories recount triumph over illness, domestic abuse, horrific automobile accidents and the loss of loved ones, including children. They also include the narratives of an Oklahoma City bombing first responder, a 9/11 widow, and a mom enduring the challenges of an autistic child.
Each of the 40 stories included in the book celebrates courage and strength, and is told against the backdrop of the resonance of "I Will Survive."
Beckie A. Miller, who, like Gaynor, survived childhood sexual abuse, rebuilt her life only to see it shattered by the death of her 18-year-old son. She shared, "Throughout my life, Gloria Gaynor's song has reminded me of the power of the human spirit to survive what often feels impossible to survive."
Gaynor says the inspiration she has been able to engender in others adds "meaning and purpose" to her own life.
"One of the most important lessons I have come to understand," she says, "is that life is about relationships – and impacting one another. If you don't have peaceful, harmonious, meaningful relationships, you don't have a real life."
Today, Gaynor's life is brimming with quality relationships. She calls four women her best friends, and she recently celebrated her 64th birthday at her idyllic Green Brook home surrounded by her closest friends and family members.
Gaynor moved to Green Brook after living for 20 years in Cliffside Park. She fondly recalls reposeful summer days reading in a Bergen County park, and the neighborly and convivial service at local shops and markets. Gaynor still considers the people she met during her time in Cliffside Park to be "great friends."
After her divorce, Gaynor had her Green Brook home "rededicated," and now it is filled with only happy memories. Reminders of her illustrious career are visible throughout the expansive house, as her Grammy Awards adorn a piano in the center of the home.
In a world where singers become overnight sensations on YouTube and reality programming, and their careers often fizzle as quickly as the fame ignites, Gaynor credits her staying power "to the basics."
"I never try to be Ôin style' because then I don't have to worry about going out of style," she says. "But the truth is, classic is enduring."
Gaynor's still robust career has her traveling extensively. She wrote five of the seven songs on the CD that accompanies the audio version of her book. And the disc aptly includes a remix of "I Will Survive."
Ever committed to providing hope and inspiration to others, Gaynor, who recently earned a degree in psychology, has a long-standing dream to help girls develop a strong sense of self worth and to help the men in their lives develop the skills to support them.
As such, she hopes to open Living Waters Teen Family Center, a Newark-based center for teen parents that will offer support, education, counseling, recreation and life skills for teen parents. She is currently in the process of establishing a board of trustees and advisors, and is seeking funding for the center.
"I Will Survive" was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and honored at the 54th Grammy Awards. The song has proven to be far more than a vestige from a music era gone by. And, as Gaynor stands at the precipice of the next chapter of her life, beckoned by purpose and the potential of helping countless teens and their babies, the lyrics' meaning endures.
Gaynor is saving all her loving for someone who's loving her.