I Will Survive: Gloria Gaynor; Gladys Knight; Cake.

Hello there! This week our blog features one of the biggest disco hits, I Will Survive. We will first discuss the original version by Gloria Gaynor. Next, we will review a cover by Gladys Knight and we will finish with a cover by Cake.

Gloria Gaynor and I Will Survive:

Gloria Gaynor is an American singer who became a superstar in the disco era. She was born Gloria Fowles in Newark, New Jersey in 1949.

She began singing with a jazz rhythm & blues group called the Soul Satisfiers in the 1960s. Although she cut her first record in 1965, her first real success came in 1975 when Clive Davis signed her to Columbia Records.

Below is a photo of Gloria Gaynor, disco diva.

Embed from Getty Images

It was not until 1979 that Gloria Gaynor really broke out as a pop superstar. The song I Will Survive was written by Freddie Perren and Dino Ferakis. It describes a woman who has discovered an inner strength after being dumped by her former lover. When he suddenly reappears in her life, she rejects him.

At first I was afraid, I was petrified
Kept thinking I could never live without you by my side
But then I spent so many nights thinking how you did me wrong
And I grew strong
And I learned how to get along

And so you’re back
From outer space
I just walked in to find you here with that sad look upon your face
I should have changed that stupid lock, I should have made you leave your key
If I’d known for just one second you’d be back to bother me

Go on now, go, walk out the door
Just turn around now
‘Cause you’re not welcome anymore
Weren’t you the one who tried to hurt me with goodbye
Do you think I’d crumble
Did you think I’d lay down and die?

Oh no, not I, I will survive
Oh, as long as I know how to love, I know I’ll stay alive
I’ve got all my life to live
And I’ve got all my love to give and I’ll survive
I will survive, hey, hey

I Will Survive was released in 1979. Amazingly, that song was the “B” side of a single with a forgettable tune called Substitute (a cover of a Righteous Brothers song) as the “A” side. Sometimes you just have to wonder what record company executives were thinking!

While Substitute peaked at #107 on the charts, a Boston DJ named Jack King began plugging I Will Survive. Over the next few months that song became a disco classic, a mammoth hit that eventually sold 14 million records worldwide.

I Will Survive rose to #1 on both the Billboard and U.K. pop charts. So here is Gloria Gaynor in a live version of I Will Survive from the TV program Midnight Special.

Isn’t this great? Gloria powers her way through this tune accompanied by the Midnight Special band. In many ways, I Will Survive is a classic disco tune: it combines a pulsating disco beat and Gaynor’s strong vocals with an impressive horn section. However, there are several features of this song that were rather unique in the disco era.

First off, Ms. Gaynor does not have a chorus of backup singers, which appear in nearly all disco-era songs with female leads.

I Will Survive was also relatively free of the overdubbing, multi-tracking and changes of speed that characterized so many disco tunes. This is presumably because it was regarded as the “B” side of a record, so it was not “doctored” as heavily as other singles.

Most of Gloria Gaynor’s earlier records were speeded up, in order to make her voice sound higher than it actually was. Apparently this was a common technique in disco music.
Most disco hits at the time were heavily produced, with multiple voices, overdubs, and adjustments to pitch and speed.

I Will Survive became one of the most recognizable tunes of the disco era. Gloria Gaynor and Donna Summer are arguably the “queens” of disco. I Will Survive was rated #1 in a 2000 VH1 list of great dance songs.

Not surprisingly, I Will Survive became Gloria Gaynor’s signature tune. And it became an anthem for two different groups. First, the song is obviously an ode to female empowerment, so it was extremely popular with feminists.

However, I Will Survive also became a powerful song for the LGBT community. At the time of its release, the gay community felt beleaguered, with a notable lack of acceptance from society. They identified with the message of strength and endurance from I Will Survive.

And of course, when the AIDS epidemic occurred just a few years later, the song I Will Survive gained an entirely new resonance in the gay community.

Here is a bit of fun. This is a TV commercial for Capital One, featuring Samuel L. Jackson, Spike Lee and Charles Barkley on a plane. When Barkley receives a phone call, his cellphone ringtone turns out to be I Will Survive, and the three begin to sing that song (badly).

They stop when the stewardess arrives at their row. But the stewardess is Gloria Gaynor, who proceeds to belt out the tune!

Gloria Gaynor was unable to escape the rather brutal backlash against disco that began about 1980. Then in 1982, Gaynor became a Christian and she subsequently regarded much of her earlier work as sinful. She would not record for some time, and when she resumed issuing albums they consisted mainly of covers of songs by other groups, patriotic tunes and contemporary Christian music.

However, Gaynor capitalized on a disco revival movement in the 1990s. In 2005 she was inducted into the Dance Music Hall of Fame. Her song I Will Survive lives on at oldies and dance music radio stations, where younger generations of listeners become introduced to that iconic disco song.

So we salute Gloria Gaynor, who has indeed survived.

Gladys Knight and I Will Survive:

Gladys Knight is a wonderful soul singer who has had an illustrious career, first when she was backed up by The Pips and later as a solo artist. Here we will give a brief summary of her life.

Gladys Knight was born in Oglethorpe, Georgia in May 1944, and got an early start in the music business when she won a contest on Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour at age 7. One year later she formed a musical group, The Pips, together with her siblings and cousins.

The Pips changed membership a few times before they formed the most famous version of Gladys Knight and the Pips, with the Pips as a trio consisting of her brother Merald and cousins Edward Patten and William Guest. Below is a photo of Gladys Knight.

Soul singer Gladys Knight.

The group joined the Motown Records stable in 1966, although there was continuing tension between Gladys Knight and Motown management. Initially, Gladys was reluctant to join Motown due to concerns that the organization might neglect them in favor of other artists.

Gladys Knight and the Pips recorded on the Soul Records imprint from Motown, a label that Berry Gordy used for artists who were considered more R&B than pop. In early years the group opened on tour for The Supremes until Berry Gordy removed them from the tour. Gladys Knight has maintained that this was because her group was upstaging Diana Ross’ act.

Gladys and the Pips had several hits for Motown, including If I Were Your Woman and Neither One of Us (Wants To Be The First To Say Goodbye). However, the group believed that they were never regarded as one of Motown’s “front-line” artists.

In 1973 they signed a deal with Buddha Records, where they had major hits with songs like Midnight Train to Georgia and I’ve Got to Use My Imagination.

So here is Gladys Knight in a live rendition of I Will Survive.

This is a powerful solo performance by Ms. Knight that showcases her terrific vocals. For the first four minutes, this tune is presented in a slowed-down version as a torch song. Then Gladys shifts gears, turning to an up-tempo dance song in the final minute.

Gladys Knight is clearly in great form on this song. What an impressive cover of this classic disco tune.

Over their career, Gladys Knight and the Pips won several Grammys. In 1996 the group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and in 2001 they were inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame.

The group disbanded in 1988 and since then Gladys has pursued a solo career. She has also appeared as an actress on several television shows and series.

What a terrific singer and performer. We wish Gladys Knight all the best.

Cake and I Will Survive:

Cake is an alternative-rock band that was formed in 1991 and originated from Sacramento, California. It is not easy to characterize the musical genre of Cake. Many people classify them as folk-rock, though I believe “grunge” is more appropriate. However, the Wikipedia article on the band lists their musical influences as
country music, Mariachi, rock, funk, Iranian folk music and hip hop …
lions and tigers and bears, oh my!

In any case, the group is known for the sarcastic and monotonic vocal presentations of lead singer and rhythm guitarist John McCrea. In addition, the group is unusual in that instead of a full horn section, they feature trumpet solos by Vince DiFiore. Below is a photo of the band Cake.

The alternative-rock band Cake.

According to the band, their name “Cake” refers to “a block of congealed or encrusted matter” (such as makeup) rather than “a breadlike food made from a dough or batter.”  Furthermore, they like to capitalize their name as “CAKE;” so now you know.

The group’s first album in 1994 received mixed reviews, but their second release, the 1995 Fashion Nugget, featured a hit single The Distance, which made it to #5 on the RPM Alternative 30 playlists. That album established the group as an up-and-coming alternative rock band.

This led to a number of domestic and international tours, performances at several alt-rock festivals, and significant commercial success.

So here is Cake in a live performance of I Will Survive. This was another single from the band’s Fashion Nugget album.

I find this to be a creative cover of Gloria Gaynor’s original disco tune. This song includes solos on electric guitar and bass.  The Cake version contained a few “F-bombs” (bleeped out in this video), which led the devout Ms. Gaynor to characterize it as the least favorite cover of her song.

Strangely enough, John McCrea introduces this as a “folk song,” and states that the group would like to leave their audience “with a bit of false hope” (say what?).

Well, in the 25 years since the band surfaced on the alternative-rock scene, Cake have survived despite numerous lineup changes. For a couple of decades they continued to place songs on the charts.

In 2011 the band came out with an album titled Showroom of Compassion. Their situation was not promising. It had been six years since Cake had recorded an album. Lacking a recording contract, the band produced and released the album from their own studio. Amazingly, Showroom of Compassion debuted at #1 on the Billboard Top 200 albums playlist!

So Cake has soldiered on, selling records and providing their fans with alt-rock singles. I am only familiar with the group’s cover of I Will Survive, but I find their arrangement and the unusual trumpet solo to be innovative, and worth listening to.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, I Will Survive
Wikipedia, Gloria Gaynor
Wikipedia, Gladys Knight
Wikipedia, Cake (band)

About Tim Londergan

Tim Londergan is professor emeritus of theoretical physics at Indiana University-Bloomington. He studies the properties of the quarks and gluons that form the internal structure of protons and neutrons. He also writes a blog "Tim's Cover Story" that compares covers of important songs in rock music history. From 2002 to 2018, he and his wife shared their college-town experiences with two delightful cats, siblings Lewis and Clark, who enormously enriched their lives. Together with his colleague Steven Vigdor, Tim is co-author of a blog "Debunking Denial," that discusses the difference between skepticism and denial as manifested in various current issues. He is also co-founder of "Concerned Scientists of Indiana University," a group that supports evidence-based science, funding for science research, and policies based on the best available scientific information. His hobbies include tennis and ornithology, and he is a life-long fan of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team.
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