This female-empowerment anthem is about moving on after a bad relationship. Over the years, it has taken on meaning for people who have overcome just about any difficult situation, but for the song's lyricist, Dino Fekaris, it was about getting fired by Motown Records, where he was a staff writer. Says Fekaris: "They let me go after almost seven years. I was an unemployed songwriter contemplating my fate. I turned the TV on, and there it was: a song I had written for a movie theme titled Generation was playing right then (the song was performed by Rare Earth). I took that as an omen that things were going to work out for me. I remember jumping up and down on the bed saying, 'I'm going to make it. I'm going to be a songwriter. I will survive!"
This song was written by the former Motown producers Freddie Perren and Dino Fekaris. Perren was a co-writer on three #1 Jackson 5 hits: "I Want You Back
," "The Love You Save
" and "ABC
." Fekaris' biggest co-write with Motown was "I Just Want to Celebrate
" by Rare Earth, but he also placed tracks with The Temptations and The Four Tops.
When Perren and Fekaris left Motown, they formed their own production duo and scored big with Peaches & Herb, taking "Reunited
" to #1. When they wrote "I Will Survive," they had nobody to sing it. The pair agreed that the next diva that came their way would get the song. That diva was Gloria Gaynor, whose record company called Perren looking for production work on a song called "Substitute," which was originally recorded by the Righteous Brothers. They took the gig, and Gaynor agreed to record "I Will Survive" as the B-side.
Gaynor leaned the song from a demo Perren and Fekaris made for her, and both songs were recorded in the session. Everyone involved in the recording knew that "I Will Survive" was the superior track, but the president of Gaynor's record company specifically ordered "Substitute," and released it as the A-side as planned. "Substitute" peaked at #107 in October 1978, but club DJs started playing started playing the B-side, and soon radio stations were also playing "I Will Survive." Polydor finally released the single with the sides flipped, and "Survive" peaked at #1 in the US in March 1979.
This won the 1979 Grammy for Best Disco Recording. It was the first and last time that the Grammys offered this category.
Gaynor sees this song as just a simple song about survival, regardless of what you have to overcome. She said: "I love the empowering effect, I love the encouraging effect. It's a timeless lyric that addresses a timeless concern."
In June 1998, the French football team (or as Americans call it, soccer) made this their World Cup anthem.
This song became an anthem in the gay community, but its reach extends much farther - it has been reproduced in 20 languages, including Arabic. Predictably, it is also one of the most popular songs to be sung on Karaoke.
Gaynor is far and away most famous for this song (her autobiography is even called I Will Survive), but she was a formidable dance singer before she recorded it. She made #9 in 1975 with "Never Can Say Goodbye" and cracked the Hot 100 with her covers of "Walk On By" and "Reach Out, I'll Be There."
The musicians on this track were some of the first call session players in the Los Angeles area. There were:
Drums - James Gadson
Bass - Scott Edwards
Guitar - Bob Bowles
Guitar - Melvin Ragin
Piano - Freddie Perren (also the song's co-producer and co-writer
String players were also brought in to play on the track.
Gaynor suffered a back injury and spent six months in the hospital before recording this song. She had surgery and was still in a back brace for the session - her producers put baffles under her arms to accommodate her.
Since this was first released, Gaynor has become a devout Christian and added a verse reflecting her faith to live performances:
I will survive
He gave me life
I stand beside the Crucified One
I can go on
I will be strong
For my strength to live is not my own
I will survive!
Producer Freddie Perren had Gaynor do several takes of her vocal, and then double tracked them to give her voice a bigger sound. What you're hearing are two different takes synched up and mixed together.
This song has given hope to many looking to move on from a troubled relationship, but when she recorded the song, Gaynor was happily married.
"Tony Clifton" (Jim Carrey) performed this song near the end of the film Man on the Moon. Frank the pug sings it in Men in Black 2, and many other films have featured the song over the years, including In And Out, Four Weddings And A Funeral, The Replacements, The Adventures Of Priscilla: Queen Of The Desert, The First Wives Club and Coyote Ugly.
Among the many artists who have covered this: Diana Ross, Selena, Gladys Knight, and Cake. Cake's version provides a gender reversal as it was now a man singing about a woman who he must free himself from emotionally. Their version is slower, implying that he is still trying to get over her. It's also more profane, with "I should have changed that stupid lock" replaced with "I should have changed that f--king
lock." Gloria Gaynor says it is her least favorite version of the song.
The song has lived up to its title, returning to the Hot 100 every decade since the 1970s in a number of different guises. Latin R&B/ freestyle singer Safire's version debuted on the chart on December 16, 1989 and peaked at #53 in January 1990. In 1996, R&B singer Chantay's slower, jazzier interpretation climbed to #24 and in 2009 the Pussycat Dolls "Survive" sampling "Hush Hush; Hush Hush
" rose to #73. Finally, the Glee Cast's mash-up of the song with Destiny's Child's like-themed "Survivor
" reached #51 in 2011.
VH1 named this #1 on their list of the 100 Greatest Dance Songs.
In 1999, Gaynor performed this on an episode of That '70s Show. She played the music teacher Mrs. Clark, and sang this at the prom.
Gaynor told Billboard magazine that it doesn't bother her in the least that she will forever be tied to her signature ode. "From the beginning I recognized it was a timeless lyric that everyone could relate to," said Gaynor, "so I don't get tired of singing it. I'm always freshening it up; changing the beat, the lyrics, modernizing the arrangement - I've even stuck a hip-hop section in the middle of it. I become 295% grade A ham when I do this song because people still love it."
A performance by the Northern Ireland singer-songwriter Leah McFall on The UK version of The Voice on June 7, 2013 wowed the judges. The general public was impressed as well as her studio version debuted at #16 on the UK Singles Chart with just 24 hours of sales.
R&B singer Chantay Savage's slower, bluesy version, peaked at #24 on the US Billboard Hot 100 and #12 on the UK singles chart. Savage was the daughter of Jazz musician parents and had been a session musician for the likes of Kym Syms before going solo.
Aretha Franklin covered this for her 2014 album, Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics
. At one point, her version of the song suddenly breaks down into Destiny's Child's "Survivor
." "That was my granddaughter Victory's song, and then it became our song," she explained at the album's listening party.