She was Queen of the Disco, again, at least for the day. On Saturday, the Library of Congress paid homage to singer Gloria Gaynor, following the entry of her hit “I Will Survive” to the National Recording Registry at the institution.
As the culmination of the library’s monthlong examination of the disco era of the ’70s and early 80s, the day was dedicated to Gloria Gaynor and the disco culture as seen through the lens of historical research. Beginning with a symposium examining the American phenomenon that dictated not only music and fashion, encompassing initial audiences from clubgoers who were primarily black, LGBTQ and urban immigrant communities such as Italian-Americans and Latinos, and expanding to include the evolving hippie psychedelic communities in Philadelphia and New York City during the late 1960s and early 1970s.
The highlight of the daytime activities was an interview conducted by “Good Morning America” co-anchor Robin Roberts with Gaynor on the making of the disco megahit, “I Will Survive,” which Gaynor was quick to point out that she did not pen.
“Barry White was the first to really introduce disco,” she reminisced about the origins of the genre that catapulted her to stardom. “He was called the ‘King of Disco,’ a genre that didn’t yet have any music. In the cabaret clubs I used to work in, they started to move chairs and make dance floors. Then they would take a closet, open the door, cut the top half off, take a plank off the bottom half and that’s where the deejay’s turntable would go. And there was your discotheque. Then somebody had the bright idea to start to build discotheques from the ground up.”
“I Will Survive” was originally intended to be the B-side of another record, but when Gaynor heard the song, she thought differently. The song resonated with her personally as she recalled having suffered a fall while performing and becoming paralyzed from the waist down. It wasn’t permanent, but she had to undergo a painful spinal fusion and recovery, and it instilled the need for resilience in the young singer.
“I really prayed, after the record company said they were going to revoke my contract,” she said. “I mean I really, really prayed. I knew I was going to do something, but I didn’t know what.
“A few weeks after I got home, the record company sent me a letter saying they were not going to end my contract and they wanted me to record a song that the company’s president had chosen,” Gaynor said. “The A-side was a song called ‘Substitute.’ But I wanted a meaningful song that people could sing along to. So they showed me ‘I Will Survive,’ [that had been] written two years ago. It was waiting for the right person. I knew when I read the lyrics that this was a timeless song.”
Gaynor emphasizing how her faith saw her through difficult times, and how “I Will Survive,” became an anthem for people in almost any challenging situation. She also treated the audience to a taste of her current work from an upcoming Christian album.
“I Will Survive” joined in this year’s entries to the registry by Sister Sledge’s iconic disco hit “We Are Family,” provided the soundtrack for the disco era along with songs by the Bee Gees, the Trammps, Sylvester and Tavares, to name a few of the hit-making artists.
According to scholar Alice Echols, author of “Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture,” the dance music driven era embraced marginalized populations still struggling with civil rights, and created safe spaces in the clubs where patrons could express a certain freedom. Clubs such as Studio 54 and Paradise Garage in New York became legendary, becoming fertile ground for a new sound and artists such as LaBelle, Grace Jones, Donna Summer and Gaynor, who were embraced by the black and gay communities in an almost cult-like following.
Echols has authored four book on what she terms the “long ’60s” where significant transformations in acceptance in American culture took place. Disco addressed many of those issues of cultural freedom and expression. Disco era music evolved within the club scene, eventually spawning EDM (electronic dance music) in Detroit, house music, and the European version, garage music.
Photographer Bill Bernstein, whose career started in the 1970s at New York’s progressive newspaper, the Village Voice, documented the time period through portraits, street photography and concert photography currently on view at the city’s Museum of Sex in an exhibit titled “Night Fever: The Bill Bernstein Photographs.”
“New respect has grown for disco as being the source for what’s out there today,” he said. “Disco was much more than the music, the celebrities, the sex and the drugs. It was a state of mind.”
His book, “Disco: The Bill Bernstein Photographs,” is a visual exploration of the people and the environment that created this uniquely American cultural phenomenon.
But emphasizing that the disco era would have been non-existent without the music, Gaynor and her band performed a sold-out concert, performing such hits as “Never Can Say Goodbye,” “I Am What I Am” and of course, “I Will Survive.”
The Bibliodiscotheque symposium and concert were taped for archival purposes, and can be viewed at a later date on the Library of Congress’s website, www.loc.gov.