“I’ve been telling people for 40 years that ‘I will survive,’” Gloria Gaynor tells Rolling Stone Country backstage at an intimate album release event at the Analog lounge in Nashville’s Hutton Hotel. “With this record, what I’m hoping to accomplish is to show people how to survive. How I survived all the difficulties that I’ve had in my life and how they can survive as well.”
Testimony, the record the 75-year-old Grammy-winning vocalist is referring to, is her just-released gospel album, a joyous and revelatory collection of soulful and inspirational tunes recorded at Nashville’s RCA Studio A. Featuring guests that include Yolanda Adams, Mike Farris, Jason Crabb and Bart Millard, Testimony is anchored by several cuts co-written by Gaynor, who collaborated in large part with producer-songwriter Chris Stevens, a multiple Dove Award winner in the Christian music field whose songs have also been cut by Jason Aldean and Justin Moore. With Bryan Fowler and Stevens, Gaynor wrote the autobiographical track that could be seen as a sort of “I Will Survive 2.0.”
“Back on Top” is a vigorous and commanding declaration of perseverance, punctuated by staccato piano, Memphis-inspired horns and Gaynor’s indomitably gutsy vocal. In the accompanying video, directed by David Doobinin, Gaynor is joined by a troupe of interpretive dancers as she delivers lyrics about her “front row seat on a roller-coaster ride” during which, she confesses, “I took some knockdown punches, but I’m still standing strong.”
In late 1978, at the height of disco mania, Gaynor began filling dance floors with the song that has since become one of the world’s most popular post-breakup anthems of all time. “I Will Survive” spent three weeks at Number One in 1979 and has since been covered numerous times, from Diana Ross to Cake and beyond. Having already ushered in the disco genre with her 1974 remake of the Jackson 5’s “Never Can Say Goodbye” — her version topped Billboard’s first-ever dance chart — “I Will Survive” became a career-defining single for Gaynor. But at the time of its release, it was a sort of battle cry for the singer who was born Gloria Fowles. Having endured sexual abuse at age 12, and years of feeling insecure and unworthy of love, which led to failed relationships, Gaynor faced one of her most devastating challenges in March 1978, when she fell backwards over a monitor on stage at a concert at New York’s Beacon Theatre. She finished her performance, but the next morning woke up to discover she was paralyzed from the waist down. Although she would walk again, the initial surgery and years of chronic pain eventually led to more operations.
“When they fuse your spine, or a part of your spine, it puts a strain on the other parts that are used to having that movement,” says Gaynor. “So I kept having to have surgery up a little higher and a little higher. Then last year I had a very extensive surgery, two surgeries four days apart. I now have 12 rods in my back. I’ve been through quite a bit physically. I’ve also lost all of my siblings and my mother and my father, so I’ve been through that. Married and divorced, so I’ve been through that. But now I’m back on top.”
For Gaynor, recording in the same massive Music Row studio that produced hits by Dolly Parton, Waylon Jennings and many others was a thrill, in part because of the spontaneous creativity generated by all of the musicians playing in the same room simultaneously. But it turns out another member of her family might have had even more of an appreciation for the iconic setting.
“One of my brothers loved country music! He told me we found him on the doorstep,” she says with a laugh. “But because he listened to it all the time I learned to like it. I love what I guess everybody loves about country music — the honesty in the lyrics and the fact that almost every single country song I’ve ever heard is true to life, not only the difficulties but the happy times. I wrote one country song that hopefully you’ll hear one day. I don’t see myself recording a country album so I’m looking for somebody who’s going to say, ‘Yeah, I’d like to do that.’”
In addition to the aforementioned singers who appear with her on Testimony and joined her live onstage at last night’s event, Gaynor had help on the jubilant show-closing “I Will Survive” from the appreciative audience as well as singer Natalie Prass.
Gaynor also delivered a spirited take on Bob Dylan’s “Man of Peace,” joined by Mike Farris, one of Nashville’s most accomplished gospel-soul singers. But even as she welcomed others to the stage and sang the secular hit that has also, rightfully, become an LGBTQ anthem, neither Gaynor’s mighty talent nor her deep, abiding faith were overshadowed. Instead, she has taken the words of that mega-hit to heart and used them to instruct others in the art of survival, and to show them, she notes, “that the mercy, the grace and the love of God is available to them just as it has been to me.”