Classic Tracks: Gloria Gaynor "I Will Survive"

May 20, 2010 7:29 PM, By Blair Jackson


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One of the most enduring songs to come out of the late-’70s disco scene, “I Will Survive” actually began its life as a B-side for a song that never became a hit.

Gloria Fowles was a New Jersey girl raised on such records as Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder; she emulated their techniques as she tried to forge her own singing style. By her mid-teens, she’d put out a single called “She’ll Be Sorry” on a label run by singer Johnny Nash, who also gave her a stage name: Gloria Gaynor. By the early ’70s, she’d been “discovered” anew—first by Clive Davis of Columbia (for whom she recorded one single, “Honey Bee,” before he exited the company) and then by Mike Curb, who signed her to his MGM label right as disco music was first becoming popular. Her 1975 album, Never Can Say Goodbye, was among the first to offer a club-style string of tunes connected by a pulsating disco beat. Side One featured a re-working of “Honey Bee” and new disco takes on Motown favorites “Never Can Say Goodbye” and “Reach Out, I’ll Be There,” mixed masterfully into a nonstop 19-minute groove by Tom Moulton, and produced by Meco Monardo, Tony Bongiovi and Howard Wheeler. They also worked on a couple of subsequent Gaynor albums for Polydor, but those were only moderate successes.

Which brings us to 1978, and a recording studio known as Mom & Pop’s Company Store in Studio City, Calif. (adjacent to Hollywood), owned by songwriter/producer/musician Freddie Perren. The musically gifted D.C. native had moved to the L.A. area in the late ’60s and become part of the Motown Records writing and production group known as The Corporation (Perren, Berry Gordy, Deke Richards, Fonze Mizell), who churned out hit after hit for the Jackson 5 and others through the early ’70s. Perren’s string of successes (sans The Corporation) continued with hits from The Miracles, The Sylvers, Peaches & Herb and a pair of tunes (by Tavares and Yvonne Elliman) on the multi-Platinum soundtrack for Saturday Night Fever. “He was what you would call a classic old-school producer, in that he was classically trained and he really knew music,” comments Jack Rouben, who engineered for Perren at Mom and Pop’s for a while in the late ’70s and was part of several hits cut there.

Rouben, who grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, had been a drummer but went over to the tech side of music after studying electrical engineering at UC Berkeley. After college he moved to L.A. and quickly landed a job as an assistant at Sunset Sound, where he met George Massenburg, who was working there with Earth, Wind & Fire. Eventually, Massenburg pried Rouben away from Sunset to become his personal assistant, “and we did three projects—Earth, Wind and Fire’s All ’N All, for which he won his first Grammy; The Emotions; and Deniece Williams,” Rouben recalls. “George was a great teacher and a wonderful guy to work with.” But when Massenburg decided to build The Complex in West L.A., Rouben was out of a job.

“I started going to some of the private producer-owned studios in L.A. and I knocked on the door of Freddie Perren’s place, Mom & Pop’s,” he says. “I went there for a first-engineering gig, not an assistant, and he was impressed by the fact that I’d worked with Earth, Wind & Fire because at the time they were the top R&B band. So he gave me a shot, and the first thing we started working on was Peaches & Herb, who hadn’t had a hit in over 10 years.”

Mom & Pop’s consisted of a fairly large main studio with iso booth, a mid-sized Westlake-style control room and a much smaller demo room. “[Perren] had really good equipment,” Rouben says, “including a Harrison 32—the same board Thriller was recorded and mixed on—a 3M 24-track, plenty of good mics and some nice outboard gear. There were two [echo] chambers and offices upstairs. And he had his group of A-team musicians: James Gadson, who was one of the premier R&B drummers; Scotty Edwards and Eddie Watkins were bass players; Melvin ‘Wah-Wah’ Ragin on guitar; Paulinho da Costa on percussion; and Freddie himself or John Barnes on keyboards.”

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