Classic Tracks: Gloria Gaynor "I Will Survive"

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


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From left: Engineer Jack Rouben is seen here with Stevie Wonder, Ronnie Wilson (standing) and Charlie Wilson of the Gap Band, circa 1981

From left: Engineer Jack Rouben is seen here with Stevie Wonder, Ronnie Wilson (standing) and Charlie Wilson of the Gap Band, circa 1981

Some time in the middle of 1978, Rouben says, “We were in the midst of the Peaches & Herb contract and Freddie got a call from Polydor Records requesting that he do a cover of this song called ‘Substitute,’ which was an international hit with a [South African] group called Clout. They wanted to beat that song to the American marketplace, and they wanted Gloria Gaynor to record it and Freddie to produce it. Freddie agreed to do it, but being a shrewd businessman, he realized, ‘Well, if they’re going to put that much effort into this song, I want to get something more than just my producer’s fee,’ so he negotiated to write the B-side. He was shrewd that way.

“So we stopped everything on the Peaches & Herb record and we were given a schedule in which we were supposed to cut this record in less than a week. We were going to start on a Wednesday and be in mastering on Monday of the following week! Freddie and his lyricist partner, Dino Fakaris, started to write ‘I Will Survive.’ The music was written first; I think Freddie came up with the basic structure. There were no lyrics at the time. In fact, the lyrics weren’t finished until Gloria came in.”

On that Wednesday, Perren and most of the players mentioned above got together at Mom & Pop’s and cut multiple live basics on the two songs. Asked about miking for the all-important disco kick drum and hi-hat, Rouben says, “In those days, for the kick I used either a Sennheiser 421, which is the mic George [Masenburg] used, or an AKG D-112. The hi-hat was a [Neumann] KM84.” Guitar, bass and keys were all direct.

“The following day we did strings and horns,” he continues. “The arranger was Dave Blumberg, who arguably did one of the greatest string arrangements of that era with ‘I Will Survive.’ The typical string session at the time was 10 to 12 violins, four violas, four cellos,” with one mic for every couple of instruments, all submixed to two tracks.

On Friday, Gaynor came in to lay down vocals on both songs. For “I Will Survive,” Rouben recalls, “They went over the song in the control room and Gloria was there reading the lyrics to herself, and then she went out into the studio, and I told her, ‘Run the song down from beginning to end and get acquainted with it, and once you feel confident, we’ll start recording.’ Well, I started recording from the minute she stepped out of the room and went into the first take.”

Rouben used an AKG 414 to cut Gaynor’s vocal. “I remember George had used it on the [EWF] All ’N All album—that was the main vocal mic. [Mom & Pop’s] didn’t have a great array of limiters, so I found this LA-4A compressor/limiter and I also used one of the chambers. There were two—a short chamber or a long chamber—and for this song I remember picking the long chamber. So she ran it down a second time and was getting more familiar with, then ran it down two more times. So I had four tracks of her singing it from beginning to end.

“Then they got into recording the real vocal. Now, Freddie was perhaps the best vocal producer I ever worked with, but he was very demanding. Pitch, timing and performance all had to be right. If any one of those wasn’t, he’d do it again. So the vocals took awhile. Gloria was already complaining when she came in of back pain [from an earlier surgery] and it got worse as the day went on.

“By the time the evening was done, they had completed two verses and two choruses of the song that Freddie was happy with. We were supposed to come back the next day to continue, but Saturday morning we get a call—Gloria’s not coming in: ‘I can’t do this; my back is hurting too much. Go with what you have.’ Well, this was an 8-minute track and we had three or four minutes of the song still to do. Fortunately, I had kept all those earlier tracks where she was just running the song down. So we listened to those tracks and we ended up picking the very last one she did. There was a whole performance there and we ended up using the back half that we needed to fill the rest of the song. So what you hear on the single are the produced vocals, but on the extended version on the [Love Tracks album], it’s the whole 8-minute version and the last four minutes is her live vocal. It’s not perfect, but it’s got a great feel to it.”

Rouben mixed the two songs on Sunday, and on Monday the song was mastered as planned. Both Rouben and Perren felt that “I Will Survive” was actually the stronger of the two songs, and in the end it was the New York clubs—specifically Studio 54 and a number of smaller gay discos—that voted with their turntables: “I Will Survive” became a dance-floor smash and eventually a huge radio hit that topped the Billboard singles charts for three weeks in March 1979. A few weeks later, Peaches & Herb’s “Reunited” also hit the top spot for Perren and Rouben. That, in turn, led to Rouben working with the Gap Band, with whom he also enjoyed Platinum success.

Gaynor has had other hits through the years, but “I Will Survive” remains her calling card and one of the most covered songs of that era. 

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