Finally, after a few rough years, her luck began to turn. Polydor changed presidents, and the new guy was a fan. In fact, he was pretty sure he had a comeback hit for Gaynor: a song that a South African girl group had recently done well with, called "Substitute."
As it turned out, Polydor's new president was unique in his enthusiasm for the record. In his eagerness to get it out, he cut a deal: Producer-songwriters Freddie Perren and Dino Fekaris agreed to record "Substitute" if they could put one of their own songs on the B-side of the single. They invited Gaynor in for a meeting to hear what kinds of lyrics felt most comfortable with performing. In the interview with Audible, she described what happened next.
"They said, 'We think you're the one that we've been waiting for to record this song that we wrote a couple of years ago,' " Gaynor explained. "When I read the lyrics, I realized the reason they'd been waiting for me to record that song was that God had given that song to them for them to set aside, waiting for him to get everything in order for me to meet up with them. And that song was 'I Will Survive.'"
Drummer James Gadson, who in his career has backed up Marvin Gaye and Bill Withers and been featured on hundreds of hit records, was part of the studio band put together for the session. He tells NPR they spent hours laying down tracks for "Substitute," and were about ready to wrap things up when Freddie Perren asked them to stay a little longer and do one more song.
"He said, 'Well, man, I know everybody's tired, but let's just do this one song. In fact, I'll do the intro.' He was a great producer, played keyboards," Gadson says, describing the arpeggio Perren played that became the song's unmistakable opening sting.
"We just cut it and that was it, went home," he says. "Three weeks later: bam."
Gaynor took advance copies of the single to Studio 54, the mecca of US discotheques — she'd often sung there, and knew the DJ. "He played it while we were standing there," she said in an interview with World Cafe on NPR member station WXPN. "The audience immediately loved it, which told me this is a hit song. New Yorkers don't immediately love anything — they are so jaded." The DJ liked it too — enough that he agreed to take copies and pass them along to other DJs.
Released in October 1978, "I Will Survive" was a near-instant hit, eclipsing the planned comeback song on the other side of the record. Within weeks it was playing everywhere, including Europe, where Gaynor was a longtime favorite. The song also coincided with the very beginning of the AIDS crisis, and found a particular resonance within the LGBT community.
Karen Tongson, a professor at the University of Southern California who often lectures on pop culture, says she remembers first hearing the song in the 1990s through its cover versions, then learning the history behind Gaynor's original.
"It was especially significant for me, because I'd just come out," she recalls. "The song had long associations with the LGBT community as an anthem ... but in my newfound activism, in my new awareness around the different struggles the community faced — particularly around the AIDS crisis — I heard the song with new ears."