Gloria Gaynor is ready to survive and thrive at Rivers Casino in Philly

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Vocalist Gloria Gaynor’s talent has always been more than “I Will Survive,” her 1978 signature disco-era anthem.

With a 2020 Grammy – the second in her career, 40 years after her first award – for her gospel album “Testimony,” the New Jersey-born Gaynor went full circle with a career that started in religious music, moved to jazz and R&B, and most famously, for a time, wound up on dance music with her 1974 version of “Never Can Say Goodbye,” along with “Let Me Know (I Have a Right)” and “I Am What I Am” during the ’80s.

“I’m pleased to say that I have been able to take jazz standards and made them into disco tracks without ruining the song or making them unrecognizable,” said Gaynor. “The only thing I loved as much as singing as a kid was dancing, so that meant a lot to me.”

All of the above will be on full display when Gaynor plays Rivers Casino’s main hall on Thursday.

Going all the way back to her childhood roots in New Jersey, Gaynor came from a large family of singers – brothers who sang as a gospel group around the neighborhood – who didn’t even realize that their younger sister could vocalize with the best of them.

“So, I sang to myself while constantly listening to music around the house: gospel, R&B and jazz standards,” she told me. “One of my brothers loved country music, and we used to joke that he got left on our doorstep.”

Gaynor finally did sing out loud, a discovery she recalled vividly through having sung “Why Do Fools Fall in Love,” in her apartment building’s hallway and hearing from her neighbors that they thought it was the radio. “Immediately, I though ‘Oh yeah, I can do this.’”

So Gaynor did sing; first as part of a group, the Soul Satisfiers, then for “I Can See Clearly Now” hitmaker Johnny Nash’s “Jocida” label, then – by the early 70s – for Clive Davis’s Columbia Records and the single, “Honey Bee” – a record that would become a big part of her future when Philadelphia record producer Tom Moulton and her next label, MGM, made that track part of a longer, single album-side suite with no break between the songs.

“That was all Tom’s doing and I loved being a part of that,” Gaynor said in relation to the nearly-20-minute-long suite which was a hit in dance clubs at that time. “I’m far more passionate about dancing. One five-minute dance song was never enough – and this was before DJs started really mixing one song into the next.”

This set Gaynor up for “I Will Survive,” a vision of “divine appointment,” that she happened onto after having had a stage accident that left her nearly paralyzed, and a time when her then-record label had just dropped her from her contract.

“I was confident that God would do something.” Next thing you know, Gaynor’s record label got a new British president, loved Gaynor’s brand of dance music, and gave her carte blanche to finding songs with meaning and depth. “I thought that people could relate to the story of ‘I Will Survive.’ That’s what I had prayed for with my back injury.”

Gaynor, her producers and her label dropped off a box of “I Will Survive” singles to New York City’s Studio 54, allowing the sparks to fly and the dance floor to flood, and the rest was history.

“I Will Survive” raised the bar for songs that Gaynor would tackle successfully for the rest of her career. Yet, nothing could top the sacred songs of her youth, a sound she circled back to for 2019’s mighty “Testimony” album.

“I wanted to do this for years, a gospel album. So I financed everything, paid for the musicians and studio by myself. Looked for record labels. No one wanted it. So I prayed on it with friends of mine… and was ready to just do it myself with a distribution company when I got a call from the Gaither record label, who loved the music, and signed me. That got me the recognition that made the album Grammy worthy.”

Be prepared. Along with her dance hits, Gaynor will do “Testimony” tracks such as “Joy Comes in the Morning” and “Talking About Jesus” during her pre-New Year’s Eve set in an overall spirit of celebration. After a lousy 2020 and 2021, Gaynor believer we could use some uplift.

“People expect a song such as ‘I Will Survive’ to empower them,” said Gaynor. “I’m blessed to have recorded it. That song is the core of my purpose.”

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