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.”
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.