Q+A: Grammy-Winning Disco Legend Gloria Gaynor
Plus, win a pair of tickets to see the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra present Danny Elfman's Music from the Films of Tim Burton.
This 53rd edition of Pittsburgh’s annual holiday kick-off event, Light Up Night, is scheduled for this Friday. Once you attend the event once, it quite naturally becomes a tradition; it’s hard to resist the all-day lineup of tree lighting ceremonies, the triangle-spanning live music performances and the culminating fireworks display (scheduled for precisely 9:38 p.m.)
In a special addition for this year’s festivities, Macy’s — site of the beloved holiday window displays — will host a performance by disco legend Gloria Gaynor. Gaynor is best known for her enduring hit, “I Will Survive,” which received the only Grammy ever awarded in the “Best Disco Recording” category.
Gaynor has continued to produce disco, R&B and contemporary Christian records throughout her career, and recently released the book We Will Survive: True Stories of Encouragement, Inspiration, and the Power of Song, which collects true stories of survival from fans around the world.
Gaynor is set to perform at the downtown Macy’s Friday at 6 p.m. After Dark was given the chance to speak with the singer about her career and the lasting impact of disco music.
Your 2012 single “All The Man That I Need” felt like a modern R&B melody laid over disco instrumentation and production — is that the sound you were after?
Yes. It was recorded [for] my last album, I Wish You Love, which was [released] in 2002. A couple of weeks in, the record company shut down the label — but there were so many good songs on [that album]. So I chose a few that I wanted to redo. I’m very pleased with it — it was the producer’s idea to have that kind of a mix to the music.
You put out a Christmas album in 2007; was that your first time recording holiday music?
It was. I wanted to do [a Christmas album] throughout my career, but the manager I had for over 25 years kept putting me off. I think he didn’t think it was viable. Now that I’m handling my career, I’m able to do these things.
Many artists perform Christmas songs, but it seems hard to make them stand out. What was your approach?
Musically, I did want to make them different, and I think they all are very different from the way anyone’s done them. I started singing in jazz; most of the arrangements are pretty jazzy.
Can the audience at Friday’s show expect a mix of your hits and seasonal tunes?
Disco went through a really unfortunate and unfair backlash at the end of the ’70s. Looking back at that period now, why do you think certain people were so opposed to the genre?
I don’t think they ever really were. The thing that started all that hullabaloo came with the Comiskey Park event. [Editor’s Note: On July 12, 1979, a Chicago-area radio DJ hosted “Disco Demolition Night” between games of a doubleheader between the Detroit Tigers and Chicago White Sox at Comiskey Park. Fans were encouraged to bring disco records, which were blown up on-field between the games; the rowdy crowd stormed the field after the explosion, forcing the White Sox to forfeit the second game of the doubleheader.]
I believe they did that [event] because [disco] had so much popularity, which had a negative effect on somebody else’s bank balance. So they decided that disco music had to die. I think they just engendered a mob effect, having people come and burn their albums. Those people who did that — I wonder if they looked back and thought, “If I was so opposed to disco music, why did I have disco records?”
So you didn’t see the anti-disco thing as an organic movement? You think it was driven by rival record companies and media hype?
I think that young people always want to be “in.” They don’t want to be seen as not doing what’s hip. If they said right now that jeans were “out,” young people would stop wearing jeans. Whoever did this knew that the part of the population that spends the most money is the part that wants to be “in.”
Today, though, disco beats and sounds are cropping up in pop, dance — even rock music. Are we far enough removed from that backlash that musicians are no longer afraid of embracing disco?
It’s long ago now. There’s distance between us and that era; people have forgotten about that. Now, young people are more into, “I’m going to do me.” Young artists are really able to do their own thing — no one is standing over them saying, “this is what you need to be doing right now.” They’re getting an opportunity to do whatever they feel.
What artists have you enjoyed recently?
I really like Alicia Keys. I like a lot of the stuff that Beyonce has done. One or two songs from Rihanna have been nice. I love Justin Timberlake and Bruno Mars — in fact, Bruno Mars and Justin Timberlake have sampled beats and rhythms from disco music.
What has it meant to have recorded hits that have endured in popularity throughout your career?
It’s been wonderful, especially with “I Will Survive.” To know that there is a song that has been so popular, and has done so much for so many people that it’s worthy of a book — that lets me know that the song has been so important to so many people. It really adds meaning and purpose to my life.
Enter to Win
In a much different musical event, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra will present Danny Elfman's Music from the Films of Tim Burton this Saturday night. The prolific and gifted composer (and former Oingo Boingo frontman) has a 25-year history of collaborations with Burton, and they’ll all be represented in this performance — including selections from such films as Beetlejuice, Batman, Edward Scissorhands, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Alice in Wonderland, Frankenweenie, and ultra-rare live renditions of songs from The Nightmare Before Christmas.
After Dark has a pair of tickets to give away for Saturday’s concert, but you’ll have to act fast: we’re picking a winner tomorrow at noon. We’ll contact the winner tomorrow afternoon.