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‘I Will Survive’ Is More Than a Song for Gloria Gaynor

TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” is widely regarded as the greatest disco anthem--an expression of such unrelenting determination so glorious that it spent three weeks at No. 1 in 1979 and serves as the foundation of almost every worthwhile disco compilation.

But the recording hasn’t been all good news for Gaynor, because its blockbuster success has led much of the pop world to think of her as a one-hit wonder.

Gaynor’s earlier remake of the Jackson 5’s “Never Can Say Goodbye” did reach the Top 10, but nothing else even cracked the national Top 20.

Polydor’s new Gaynor retrospective should help put Gaynor’s artistry into better perspective. She’s a far more gifted singer than even a “two-hit wonder” tag would suggest. The album is one of two “best of” packages that are rated in this edition of the Vaults.

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*** 1/2 Gloria Gaynor’s “The Best of Gloria Gaynor/The Millennium Collection” (Polydor). It was such a given in the ‘70s that disco was a record producer’s medium rather than a singer’s that I believed it when someone told me a story about where Gaynor supposedly got her name.

According to the story, a record producer who worked with the singer was driving on Magnolia Boulevard in Encino when he crossed Gloria and Gaynor avenues in succession and came up with the stage name.

So the first surprise of this album is that it points out that Gloria Gaynor is the singer’s real name. The second revelation is proof that Gaynor--who was born in 1949 in Newark, N.J.--wasn’t dependent on any single group of producers for success in the studio.

Gaynor already had considerable experience as a club singer and had even recorded briefly for Columbia Records before she teamed up in the early ‘70s with producers Tony Bongiovi, Meco Monardo and Jay Ellis. Together, with the help of remixer Tom Moulton, they tailored her sound to fit the swirling and intense emotional intensity of discos.

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For her first MGM album in 1974, they even wove three songs (“Never Can Say Goodbye,” “Reach Out, I’ll Be There” and “Honeybee”) into a continuous dance jam that filled one entire side.

The single versions of those three tunes open this 12-song package, which also includes four other works by Gaynor with the same producers. Among them: a remake of the Les Paul-Mary Ford hit “How High the Moon.”

It was a moment of truth for Gaynor when she changed producers in the mid-'70s. She didn’t come up with a hit, working with Gregg Diamond and Joe Beck on the restrained “Most of All,” but Brian Chin, in his liner notes, calls the song “a club classic,” and it does fit nicely with the rest of the album. Gaynor then turned to other producers, but still no new hits.

So, as Chin notes, Gaynor must have felt her career was truly hitting bottom when she fell from a stage in 1978 and had to be hospitalized. She was still wearing a body cast when she went into the recording studio with another production team: Dino Fekaris and Freddie Perren.

The pair had two of their own compositions waiting. The first was “Substitute,” a good-natured tale of romantic infatuation that became the A-side of Gaynor’s next single. But the record company had trouble getting the song played on the radio, and it looked like the single was going to be a flop until a New York club DJ, Richie Kaczor, fell in love with the song on the B-side of the record.

That song was “I Will Survive,” and it was soon on its way to the top of the charts.

This collection also contains “Let Me Know (I Have a Right),” another song by Fekaris and Perren in the self-affirmative style of “I Will Survive.” Though the song remains in the shadow of “I Will Survive,” it reached No. 42 on the pop charts and deserves a spot on any comprehensive disco anthology.

Gaynor continues making music and has even been a musical guest on the television show “Ally McBeal,” making her part of a soulfully elite group of recurring guest stars that includes Al Green and Barry White.

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*** Brook Benton’s “The Best of Brook Benton/The Millennium Collection” (Mercury). Unlike Gaynor, Benton did have a stage name--and he did have lots of hits. Born Benjamin Franklin Peay in 1931 in Camden, S.C., Benton was in various gospel groups before launching a secular solo career.

After success co-writing such hits as “Looking Back” (for Nat King Cole) and “A Lover’s Question” (for Clyde McPhatter), Benton’s reached No. 3 on the charts in 1959 with “It’s Just a Matter of Time,” a country-accented tune that was tailored for Benton’s smooth, silky vocal style.

Benton and producer Clyde Otis picked up the tempo a bit on a couple of other ‘50s hits, “Endlessly” and “Thank You Pretty Baby.” But it was another smooth ballad, “So Many Ways,” that reintroduced Benton to the Top 10 in 1959.

The singer’s next great track, however, was his 1960 teaming with Dinah Washington on the playful “Baby (You’ve Got What It Takes).” The song worked so well that the singers teamed up again for another good-natured hit, “A Rockin’ Good Way (To Mess Around and Fall in Love).”

There was more good stuff to come in Benton’s career, notably his moody 1970 version of Tony Joe White’s “Rainy Night in Georgia,” which is the song most people identify with him.

Benton’s work here is uneven, but at his best his style blended the elegance of Cole and the down-home soulfulness of Otis Redding. Benton died in 1988.

*

Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent).

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