Disco Queen Gloria Gaynor was touring in the U.S. and Europe performing her hit songs including “Never Can Say Goodbye” and the iconic “I Will Survive” when she was nearly sidelined with pain in both of her knees. “It was tough to dance and move around the stage,” she says. A subsequent diagnosis of osteoarthritis left the vivacious singer sitting on the sidelines of her life until her knee replacement in 2009.
Life passing by
At first, Gloria’s knees started feeling achy, especially when she was active. “I felt stiff when I woke up in the morning and twinges of pain climbing stairs.” The pain steadily increased and lingered. “I started feeling uncomfortable all the time,” she says. However, Gloria didn’t seek medical attention; instead, she hoped it would go away on its own.
After months in denial, debilitating pain set in and Gloria, then 46, went to the doctor. “I was experiencing stiffness, pain and lack of mobility in both knees, although the left one was much worse,” she says. She was shocked when the doctor told Gloria she had osteoarthritis, an inflammation in the joints that causes the cartilage in joints to breakdown. This form of arthritis can occur in almost any joint, but most commonly occurs in the weight bearing hips, knees, and spine. “My mother and grandmother both had osteoarthritis so my diagnosis shouldn’t have been surprise, yet it was. I thought I was invincible, that I’d never have what my family had.”
Gloria’s pain took her on a journey that included several different pain medicines and therapies like Cortisone injections, a common steroidal treatment for inflammation. “Those only provided short term relief,” she says. She stopped receiving the injections because the relief was short lived.
A subsequent pain medicine resulted in an emergency trip to the hospital to have her knee flushed out. “I had a terrible reaction. My knee swelled up and the pain was more intense than before the treatment,” she recalls. “I couldn’t keep living like that,” she says.
Her doctor suggested a knee replacement, but Gloria says she was too young for such a dramatic procedure. She was resigned to living with pain and watching life pass her by. “My pain had me on the sidelines. I couldn’t dance or participate in activities with family and friends,” she says. Stairs quickly became her nemesis. “I couldn’t exercise and even walking became terribly painful.”
After enduring constant pain that ranged from aching to excruciating, Gloria reconsidered her doctor’s suggestion in 2009. “It was time to have my left knee replaced,” she says.
Her complete knee replacement didn’t provide the expected results. “The therapy and rehab was grueling. Trying to rebuild the muscles that atrophied was extremely painful because they didn’t want to work.”
After nearly a year, Gloria regained nearly all of her mobility. “Now I can exercise, dance and do just about everything,” she says. Although medicine is currently controlling the pain in her right knee, her doctor says someday she may need that one replaced, too.
“I survived arthritis, it won’t stop me,” she says.
A star is born
Gloria was one of Queenie May Proctor and Daniel Fowles’ combined six children. She grew up in a cramped lower flat in Newark, N.J. and although her father was not present during much of her childhood, Gloria’s maternal grandmother who lived nearby, and was involved in her upbringing.
“There was always music in our house,” she says. “I listened to the radio or records by Nat King Cole and Sarah Vaughn.” Guided by their grandmother, her older brothers sang gospel and formed an all-male quartet with a friend which neither Gloria nor her younger brother, Arthur, were allowed to join because he was too young.
Participating in her school choir, the mixed chorus, and the girls’ glee club helped prepare Gloria to sing in public with house bands in bars and clubs. After performing on the road with several acts and attending several auditions, legendary producer Clive Davis signed Gloria to the Columbia record label. After recording her first disco hit “Never Can Say Goodbye” in 1975, Gloria was named “Queen of the Discos” in 1976.
Celebrating her success was cut short by a serious fall on stage in mid 1978 that left Gloria temporarily paralyzed from the waist down and in need of emergency surgery to repair her spine. Months in a brace that went from her hips to her underarms, spurred her enthusiasm to record “I Will Survive”. Gloria says she’s not surprised b the song’s staying power. She and then husband, music publisher Linwood Simon, felt it had “timeless” lyrics when she recorded it. “It was relatable,” she says.
Gloria’s first love was singing but says teaching is something she’s always remained interested in. She’s currently attending college, study psychology, in the hopes of opening a healing and recreational center in Los Angeles for teen parents after graduating. “I want to teach the kids life skills and offer family counseling,” she says. “To teach them how to survive.”