THE FIRST thing I knew about this song was the lyrics. They were handed to me written on the back of a brown paper bag, for some reason. And I read them, and I remember thinking immediately that this was a hit. I didn't know what the melody was going to be, but I couldn't imagine a melody that was going to alter the power of those lyrics.
My producer had scribbled the lyrics down for me. I had an A-side called 'Substitute' and I was looking to record a B-side. And the producer, Dino Fekaris and the executive producer Freddie Perren had asked if they could be allowed to write it. My manager and I said yes, and they came up with 'I Will Survive', which was only ever intended to be a B-side. But when we heard it, we immediately thought, let's reverse the order, this song is too good to hide away on the back.
The thing was, 'Substitute' was the President's baby - the President of Polydor at the time had made that song a hit in England and he was out to do the same in America. Nobody wanted to come up against the President, so we didn't even bother to try and talk the company into changing it around. My manager said, 'Let's just put the song in the show and see if the public likes it.' I made it the last song in my show and it's been my closer ever since then. Eventually, the disc jockeys in the clubs started playing it and then the radio stations, and eventually the record company decided to put some weight behind 'I Will Survive'.
When I recorded the song, it was five weeks after I had been released from the hospital after spine surgery. That was one of the things I was relating to when I read the lyrics, because obviously spine surgery is a serious thing and people had warned me that I could be paralysed for life. But I hadn't, I had survived. And I had been told I would be convalescing for three months but there I was, five weeks later, in the studio. But I was still pretty weak and I had to periodically sit down on a stool between takes. Incidentally, at the same time, I cut a version of the song sung in Spanish - the first time I had ever done that.
All of the rhythm track was ready when I sung it, but there were no horns or strings on there at that point. Dino Fekaris was a perfectionist - I didn't do too many takes, but he had me double it, sing it twice exactly the same to make it sound stronger. This is actually a harder thing to do than it sounds, to hit the same performance twice, and doing it over and over did start to get to me in the studio. So Freddie Perren took me aside and said, 'Look, not everyone can do this. Dino is simply enjoying working with someone who can. Be flattered rather than aggravated.'
I've not changed the song at all over the years of performing it - maybe little inflections in the lyrics according to how I might be feeling, but never anything with the tempo. I became a born-again Christian in 1982, and when I re-recorded the song for an Italian company in 1990, I asked the writers if I could change one of the lines: from 'It took all the strength I had' to 'Only the Lord could give me strength'. They were possessive about their writing, so I was reluctant to ask. And I was surprised at the response: 'Praise the Lord, Alleluia' - they were born-again too.
I've never tired of singing this song. It's like telling one of those side-splitting jokes: you get to the punchline, people crack up, you're king for a minute - it's a good feeling, specially if you're a ham like I am. I'm aware that it's going to be in my repertoire for ever, but I'm flattered there's a signature song that people associate with me.