In my new column Random Tracks, I’m reviewing a random hit song from any point in the history of the Billboard Hot 100 going from the chart’s beginning in 1958. To help make my site more interactive, if you like what I’m doing comment and let me know what random hit song you want me to review.
Laura Branigan- “Gloria”
HOT 100 PEAK: #2
WEEK OF PEAK: November 27, 1982
For us Americans, we tend to think of disco more as a cultural moment than a real musical genre, a period in the late ‘70s when everyone went crazy over mindless four on the floor beats dressing up in bell-bottoms and three-piece suits going to fancy clubs engaging in cocaine-fueled orgies until a group of drunk idiots burned disco records at Chicago’s Comiskey Park as part of Disco Demolition Night in July 1979. Disco almost instantly went from a nationwide craze to a punchline. Disco Sucks became the new catchphrase, radio stations dropped disco, the music industry changed disco into dance music, and many disco artists suffered a huge decline after the backlash.
Despite all that, disco didn’t just go away when Americans got sick of it. Disco is in essence an evolution of dance music and is arguably what created dance music as we know it today. As we’ve seen with recent hits from the likes of Dua Lipa, Doja Cat, and Lady Gaga, disco is still very much present in our popular music four decades after its supposed demise.
In Europe though, disco music still thrived after the ‘70s largely because it didn’t suffer from the severe backlash disco suffered in the United States. Disco was still allowed to exist freely and grow as shown by the development of Italo-disco which fused traditional disco elements with more electronic production styles. A lot of these developments largely occurred outside of the American pop charts but there were a few songs that slipped through the cracks with “Gloria,” an Italo-disco turned synth-pop anthem for the St. Louis Blues, being the biggest hit out of them all.
When Laura Branigan broke out with “Gloria,” it had been around for a few years being a European hit for another artist in another language and with a different set of lyrics. The song was originally written by Italian pop singer Umberto Tozzi and songwriter Giancarlo Bigazzi. In Tozzi’s version, “Gloria” is a song about romantic obsession. Tozzi dreams of the titular girl and how he wants to see her and be with her. He will do anything to be with this girl.
Released in June 1979, “Gloria” was a major hit for Tozzi going to #2 in his home country of Italy and Top 10 in a few other European countries including #1 in Switzerland. Listening from an American perspective, the original “Gloria” sounds like a harbinger of what was to come in the ‘80s. It has the kick drum beat, strings, and bass that was common in disco songs of the time but its synth-heavy production and stabs of electric guitar sound like the big-budget sounding synth-pop that would dominate in the decade ahead. It sounds fine but listening to it now it sounds like a rough draft to something better. Mainly a soaring diva voice, production that pumps up the original to anthemic levels, and rewritten lyrics that reinvent the concept of the song.
While Tozzi’s “Gloria” was hitting big in Europe, over in America Laura Branigan was struggling to get her singing career going. Growing up in the Hudson Valley suburbs of New York City, Branigan got her start in music when she played the lead role in her high school music senior year. From there, she studied at New York’s American Academy of Dramatic Arts all while landing various music gigs as the lead singer of a rock band called Meadow and as a backup singer for Leonard Cohen.
Branigan would get her big break when she hooked up with manager Sid Bernstein, the man that helped bring the British Invasion to America a decade earlier, who got Branigan an audition with Atlantic Records and its chairman Ahmet Ertegun. Branigan wound up killing the audition leading to her signing with Atlantic but for a few years the label struggled with how to market her. A lawsuit over a breach of contract also held up Branigan’s breakthrough for a while. Things finally got going with the 1982 release of her self-titled debut album, Branigan, which initially led off with the ballad “All Night With Me” which peaked at #69 on the Billboard Hot 100. But clubs soon picked up on “Gloria” which led to its single release ultimately becoming Laura Branigan’s breakthrough hit and signature song.
For the album, Branigan was paired with German producer Jack White who brought up “Gloria” and proposed she do an English version of the song. Initially, Branigan and her team attempted to cover it straight from the original flipping the genders as “Mario” but it didn’t stick. What came out instead was a re-writing of the lyrics turning it from a first-person song of romantic obsession to a character study of what Branigan described as “a girl that’s running too fast for her own steps.” Branigan co-wrote the new lyrics with Trevor Veitch, who played guitar while White co-produced “Gloria” with Greg Mathieson who played keyboards on Tozzi’s original as well as on Branigan’s version.
As Branigan talked about years later, “Gloria” took a while before it truly hit with many American radio stations at first hesitant to play it, “It was the gay audience that first picked it up, and it was playing on clubs all over the country. The gay community took it and ran with it because a lot of radio stations just thought that it was too European.” Soon after, radio support grew for the song and it broke onto the Hot 100 eventually peaking at #2 behind two songs: Lionel Richie’s “Truly” and Toni Basil’s “Mickey,” the latter of which was produced by Mathieson and Veitch. “Gloria” wound up charting on the Hot 100 for 36 weeks, a record for a solo female act at the time.
In Laura Branigan’s “Gloria,” rather than being a song about romantic obsession it’s now about a woman still chasing a relationship to her own detriment. Branigan is acting as a guide to Gloria on how she should approach settling down while warning her not to settle for the wrong reasons, “Feel your innocence slipping away, don’t believe it’s comin’ back soon.” She warns Gloria to slow down as she could wind up losing her mind bluntly asking if she thinks all the men want her then why aren’t they calling her. Despite the song’s soaring nature, it’s a pretty serious story being told.
Musically, “Gloria” isn’t too much different from Umberto Tozzi’s original. Aside from a key change, the melody and instrumentation are the same but pumped up and better. Where Tozzi’s singing was all sweet and tender, Laura Branigan is loud and powerful delivering the song in a classic big-voiced dance diva style hitting especially hard on the line, “Why isn’t anybody cal-llllllll-lin’?” on the full-length five-minute version.
Production-wise, it’s a banger with Branigan’s version adding a bigger anthemic touch with its spaceship landing opening, triumphant horns and synth riffs, busy walking bass, punchy rock guitars, and glossy pianos. Maybe it’s just hearing Branigan’s version a lot but her version is a better interpretation giving the song a powerful edge it didn’t have before. As the podcast Mobituaries brilliantly put it during a recent profile on Branigan, “It has its own velocity and you are not going to get in the way. It is going to pummel you down.”
By the time “Gloria” peaked on the charts, MTV was well on its way to transforming popular music forever helping to break this type of Euro-driven synth-pop into America. But despite all that, Branigan and her team never made a proper music video. The closest we get is a video of Branigan performing in a sparkly black outfit on a stage surrounded by disco balls. I can’t find information on how it was made or whether it was shown on MTV but had her team put more effort into a music video it probably would have been enough to get “Gloria” over the top. People seriously wanted to hear some Lionel Richie schlock over “Gloria!”
Like many ‘80s songs, “Gloria” has lived on through soundtrack appearances in movies and TV while finding new meaning and appreciation. In 2019, the St. Louis Blues hockey team adopted “Gloria” as their victory anthem after a few players noticed patrons at a bar playing the song while watching a football game. It spread to the rest of the team and fans at a much needed time when St. Louis had the worst record in the NHL up to that point. After discovering “Gloria,” the Blues went onto an 11-game winning streak, playing “Gloria” after every win. The team eventually won the 2019 Stanley Cup continuing to play “Gloria.” The song got so popular that fans requested Branigan perform the song live only to find out she’s been dead since 2004. So that’s “Gloria’s” other legacy: helping a low performing sports team win their league championship against all odds. It’s a story that makes for a good underdog sports movie.
For Laura Branigan, “Gloria” was the beginning in a string of hits through the ‘80s including two songs that became #1 hits for other artists, “How Am I Supposed To Live Without You” for Michael Bolton and “The Power of Love” for Céline Dion. But the success and impact of “Gloria” have overshadowed all those songs with many calling her a one-hit-wonder because of it. While Branigan isn’t a one-hit-wonder, it’s hard to top anything as powerful as “Gloria.”
BONUS BEATS: Here’s “Gloria” soundtracking a figure skating scene in 1983’s Flashdance:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Debbie Reynolds singing “Gloria” on a 2000 episode of Will & Grace:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s “Gloria” being sung at a Christmas pageant on a 2009 episode of The Cleveland Show:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s a bit from a 2015 Family Guy episode where “Gloria” plays on one of Stewie’s robots:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from 2018’s American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace where Darren Criss sings along to “Gloria” while driving:
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