Artist of the month
Gladys Knight & The Pips
ARTIST OF THE MONTH
She never stops. This year, for instance, Gladys Knight has been wowing audiences at two of the world’s most historic music venues, the Hollywood Bowl and the Royal Albert Hall. If proof was still needed of the career longevity associated with so many Classic Motown artists, there you have it. Now, take some Knight time to read about Gladys & the Pips’ Motown years, test your knowledge of their achievements, and most important of all, listen to their music.
- When Gladys Knight played the 95th summer season of the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles this August, she was introduced by four of her granddaughters. Then again, she knows about children and music: Gladys was eight years old when her mother entered her for a TV talent show, Ted Mack’s The Original Amateur Hour. It put Knight onto the path she’s still traveling today. Now, in her early seventies, Gladys is displaying no desire to slow down. The Hollywood Bowl concert was “a non-stop musical extravaganza, exquisitely choreographed, for more than one-and-a-half hours,” according to one eyewitness. At the Albert Hall, Gladys joked about her age: “The young ones say, ‘What are you doing out here?’ I tell them, ‘I guess they aren’t through with me yet.’”
- One “young one” is grateful for Gladys’ experience and wisdom. Singer/songwriter Avehre from Chicago sang backup for the star on tour several years ago, and is now readying the release of new music, an EP called Reconciliation. “I started to do some songwriting,” Avehre told The Boombox, “and [Gladys] approached me and said, ‘You know, I’ve never really done this before, but I really want you to consider being my protégé.’ And how do you say ‘no’ to Gladys Knight?” Apparently, you don’t. “Avehre is an amazing, talented and respectful young man,” declares Gladys, who has since signed him to her own independent label.
- Earlier still, another youngster enjoyed Gladys’ endorsement, but hers was a career cut short by tragedy: Aaliyah, the Brooklyn-born hitmaker who perished in a plane crash 15 years ago this summer, at age 22. “From an early age, I knew she had enormous talents, an intrinsic gift,” recalled Gladys. “When she first performed with me in Las Vegas, she was still quite young, but she already had it – that spark the world would later see and fall in love with.” This star-in-the-making was Gladys’ niece; Knight was once married to Aaliyah’s uncle, Barry Hankerson. (Their son, Shanga Hankerson, owns and operates restaurants in Atlanta, dubbed “Gladys Knight’s Chicken & Waffles.”)
- This year marks yet another anniversary for Gladys and the Pips, whose members were her brother Merald “Bubba” Knight and their two cousins, William Guest and Edward Patten. It was in 1966 that they joined Motown Records, making a decision which was to grant them no fewer than eight Top 20 pop hits from ’66 to 1973, including the almighty “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” and the heart-searing “If I Were Your Woman.” That contract a half-century ago also reunited them with a key figure from even earlier days: choreographer Cholly Atkins. He had helped prepare and polish their stage act pre-Motown, then was hired by Berry Gordy’s company in 1965. The following year, when Gordy recruited Gladys & the Pips to his artist roster, Cholly was allowed to keep them as personal clients.
- Gladys Knight & the Pips were good at issuing instructions, which resonated with U.K. music buyers, in particular. “Take Me In Your Arms And Love Me” was their second Motown single (on its Soul subsidiary label) and a Top 20 pop hit in Britain – the group’s first Motown crossover success anywhere. In fact, the record ranked higher on the U.K. pop charts than on the equivalent Billboard Hot 100 back home. Six years later, another of Gladys’ commands, “Help Me Make It Through The Night,” became the quartet’s biggest British hit during their Motown years, reaching No. 11. In America, it failed to make the pop Top 30 or the R&B Top 10.
- American record buyers turned the tables on the Brits when it came to “I Heard It Through The Grapevine.” Gladys & the Pips’ 1967 smash – the first released recording of the song – represented their finest hour at Motown, reaching No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and spending six weeks at No. 1 on the R&B charts. “It wasn’t just a hit for us,” Gladys recalled in her autobiography, Between Each Line of Pain and Glory, “it was a work permit, and work kept flowing our way. We moved right on up to the plum spots with chairs in the dressing rooms instead of stools or boxes.” In the U.K., inexplicably, “Grapevine” stalled at No. 47, despite the fact that the foursome travelled there for promotion and a well-received concert at London’s Saville Theatre at the time of the record’s release.
- Gladys wasn’t the only one to tell their remarkable tale. In 2013, William Guest published Midnight Train FROM Georgia: A Pip’s Journey, an autobiography created with his sister-in-law, Dhyana Ziegler. “A perfect vocal harmony, soothing melody, synchronized dancing, and spinning as we start performing our finale, worked the crowd,” Guest writes of a typical show. “We gave it all we had.” Guest died at age 74 last December, more than six decades years after the Pips were formed and 10 years after Edward Patten’s passing. “We tried using our gifts of music in a way that would be pleasing to God,” Gladys declared of her Pips. “I say thank you, Lord, for a long and wonderful ride.”
- It’s still Knight Time. Virtually all the group’s Motown albums, from 1967’s Everybody Needs Love to 1975’s A Little Knight Music, are available digitally for downloading or streaming, as are subsequent compilations of their hits. In her tireless solo shows at home and abroad, Gladys performs those classic hits, along with interpretations of modern material. In New Orleans in June, for example, she sang Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me.” Last year in London, she offered her takes on Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” (joined on stage by brother Merald) and Bruno Mars’ “When I Was Your Man,” the latter song segued – naturally – into “If I Were Your Woman.” And she had one last command for the audience: “When you leave here, please drive carefully. I need to see you next time I come.”
IN BERRY GORDY’S WORDS:
“When I had first seen Gladys Knight and the Pips perform at the Apollo in 1966, I knew right away how sensational they were. Gladys was smart. She could talk to an audience and articulate what she wanted to say with just the right words. And those Pips – her brother Merald and cousins Edward Patten and William Guest. Smooth. Sharp. They were dynamite backup for Gladys, complementing her on every turn. I was impressed with their class, artistry and stage presence. And on top of that, Gladys could ‘sang.’ What a voice!”
IN GLADYS KNIGHT’S WORDS:
“Did we really want to be part of an outfit that had its own company song (written by Smokey) about how neat, clean, united and swinging its employees were? Still, the guys argued, we definitely could use some of Hitsville’s hit-making powers. The one missing handhold in our climb to the upper levels was a steady string of hit records. As usual we put it to a vote with each of us having equal voting power. It was 3-1. I was outvoted, which was nothing unusual.”