Gladys Knight and the Pips spent the whole of the 1960s polishing their reputation as one of the most luminous jewels in the Motown crown. As the decade turned, their relationship with the company may only have had another three years or so to run, but their soulful standards remained sky-high, as underlined by the brilliance of the ballad we remember today, their final Motown R&B No. 1 “If I Were Your Woman.”
After an initial breakthrough on Vee-Jay in 1961 with the chart-topping “Every Beat Of My Heart,” the family group from Atlanta bestowed Berry Gordy’s empire with a succession of glorious recordings. They included the pre-Marvin Gaye, 1967 No. 1 version of “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” and numerous other major R&B and crossover hits including “The End Of Our Road,” “The Nitty Gritty” and “Friendship Train.”
1970 had already provided Knight and the Pips with a top three success via “You Need Love Like I Do (Don’t You),” when a song that chimed in with the then-current rise of the Women’s Lib movement arrived circuitously at their door. “If I Were Your Woman” was a stirring ballad written by the prolific composer Pam Sawyer and writer-artist Gloria Jones, best known for her original version (and Northern Soul hymn) of “Tainted Love” (and, later, for being Marc Bolan’s partner).
The backing track for “Woman” was recorded in February 1970 and Jones added a demo vocal some weeks later. When, as The Complete Motown Singles Vol. 10 recounts, they took it to producer-engineer Clay McMurray, his first choice to cut it was Sondra ‘Blinky’ Williams, and his second the Supremes, then getting used to life without Diana Ross.
The man who pointed the song in Knight’s direction was Norman Whitfield, who was producing and (with Barrett Strong) co-writing the group’s hits of the time. The lyrical sentiment was, at first, a little too strident for the singer’s liking, but thankfully she relented. With her spine-chilling vocal performance and the Pips as dependably soulful as ever, the song entered the R&B chart on 28 November 1970.
John Abbey’s British review of “If I Were Your Woman” mildly admonishes Motown’s U.K. distributor EMI for not releasing the song in the U.K. until 1971
On the 23 January survey, the song climbed to the summit to become the group’s second Motown, and third overall, soul No. 1. It received two Grammy nominations. The Supremes, for their part, did get to record “If I Were Your Woman” in 1971, in a version that wasn’t released until 2006.
By then, Stephanie Mills had taken the song back into the R&B Top 20 in 1988, the same year that George Michael performed it at the Nelson Mandela Tribute Concert at Wembley Stadium in London.