It’s Gladys Knight’s business why she accepted an invitation to sing “The Star Spangled Banner” at last weekend’s Super Bowl after several prominent artists, acting in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick, had turned down the half-time show. Gladys started her performing career in 1952, when she was seven years old. She’s known a long lifetime of ups and downs. As far as I’m concerned, she’s entitled to make her own arrangements.
Like Aretha, Gladys can move me to tears. But I feel something about her that I don’t feel about Aretha. Where Aretha sang from the top of Mount Olympus, somehow untouchable if not invulnerable, Gladys sings from across the kitchen table. Her triumphs and troubles are yours, and vice versa.
I have a special playlist of recordings by Gladys Knight and the Pips. Most of them are from her Motown era, which lasted from 1966 to 1973. They start with the beautiful remakes of her earlier hits with the Pips: “Every Beat of My Heart”, “Letter Full of Tears” and “Giving Up”. They continue with “Just Walk in My Shoes”, “Didn’t You Know (You’d Have to Cry Sometime)”, “If I Were Your Woman” and “Make Me the Woman You Go Home To”. They also include album tracks like “The Look of Love”, “Can You Give Me Love With a Guarantee”, “If You’re Gonna Leave (Just Leave)”, “No One Could Love You More”, “Here Are the Pieces of My Broken Heart” and “Signed Gladys”. The writing, playing and production on each of them lives up to the standard set by her singing.
She and the Pips left Motown because they didn’t feel they were getting the sort of priority treatment they believed Berry Gordy had promised them. Over the next few years they were occasionally able to show him what he was missing. With Buddah (1973-78) and Columbia (1980-85), they recorded the hits that are most likely to turn up on daytime radio.
Those years are the subject of a new 2CD compilation called On and On: The Buddah/Columbia Anthology. The 20 tracks on the Buddah disc show them veering perilously close to the middle of the road, but they include two of the most perfect pop records ever made in “Midnight Train to Georgia” and “Baby Don’t Change Your Mind”, plus soulful sides like “I’ve Got to Use My Imagination”, “On and On”, “The Makings of You”, “Make Yours a Happy Home” and “Part Time Love”. The disco boom was in full flood when they arrived at Columbia, who teamed them with Nik Ashford and Valerie Simpson for the elegantly devastating “Taste of Bitter Love” and several other fine tracks, including “Landlord” and “Bourgie Bourgie”.
The best of the songwriters and arrangers who worked with them understood the special relationship between Gladys and the Pips, who could be used not just to underline what she was saying but to issue reminders or warnings, and sometimes answer her back. But mostly the producers cleared a space for her artistry, for the way she got directly to the heart of a lyric, opening up her own heart in the process, adding the occasional unforced “ooh” or “mmm” that sounded like she was talking to herself.
Maybe my favourite of all her great moments is when she starts “If You’re Gonna Leave (Just Leave)” with a hesitation over the very first word of the opening line. It feels exactly like the way you might begin the hardest conversation of your life. Signed Gladys, as always.
* On and On: The Buddah/Columbia Anthology is released in Soul Music Records’ Classics series.
Gladys was always, and remains my favourite female voice of Motown (Levi Stubbs takes the male prize). Words can’t do her justice, but just listen, as you do, Richard, to “Didn’t you know….”and you should understand why. She never had to shout, wail or scream…her gentle mid range voice does it all, effortlessly. The fact that this song was also a favourite of my late work colleague, Penny Valentine, whom I not only adored, but who suggested that I should share a flat in 1968 with the girl who has been my dear wife for nearly 50 years, adds to the conviction!
David — I never hear “Didn’t You Know” without thinking of PV.
I too adore Gladys. Her duetting with BB King on Percy Mayfield’s wonderful Please Send Me Someone To Love is just gorgeous (with lovely Paul Butterfield harp behind her).
Mark Pringle Chief Archivist Rock’s Backpages Suite 502, Britannia House 1-11 Glenthorne Road London W6 0LH +447768 275 912
“I heard it through the grapevine” beats Marvin’s version hands down
I seem to remember that she was originally planned to be the female counterpart to Ray Charles in the (mediocre) Norman Granz recording of Porgy & Bess? The deal fell through over billing and money and Cleo Lane came in. I’d have liked to have heard Gladys sometimes in a more jazz context, she certainly had the voice.
Totally disagree with her about the anthem stance. Her justification is waffle.
Superb and timely reminder that Gladys and the Pips are up there with the Soul greats. “Midnight Train to Georgia” is indeed true pop/soul greatness and the Motown period is greatly underated. The Pips’ dance routines were a thing wonder and I always thought their contributions formed an integral part of the appeal. Thanks Richard.
“Part Time Love” (1975) must be one of her finest moments. Somehow, it has always reminded me of Leon Russell’s ” A Song For You”.
In ‘Save the Overtime (for me)’ the way she sings, “My love starts to come down hard on me”. a minute and a half in, is one of many delights in a fine record.
‘The Way We were/Try to Remember’ is never dulled by overexposure, especially “Memories may beautiful and yet” onwards.
I remember reading once that Gladys and Laura Nyro were Val Wilmers favourite female vocalists, and thinking, me too.
Sounds a pretty fine playlist seperating the wheat from the chaff, with such a long career inconsistency is to be expected
If there’s such a thing as reincarnation, I want to come back as one of Gladys Knight’s Pips.
Dear MS. Gladys Knight I loved when you sang The Star Spangle Banner at Super Bowl LIII.. I have been a fan of your music since I was 4 years old. Love you and the music that you sing, it touches my heart and restores my soul.. 1 thing on my bucket list is to meet you.. I pray that my dream come true.. If it don’t, I will keep on listening to your music.. Much Love your fan.. Cynthia Burwell…
Gladys is a Georgia girl, born in Atlanta. For her to sing the National Anthem at a Super Bowl played in her hometown makes absolute sense and did her city proud. She owes no apologies – nor explanations- to anyone.
Well done Gladys.
Even the titles of the songs you have mentioned have converted me to this music, before my even beginning to listen to it. A beautifully written piece. Not afraid of showing my ignorance here.
a few years back, there was a bbc radio show about the power of backing singers and the bit that really took hold of the head was a breakdown of the pips on midnight train . . . here’s what the pips sing – it’s like the song is a stereogram and this is their half . . . how can anyone impersonate train whistles and still hit the heart?
Too much for the man, he couldn’t make it
He said he’s going
Going back to find
Leaving on the midnight train
Going back to find
Whenever he takes that ride, guess who’s gonna be right by his side
I know you will
Leaving on a midnight train to Georgia, woo woo
Live in his world
Her world is his, his and hers alone
How ’bout that tear in G’s voice on ‘Neither One Of Us’? Slays me every time. And I too adore the Sam Dees cowrite ‘Save the Overtime For Me’. Great piece about one of the greats, Richard. I wouldn’t forgive everyone for breaking the Kaepernick “boycott”.