Gladys Knight: Soul Perfection In Person
By David Nathan
In person interview, conducted in London, November 1972
IT'S A VERY rare treat to meet an artist whose work you admire and whose in-person appearances you find exciting and who on top of all this is just as wonderful as you hope they'll be. But that is the good fortune in store for anyone who has the pleasure to meet the very soulful Miss Gladys Knight.Indeed, she is easily one of the most charming ladies it's ever been my privilege to meet and she gives out exactly the same warmth and exuberance she lets out on stage. Meeting her, you find that it's all very, very real, and in fact, Gladys is a very real and down-to-earth person, who's both considerate and enormously interesting to talk with.
Making what is only her second ever trip to the country with the Pips (brother Merald "Bubba" Knight, and cousins William Guest and Edward Patten), Gladys has been more than happy with the reaction she's met wherever she's been on her present British tour. Knowing that the group hasn't enjoyed the kind of chart success it should have had in the country, she was more than surprised at the tremendous response she got at the November 5, 1971 London Palladium concert, and she has nothing but praise for the smooth way everything's been handled during the trip. Indeed, all in all, Gladys and The Pips have enjoyed very considerable success in every venture they've tackled this year since coming under the helm of Sidney Seidleberg's S.A.S. Management company who are also responsible for B.B.King. "Everything's gone so well and we no longer feel as if were out there banging our heads against a wall – everything we do is now noted and publicized" says Gladys.
The group's record career was lifted out of a period in the doldrums in 1971 with a major smash in the form of 'If I Were Your Woman', produced by Clay McMurray. It was written specifically for Gladys by Pam Sawyer and Gloria Jones although Gladys confesses she was never really knocked out with the song. Needless to say, she was more than happy when the song went sailing past the million selling mark. The story behind the follow-up was the case of Gladys having faith in the song more than anyone else though.
"We recorded 'I Don't Want To Do Wrong' back in 1969 but no one really considered it worthy of release. Somehow they just put it on the If I Were Your Woman album and it took off from there. It came as quite a shock to everyone." And Gladys was particularly pleased at its success since she co-authored the song. Indeed her writing ability is something to reckon with. She explained, "I'd been writing things for years – without really considering them good enough to use. Johnny Bristol and I wrote 'Do You Love Me Just A Little Honey' together and of course as he's Junior Walker's producer too, he gave him 'Right On Brothers And Sisters' which I'd written specifically with him in mind." In addition Gladys was responsible for 'If I Could Build My Whole World Around You' for Marvin and Tammi.
Although towards the beginning of their Motown career the group hadn't too much say in what they recorded, they now play a much larger role and their last single, 'Help Me Make It Through The Night' came originally from their stage act. The rapping at the beginning was of Gladys own composition and the record was cut when the group were playing in Las Vegas. That indeed is a sign of just how far the group have come.
However Gladys claims the group has not had to compromise en route. "There are a lot of standards – pretty songs – that we were never able to include in our act until we started playing places like Vegas and the Copa. They're songs we'd always wanted to do but never had the opportunity." Which doesn't mean that Gladys drops her own material when playing such plush venues – rather she tries to combine the two. In fact, no matter where performed, their stage act has always been a great source of favorable comment, its slickness and togetherness continually stunning cities wherever they go. "But," Gladys maintains, "we've been doing that for twelve years or so now – it's just that our audiences have become that much wider. We've always put a lot of hard work into the act and spend a lot of time selecting what goes into it each night. It's very important how we line up the songs, and we always decide what the songs are we're gonna do before the show. We usually get the 'feel' of the place when we get there and the vibrations of the audience as soon as we step out on stage."
When it comes to singing of course, Gladys has few peers. Although she may have to sing the same song night after night, Gladys never fails to thrill the audiences, simply because she becomes so totally involved in what she's singing and although she may not have necessarily experienced the situation she's singing about (she says she's led, in many ways, a sheltered life) she uses her "vivid imagination".
Gladys is one of those very remarkable people who does not suffer from nerves before a show although she says she concentrates hard on it beforehand. And she's a real trouper – priding herself and the group on their dependability; quite something in these days when cancelling gigs is by no means uncommon. She recounted exactly what happened on their first night in Las Vegas sharing the bill with Sammy Davis Jr. "I remember feeling a bit warm before the show – I'd had a tickling cough though I thought it was nothing. By the end of the first show, I began to feel pretty bad and called for a doctor. When he arrived he took one look at me and said 'Girl, I don't know how you do it. You've got bronchitis and you should be straight in bed'." Gladys insisted on following that motto 'the show must go on' and she spent the rest of the month in Vegas simply appearing on stage and recuperating in bed.
But sheer hard work and determination are no strangers to Gladys Knight and The Pips. She has a good deal of respect for her fellow entertainers and she feels they have a major responsibility particularly to young people to set a good example. Believing that everyone should be allowed to do what they wish in their private lives, she does feel that some of her colleagues let the side down by letting the seamier side of some of their lives become public knowledge. She's particularly worried that young people should not associate entertaining with drugs and of the subject she simply says, "I get my natural high just singing." Gladys also feels that as a Black woman and indeed as a Black group who've stayed together for so long, she and The Pips have a guiding role to play for young Black people in particular who can look up to the success the group have achieved and realize that it can be done.
Naturally spending as much time as she does on the road. Gladys has precious little time to stay at home in Detroit with her two children James, 10, and Kenya, 9 (called incidentally, after the country of the same name), although she considers this to be a very important aspect of her life. Indeed, during the summer vacation the children accompany their talented mother wherever she goes. Whenever she is at home, Gladys finds little time to listen to music, "what with the housework and cooking meals," but when she does it's just as likely to be a classical symphony, music which she finds particularly relaxing.
The future for Gladys Knight and The Pips looks very rosy. Gladys says the group still have many, many goals to achieve – they want to get a platinum selling record and they also went to branch out into producing whilst Gladys herself wants to increase her writing output. Right now the group have close on two albums worth of material in the can from which will be from a long overdue single and new LP. When they get back home they've got a series of one-nighters throughout the States which should more or less take them up to the end of the year. They're hoping to get back here soon – the response has been such that there're already looking forward to a return visit.
And meeting up with Miss Gladys Knight, who is as beautiful as she is charming will be something well worth the wait. Gladys has natural talent and, more than anything else, she is a very thoroughly natural woman in the very nicest possible way.
Soul Perfection In Motion: Gladys Knight & The Pips, London Palladium (Show Review)
ONE OF THE biggest problems facing a performer is the ability to interpret live in concert what they've been able to produce in a studio – and there aren't many artists around who are able to do so. Even fewer are those who can actually surpass in person what they've recorded but falling without any problem into this selected set and coming way up front are a group whose stage act has earned them a much envied reputation; a group whose brilliance has made them one of the most sought after within our music: Gladys Knight & The Pips.
If you've ever thrilled to the spine tingling yet velvet tones of Miss Knight – and surely no self-respecting soul fan hasn't at some time been moved by this lady's magnificent voice – or to the outstandingly tight close harmonics of The Pips then you haven't heard a thing until you witness the glorious group in action. A completely feminine lady, whose feline grace and elegance can hardly be rivaled by any of her contemporaries (and precious few even come near to being in her class), Gladys Knight is the embodiment of what soul is all about; she oozes emotion with every move, every step. Not content with flooring you with her unique vocal and emotional range, she leaves you breathless with the dynamism she gives out.
Pulling out all the stops and using every power at her command, Gladys Knight simply tells you just exactly where it's at, whether rocking to 'The Nitty Gritty' or baring her soul with 'I Don't Want To Do Wrong'. Indeed she is soul artistry personified. And The Pips, with their slick choreography, are more or less unrivalled and they provide the perfect vocal backdrop for Gladys to tell it like it is. And brother does she tell it.
With no disrespect to the group it came as a very pleasant surprise to find the London Palladium completely packed for the Sunday November 5 1971 show. It's always been looked on as a big disgrace that Gladys and The Pips have never fully enjoyed the chart success they've more than deserved in this country, so to find such a full house – and such an enthusiastic one at that – indicates that the group has a far bigger following than anyone dared expect.
And November 5 did offer strong competition; after all it was Guy Fawkes' Night and the television companies were battling it out with South Pacific and The Royal Command Performance. But the faithful turned out – and were more than amply reworded.
What followed can be described as a veritable soul explosion. How else can anyone described the majesty, the presence, the glory of Gladys Knight and The Pips? I make absolutely no excuses for raving – this group has its own place in the history of modern soul music and it's a place they've earned with sheer hard work and talent. And their "arrival" so to speak, hasn't came a moment too soon.
Even before the curtain was raised the audience were ready. You could almost see the tension mount as the strains of their famous 'Giving Up' heralded the imminent appearance of the group. Getting everything going with the funky 'Nitty Gritty', it wasn't too long before everyone sat completely spellbound as Gladys poured her heart and soul into such classics as 'Every Beat Of My Heart', their hit from 1961, and the ultra-soulful million selling 'If I Were Your Woman'. After hearing the kind of response that got, the mind boggles as to just why it wasn't a massive hit in this country. Allowing The Pips to demonstrate fully their exceptional choreography came 'Heavy Makes You Happy' and 'Just Walk In My Shoes', the group's initial Motown single.
As if that weren't enough, the group bounded on, urging everyone to get on the 'Friendship Train' and who could resist joining in, clapping and stomping along. For once, there was no need any call to audience to participate – they did so without any asking.
'Giving Up' has long been a soul favourite, having been recorded by several artists now, and it has rightly become a classic. Hearing it live you are reminded that Miss Knight and The Pips had the original and that whoever else may do it, no one can do it justice in quite the way they do. The Pips lent sympathetic harmony, whilst Gladys filled the theatre with her pleading, aching voice.
Turning then, to lighter things, Gladys found time to joke when her bass guitarist's string chose to break – "it's taken us twenty years to get to the Palladium and his string has to break now!", and there was a great deal of humor when the lady chose to introduce her Pips, purposely forgetting brother Merald. The humourous patter brought great response from the audience, who loved every minute.
'I Don't Want To Do Wrong' was a rare treat with Gladys soaring, swooping and generally delighting everyone with her raw brand of soul-searching. Yet another major success from the group came in the finale of 'I Heard It Through The Grapevine', which was a fine excuse for complete audience participation. It also demonstrated the excellent relationship the Gladys Knight can develop with an audience – although in all truth, every single member was in her corner, right from the word go and she was continually spurred on to greater heights with continual exhortations from the crowd.
Sadly, it did all have to come to an end, but not before the audience had screamed and bellowed for more. Time unfortunately takes its toll and there was no more. But everyone who left the Palladium that night was filled with the sense of having seen and heard something wonderful, an experience of a lifetime. They'd just witnessed an act with class, dignity, dynamism and one helluva lot of soul!