After decades on stage, Gladys Knight says it's a gift from God to still be able to soothe souls with a song
Gladys Knight was 4 years old when she began singing publicly, the same year aviator Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier, the transistor was invented and Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Gladys Knight, who was a charttopper with the Pips early in her career, continues to wow crowds in Las Vegas. She'll be performing for the first time in Hawaii Oct. 15.
Celebrating the Golden Jubilee of Brigham Young University-Hawaii
In concert: 7 p.m. Oct. 15
Place: Cannon Activities Center, BYU
Tickets: $35 to $55, available at Aloha Center Front Desk or Ticketmaster outlets. Order by phone at 293-3545
Call: (800) 217-0656
"Ancient, ancient times," Knight says, laughing from her Las Vegas home. "And here I am, still busier than ever."
Knight's five-night-a-week Las Vegas show at the Flamingo Hotel is one of Sin City's top rated. She sings her signatures, "Heard It Through the Grapevine" and "Midnight Train to Georgia," and throws in medleys of Motown and gospel and comedy routines with brother Bubba.
Now Knight, 61, takes center stage in her first Hawaii performance, at Brigham Young University-Hawaii's Jubilee Celebration on Oct. 15.
"I'm blessed," the Atlanta native said. "God gave me a rare gift and my parents made me understand that and not to waste it.
Las Vegas has been Knight's home for more than a quarter-century and being in one place after years on the road has made it easier for her to tend to business -- a record company and chain of restaurants -- managed by daughter Kenya. Knight's company is called Shakeji, named after children Shanga, Kenya and Jimmy, who died in his sleep in 1999 at age 36.
Being grounded also gives Knight a chance to give undivided attention to William McDowell, her fourth husband. "This is the happiest I've ever been as an adult," Knight says.
Knight's first singing gig was at an Atlanta church. As her reputation grew, she circulated through neighboring parishes and eventually to nearby states.
In 1952, at age 8, Knight won the top prize on the televised "Ted Mack Amateur Hour." Then came the Pips -- her brother and sister, Merald ("Bubba") and Brenda, and two cousins, Elenor and William Guest (another cousin, Edward Patten, and Langston George joined the group after Brenda and Elenor left to get married; George left by 1960).
"I did all the throaty vocals and the Pips did harmonies and dance routines," she said. "We got a following on the 'Chitlin Circuit' in the South, and opened for great singers like Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke.
"I've had a wonderful musical journey."
Gladys Knight and the Pips reached mainstream fame after they signed with Motown records in the '60s.
But a career singing wasn't something Knight really wanted. "I was just being obedient to what my parents saw in me. I was more interested in the things the women in my family, my mom, grandmother and aunt were all about: homemaking and cooking and housekeeping. I wanted to be a housewife and mom."
In fact, as her career blossomed, Knight was uncomfortable with the exposure. "I wanted to be at home with my buddies and I wanted to be accepted, and when you start that show biz thing so early in life, well, kids can be kinda cruel. For a lot of kids, it was like, 'Oh, she thinks she's somebody and so cute 'cuz she's been on TV.'
"All I wanted to be is one of the girls. I'm just me."
"Whistle My Love," her first single, was released in 1957, but she and the Pips didn't score a real hit until they began recording with Motown Records in the 1960s. Their version of "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" (1967) crossed over from rhythm and blues to the pop charts. Their popularity increased with "Nitty Gritty," "Friendship Train" and "If I Were Your Woman," combined with touring performances with the Motown Revue and many TV appearances.
Their last Motown single, "Neither One of Us Wants to be the First to Say Goodbye," became their first No. 1 crossover hit and a Grammy winner for Best Pop Vocal Performance in 1973.
Knight clearly remembers the early days doing as many as 60 one-night performances through the South and cooking for themselves because they had little money. It was an intimidating experience for a young woman, but the Pips took care of business affairs and protected her from casting-couch auditions.
When the group traveled to New York to discuss a record deal, Knight sat outside the manager's office while negotiations went on inside with the Pips.
"I never knew why I was outside," she said. "Then I heard all this ruckus, like tables turning over, and I come to find out that the record guy had put an offer on the table -- but for me!
"My guys came out of he office all disheveled and bruised and my husband said, 'Let's get out of here.' "
At 16 she married Atlanta musician Jimmy Newman. They had two children, James and Kenya, before Newman, a drug addict, abandoned the family. He died a few years later.
Knight says her parents gave her and Bubba a good grounding in Scripture, and also taught the value of saving money. "Mom told us we were going to work hard and send that money home and invest it."
When her parents found a two-family home in Detroit in the early 1960s for $19,000, Knight and company bought it. "We've been buying property ever since ... and got involved in tax shelters, because in this business you never know when the career is going to be over."
Knight and the Pips released their final album together, "All Our Love," in 1998. It included the Grammy-winning single "Love Overboard." The next year Knight launched her solo career, recording the title song for the James Bond film "License to Kill" and an album, "A Good Woman," with guest stars Dionne Warwick and Patti Labelle.
These days, when it comes to performing, "It's just me and Bubba," she says of her brother. "The other Pips are happy and healthy, but me and Bubba are still on stage together."
Next month, Knight begins work on a new album, "The Great Ladies of Song," featuring tunes of Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holliday, Sarah Vaughn, Nina Simone and others.
Through her Many Different Roads record label, Knight wants to reach out to others wanting a music career -- but there are rules. "Any upcoming artists who sing pop, R&B, or any other genre are welcome as long as there's no profanity in the music," Knight said. "We didn't do that in the '70s, '60s or '50s. And people don't have to do it now."
Knight credits her success as a calling from God. "If all I do in my life is soothe someone's spirit with a song, then let me do that and I'm happy."