Growing up in Atlanta, Gladys Knight accepted that she was talented only after she understood that her talents were God’s gifts to her.
“I started to have faith in the talents He gave me,” Knight told the Ashville (N.C.) Citizen-Times.
Knight’s family was as devout as it was musical and as musical as it was devout. Actually, their devoutness surely had the edge on their musicality, but it was all intertwined.
“My mom and dad sang in the church choir,” Knight told the Deseret News. “They also had a local group. They loved music, especially my dad. I’ve done part of my family history, but I haven’t delved too much into what their professions were. I do know that on my mom’s side, my uncle sang and had a gospel group. He also had a radio show he would do on Sundays with his quartet. He would take me down on Sunday with him sometimes and let me sit in the studio. Sometimes he would ask me if I wanted to sing.”
Everybody in Knight’s family either sang or played an instrument, although no one was compelled to do either.
“I loved that about my family,” Knight said. “It wasn’t like, ‘You are going to do this or that.’ It was always, ‘Would you like to?’ They always gave me the options.”
Knight selected her options well. She’s had a storied musical career spanning almost as many decades as she’s lived through. Someone once dubbed Knight “The Empress of Soul,” which wasn’t a hollow public relations maneuver; the title fits her.
You can see why while Knight performs on Aug. 21 at Sweetwater Pavilion.
Knight’s Got Talent
At eight years old, Knight won a precursor of America’s Got Talent called Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour. She and several family members went on to form the Pips, named after Cousin James “Pip” Woods. It would be a few years before Knight was given top billing in the group’s name.
Gladys Knight and the Pips scored hits throughout the 1960s and ’70s with “Letter Full of Tears,” “Every Beat of My Heart,” “Neither One of Us (Wants to Be the First to Say Goodbye),” and “Midnight Train to Georgia.”
It isn’t widely known, but “Midnight Train to Georgia” was inspired by a phone conversation that its composer, Jim Weatherly, had with actress Farrah Fawcett.
Weatherly called looking for actor Lee Majors, who was a college buddy, only to be told by Fawcett, Major’s then-wife, that he’d taken a “midnight plane to Houston.”
The song Weatherly subsequently wrote was called “Midnight Plane to Houston” until Cissy Houston convinced him to change “plane” to “train” and “Houston” to “Georgia.”
Knight heard Houston’s version and thought she could put her own spin on it.
“I listened to Cissy’s version and loved it,” Knight told The Wall Street Journal. “But I knew I wanted to do something different. I wanted an Al Green thing, you know, something moody with a little ride to it. I’ve always liked my tracks full — horns, keyboards, and other instruments — to create texture and spark something in me.
“I also wanted to change a few of Jim’s original lyrics, add a word or two and take out a few. So I’d call him every day. I’d say, ‘Hey Jim, what do you think of ‘So he’s leaving a life he’s come to know?’ instead of ‘we’ve come to know?’ Jim was cool with everything. He allowed us that freedom.”
Knight brought a depth of feeling to her performance of the song that went beyond mere professionalism.
“While recording that single, I was thinking about my own situation,” she said. “My husband at the time was a beautiful saxophonist and so gifted. But he was unhappy that we didn’t have a more traditional marriage because I was often on the road or recording. Ultimately it all proved too much for him, like the song said, and we divorced later, in ’73. I was going through the exact same thing that I was singing about when recording, which is probably why it sounds so personal.”
Loving Love Songs
Knight loves love songs and has made hits out of many, but her ideas about what constitutes a love song don’t always jibe with prevailing trends.
“It’s such a wonderful, powerful emotion,” she told the Asbury (N.J.) Park Press. “Love is the greatest thing, and I’m not talking about the sexual kind. The songs I sing about have to do with the magical moments, which are meeting and that first kiss. Those are things that you remember.”
There are too few magical moments in today’s pop music and too many mercenary moments, Knight believes.
“You just don’t have many people singing romantic songs today,” she said. “It’s a shame. I’m all about the romance. It’s all about sex today, and if it’s not about sex, it’s about revenge or about buying things. Things have changed a lot in the industry, but it should be all about love. That’s what I live for, and that’s what I still sing about.”
Love won’t just save music, Knight feels, but it’ll save mankind.
“The value of life — L-I-F-E — has become so cheap,” she told the Los Angeles Times. “People kill each other, and it’s senseless so often. It goes back to the basic and the moral. We have no fear of God anymore. Too many of us don’t even believe in him.
“We just get lower and lower when we make those kinds of choices,” Knight said. “I know I’m not the only one out there saying, ‘Where are we going?’ We’re out there in the wilderness and we won’t find our way back without love.”
Knight is grateful for the continued support of her fanbase and knows she isn’t owed anything.
“Nobody has to like me. Nobody has to support me,” she said. “It’s a blessing. So ain’t no need for me to get all up in the air about it.”