By Breanna Nesbeth, Staff Writer
To celebrate Black Music Month, we are excited to be bringing back our Vault of Soul series. Step inside the vault to discover the life and legacy of some of the world's greatest soul artists, both past and present. Starting today, every Thursday of June there will be a new artist spotlighted. Who better to kick it off than Gladys Knight & the Pips? Continue reading to uncover their incredible and impactful career.
A RISING YOUNG TALENT
Frontwoman of the Atlanta-native R&B, soul, funk family music group Gladys Knight & the Pips, the “Empress of Soul” Gladys Knight was born to be one of music’s superstars. Her parents were singers in the Wings Over Jordan gospel choir.
Knight began singing gospel music at the Mount Moriah Baptist Church and had her first recital in 1948. Gladys then toured southern churches with the Morris Brown Choir of Atlanta, Georgia from 1950 through 1953. She also performed in recitals at local churches and schools.
When she was just seven years old, Knight won her first award on Ted Mack's Original Amateur Hour television show contest.
THE FORMATION OF “THE PIPS”
Just a year later, in 1953, her and her brother Bubba, sister Brenda, and their cousins William and Eleanor Guest joined together to form "The Pips," the titular crew behind Gladys. The name “The Pips” came from another cousin, James “Pip” Woods, a fact that cements the sentiment that family meant everything to the group.
They began touring, and the group gained a reputation of being well-polished performers – electrifying to watch. Part of this credit went to their choreographer Cholly Atkins, who helped develop their unique dance routines that involved “fast-stepping.” This eventually became a signature of the groups’ stage performances.
FINDING COMMERCIAL SUCCESS
In 1966, Knight and the Pips signed with Motown Records, where their 1966 hit “Everybody Needs Love” became a top-40 hit. This hit was followed by the breakthrough success of "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," which became a number-two pop hit on the Billboard Hot 100 and a number-one R&B hit for six weeks. The record was Motown’s best-selling single ever, accumulating 2.5 million copies sold.
A few years later, Knight and the Pips would leave Motown for Buddah Records. For the over 20 years following, Gladys Knight & the Pips would continue to produce hit songs and albums. They had a remarkably king career when compared to other Motown groups of the '60s.
WHO INFLUENCED GLADY KNIGHT AND THE PIPS
Gladys Knight & the Pips were influenced by a great deal of soul singers. The list includes legendary names such as Clara Ward, Ella Fitzgerald, Etta James, Johnny Otis, Mahalia Jackson, Nina Simone, Ruth Brown, Sally Barker and Tammi Terrell.
Gladys Knight & the Pips are one of the classic R&B and crossover groups whose sound has grown in popularity from the heyday of Motown in the early 1960s to the present day. Many credit this sustained success to the vocal power of Gladys, often described as seasoned, dark, and smokey.
Like many soul singers, Knight had been raised in the Baptist church, and it left its mark on her raspy, textured voice.
WHO GLADYS KNIGHT AND THE PIPS INFLUENCED
Knight’s distinct vocal style, matched with the vocal talent of the Pips that works to create harmony through contrast, has gone on to influence artists such as Donna Summer, Betty Wright, Ashford & Simpson, Chaka Khan, Evelyn "Champagne" King, the Staple Singers, Jill Scott and Patti LaBelle.
The song “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” iconically tied to Marvin Gaye, seldom gets attributed to Gladys Knight & the Pips, who were the first to record it.
It was also Gladys Knight that used her influence in 1970 to help the Jackson 5 become discovered. Knight wrote to label owner Berry Gordy suggesting that he check out the group. However, credit for the group's discovery is sometimes mistakenly given to Diana Ross.
- Gladys Knight named Top Female Vocalist Blues and Soul magazine (1972)
- Best R&B Vocal Performance by a Duo, Group, or Chorus for "Midnight Train to Georgia" (Grammys, 1973)
- Best Pop Vocal Performance by a Duo, Group, or Chorus for "Neither One of Us" (Grammys, 1973)
- Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal Gladys Knight with Dionne Warwick, Elton John, and Stevie Wonder for "That's What Friends Are For.” (Grammys, 1973)
- Best R&B Vocal Performance by a Duo, Group, or Chorus for "Love Overboard" (Grammys 1986)
- Best Traditional R&B Vocal Album for At Last (Grammys 1988)
- Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1996)
Other awards not listed above include those won at The Clio Music Awards, the American Guild of Variety Artists, the NAACP Image Awards and the American Music Awards. Additionally, not listed are recognitions earned from the publications Ebony Music, Cashbox, Billboard, Record World, Rolling Stone, and Ladies Home Journal.
“FRIENDSHIP TRAIN” (1969)
“Friendship Train” by Gladys Knight & the Pips is a Grammy Award-nominated 1969 single, which peaked at No. 17 on the Billboard Hot 100 and No. 2 on the Billboard R&B chart.
The song came from the dynamic duo of producer Norman Whitfield and his frequent collaborator (and former Motown artist) Barrett Strong. The song, much like many others from this pair match socially aware lyrics to a busy, funky, brass-fueled beat.
“Friendship Train” is soul’s answer to psychedelia. A level of optimism is paired with an innocent, more surface-level approach to a very heavy and complicated issue of the day similar to that of the stylings of psychedelic rock. The song urges listeners to remember the importance of friendship and loving one another in the face of adversity.
“IF I WERE YOUR WOMAN” (1971)
“If I Were Your Woman” was originally written by Pam Sawyer and Gloria Jones one day after having a conversation about the many issues plaguing women at the time. Thus, the idea to put it all in a song was born. At the time, the women's liberation movement was gaining momentum, so the release of the song felt timely.
The song explores how women can be both in committed relationships, yet still strong and independent. Sawyer and Jones brought the song to Motown producer Clay McMurray, Gladys Knight & the Pips’ new producer after Norman Whitfield.
“MIDNIGHT TRAIN TO GEORGIA” (1973)
“Midnight Train to Georgia” was the second release from Gladys Knight & the Pips after their departure from Motown Records for Buddah Records. It was written by Jim Weatherly, originally under the title "Midnight Plane to Houston.” It went on to become the group's first single to top the Billboard Hot 100. It also won the 1974 Grammy Award for Best R&B Vocal Performance By a Duo, Group or Chorus and has become Knight's signature song. It currently ranks #470 on Rolling Stone's updated list of their 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
You can revisit past Vault of Soul articles here, featuring artists such as James Brown,
Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick, and more.
Interested in exploring the Soul genre beyond the vault? Be sure to tune into 88.9 every night between 10 pm and 2 am for The Secret Spot. Let host D Danubian wind you up and simmer you down with a blend of R&B, Soul, and Slow Jams.
Also, be sure to check out ERS+, our new HD radio experience. Take a deep dive into R&B and Hip Hop with the legendary voices of Soul alongside new and pioneering MCs. Find ERS+: Boston's Black Experience online at WERSPlus.Org