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Licence to thrill: Gladys Knight at 80

With a songstress’ prowess that rivals Aretha Franklin for sheer power and emotion, Gladys Knight has always been known to approach her career with a subtle understated class that still allows her the respect gained by being the former vocal and focal point of The Pips. Indeed, such was the power of her voice they may as well have called themselves Gladys Knight & Her Pipes. But there’s many other reasons why we’re saluting this legendary lady, the exemplary empress of soul, and you’re just about to find out.

Hailing from Atlanta, Georgia, Gladys Knight & The Pips were a family affair; an all singing, all dancing group with her brother and cousins, who have all since retired), and who enjoyed a slightly frustrating second-string stint at Motown, where they recorded future standards like the Billboard No. 2 I Heard It Through The Grapevine, only to have it handed over to Marvin Gaye to take it one place further.

Gladys also discovered The Jackson 5 only to have Motown honcho Berry Gordy twice refuse to sign them, then snatch them from her and give to Diana Ross to officially “present” Michael and his brothers because, two months Knight’s senior, she’d had more hits. And because Gordy was having a thing with the Supreme one, who was in the midst of launching her solo career.

Signing off from Motown with the Grammy-award winning Neither One Of Us (another US No. 2), there was a wise switch to Buddhah Records in 1973, where the Pips reached their commercial apogee with a succession of singles that included the peerless Midnight Train To Georgia, another Grammy bagger and the combo’s first No.1 single in their homeland.

A leaner Eighties ended with the group disbanding and Knight scoring the perfect launchpad for her post-Pips career; singing the theme tune for 1989’s James Bond film, the glorious Goldfingered Licence to Kill, which showed off her incredible lower register and bagged her a Top 10 single in ten countries… but, alas, still her only solo hit in much of the world.

As is the case with many legendary soul stars of the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, there comes a time when closing the chapter on their last leg of celebrity becomes inevitable. Eleven years ago, Gladys Knight appeared in Britain for the first time in aeons, billed as her Farewell Tour. A week before it kicked off, Gladys guested on the BBC’s Later With Jools Holland, giving a pretty spine-tingling rendition of Help Me Make It Through The Night, which had given her a UK No.11 single in the bleak winter of 1972.

Date stamp 8 October 2009: Attending the opening night of this goodbye trek was fascinating for a number of reasons. Gladys rarely toured, and like Aretha, seldom outside of America. But also it was little more than three months since her one time protégé Michael Jackson had died (an hour before my 40th birthday, in fact) and of whom she sang at his funeral. 

Big brother Tito Jackson had been drafted in as last minute “special guest”, backed by the 8-piece band The Funk Brothers. And during their supporting set I discovered that sitting a little further to my left was none other than the eldest Jackson brother Jackie and the matriarch of the family Katherine, who barely reacted even when name checked from the stage.

Gladys meanwhile, was supremely animated. All sugary smiles and upbeat motherly love, she radiated warmth. The Spice Girls told us that “all you need is positivity,” well, with that dazzling infectious smile wider than Victoria Lake this momma has it in spades. 

Gladys Knight with Janet Jackson not of the Jackson 5

“The fact that I’ve been able to perform for 61 years and be on stage is amazing to me,” she told us brightly. “It’s mind-boggling. If someone asked me, ‘How did you do it?’ I couldn’t tell them. Since I have an opportunity to come back, it’s been such a wonderful way to tell you how much I love you.”

Understandably, artists have to play the game and acquiesce in all kinds of marketing ploys and PR stunts to help shift records and tickets. Some even dream up the ploys themselves (hello David “I’m never playing my greatest hits ever again” calculating Bowie) but in 2009 you really got the impression this really could have been Gladys’s goodbye. Like her fellow indomitable spirit Tina Turner, she’s been way too dignified for endless comebacks and never ending tours.

Having said that, the farewell part didn’t quite go to plan, and after I stopped living in the UK Gladys performed a limited series of British dates in the mid 2010s. Typical.

Me? I was clearly too busy trying to catch a train to somewhere. As it happens, her hometown.

To be perfectly frank, by the time I penned a Ten Greatest Women in Music Today feature on this blog for International Women’s Day 2018 I’d sort of half-forgotten about Gladys a bit and with her last album released back in 2014, my subconscious assumed she really had hung up those incredible vocal chords. Which is why, to my eternal embarrassment, she doesn’t feature. 

I’m certainly glad to be proved wrong though. Knight had a pretty high profile 2019, including a terrific rendition of the national anthem at the Super Bowl – though she was oddly absent at a much publicised Motown 60 event.

But as she has recently proven, she’s no shrinking violet. Whether it’s been defending her personal decisions against certain political interests or taking on reality TV, this sassy lady is undaunted, unflappable.

Happily, in June 2019 our schedules happened to collide very serendipitously in America; just outside Baltimore at the 27th annual Capital Jazz Fest in Columbia, Maryland to be precise, where Gladys was headlining the Friday night main Pavilion Stage.

On leg two of my 50 States road trip that year, I’d driven in from Richmond, Virginia, and before that North Carolina, where I discovered Nina Simone’s birthplace in a cute town called Tryon and a slightly less classy place called Cum Park Plaza that was unbelievably soggy.

By the time I reached Maryland, the weather was warm and dry and I managed to reach my seat at the appropriately named Merriweather Post Pavilion just before opening act Babyface took to the stage. And though he excited the almost entirely black audience way more than me, I was more than a little surprised to learn he’d just turned 60. This Indiana boy didn’t get his name for nuthin’.

Then again, when Gladys Knight sauntered on at 9:30 on the dot and I had to pinch myself that this astonishingly well preserved lady had celebrated her 75th birthday just a week before. She looked and sounded absolutely sensational, and I was in the second row, so, you know that charisma that radiates from the stage? You can call it old school, but you either got it or you ain’t, and it’s not an age thing either.

By comparison, Cher peppers her act with myriad camp costume changes and an ABBA tribute section. But even with the occasionally hilarious if scripted tongue-in-cheek quip (“I’m seventysomething, what’s your grandma doing tonight?”), as a performer she reminded me more of her arch-rival Madonna than I expected; aloof, plastic and unashamedly egocentric. In fact, many centuries ago, Cher famously refused to go on with the show because she discovered she was two pounds overweight. Seriously. You could never imagine Gladys Knight resorting to such diva antics, could you?

Old school is relative, of course, but with her effusive personality a beaming Knight revels in the outpouring of motherly love I’d first witnessed at Wembley. This grandma just wants to hug y’all and pray that tomorrow will be better than today. She’s talking directly to people who sometimes talk back but still hang on her every word. “This ain’t the first time we’ve been broke, this country or us,” she says during between-song chatter that’s almost as emotive as the music. “Let our kids know so they won’t be all frightened: We can make this work.”

Amen, we shout back. The thing was, this God-fearing woman was utterly sincere too. Whether you’re on the same spiritual page or not, Knight’s faith is an integral part of who she is. This is the gospel, and coming from her, it’s more encouraging than any word from Washington. Currently inhabited by an orange ogre no one wanted to mention, the White House was a mere 25 miles away. 

When I interviewed George Michael for Gay Times magazine back in 2007, I asked him if there were any potential duet partners he’d still like to team up with. No stranger to pitching himself against a succession of soaring soul songstresses in the past (stand up Aretha, Mary J. Blige, Whitney Houston), he told me two names, a generation apart, but that he hadn’t approached either of them because he was certain he’d be rejected: Lauren Hill (“I was told she only works with black people”) and Gladys Knight (“she’s probably too religious” to entertain his idea).

BONUS: This is Yog performing a fantastically emotional gender-flipped rendition of The Pips’ If I Were Your Woman at the Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Concert at London’s Wembley Stadium in 1988, incidentally the first time I saw him in the flesh.

The inference was clear. I can’t speak for Lauren Hill’s alleged colour bias, but George’s well documented insecurities were fuelling his assumptions that the Empress of Soul would refuse to work with a queen who’d been in a bit of drug-related bother with the law.

To be fair, he may have had a point, albeit a small one. It was reported during Licence To Kill’s release in 1989 that as a christian, Knight had reservations singing a song with the word “kill” in it. Thankfully, she conceded. (The story that she actually sings the words “licence to kilt” to get around such a problem is an urban myth, and one which stems from how the majority of the times she sings “licence to kill” its immediately followed by a “to kill” backing vocal. There are times when that doesn’t happen though.)

Indeed, if Gladys’s dazzling appearance on Aussie TV’s The Project the other day was anything to go by, she admitted she wasn’t keen on being seen to be glamorising guns, which is why she’s not seen on the single sleeve, or in the video holding a weapon. (Again, there’s another untruth regarding the film’s opening credits, which were done in a hurry after the title was changed from Licence Revoked. Silly old Maurice Binder simply forgot to credit Gladys, though she does appear in the end credits.)

Check The Project out here…

Sadly, Yog never got to see just how wrong he was about the gay thing. For one, Knight teamed up with Stevie Wonder, Dionne Warwick and Elton John for one of the earliest celebrity AIDS fundraisers, the Grammy award winning chart-topper That’s What Friends Are For, America’s biggest selling single of 1986. And yes, in a room full of legendary vocalists, it’s Gladys that absolutely steals the show.

Secondly, two years after Michael died, Gladys teamed up with his Eighties arch rival, the other George; the Boy O’Dowd and his band Culture Club. Previewed live at LA’s Greek Theatre in 2018 and released as a single that neatly coincided with Knight’s impending tour.

Opening with a knowingly retro piano, Runaway Train is a lush ‘70s soul-inflected chugger with a driving midtempo. And, with that eternally svelte figure and almost entirely unchanged voice she manages to look and sound half the age of the Boy.

“This lady is truly special. Her voice has touched me from the minute I heard it,” George told the audience. “I have waited for this moment for so long.”

Hey, you know everybody’s talking about that voice, right? Well, let’s talk about that voice. It’s true, what an absolutely incredible singer Gladys Knight is. 

From what I could hear in Columbia, her voice seemed to have lost little of its power and yes, the “r” word: if I can paraphrase a certain Rock Profile skit, I love Shirley Bassey to bits but Gladys really does have the range, and a much wider one than Our Shirl, actually.

Knight’s beautifully preserved contralto still sounds amazing. Singing in such a low register all these years seems to have kept the sheen on her voice, which is only very slightly huskier and missing a touch of the old sparkle in the upper range. But you’ll only notice it by comparison if classic hits such as Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me and her usual thumping show opener I’ve Got To Use My Imagination are burned into your memory like they are mine.

Like Frank Sinatra at a similar age, Knight has also learned to play to her strengths, showcasing her voice and demonstrating why she still justifies her nickname: the empress of soul.

The embodiment of effervescence, Gladys upped the ante with a decade-spanning set and that trademark smile from beginning to end. On a stage packed with nine performers, the band’s slightly Vegas musical arrangements tend to be uniform and densely keyboard heavy. My vote would be to trade in a couple of singers for a horn section, but the combined vocal power of a gospel sequence is undeniable.

An astonishing six decades after Every Beat of My Heart hit the US charts, she is still clearly having fun, telling her euphoric audience: “We’ve been hanging out for, errrr … many, many years” to ripples of laughter. Moments later, the songstress who has a Licence To Kill quips, “I feel it coming on. Be careful not to hurt yourself.”

Come on it does, running through ‘70s soul and disco hits like the brilliant Baby Don’t Change Your Mind then piling into contemporary dips with Sam Smith’s Stay With Me (somehow, she makes it less earnest and less bedwettery) and a couple of new songs that preview a promising new album and keep the set from entirely looking back. 

Gladys Knight knows how to sell a song, armed with bagfuls of wizened seniority. She reminds people that the Pips were the first to record I Heard It Through The Grapevine, in 1967. It’s a song we’ve all heard a thousand times, but Knight revived its sense of angry paranoia, especially when she contrasted her uptight original with the smouldering, bigger-hit take — “and then Marvin Gaye stole it the following year”. It’s banter, not bitterness, because Washington’s local boy Gaye was “an amazing man”.

Such a span in time comes with inevitable loss, but also a great deal of love. By now, the tales are coming thick and fast, of more of her friends and peers who checked out; of her shy bro Curtis Mayfield (who called her “Glads”) and Whitney Houston, plus accompanied by versions of Shake Your Body (Down To The Ground) and a roof-raising (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman, her homies Michael Jackson and Aretha Franklin. In a touching aside, Knight revealed that performing enables her to relive an amazing life. 

She seemed teary when an emotional, particularly nostalgic The Way We Were receives a singalong and standing ovation, followed by a beautiful, poignant Someone to Watch Over Me. “Next time y’all come, I’m gonna feed you!” a delighted Knight proclaimed at the end. Well, she did lend her name to her son’s chain of chicken and waffle eateries after all. And not without controversy either.

“I could stay here all night, but I’ve got to get to the train station,” she grins, introducing her signature smash and set closer, the triumphant Midnight Train To Georgia.

After 80 minutes, she’s still note perfect and pointedly declares: “Until we meet again …”

And meet again we did of sorts, at Sydney’s Star Event Centre in 2020, Gladys Knight’s first Australian tour this century. The belting power of her contralto was undiminished and her emotive gifts and kindly demeanour were as mesmerising as ever.

Adding a curious cover of Ed Sheeran’s Perfect to the set, she was clearly overjoyed to be back in Oz, and anyone old enough to care would have been, too. Knight testified joyfully and called for us to “be my Pips”, an invitation to sing that few of us, after this thrilling life-affirming performance, were in the mood to refuse. She may be dubbed the empress of soul, but on the evidence I’ve seen, she could easily assume the mantle of Aretha’s queenly crown.

God bless you, ma’am.

Steve Pafford

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