Gladys Knight night started wowing audiences when she was only 7 years old. That was in 1952 and she won Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour on TV. And she hasn’t stopped yet. Celebrating her 70th Birthday today, she continues to make music, record, dance a little, and do a little acting on the side. In between were dozens of hits and memorable performances with and without The Pips in styles including doo-wop, rhythm & blues, Motown, soul, pop, soft rock, gospel, and funk.
Knight was born in Oglethorpe, Georgia on May 28, 1944 where her father was a Postal Worker. She grew up in a sprawling, but tightly knit extended family with a musical bent. Like many Black artists, she began singing in Church at an early age. Her sure, strong voice led her to local radio performances and ultimately to her first brush with fame on the Amateur Hour.
The following year she teamed with her brother Merald, better known as Bubba, sister Brenda, and cousins William and Elenor Guest to form The Pips. They played locally at first by the late ‘50’s were touring in the Southeast. By then Brenda and Elenor had dropped out and been replaced by another cousin Edward Patten and friend Langston George. The quartet of three men with Knight singing lead was established.
In 1961 The Pips recorded a song by Johnny Otis for the small Huntom label, which sold the master to Vee-Jay Records. The new label released Every Beat of My Heart and it went to the top of the R&B/Soul Chart and #6 on Billboard’s Hot 100. Billed as Gladys Knight and the Pips they also scored R&B hits with Letter Full of Tears and Giving Up.
Knight had by this time married her high school boyfriend James Newman. After she gave birth to her first son, Jimmy Newman 1962 she retired from the road while the Pips continued to tour. A year later a daughter, Kenya was born. Shortly after in order to help support her family, Knight returned to the tour.
But in her absence, The Pips recordings had suffered, scrapping along near the bottom of the R&B Charts.
In search of new opportunities, Knight and her family and the Pips all moved to Detroit. Things looked up when Barry Gordy signed Gladys and the Pips to the Motown stable. Gordy, however, largely because they were not developed in house like most of his other acts, always regarded them as a secondary act, even when they began generating big record sales. The first to really take off was their release of I Heard it on the Grapevine, which was released in 1967 and soared to #1 on the R&B chart on November 25, 1967, and stayed there for six weeks. It also crossed over and reached #2 on the Billboard Pop Singles chart, making it the most successful song yet released by Motown.
Marvin Gaye had recorded his version a year earlier, but Gordy refused to release it. Instead producer Norman Whitfield worked with the group to create a more up-tempo version with funk elements, the Muscle Shoal Rhythm Section, and featuring Gladys in a full throttle performance. Gordy still didn’t much like the song and only reluctantly agreed to release it on his secondary label Soul. Gaye’s version was relocated to an album cut. It was only when DJs began featuring it that Gordy released it—to become an even bigger hit.
Gladys and the Pips reliably churned out more hits for Hitsville—Friendship Train, If I Were Your Woman, I Don't Want To Do Wrong, the Grammy Award winning Neither One of Us (Wants to Be the First to Say Goodbye), and Daddy Could Swear (I Declare) but still could not retain Gordy’s full faith or support.
Despite a reputation for putting on one of the best live performances if all of the stellar acts in the Motown stable, Gordy at first limited the group to second or third billing in his packaged tours of theaters, ballrooms, and other mid-sized venues. Then, when he wanted to promote his new favorite act The Supremes with a big tour at larger venues, he sent Gladys and the Pips out as her opening act. That blew up when Diana Ross, in full diva mode, had Gladys fired from the tour for overshadowing her. Gordy later told her simply that she was giving his acts a bad time. The implication that she was not one of “his acts” was not lost on Knight.
When time came to renegotiate their Motown contract in 1973 Gordy did not offer a package on the par with his favored top flight acts. Gladys gladly signed with New York City based Buddah Records which had a reputation for aggressively promoting its singles into the Top 40. It was a smart move for all concerned. The first release on the new label was the infectiously soulful Midnight Train to Georgia which went #1 on both the Soul and Pop charts, followed closely by I’ve Got to Use My Imagination, and You're the Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me. Gladys Knight and the Pips had made the leap to full-fledged super-stardom.
But Knight’s personal life was in upheaval. Her long time marriage to Newman ended. Soon after in 1974, she married Barry Hankerson then a top aide to Detroit Mayor Coleman Young. Hankerson was also an aspiring producer and promoter. Together they had one son, Shanga Ali.
In 1976 Gladys and Hankerson made one movie together—Pipe Dreams set in the blue collar boom of the construction of the Alaska oil pipeline. The movie failed at the box office, but the soundtrack with the Pips did well.
The couple moved to Atlanta in 1977. The Pips, however, remained in Detroit and both Knight’s husband and the move put a strain on their relationship that would lead to legal complications. The marriage broke up in ‘78 but there was a protracted, bitter custody dispute over Shanga that delayed final divorce until 1981.
Whatever her woes were at home, Gladys’s career was in high gear. In addition to successful singles, Buddah successfully promoted a series of LPs that went Gold beginning with 1973 Imagination in 1973. The following year the group cut a sound track album for the film Claudine which starred Diahann Caroll and James Earl Jones. Curtis Mayfield composed the music and the resulting album was a huge hit—much more successful than the film—and theme song, On & On, became a top five single.
Gladys and the Pips were always in demand on all of the big television variety shows of the time and in 1975 even had their own summer replacement series on NBC.
In 1978 legal entanglements with Buddah Records forced Gladys and the Pips apart for four years during which they were forbidden to record or perform together. Separately Gladys and the group each released two albums over that time, none as successful as their collaboration. The Pips made it known that the separation was not their choice when they appeared on a Richard Pryor special and performed their old arrangements for Heard it Through the Grapevine and Midnight Train to Georgia with the camera focusing on an empty microphone in a spotlight when Gladys would have sung her solos.
In 1980 the Pips were glad to reunite with Gladys on Columbia Records, where she had recorded her second solo album. Teaming up with writer/producers Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson with whom they had earlier worked at Motown, the reinvigorated group scored with hit albums About Love and Touch followed by more albums and single hits.
Gladys was also stretching her wings with separate projects that included duets with Johnny Mathis, a big Columbia star. She also dabbled again in acting, appearing as a guest star in numerous TV series through the ‘80’s including Benson, The Jeffersons, and A Different World. In 1985 she even had her own sitcom, Charlie & Co with Flip Wilson, CBS’s answer to the enormous popularity of The Cosby Show.
Another side project was the collaboration with Dionne Warwick, Stevie Wonder, and Elton John on the 1986 AIDS benefit single, That’s What Friends Are For which became a mega-hit and won a Grammy for Best Pop Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocal.
On the personal side, Knight married Ohio politician, radio host, and motivational speaker in 1985. The union, however was short lived and the couple divorced two years later.
By the late ‘80’s Knight decided to undertake a solo career. But first she and the Pips recorded a final album in 1987, All Our Love on MCA Records. The lead single, Love Overboard, was a #1 R&B hit and won also won Grammy. The act went on one final, hugely successful, world tour the following year and then dissolved amicably with the Pips going into retirement. In recent years Gladys has made occasional appearances with the surviving Pips.
Knight launched her second crack as a solo artist with the 1991 album Good Woman, on MCA which hit #1 on the R&B album chart and launched the #2 R&B single hit Men. Her next album, Just For You went gold and garnered yet another Grammy nomination.
In 1995 Knight surprised many when she publicly converted to the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints—a sect that had traditionally discriminated against Blacks and had until recently barred Black men from their universal male priesthood. Two of Knight’s now adult children had already become members and introduced their mother to the Mormons. Knight says she was attracted to the strong family values of the church and its emphasis on clean living. She has taken her commitment seriously. She founded and still leads The Saints Unified Voices a gospel choir that performs for the church. Her record with them, One Voice, won a Grammy for Best Gospel or Choir Album in 2005.
Her career never seemed to flag. She won two other individual Grammy awards and just about every honor the music industry can bestow including, a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the Georgia Music Hall of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, multiple Life Time Achievement Awards from BET (originally the Black Entertainment network), Legendary Award from the Las Vegas Music Awards, Outstanding Jazz Artist from the NAACP Image Awards, the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Soul Train Music Awards. All of that in addition to numerous Gold and Platinum records and all of the honor and award she won with the Pips.
In 2001 Knight married William McDowell. The marriage has endured and Knight seems to have found personal domestic peace. Together she and McDowell preside over a family that includes sixteen grandchildren and eight great grandchildren.
In addition to regular touring, Knight has lately been busy on television. She was the oldest contestant on the 2013 season of Dancing With the Stars. She currently has a reoccurring part in The First Family, a syndicated sitcom about a Black family in the White House. She plays a feisty matriarchal grandmother in the series developed by comic Byron Allen.
Now at 70, Gladys Knight does not seem to be slowing down.