Backstage with soul singer Gladys Knight & The Pips

No Lies Radio Music – By Teri Perticone – May 28, 2021

Gladys Knight & the Pips were an American R&B/soul/funk family music group from Atlanta, Georgia, that remained active on the music charts and performing circuit for over three decades.

Starting out as simply The Pips in 1952, derived from a cousin’s nickname, the founding members were Gladys Knight, brother Merald “Bubba” Knight, sister Brenda Knight and cousins Eleanor Guest and William Guest. After a couple of years performing in talent shows, the group signed with Brunswick Records in 1957, recording a couple of singles that failed to chart. Brenda Knight and Eleanor Guest eventually left the group and were replaced by another cousin, Edward Patten, and a non-relative, Langston George in 1959. This lineup produced the group’s first hit single, “Every Beat of My Heart”. After the single was released on three different labels, they changed their name to Gladys Knight & the Pips in 1961. Langston George left the same year and Gladys Knight left in 1962 to start a family with musician Jimmy Newman. Knight rejoined in 1964 and this lineup continued until the group’s disbandment in 1989.

The group reached commercial success after signing with Motown Records in 1966. After a year and a half, the group recorded the first hit single version of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” in 1967, which led to several hit singles for Motown’s Soul Records label, including “Nitty Gritty”, “Friendship Train”, “If I Were Your Woman”, “I Don’t Want to Do Wrong” and the Grammy-winning “Neither One of Us (Wants to Be the First to Say Goodbye)”, before leaving the label for Buddah Records in 1973. At Buddah, they recorded the hits “Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me”, “I’ve Got to Use My Imagination”, “I Feel a Song (In My Heart)” and their Grammy-winning and number-one hit single, “Midnight Train to Georgia”. In 1974, they recorded the soundtrack to the successful film Claudine with producer Curtis Mayfield, which included the songs “On and On”, “The Makings of You” and “Make Yours a Happy Home”. Contractual difficulties with their labels forced the group to record side projects from 1977 until 1980 when they signed with Columbia Records. Later hits included “Landlord”, “Save the Overtime (For Me)” and the Grammy-winning single “Love Overboard”. In 1989, the group disbanded with the Pips retiring and Knight embarking on a successful solo career.

Gladys Knight & the Pips are multiple Grammy and American Music Award winners and are inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame[1] and the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 1996 and 2001 respectively.[2]

Gladys Knight & the Pips join Motown Records

By the end of 1965, Berry Gordy was scouting to get the group signed to his fabled Motown Records label. Gladys Knight initially refused to sign due to her fears that the label would overlook them for the more popular artists on his roster, but she was outvoted by the Pips. They would sign with Motown in 1966, being assigned to Motown’s Soul Records label, a label which featured acts who had more of an R&B flavor than a pop flavor. Their first Motown single, “Just Walk in My Shoes”, was a hit in England, but the group was disappointed in Motown having The Andantes sing over the Pips’ signature harmony in the song, resulting in the group demanding that the Andantes not be featured on any more of the group’s recordings. They also were one of the few Motown acts that didn’t regularly perform on the label’s Motortown Revues, with an exception being a Christmas showcase at the Fox Theater in Detroit, recorded for the album, Motortown Revue Live. A second single, “Take Me in Your Arms and Love Me”, also reached the charts in England.

Their third single, “Everybody Needs Love”, became the group’s first American charted single in two years, reaching number 39 on the Billboard Hot 100 and number three R&B after its release in 1967. On the A&E Network television program Biography, Knight stated that she and the Pips were regarded as a second-string act, and that “Diana (Ross) & the Supremes, The Temptations, and Marvin Gaye were given all the hits, while we took the leftovers.” In Knight’s autobiography, Between Each Line of Pain and Glory: My Life Story,[6] she stated that Diana Ross had the group removed from being The Supremes’ opening act on a 1968 tour for, according to Knight, being too good. The group finally scored a career breakthrough with their fourth Motown single, “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”, which reached number 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and number one on the R&B charts. The group’s recording became Motown’s best-selling single ever to that point, selling over 2.5 million copies.[7] Marvin Gaye’s version of the song, released in 1968, outsold the group’s version, selling four million copies and reaching number one on the Hot 100. While at Motown in 1968, Gladys Knight was the first person to suggest that Berry Gordy sign the up-and-coming group called The Jackson Five (though Bobby Taylor of the Vancouvers also had a role), after appearing with them on a concert held in Gary, Indiana, to help elect Mayor Richard Hatcher, despite the claim that Diana Ross discovered them.[8]

Following the success of “Grapevine”, the group worked frequently with Norman Whitfield. Whitfield produced them the hits, “The End of Our Road”, “It Should’ve Been Me”, “Friendship Train”, “Nitty Gritty” and “You Need Love Like I Do (Don’t You)”. They also recorded Ashford & Simpson’s “Didn’t You Know (You’d Have To Cry Sometime)” in 1969. They scored their second million-selling Motown single with the ballad “If I Were Your Woman” in 1970. Another ballad, the self-composed “I Don’t Want to Do Wrong”, became another million-selling single. Both singles were featured on their first number one album, also titled If I Were Your Woman. In late 1971, they released a soulful version of Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through the Night”, which became an international hit. The group released the Jim Weatherly ballad, “Neither One of Us (Wants to Be the First to Say Goodbye)”, in December 1972, the single would become their last single released while still with the label. While the single was charting, the group tried to negotiate a better contract with Motown. Negotiations fell through weeks later and, in February 1973, the group left Motown and signed with Buddah Records.[9] “Neither One of Us” became their biggest selling single at Motown, reaching number two on the Billboard Hot 100 and winning the group a Grammy for Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals.

Taking the “Midnight Train” to Buddah Records

Following the signing with Buddah Records, the label issued another Weatherly ballad, “Where Peaceful Waters Flow”, released around the same time “Neither One of Us” and a Motown single, “Daddy Could Swear, I Declare”, was charting. The song became a modest success as a result. The group reached its popular and critical peak soon afterwards, starting with the release of another Weatherly song, “Midnight Train to Georgia”, in August 1973. The song eventually hit number one on both the Billboard Hot 100 and R&B singles charts, becoming their signature song.

They followed that single with the release of the million-selling album, Imagination, which released two more top ten singles, “I’ve Got to Use My Imagination” and “Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me”. The release of Imagination sparked a consecutive series of million-selling albums for the label including the soundtrack to the movie, Claudine; I Feel a Song and 2nd Anniversary. In 1975, the group scored a mid-season variety series, The Gladys Knight & the Pips Show, that aired for four episodes on NBC. During this time, the group recorded more hit singles, including “I Feel a Song (In My Heart)”, “Part-Time Love”, “Love Finds Its Own Way” and the live recording, “The Way We Were/Try to Remember”.

By 1977, the group ran into contract disputes with both Motown and Buddah Records. After asking to be released from their contract from Buddah, the label forced the band to record side projects while the dispute was settled. Between 1978 and 1980, Knight released two solo albums and the Pips released two side albums. In a segment for Richard Pryor’s TV special, the Pips (minus Gladys) appeared on his show performing their backup verses for the songs “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” and “Midnight Train to Georgia”; during parts where Gladys would sing, the camera panned on a lone-standing microphone. The group still performed together during this period, which ended with the group signing with Columbia Records in 1980.

Later years and disbandment

In 1980, having signed with Columbia, the group reunited with their old Motown collaborators Ashford & Simpson, recording and releasing the album, About Love, which included the charted singles “Taste of Bitter Love”, “Bourgie, Bourgie” and “Landlord”. They continued the collaboration with the duo on their 1981 follow-up, Touch, which included the single “I Will Fight”, and a cover of “I Will Survive”. Also in 1981, the group provided prominent backing vocals for Kenny Rogers on his remake of Bobby “Blue” Bland’s “Share Your Love with Me”. The group had appeared on Rogers’ television show with the First Edition several times in the early 1970s and Knight would guest on Rogers’ TV special “Kenny Rogers Classic Weekend” in 1986, performing a duet of “Am I Too Late?”, a song both singers had previously recorded. Three years later she also collaborated with Rogers on the US Billboard AC top ten single “If I Knew Then What I Know Now”.

Following a year-long international tour, the group recorded their third Columbia album, Visions, in 1983. The leading single, “Save the Overtime (For Me)”, gave the group their first number one R&B single in eight years. The video accompanying the song became among the earliest R&B videos to incorporate elements of hip-hop culture. The album also included the R&B hit “You’re Number One (In My Book)”. After Knight partook in solo projects, including a No. 1 Billboard Hot 100 and R&B hit collaboration on the song, “That’s What Friends Are For”, the group signed with MCA Records and released their final album, All Our Love, which was certified gold, and included the hits “Lovin’ On Next to Nothin'” and their Grammy-winning number-one single, “Love Overboard”. In 1988 the band also won a Soul Train Music Award for Career Achievement. Gladys Knight & the Pips embarked on their final tour in 1988 and disbanded upon its conclusion, as Gladys Knight decided she wanted to pursue a solo career, ending a 37-year tenure.

Bubba Knight still continues to oversee his sister’s career, by being her tour manager and occasionally joining Gladys onstage during performances. Gladys Knight recorded the theme song for the James Bond film, Licence to Kill in 1989, which became a top ten single in the UK. Two years later, she released her 1991 album, Good Woman, which included the top five R&B hit, “Men”, and Grammy-nominated duet version of “Superwoman”, recorded with Dionne Warwick and Patti LaBelle. A 1994 album, Just for You, featured the hits “I Don’t Wanna Know” and her cover of Boyz II Men’s “End of the Road”, and went gold. Knight still records and performs today. As a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, she sometimes leads the Saints Unified Voices choir.

The group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996, the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2001 and received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Rhythm & Blues Foundation in 1998. Gladys Knight & the Pips are ranked as the ninth most successful act in The Billboard Top 40 Book of R&B and Hip-Hop Hits (2005). They were also ranked No. 91 on VH1’s Top 100 Artists of Rock n’ Roll. In June 2006, Gladys Knight & the Pips were inducted into the Apollo Theater’s Hall of Fame in New York City. In 2017 the group was inducted into Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame.

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