of the week

Gladys Knight

Edwin Starr and Gladys Knight & The Pips were two original Motown acts who later found greater fame in the disco days and, in some ways, are best remembered for that era. Gladys never managed a UK top 10 hit until she moved to Buddah records in 1973 and then scored with The Way We Were/Try To Remember (medley) and Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me. Edwin only managed the top 10 once at the end of his Motown days when, in 1970, War, a cover of an older Temptations song, reached number two, but when he switched to the 20th Century label in the latter seventies, he had back to back top ten’s with Contact and H.A.P.P.Y. Radio.

Gladys was born in 1944 in Oglethorpe, Georgia and had her first taste of fame at the age of seven when she won Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour TV and $2000 by singing a cover of Nat King Cole’s Too Young. Within a year she got together with her sister Brenda, her brother Merald, known as Bubba and cousins William and Elenor Guest to form a family vocal group. There was another cousin; James Woods who was known by his nickname ‘Pip’ and it was decided to use that moniker for their group name. In 1959 Brenda and Eleanor left and were replaced by yet another cousin Edward Patten and mutual friend Langston George and began to tour locally. In 1962 George left and they remained as a family quartet from here on in.

They got a recording contract with Vee-Jay records in 1961 and their first release, Every Beat of My Heart, made the Billboard top 10 and followed it with Letter Full of Tears which reached number 19 then in 1964 they were signed to Larry Maxwell’s small Maxx label. After three minor hits Larry got an invitation from Berry Gordy to join Motown as a record promoter and asked if he could bring The Pips with him. Gordy agreed but Knight wasn’t initially happy. She said, “I told Larry I didn’t want to go over to Motown. We’ve been fine up to now creating our own avenues and our own following. You know, if we go over there we’re gonna come behind all those artists they consider their best and we won’t get the attention that I feel we deserve at this stage.” However, the Pips all talked her round by saying ‘We know how to take care of ourselves but what we need is a worldwide hit and we think Motown could be the place to do it.’

In 1966 Berry assigned producers Harvey Fuqua and Johnny Bristol to the Pips and he also told them they were going on tour as a support act to Diana Ross & The Supremes, but the audience’s reaction to Knight’s voice and stage presence was greater than Diana’s and so Diana had them thrown off the tour. Harvey called in two Los Angeles based singing sisters he knew. “Out of the blue I got a called from Harvey who asked me if I could write a track for Gladys Knight and get it off to him straight away,” recalled Kay Lewis, one of the sisters. “So my sister+ Helen and I wrote Just Walk in My Shoes and sent it to Detroit. We got to meet Gladys a while later at the Whiskey A Go-Go nightclub and thought she would drop dead when she saw we were white.”

Gordy liked their song writing and they were asked to submit further material which included Where Were You (Brenda Holloway), Baby Baby (The Miracles), Happiness Is Guaranteed (Martha & The Vandellas) and Gordy’s favourite, This Love-Starved Heart of Mine (Is Killing Me) which was recorded by Marvin Gaye but never released. The sisters even recorded their own tracks including Moonlight on the Beach, By Some Chance and You Need Me all of which Gordy produced himself.

In late 1973 Gordy ended their contract and Gladys Knight & The Pips swiftly signed a deal with Buddah records where they remained until 1980 when they then signed to CBS. In 1987 they recorded their final album before Gladys decided on a solo career. In 1985, Gladys was invited by Dionne Warwick to join Stevie Wonder and Elton John on the collaboration, That’s What Friends Are For under the banner Dionne and Friends. All the proceeds from that Carole Bayer-Sager and Burt Bacharach song, were donated towards Aids research & treatment.

In 1972 the Lewis Sisters made a cameo appearance in the film Lady Sings the Blues which starred Diana Ross portraying Billie Holiday. The pair are still working and are currently in the studio working with some new acts. Kaye’s 10 year old daughter Lisa cut one track for V.I.P. records in 1965 called Hang on Bill and backed with Puppet on a String. In 1983 Lisa, under the name Leza Miller, turned up again as a featured singer on Sergio Mendes minor hit Never Gonna Let You Go.

In 2008, I had the pleasure of briefly working with Gladys when I was the DJ at a wedding for the daughter of the owner of K-Tel records. The bride and groom’s first dance was The Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me and the bride’s father had Gladys flown in specially to sing that one song. When Gladys had finished she left the building and I was ready to start, so I’d like to belatedly thank Gladys for being my warm-up act.