GLADYS KNIGHT / “Gladys Knight Mixtape”
Gladys — “The Baddest.” We don’t call her that for nothing. She’s been in it to win it since the time she could walk and talk, or should I say sing and dance. Born May 28, 1944, Gladys Maria Knight won Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour TV show contest when she was seven years old in 1952.
In 1953, along with her brother and sister and cousins, the Knights formed a family group and… well, you kind of know the rest. If you’re like me, you probably wondered why Gladys never blew up bigger than she did. The common conjecture is that Gladys had the bad luck to come along at roughly the same time as Aretha Franklin, and there’s only one queen of soul. But despite our penchant for royalty monikers, I don’t think that really explains the difference.
It is general knowledge that there were behind the scenes struggles with recording rights and especially with jealousy when Gladys & The Pips were signed to Motown where they were forced to accept second-billing to the Supremes even though Gladys and the Pips were signing circles around the Supremes. It reportedly got so bad that Berry had to ask them to cool it a bit because they were embarrassing his stars. But those kinds of struggles are nothing new in the industry and Gladys was not the only person struggling within an internecine environment.
I think there was an internal contradiction and an external contradiction. The external is that Gladys did not consistently work with top-flight producers and material. Part of the problem was probably that she could sing anything and make it funky. But, I believe the real problem was that they were too black and too working class-oriented.
Gladys Knight and The Pips were not about glitz and glamour, their music was strong, getting down, funky stuff—exactly the impulses Berry Gordy curbed in order to broaden the appeal of Motown artists.
Secondly, particularly in pop music, an expert producer is a major plus. Repertoire selection and development inevitably is a major line of demarcation between stars and superstars. It’s no accident that major talent gets major material. While it is true that anyone can come up with a hit single, the larger truth is that not everyone can keep producing hit after hit. Within the genres of R&B and Soul, it also helps tremendously to be an accomplished musician.
You can just look at the movie opportunities offered to Diana Ross compared to what was offered to Gladys Knight. If there had been a major bio-pic on Dinah Washington, Gladys would have snagged it hands down—but there wasn’t. And even though she neither looked like nor sounded like Billie Holiday, Diana Ross got that opportunity. And this is not a knock against Diana but rather a facing up to the reality that, despite their musical accomplishments, dark-skinned vocalists have had and continue to face major prejudices and a dearth of opportunities. Mary J. Blige doing Nina Simone… do I have to say more?
Before I step off my soap-box let me point out one other interesting tidbit. Gladys Knight had scored hits in 1962 with “Every Beat Of My Heart" and “Letter Full of Tears.” Aretha didn’t break into the hits category until 1967 (and moreover Aretha, who also was a child prodigy, is two years older than Gladys). So what was the difference? The Atlantic Records production team, particularly Jerry Wexler, who pushed Aretha to play the piano as well as sing, and most of all to write original material.
Which leads me to the wrap up. One of the last major recordings that Gladys Knight did was an album called Before Me, which featured jazz and jazz associated standards. When I first heard about the project I had my doubts, but silly me, I should never have questioned Ms. Knight’s ability. She displayed a versatility that a major producer could have employed and enhanced to good effect. Listen to the last five cuts on the Mixtape and judge for yourself.
OK, that’s about enough non-musical musing for one week on BoL. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you to enjoy the Gladys Knight Mixtape. Gladys could always be counted on to bring a high quantity and quality of soul to any musical proceedings.
—Kalamu ya Salaam
Gladys Knight Mixtape Playlist
The Best of Gladys Knight & The Pips
01 “Every Beat Of My Heart”
02 “Letter Full Of Tears”
03 “I Heard It Through The Grapevine”
04 “If I Were Your Woman”
05 “Neither One Of Us (Wants To Be The First To Say Goodbye)”
06 “Midnight Train To Georgia”
07 “Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me”
08 “On And On”
09 “The Way We Were/Try To Remember”
10 “Hero (Wind Beneath My Wings)”
11 “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” - Motown Remixed
12 “Who Is She” - Neither One of Us
13 “Since I Fell For You”
14 “The Man I Love”
15 “Good Morning Heartache”
16 “Someone To Watch Over Me”
17 “Come Sunday”
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