Culture  /  Debunk

The Misunderstood Talent of Gladys Knight

Gladys Knight and the Pips have always been more beloved by fans than by music historians, but they are essential to the evolution of soul.

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Gladys Knight and the Pips perform "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" on "Soul Train"

By 1973, when Gladys Knight and the Pips released their biggest hit, “Midnight Train to Georgia,” and Phyl Garland, a critic at Ebony, deemed them “the best soul group of the day performing at its peak,” they were already something of a throwback. Not only had they stayed together while many other singing groups had broken up, they were show people in the mold of their legendary trainer, the choreographer Cholly Atkins—amid the sober, cerebral aesthetic of artists like Roberta Flack and Gil Scott-Heron, they still seemed genuinely happy to be onstage. Certainly, they had worked hard enough. The group had formed at a birthday party in their home town of Atlanta in 1952, when Knight and her older brother Merald, known as Bubba, then eight and ten, respectively, joined forces with their sister Brenda and cousins Eleanor and William Guest. (William stayed, and Brenda and Eleanor were replaced by another cousin, Edward Patten.) After years of touring, the group signed with Motown in 1966 and released “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” But Motown prioritized other stars (like the Supremes and Marvin Gaye, who made “Grapevine” an even bigger hit), so they left for Buddah Records in the early seventies, which became the site of their greatest creative control and commercial success.

The scholar Mark Anthony Neal has written that Knight was “the female voice of the Black working class in the 1970s”—more grounded than either the divine Aretha Franklin or the glamorous Diana Ross—and the group’s sensibilities were also working-class. Their pro-Blackness, like their respectability, was more functional than stylish: Merald Knight explained the group’s longevity by telling a Washington Post reporter in 1972 that they hoped to give “young black kids and some of the older ones, too, an opportunity to see a Black organization stay together throughout its life span.” The group displayed more flair in their gender politics: three dancing men with high voices and close-cut naturals backing a straight-haired powerhouse whose voice was rough like Tina Turner’s, but whose self-presentation was tame. (Whereas Ike played the role of Tina’s husband-pimp in an effort to exploit her sexuality, the Pips were like amiable bouncers who mitigated Knight’s allure.) Like many soul singers, Knight had been raised in the Baptist church, and it left its mark on her raspy, textured voice; but she didn’t sing elaborate gospel melismas or ad libs—she was more of a front woman than a soloist, geared toward the efficient expression of heart.