I don’t watch Dancing With the Stars as a rule, but I will admit to landing there for a few minutes when I’m channel surfing now and then. It happened again just the other night. I was fortunate enough to tune in just in time to see the dance performance by the legendary Gladys Knight and her partner. I’m no expert on dancing, but it seemed to me, as well as the studio audience and the judges, that she did great.
So add another source to my never ending list of places from which this column draws inspiration. Upon seeing Knight I realized that she has never been featured in this column before. It’s another one of those things that I can’t explain, given the fact that I am a huge fan. She is one of the greatest voices that popular music has ever known, and one of those singers who could sing the phone book and I would listen.
Gladys Knight & the Pips formed back in 1959 in their hometown of Atlanta. Their first hit came in 1961 with “Every Beat of My Heart,” which was a cover of a Hank Ballard and the Midnighters song, written by Johnny Otis. After a brief retirement during which Knight gave birth to two children, she rejoined the Pips and they signed with Motown in 1966.
The breakthrough for the group came in 1967 with their enormous smash hit, “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” At the time it was Motown’s most successful single, but it was surpassed by Marvin Gaye’s version of the song one year later. Gaye’s version had actually been recorded earlier than the Pips version, but was initially rejected by Berry Gordy, Jr. as were three other Norman Whitfield-produced versions of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.”
More hits followed for the Pips on the Soul label, a Motown imprint that was home to Motown’s more r&b flavored offerings. In the early ’70s, the Pips established a relationship with country songwriter Jim Weatherly, who authored some of their biggest hits. They hit the charts five times in 1973 and 1974 with Weatherly songs that included “Midnight Train To Georgia,” “The Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me,” and “Neither One of Us (Wants To Be the First To Say Goodbye)”. Weatherly’s beautiful songs were a perfect match for Knight’s soulful voice, and their collaboration was a perfect fusion of country and soul music.
In January, 1973, “Neither One of Us” was released on Soul Records. The Weatherly song was produced by Joe Porter, and featured a staggeringly beautiful and heartbreaking vocal performance from Knight. The record reached #1 on Billboard’s Soul Singles chart, and #2 on the Hot 100. It was the group’s biggest hit while at Motown, and one of their last. A short time later, “Midnight Train” was an even bigger hit, but by then the Pips had decamped to Buddah Records. At the time Gladys complained that the Pips were considered a second-rate group by Motown, while Diana Ross & the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, and the Temptations were given all of the hits to record.
Gladys Knight & the Pips were one of the biggest groups of the 1970’s. They played their final tour in 1988, after which Knight became a solo artist. The group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996, and the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2001.