Sunday, May 28, 2006

Get On Board The Friendship Train: Happy Birthday, Gladys

Happy Birthday Gladys Knight. She is 62 today. Gladys was born on May 28th 1944, in Atlanta, Georgia. Her first taste of success came with winning a talent contest on Ted Mack's Amateur Hour in 1951 at the age of 7. In 1952, her parents created a group, The Pips, around Gladys, her brother Merald ("Bubba") and sister Brenda, and her two cousins William and Eleanor Guest. Over the next eight years, Brenda and Elenor would leave, her other cousin Edward Patten joined, and for a time Langstone George would join the Pips. They toured locally around Georgia building up a following.

National success did not come quickly. In 1961, The Pips had a No.1 record on the RnB chart with Every Beat Of My Heart on Vee-Jay Records. The group was renamed Gladys Knight & The Pips. A second hit with Letter Full Of Tears the next year proved a false dawn for the group, as Gladys felt she should temporarily leave to care for her new daughter. In 1964, Gladys decided that her singing could provide a better income for her family, and she returned. The Pips' act was renowned for its outstanding choreography, orchestrated by Cholly Atkins, and when the Temptations played with the Pips at a theatre in Ohio, Melvin Franklin begged Cholly to work with them and give them the same finesse. It would not be long before Berry Gordy came calling...

In 1965, Gladys Knight & The Pips were signed to Motown Records, but were perhaps not cultivated in the way that they deserved. They still got to record an amazing number of classics, not least the first and best dancing version of I Heard It Through The Grapevine in 1967 (sorry Marvin...), The Nitty Gritty (1969), Friendship Train b/w Cloud 9 (1969), If I Were Your Woman (1970), I Don't Want To Do Wrong (1971), Neither One of Us (Wants to Be the First to Say Goodbye) (1972), and Daddy Could Swear (I Declare) (1973).

The group's career reached its heights in the mid-70s, after signing to Buddah Records in 1973. There, they had the services of a songwriting talent in Jim Weatherly as powerful as Norman Whitfield had been at Motown, but with a much higher profile at the label. The songs at Buddah emphasised more the backing vocal harmonies and strings with Knight’s powerful voice. In some ways, Gladys Knight feels more akin to Ray Charles and Nina Simone than to some of her former label-mates at Motown, and in a sense, they already had a sound that was fully-fledged and independent of any Motown style. Gladys Knight & The Pips had more 70s No.1s in the USA with I’ve Got To Use My Imagination, I Feel A Song, Best Thing That Every Happened and Midnight Train To Georgia (the honourable runner-up choice for state anthem, I should hope!). Knight also ventured into acting around this time, landing a lead role in the Alaskan romance movie Pipe Dreams, for which the group sang on the soundtrack.

Gladys Knight & The Pips recorded at Columbia and MCA over the next decade, before parting ways in 1989. Gladys continues to record, focussing on gospel music and on classic american standards. Seek out her gospel albums Many Different Roads (2001) and One Voice (2005) featuring the Saints Unified Voices Choir on Many Roads Records.

Here is a recording of the single Friendship Train. My copy came out on the Motown subsidiary label Soul in 1969. Is that a statement on their importance to Berry Gordy? It is a high-octane song, and played merry havoc with the levels when I recorded it onto my computer. But that's how we like 'em, eh?

Gladys Knight & The Pips - Friendship Train (Soul S-35068 1969)

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