As one of Motown’s leading ladies of soul in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Gladys Knight was the driving force behind Gladys Knight and the Pips, an all-family music group from Atlanta. The group attracted a worldwide audience and won numerous awards during its forty-year career, scoring its only number-one pop hit in 1973 with the soul classic “Midnight Train to Georgia.”
Knight was born on May 28, 1944, into a family that was part of Atlanta’s growing Black middle class. She began her musical career at the age of four with a church recital, then toured and sang in southern churches with the Morris Brown College choir, an Atlanta gospel group, from 1950 to 1953. As a seven-year-old prodigy, she achieved national recognition by winning top honors on Ted Mack’s The Original Amateur Hour, a popular television talent show in which winners were selected by mail-in votes.
In 1952 the family music group was born during a child’s birthday celebration at the Knight home. Joining an impromptu performance with Knight were her older brother, Merald “Bubba”; her sister, Brenda; and two cousins, Elenor and William Guest. From these humble beginnings, the Pips emerged—the name was taken from the nickname of a cousin (“Pip”) who encouraged the youngsters to become professionals. After the departure of Brenda and Elenor, cousin Edward Patten filled out the family quartet during the group’s heyday.
By 1957 Gladys Knight and the Pips were touring nationally on the “Chitlin’ Circuit,” playing exclusively to Black audiences in clubs and theaters throughout the segregated South. During these tours they performed as the opening act for some of the biggest names in rhythm and blues—Sam Cooke, Ike and Tina Turner, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Little Richard, Jackie Wilson, and B. B. King. In 1961 the group scored their first rhythm-and-blues (R&B) top twenty hit with “Every Beat of My Heart.”
After devoting a couple of years to her husband, fellow musician Jimmy Newman, and their new baby, Knight returned to the music business in 1964. In 1966 the group brought its gospel-tinged sound to the Motown label in Detroit, Michigan, where they found a home for the next seven years with such fellow performers as the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, and the Temptations.
Gladys Knight and the Pips reached the height of their popularity (first at Motown, then at Buddah Records) with such hits as “I Heard It through the Grapevine” (#1 on the R&B chart, #2 on the pop chart in 1967), “Neither One of Us (Wants to Be the First to Say Goodbye)” (#1 R&B, #2 pop in 1973), “Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me” (#1 R&B, #3 pop in 1974), “I’ve Got to Use My Imagination” (#1 R&B, #4 pop in 1974), and “Midnight Train to Georgia” (#1 R&B, #1 pop in 1973).”Midnight Train to Georgia” was originally entitled “Midnight Plane to Houston” until Knight revised the lyrics to reference her home state.
Legal problems kept the group from performing together in the late 1970s, and when they reemerged in the early 1980s, they toured the exclusive casino and supper-club circuit with a different sound—easy listening and adult contemporary.At the same time, Knight made several film and television appearances before beginning a new career as a solo singer in the late 1980s. The group was inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in 1989 and joined the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996.
In her 1997 autobiography, Between Each Line of Pain and Glory, Knight describes candidly the ups and downs in her professional and private life, which include several marriages and an addiction to gambling. Despite her struggles, she concludes, “Bring on the pain. Bring on the glory. I will be in this fight to share my gifts, to enjoy my blessings, and to be loved.”
As of 2009 Knight lives in Nevada. A member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, she directs the Saints Unified Voices Choir, which received a Grammy Award in 2006 for the album One Voice.