The great ones endure, and Gladys Knight is a testament to that sage maxim.
Over the last half-century, this seven-time Grammy-winner has enjoyed No. 1 hits in R&B, pop and adult contemporary — with Gladys Knight & the Pips and as a solo artist — and has triumphed in concert and on television.
The revered songstress’ classic hits include “Midnight Train to Georgia,” “If I Were Your Woman,” “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” and “Neither One Of Us (Wants To Be The First To Say Goodbye).”
Her last album, “Before Me,” was a tribute to legends like Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Lena Horne. She also collaborated with the 100-member Saints Unified Voices choir. That album won a Grammy.
Knight was awarded yet another Grammy for her duet with Ray Charles on his posthumous album “Genius Loves Company”; a rendition of Stevie Wonder’s “Heaven Help Us All,” and her “At Last” solo album earned a Grammy for Best Traditional R&B Vocal Album. Her recent lengthy run at the Flamingo in Las Vegas was hailed as “the number one show on the Strip” by the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
The Georgia-born icon began performing gospel music at the age of 4 and won the grand prize on television’s “Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour” just three years later.
Over the course of her illustrious career, Gladys Knght has recorded nearly 40 albums, earned a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Here, she talks about her life and role as Wilma in Tyler Perry’s new movie, “I Can Do Bad All By Myself.”
Kam Williams: The first time I met you was on an airplane back in the ’70s.
Gladys Knight: Oh really?
KW: Yes, and you were quite gracious in speaking to me briefly and signed an autograph. But I wonder what it is like on the other end, and whether always being approached
by fans has been a burden for you.
GK: No, I’m just me. I never get any further past that. I’m a people lover. I love interacting with different people as I meet them, and I think people are one of God’s greatest creations.
They’re interesting and intriguing.
KW: What interested you in doing “I Can Do Bad All by Myself” and working with Tyler Perry?
GK: Mr. Perry called me up and said, “Gladys, I’m sending you a script. I have a part I need you to do.” (Laughs.)
KW: This is his most music-driven movie so far.
GK: Yeah, it is. How about that! And it was really fun making this movie, although I was nervous about it in the beginning because I didn’t feel I had enough experience to pull it off. I didn’t want to disappoint him, since he had so much faith in me. In fact, I almost said no.
GK: Yeah, because looking at the rest of the cast, I knew that they were great. Taraji (Henson) was up for an Academy Award and Adam (Rodriguez) is doing so well with his series (“CSI: Miami”), and I just didn’t know whether I would measure up.
KW: Well, you did a terrific job in the film, including delivering a couple of powerful singing performances. Who picked the songs, you or Tyler?
GK: Tyler and I discussed it after we finished working out my role. He said he wanted me to sing, but that we’d discuss it later. When he called me back, he asked me, “What do you want to do?” I said, “I don’t know, because I haven’t given it any thought. I thought you were going to pick one.” He started laughing and said, “Okay, you make a list and I’ll make a list. We’ll put ’em together and out of that we ought to be able to choose.”
KW: Your first one was a solo rendition of “The Need To Be” by Jim Weatherly who also wrote “Midnight Train to Georgia” which played a big part in your career.
KW: How did you come to settle on that tune?
GK: Most people who ask me what’s my favorite song expect that it’s “Midnight Train” or “Neither One of Us.” But actually, it’s always kinda been “The Need To Be” because of what it says. I love the way that song was written, I love the melody, I love everything about it. So, I presented it to Tyler and he called me back and said, “That’s the one!”
KW: You also did a beautiful duet with Marvin Winans on a song he wrote. How did you like playing his wife, Wilma, a church elder?
GK: I loved her because I knew her from my childhood. So I had something to draw on for my character. I just brought all those little ladies, even the weight thing. I was worrying about going on the screen looking a little heavy. I wanted to be fit, but Tyler started laughing again, and said, “Girl, come on down here, you’re right for the part.” And when I thought about it, I had to admit that back in the day, the church ladies who held those positions weren’t glamour girls. They were nurturing and kinda portly, and dressed kinda basic as they linked between the church and the community. So they were who I drew on.
KW: Well, watching you certainly took me back to my childhood.
GK: Yeah! Come on, now!
KW: You also performed at Oprah’s Gospel Brunch. I must watch that video at least once a month.
GK: There you go!
KW: What was it like being there?
GK: It was awesome! Yes it was!
KW: I always thought you were from Atlanta. But your Wikipedia page says you were born in Loachapoka, Alabama.
GK: (Squeals, laughing.) That’s not true! I was born at Grady Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia, to Elizabeth and Merald Knight Sr.
KW: You better have somebody correct that right away. In your autobiography, “Between Each Line of Pain and Glory,” you said, “I have seen it all, to be sure, but rarely participated
in it.’’ What did you mean by that?
GK: Well, there are so many different sides to our industry. Some of them not so good. The drugs, the partying, the alcohol, and the bad behavior
in the way we treat each other. The cheating. Ugh! Over the years, I have definitely not participated in those things. That’s what I meant.
KW: I asked my readers to send in questions for you, and I couldn’t believe how many prefaced their remarks by saying how much they love you. Marcia Evans was wondering whether you’ve ever sung “I Will Survive” at one of your shows.
GK: I sure have. As a matter of fact, sometimes I’ll close with it, because it has such a great message and the tempo is really fun, and leaves everybody on an up note.
KW: Irene Smalls asks, has hip-hop changed the nature of Black music?
GK: (Laughs.) Well, it’s been good as far as giving young artists an opportunity to get out there. But it’s been bad, in my opinion, as far as the quality of the music and the stories that they tell. It’s one thing to be raw about your history, but they took it to another level and it became vulgar. It has not elevated our industry musically, and it definitely has not elevated us as Afr
ican-Americans because we show disrespect for our partners, men and women. I believe we have lowered our self-esteem with these performances and presentations.
KW: Renee Peterson asks, which of the many musical geniuses you worked with did you enjoy collaborating with the most?
GK: I get something different from everybody I work with. Would you believe that Sammy Davis Jr. taught me how to sing a ballad? “You can be in an arena and you should be able to hold their attention,” he said. And it worked!”
KW: Is there any question no one ever asks you that you wish someone would?
GK: No, I’ve heard ’em all. (Laughs.)
KW: Are you ever afraid?
GK: Of course! And you should be. That’s part of your life lesson, to be afraid. The bigger question is how you deal with being afraid. Do you have to summon courage or something else to live with that fear without letting it take you over?
KW: What music are you listening to nowadays?
GK: I listen to everything. This morning I was listening to the soundtrack from “Forrest Gump.” It’s beautiful.
KW: How did you get through the tough times?
GK: With prayer and my family. The support of my mom when she was here, my husband and children now, and even my fans have brought me through certain challenges.
KW: Are you happy?
GK: Yes! I have a wonderful family. I have the most beautiful, wonderful husband (William McDowell). After all these years, I can finally say that. I have wonderful children,
grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
My brother (Bubba, formerly of the Pips) and my sister (Brenda) love me and support me and we still get a chance to work together. I have the people who still buy tickets to see me entertain them. That is quite an honor.
So, what else could I want for?