One of the earliest and finest of the family-based rhythm and blues groups, Gladys Knight and the Pips originally formed at an impromptu 10th birthday party of Gladys’s brother Merald in 1952. The bunch included two sisters, a brother, and two cousins. The members, all from Atlanta, Georgia, were sisters Gladys and Brenda Knights, brother Merald (“Bubba”) Knight, and cousins Eleanor and William Guest.
Gladys, only eight at the time, was already an experienced performer, having begun signing with the Mount Mariah Baptist Church choir at the age of four and having toured the church circuit with the Morris Brown Choir by five. She ran off with the $2,000 top prize by singing “Too Young” (Nat King Cole) at the ripe old age of seven on “The Ted Mack Amateur Hour,” and she subsequently did a number of other TV shows.
Another cousin (James “Pip” Woods) lent the quintet his nickname and the group was off and running. Gladys’s soulful, church-trained alto lead, accompanied by the Pips’ warn harmony, helped the Atlanta teens crack the tour circuit without a record, and by 1957 they’d been on the road with Sam Cooke, B.B. King, and Jackie Wilson. Wilson (godfather of singer Jody Watley) arranged an introduction to his label, Brunswick Records, and the group ended up releasing one single for them “Whistle My Love,” in early 1958.
By 1959 Eleanor and Brenda left to get married and the Pips drew on their reservoir of cousins to fill out the quintet, enlisting Edward Patten (22) and Langston George.
A local Atlanta club owner named Clifford Hunter (who had booked the group at his Builders Club) started his own label with a friend, Tommy Brown (Griffin Brothers), called it Huntom, and recorded the group on the 1952 Johnny Otis penned “Every Beat of My Heart” (the Royals). It was released in early 1961.
The song took off in Atlanta so quickly that Hunter didn’t have time to sing the group. Huntom then sold the rights to Vee-Jay Records. In the meantime an Atlanta disc jockey named James Patrick sent a copy to his friend Bobby Robinson at Fury Records in New York.
In an instant the group was in New York recording the song at Beltone Studios for Fury. They copied the Huntom Vee-Jay version, though that original was more soulful and had more pervasive harmonies than the new recording, a sultry, pseudo-supper-club interpretation. Both versions sounded like they were sung by a mature woman rather than a 16-year-old girl.
The Vee-Jay and Fury 45s raced up the charts, first hitting Pop (May 15, 1961) and then R&B (May 29, 1961) on both labels at the same time. By July 10th the group found itself in the unusual position of having the same song on two different labels and two different recordings on the charts Vee-Jay’s at number six Pop and number one R&B and Fury’s at number 45 Pop and number 15 R&B. Adding to the public’s confusion was the fact that Vee-Jay’s label listed the group as the Pips while the Fury single named them Glady’s Knight and the Pips.
When their second Fury single failed to chart (Jessie Belvin’s “Guess Who), Bobby Robinson came up with their best Fury release, the Don Covay classic “A Letter Full of Tears” (#19 Pop, #3 R&B).
Despite their initial success, Gladys and company did only one more single for Fury (“Operator”) which reached number 97 Pop in early 1962. “Letter Full of Tears,” however, prompted Robinson to issue a Gladys Knight and the Pips LP in 1962, a great tribute in the early ‘60s to an R&B group with only two hits. When Langston George left the group they became the quartet that would remain in place, with the same foursome, into the ‘90s.
Gladys soon married and had a child, and the Pips went on tot record two singles without her magical lead. In 1964 Gladys returned and the foursome signed with Larry Maxwell’s Maxx label. In April 1964 they issued one of the group’s more dramatic, beautifully sung Van McCoy-penned ballad reached number 38 Pop. Bobby Robinson then issued an answer record to “Letter Full of Tears” from the can on his Enjoy label, but “What Shall I Do” never charted. Three more Maxx singles surfaced through 1965 with only “Lovers Always Forgive” (#89 Pop) receiving any interest. Soon after, Maxx went under.
The group itself never lacked work and in 1966 were hired as special guests on a Motown package tour. That’s where they caught Berry Gordy’s attention.
By the summer of 1966 they were on Gordy’s subsidiary Soul label issuing the single “Just Walk in My Shoes.” Their second release on Soul, “Take Me in Your Arms and Love Me,” only rose to number 95 Pop, but it became the first of their 21 British charters, reaching number 13 in the summer of 1967.
The group’s first major American chart single was their third soul release, “Everybody Needs Love” (#39 Pip, #3 R&B), in 1967.
Perhaps more famous was “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” the original hit version that came out a year before Marvin Gaye went to number one with it. The Pips made it their second number once R&B hit and took it to number two Pop on December 16th (the Monkees’ “Daydream Believer” was number one), selling over one million copies. Soul follow-ups included “The End of the Road” (#15 Pop, #3 R&B, 1968), “I Wish It Would Rain” (#41 Pop, #15 R&B, 1968, issued only a half a year after THE TEMPTATIONS’ hit version), the great Leon Ware/Pam Sawyer/Clay McMurray-penned “If I Were Your Woman” (#9 Pop, #1 R&B, 1970), and the Jimmy Wetherly country song “Neither One of Us (Wants to Be the First to Say Goodbye)” (#2 Pop, #1 R&B, 1973).
Despite their successes, the group had complaint that was common among Motown acts like MARTHA AND THE VANDELLAS and THE MARVELETTES: they felt neglected while other acts were catered to and given priority. So Gladys and the Pips moved to Buddah Records when their Motown contract ran out at the end of 1972. Due to the brilliant maneuvering of Sidney Seidenberg (Gladys and the Pips’ accountant turned manager) and his able sidekick Floyd Lieberman, Gladys and company were brought to Buddah with a (then) incredible multimillion-dollar contract.
The group then issued a new string of winners, starting out with a formula that succeeded for them at Motown. They took a Jim Wetherly country tune, sang it soulfully, and then reaped the chart rewards on tunes like “Where Peaceful Waters Flow” (#28 Pop, #6 R&B, 1973) and the million seller “Midnight Train to Georgia” (#1 Pop and R&B, 1973). The latter was originally titled “Midnight Plane to Houston” before Atlanta producer Sonny Limbo changed it and recorded it with Cissy Houston (mother of Whitney Houston).
Their next single was “I’ve Got to Use My Imagination,” produced by the dynamic musical talent Tony Camillo. It sold a million plus while reaching number four Pop and number one R&B in 1974.
In March 1974 the group earned two Grammy awards, one for “Neither One of Us” (Best Pop Vocal Performance by a Group) and the other for “Midnight Train to Georgia” (Best R&B Vocal Performance by a Group).
More hit songs followed, like “Best Thing that Ever Happened” (#3 Pop, #1 R&B, 1974), the Camillo-penned “I Feel a Song (In My Heart)” (#21 Pop, #1 R&B, 1975) and “The Way We Were”/ “Try to Remember” medley (#11 Pop, #6 R&B, 1975).
Also in 1974 they did the soundtrack LP for the film Claudine, which went gold, and by 1975 had their own four-week summer replacement variety TV show on NBC. Gladys then branched out to acting by starring in the film Pipe Dreams in 1976, while she and the group sang the songs featured in the film on a soundtrack LP that reached number 47.
In 1977 complex legal maneuvers began between Motown, Buddah, Gladys Knight and the Pips, and Columbia Records, where the family foursome was attempting to move. The result was that Gladys was not able to record with the Pips.
Instead, the group recorded two LP’s (with no chart singles) for Casablanca and Gladys did one solo album for Buddah. In 1980 they reunited on Columbia and hit with “Landlord” (#46 Pop, #3 R&B), but through 1986 only “Save the Overtime (For Me)” (#66 Pop, #1 R&B) and its accompanying gold LP did well for them.
In 1986 the group switched to MCA and came up with their biggest record since the 12-year-old “The Way We Were” medley with “Love Overboard” (#13 Pop, #1 R&B) showing they’d lost none of their class, polish, or hitmaking ability.
After 58 R&B charters and 41 trips up the Pop Top 100 ladder, Gladys Knight and the Pips, one of soul’s worthiest successes, continued to turn out quality music in performance and on record.
– Jay Warner