Gladys Knight & The Pips - Biography
By Lee Hildebrand
Soul singer Gladys Knight tempered the rawness of her upbringing in gospel music with sensual restraint while The Pips curled their smooth, intricate harmonies around her dusky alto voice. Members of the same family, they performed together for 36 years, from 1952 until 1988, with only one brief interruption. They placed 29 singles in the R&B Top Ten. Ten of those singles reached number one, including 1973’s “Midnight Train to Georgia,” which topped both the Pop Singles and R&B charts.
Knight was born in Atlanta, Georgia on May 28, 1944, the child of two former members of Wings Over Jordan, a choir specializing in spirituals and gospel songs that enjoyed a national following during the 1940s thanks to Sunday morning broadcasts on the CBS radio network. She began singing at the age of four at Atlanta’s Mount Mariah Baptist Church and was soon touring the South with the Morris Brown Choir. At eight, Knight traveled to New York City to appear on “The Original Amateur Hour,” a popular NBC radio and television program hosted by Ted Mack. She won the $2,000 first prize with her rendition of the Nat King Cole hit “Too Young.” A year later on September 4, 1952, at her brother Merald “Bubba” Knight’s 10th birthday party, Gladys, Bubba, and their sister Brenda, along with cousin William Guest and his sister Eleanor, harmonized together for the first time. The quintet continued singing gospel music as the Fountainaires and secular tunes as The Pips, so named because another cousin named James “Pip” Woods was serving as their manager.
While visiting relatives in Detroit in 1957, the group cut its first single, “Whistle My Love,” for the Brunswick label, with backing by Maurice King’s band. The single flopped, but working with veteran alto saxophonist, arranger, and orchestra director King provided the group with invaluable lessons in harmony. Brenda and Eleanor left in 1959 to attend college and were replace by Knight’s cousins Edward Patten and Langston George. While appearing at the Builder’s Club in their hometown, The Pips made their second single, “Every Beat of My Heart,” for club owner Clifford “Fats” Hunter and his partner Tommy Brown’s tiny Huntom label. It was a primitively recorded version of the Johnny Otis tune, which was originally recorded by The Royals in 1952. The record caught the ears of Marshall Sehorn, promotion director for Bobby Robinson’s Harlem-based Fury label. Signed to Fury and renamed Gladys Knight & The Pips, the quintet rerecorded the doo-wop ballad. At about the same time, the Huntom single was licensed to Vee-Jay Records in Chicago. On May 29, 1961, both versions entered Billboard's R&B chart. The Pips' 45’ on the well-established Vee-Jay label sailed to number one on the R&B chart and number six on the Pop Singles chart. The Gladys Knight & The Pips newer, better recorded Fury rendition stalled at number 15 on the R&B chart.
The Don Covay-penned ballad “Letter Full of Tears,” their third Fury release, went to number three on the R&B chart and number 19 on the Pop Singles chart in 1964. After this peek, the group experienced a six-year slump in sales, with 1964’s “Giving Up,” written and produced by Van McCoy and released on the Maxx label, being their only Top 40 chart entry. George left the fold in 1962, soon followed by Knight herself. During her absence, The Pips made a little-noticed single for Fury titled “Come See About Me.” After marrying her high school sweetheart Jimmy Newman and having the first two of her three children, Knight returned to the group in 1964.
The reunited band began polishing its act, with help in the wardrobe department from baseball great Willie Mays’ former wife Marghuerite Mays and, most significantly, in choreography from veteran tap dancer Charles “Cholly” Atkins. The singers made five singles and one self-titled LP in 1964 for Maxx, a small New York label run by Larry Maxwell. When Maxwell was offered a job promoting records for Motown, he asked the group to come with him to the Detroit company. Knight didn’t want to make the move, but the three Pips out-voted her.
Although they felt they were not as big a priority for Berry Gordy Jr.’s company as were homegrown acts such as The Supremes, The Temptations, and The Four Tops, the seven years (1966-73) Gladys Knight & The Pips spent at Motown led to their ascendance into the higher echelons of show business. A dozen of their Soul imprint singles made the R&B Top Ten, beginning with the title track from their 1967 album Everybody Needs Love (1967 Motown), which was produced by Norman Whitfield and penned by Whitfield and Eddie Holland. The group hit the R&B summit later that year with the Whitfield-Barrett composition “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” which placed at number two on the Pop Singles chart. Whitfield had Marvin Gaye cut a different version of “Grapevine” about a month later. Released in 1968, it became his first single to top both the R&B and pop charts. Whitfield continued working with the group through 1970, producing such hits as “The End of Our Road,” “It Should Have Been Me,” “The Nitty Gritty,” “Friendship Train,” and “You Need Love Like I Do (Don't You?).”
Changes in producers did nothing to dull Knight & The Pips’ hit streak at Motown. They scored big with their next single, the title track from If I Were Your Woman (1971 Motown), written by Gloria Jones and Pam Sawyer and produced by Clay McMurray. The single hit number one on the R&B chart and number nine on the Pop Singles chart. Also on If I Were Your Woman, “I Don't Want to Do Wrong” (produced by Johnny Bristol) hit number two on the R&B chart and number seven on the Pop Singles chart. The title song from their next album, Make Me the Woman You Want to Go Home To (1971 Motown), yielded a hit at number three on the R&B chart and number 27 on the Pop Singles chart. 1973’s Neither One of Us (1973 Motown) saw “Neither One of Us (Wants to Be the First to Say Goodbye)” hit number two on the R&B chart and number two on the Pop Singles, and “Daddy Could Swear, I Declare” at number two on the R&B chart and number 19 on the Pop Singles.
In February 1973, one week after “Neither One of Us” began its four-week run atop the R&B singles chart, the group said goodbye to Motown and moved to Buddah Records. Their first album for the label, 1973’s Imagination (1973 Buddah Records), became the biggest of the group’s career, topping the R&B chart and reaching number nine on the Pop Albums chart. The disc spawned four hit singles, including the R&B and Pop Singles chart-topper “Midnight Train to Georgia,” which had originally been recorded in 1972 by soul singer Cissy Houston, but to scant notice.
Subsequent hits on Buddah included 1974’s “On and On,” which was written and produced by Curtis Mayfield for the soundtrack of the motion picture Claudine (1974 Buddah Records) and hit number two on the R&B chart and number five on the Pop Singles chart. That same year, I Feel a Song (1974 Buddah Records) produced a number one R&B hit with “I Feel a Song (In My Heart).”
In 1976, Knight made a serious miscalculation by sinking much of her own money into the motion picture Pipe Dreams, produced by then-husband Barry L. Hankerson and starring herself and Hankerson. The film went up in smoke at the box office, and The Pips soundtrack album, Pipe Dreams (1976 Buddah Records), didn’t fare much better, leaving her in deep debt. A complex web of lawsuits then flew between the group, Motown, Buddah, and Columbia Records, resulting in an injunction barring Knight and The Pips from recording together, although they continued to appear in concert as a unit. The Pips’ two Knight-less albums for the Casablanca label, At Last The Pips (1978 Casablanca) and Calling (1978 Casablanca) met with little success, as did her 1979 solo album on Columbia, Gladys Knight (1979 Columbia).
Knight and The Pips were reunited on record at Columbia in 1980 with About Love (1980 Columbia). They had sporadic hits throughout the decade, most notably the R&B chart-toppers “Save the Overtime (For Me)” from Visions (1983 Columbia) and “Love Overboard” from All Our Love (1987 MCA).
The group broke up for good in 1988. Knight resumed her solo career, hitting the R&B Top Ten a final time with 1991’s “Men” from Good Woman (1991 MCA). The Pips retired from show business, although in 2007, two years after Edward Patten’s death from a lengthy diabetes-related illness, Bubba Knight and William Guest joined with Gladys’s backup singer Neil Taffe to appear as The Pips in a television commercial for the car insurance company Geico.
Gladys Knight & The Pips were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996 and, two years later, received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Rhythm & Blues Foundation.