Gladys Knight & The Pips were an R&B/soul family musical act from Atlanta, Georgia, active from 1953 to 1989. The group was best known for their string of hit singles on Motown's "Soul" record label and Buddah Records from 1967 to 1975, including "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" (1967) and "Midnight Train to Georgia" (1973). The longest-lived incarnation of the act featured Gladys Knight on lead vocals, with The Pips, who included her brother Merald "Bubba" Knight and their cousins Edward Patten and William Guest, as backup singers.
Gladys Knight & The Pips are multiple Grammy and American Music Award winners, and are inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 1996 and 2001 respectively.
Gladys Knight was born in 1944 in Atlanta, Georgia. At the age of seven in 1952, she won Ted Mack's Original Amateur Hour television show contest. The following year, she, her brother Bubba, sister Brenda, and their cousins William and Eleanor Guest started a singing group called "The Pips" (named after another cousin, James "Pip" Woods). The Pips began to perform and tour, eventually replacing Brenda Knight and Eleanor Guest with Langston George in 1959 and Edward Patten in 1963.
The Pips scored their first hit in 1961 with "Every Beat of My Heart", a cover of a Hank Ballard & The Midnighters song written by Johnny Otis. The group had recorded the song for a friend in Atlanta, who promptly sold the master to Vee-Jay Records and cut the group out of the record's profits. The Pips recorded a second version of "Every Beat" with Bobby Robinson as the producer, and the song became a #1 R&B and #6 pop hit. Shortly afterwards, Langston George left the group, and the remaining members continued as a quartet, now billed as Gladys Knight & the Pips. Typically, most of the act's recordings featured Knight's contralto on lead vocals and the three male members of the group, usually referred to as "The Pips" by themselves, providing characteristic background vocals.
After a second Fury hit, "Letter Full of Tears", in 1962, Knight quit the group to start a family with husband James Newman, giving birth to James Gaston Newman III in August of that year. Her second child Kenya Maria Newman was born in November the following year. The Pips toured on their own for two years, until Knight returned to the act in 1964 in order to support her family. Husband Newman served as the group's musical director.
The group developed a reputation for exciting and polished live performances that enabled them to work even without the benefit of best-selling records. Choreographer Cholly Atkins designed "fast-stepping" dance routines that became a signature of the Pips' stage presentation. As a matter of fact, according to Atkins' autobiography, "Class Act: The Jazz Life of Choreographer Cholly Atkins", which he wrote with Jacqui Malone in 2001: "The one thing that I was pleased about was a stipulation in my contract that allowed me to keep working with Gladys Knight & The Pips as personal clients even though I would be an employee of Motown Records. To tell the truth, Gordy wasn't too happy about it at first, but this is something that I would not compromise under any circumstances. By that time, Gladys and the guys were like my own children!"
Gladys Knight & The Pips join Motown Records:
In spite of notching another hit with "Giving Up," of Van McCoy's authorship and composition, in 1964 (later covered by Donny Hathaway and The Ad Libs), Knight and the Pips did not achieve truly widespread success until 1966, after signing to Motown Records. While at Motown in 1968, Gladys Knight was the first person to suggest that Berry Gordy sign the up-and-coming group called The Jackson Five (though Bobby Taylor of the Vancouvers also had a role), after appearing with them on a concert held in Gary, Indiana to help elect Mayor Richard Hatcher, despite the claim that Diana Ross discovered them.
The group's third Motown single was the Top 40 hit "Everybody Needs Love", released in 1967. Another 1967 single, "I Heard It Through the Grapevine", provided a career-making breakthrough. "Grapevine" became a #2 pop hit on the Billboard Hot 100 and a #1 R&B hit for six weeks. The record sold 2.5 million copies, and at the time was Motown's best-selling single ever. Producer Norman Whitfield recorded four versions of the song with various artists for potential single release; Knight and the Pips' version was the only one that Motown chief Berry Gordy did not veto. In late 1968, "Grapevine" would become an even bigger hit for Marvin Gaye, whose version, recorded before Knight's but released a year afterwards at Whitfield's insistence, became a #1 pop hit for seven weeks.
In 1970, Motown released the album All In A Knight's Work, which included various live performances the group had performed up to that time on one disc. They also appeared on the album Motortown Revue Live, recorded in Christmas of 1969 at the Detroit Fox, though they normally did not appear with other Motown acts, due to the independence the group maintained, a rarity for artists at the company.
Further hits for the group included "The Nitty Gritty" (1969), "Friendship Train" (1969), one of Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong's "psychedelic soul" songs, the #1 R&B "If I Were Your Woman" (1970, later covered by Stephanie Mills, Shanice and Alicia Keys), and "I Don't Want To Do Wrong" (1971). Their biggest Motown hit was 1973's #1 R&B/#2 pop hit "Neither One of Us (Wants to Be the First to Say Goodbye)", which won the 1973 Grammy Award for Best Pop Vocal Performance By A Duo, Group Or Chorus.
"Neither One of Us" also happened to be one of their last Motown hits, as Knight and the Pips departed Motown for Buddah Records in 1973. While at Motown, Knight & the Pips recorded for Soul Records, a label Motown used for acts that recorded material with more of an R&B flavor than a pop flavor. On the A&E Network television program Biography, Knight stated that she and the Pips were regarded as a second-string act, and that "Diana (Ross) & the Supremes, The Temptations, and Marvin Gaye were given all the hits, while we took the leftovers." In Knight's autobiography, she stated that Diana Ross had the group removed from being The Supremes' opening act on a 1968 tour for, according to Knight, being too good.
Many of Gladys Knight and the Pips' hits in the mid-1970s were written by country songwriter Jim Weatherly. Knight and the Pips charted with five of Weatherly's songs in 1973 and 1974: "Neither One of Us," "Where Peaceful Waters Flow," "Midnight Train to Georgia," "The Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me," and "Between Her Goodbye and My Hello."
Taking the "Midnight Train" to Buddah Records:
Recording for Buddah in the mid 1970s, the group hit its popular and critical peak with #1 R&B hits such as "I've Got to Use My Imagination", and "Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me". The most notable hit of their career was the #1 pop hit, "Midnight Train to Georgia", which won the Grammy for Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals of 1973. The song eventually received the Grammy Hall Of Fame Award, which was established by the Recording Academy's National Trustees to honor recordings of lasting qualitative or historical significance.
Gladys Knight & the Pips' debut LP on Buddah, Imagination, was certified as a gold record. This began a string of LPs that were awarded gold status: Claudine (1974), I Feel a Song (1974) and 2nd Anniversary (1975). Other hits for Buddah included "Part-Time Love", the R&B #1 "I Feel a Song (In My Heart)", "Love Finds Its Own Way" and, culled from a live recording, "The Way We Were/Try to Remember".
Curtis Mayfield served as producer in 1974 when Knight and the Pips recorded the soundtrack to the motion picture Claudine, resulting in a #5 hit in the film's theme song, "On and On". The following year, the group got their own hour-long musical variety television program, The Gladys Knight & the Pips Show, which ran for four episodes on NBC as a summer-season replacement. During one installment, comedian George Carlin, seated at a piano, performed the doo-wop song "Cherry Pie", accompanied by the Pips.
Knight and the Pips continued to have R&B hits until the late 1980s. From 1978 to 1980, Knight and the Pips were forced to record separately due to legal problems with Buddah. Knight released two solo albums and the Pips released two albums of their own. In 1977, the Pips (minus Gladys) appeared on comedian Richard Pryor's TV special that aired on NBC. They sang their normal backup verses for the songs "Heard it Through the Grapevine" and "Midnight Train to Georgia;" during the parts where Gladys would sing, the camera panned on a lone-standing microphone.
In 1980, the Pips signed to Columbia Records, for which Knight had recorded her second solo album. Teaming up with songwriting husband/wife duo Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson, who had written their earlier release, "Didn't You Know (You'd Have to Cry Sometime)", Knight & The Pips released the album About Love in 1980, which featured "Landlord" and "Taste Of Bitter Love". Ashford & Simpson continued with Knight and the Pips for the 1981 follow-up, Touch, featuring "I Will Fight" and a cover of "I Will Survive".
Also in 1981, the group provided prominent backing vocals for Kenny Rogers on his remake of Bobby "Blue" Bland's "Share Your Love with Me". The Pips had appeared on Rogers' television show with the First Edition several times in the early 1970s.
After an international tour, Knight and the Pips recorded the LP Visions (1983), which resulted in a #1 R&B hit with "Save the Overtime (For Me)" and was certified gold. The video for "Overtime" was one of the earliest R & B videos to incorporate elements of the hip-hop culture. In 1987, Knight and the Pips released their final album, All Our Love, on MCA Records which was also certified gold. The album's single "Love Overboard" became a #1 R&B hit which won the 1988 Grammy for Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals. In 1988 the band also won a Soul Train Music Award for Career Achievement.
Gladys Knight & the Pips embarked on their final tour in 1988 and disbanded upon its conclusion, as Gladys Knight decided she wanted to pursue a solo career. The Pips retired, while Gladys Knight began scoring hits of her own with singles such as "Men" (1991) and "I Don't Want to Know" (1994).
The group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996, the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2001 and received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Rhythm & Blues Foundation in 1998. Ms. Knight, now a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, continues to tour and record occasionally, and leads the Saints Unified Voices choir. Following their stint with The Pips, William Guest and Edward Patten formed Patten and Guest Productions. Edward Patten of the Pips died on 25 February 2005 of complications from his long bout with diabetes. Guest continues to manage artists though the Crew Entertainment company he formed with members of Patten's family.
Gladys Knight & the Pips are ranked as the ninth most successful act in The Billboard Top 40 Book of R&B and Hip-Hop Hits (2005). They were also ranked #91 on VH1's Top 100 Artists of Rock n' Roll. In June 2006, Gladys Knight & the Pips were inducted into the Apollo Theater's Hall Of Fame in New York City.
In 2007, The Pips appeared in a commercial for the auto insurance company Geico. As Edward Patten had died two years prior, one of Gladys Knight's current backing singers, Neil Taffe, accompanied the remaining Pips.
In 2013, Guest and his sister, Dame Dhyana Ziegler, Ph.D., released his autobiography Midnight Train FROM Georgia: A Pip's Journey (Branden Books, Boston, MA, USA) about his life and career.
Gladys Knight (1953-1962, 1964-1989),
Merald "Bubba" Knight (1953-1989),
William Guest (1953-1989),
Brenda Knight (1953-1959),
Eleanor Guest (1953-1959),
Edward Patten (1959-1989; died 2005),
Langston George (1959-1962),
Chris Morante (1988)
Text from this biography licensed under creative commons license