But none of this came easy for her. Gladys Knight has lived through hard times to get where she is. You can hear where she’s been and where she still wants to go in the songs on her new recording. Each song is a part of her life revisited, offered for the listener as a sign of her will to succeed and her faith in God. Her life continues to be a journey of exploration and giving as she rises to each new challenge.
Talking with Gladys Knight is a comforting and thoughtful experience. She is always conscious of the power of music and musicians to influence listeners. She uses music to sooth the soul and awaken the spirit, to teach life’s lessons and to observe the human condition, to comment and to reminisce. Most of all, she offers her music as a gift to those who might need it.
Jazz Review: You started performing for an audience at such a young age. How do you think this affected your view of the entertainment industry?
Gladys Knight: I think it did me well, to tell the truth. I’ve been singing since I was four, and my first recital was at that age as well. My mom and dad were very influential in my musical life. They felt that the spiritual and other life was more important than anything. They kept us introduced to a certain quality of music. They chose my songs. In my first recital, I had four categories: classical, pop, standard, and spiritual. I got a chance to sing all kinds of music. That kind of followed me through my growth. Even the radio back then was more diverse than it is today. Once we got to Top 40, we got to divide up the different kinds of music; but, back then, you might hear Perry Como one minute, the Cadillacs the next minute, The Four Freshman the next minute, then Frank Sinatra. I was just across the board with music.
Jazz Review: How do you think your education influenced your view of music?
Gladys Knight: That’s where I got a lot of my influence from, to be honest with you. I was in the choir in school; and my teachers were very on top of us learning technical things. I didn’t learn the piano, which I wish I had. My sister took piano; but my mom and dad couldn’t afford to give all four of us piano. My dad didn’t allow my mom to work, so it was just his salary.
I was exposed to all different kinds of music. For some reason, this portion of my life has never been too public. What was high school like for me? Well, high school was wondrous for me. That’s where I got most of my technical music introductions from. As I said, I was in the choir. It was the first year that I took music theory, and it gave me another level of understanding about music even though I couldn’t play the piano, I know my keys. There was a young man there, the youngest teacher on the staff, named Lloyd Terry. He was the school band director and had a jazz group that played for all the social events around town. One day, he asked me if I would like to sing with the band. He said he’d talk to my mom and dad about it to see if it was ok. After they put him through the fire poor baby they finally considered for me to be able to sing with them. Before he allowed me to perform, he made me study all these great people. And they weren’t just singers; Ella Fitzgerald and Diana Washington and all those people, it was Cannonball Adderly and Miles Davis, all these wonderful great jazz musicians. I found a love and a respect and an affinity for these people and this music.
Jazz Review: That man deserves a medal! I love when teachers make vocalists listen to instrumentalists. It’s a whole new thing.
Gladys Knight: He did. And, it was a wonderful experience. Through the years, he followed us, even as the Pips and I got more popular. He’d come to our dates, to The Apollo, he’d come wherever. He was a wonderful mentor; and I remember all the time, he used to say, "You need to do the music we used to do. You need to record the music we used to do." About seven or eight years ago, we talked about it and I said, "Let’s do that music." So, we started this project. Unfortunately, he contracted cancer and passed away before we finished this project. I went my musical director, who’s been with me forever, and said "Ben, I’ve got this idea to do this jazz music I used to in high school. What do you think? Will you do it with me?" He said, "Yeah. I’d love to do the parts." We were just in the first phases of trying to get the music done. Then, my ex-manager, Ron Wisener, came to me and said "I’ve got this idea of you doing a project called ‘Great Ladies of Song.’ I think it’s perfect for you, all these great ladies of jazz." I said, "You’re not gonna believe this. Right now I’m trying to get this project done. He asked if he could be included in this, and I told him about Ben and he became part of the project. So, he eventually brought Verve in, and they loved the idea and got on board with me, brought other people to the table and it was the most awesome experience. That’s how we got to do this album.
Jazz Review: How do you think being a performer, especially as a child, influenced your view of the world?
Gladys Knight: I think it opened it up greatly I know on the social side it did. I’m from the South; I was born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia. My mom raised us how can I put this? There was a natural segregation in the South then. My mom didn’t raise us to hate or dislike anyone; but you’ve got to think, they had black and white water fountains back then, they had black and white restrooms, they had restaurants you couldn’t go in. But for some reason, I never felt that. My mom and dad didn’t raise us that way. We went where we wanted to go. We were family oriented so we didn’t eat out a lot. We never got to feel that kind of racism. If I went downtown and I saw a water fountain now I can look back and remember my mom standing there attentively well, I drank out of any water fountain I wanted to. And I asked my mom one day "What color is white water? What color is black water?" There is no color, babe. My first confrontation with racism like was after the Pips and I got on the road. I was so nice. We stopped at a service station to get gas and I really had to go to the bathroom, I had to go bad. The door was locked and I went inside to get a key before the Pips could even stop me ("Where you goin’? Where you goin’?") I just went in there and said, "Sir, your bathroom is locked. Is there a key or something to it?" And he told me that they don’t let niggers use their bathrooms.
Jazz Review: Lovely.
Gladys Knight: I swear, that’s the first time I was confronted with that; and I said "Sir, what did you say?" And he said, "You heard me. We don’t let niggers use our bathrooms." Oooooo, I was livid! And the Pips were in there dragging me out. "Come on, we’ll go somewhere else," they said. Not that they were afraid, that kind of thing. But, in those days, you had to learn how to survive, especially a black man, ‘cause you saw them strung up on trees all the time. As we went along, we got racism full force. ("No, you got to go around to the back. You want a sandwich?") Or if we walked into a restaurant and didn’t know we weren’t supposed to be there I mean, the coldness of it. That wasn’t how we were raised. And they wouldn’t serve us and keep walking by us until the manager said, "You niggers got to go."
Jazz Review: I remember moving from New York to South Carolina, walking into school and thinking, "Wait a minute. Everybody in this classroom is white." And that’s the way it was. I had not been raised that way, either.
Gladys Knight: I know. But I never minded them. My mom taught us, and I could see it then, that there were a lot of people of not color who were really nice. And that’s what people forget to say, every now and then. You’ve got to have a heart that just can accept people and know that you got some bad white people and some bad black people. You got some nice white people and some nice black people. So, you have to live in that way, and that’s the only way you can keep a pure love in your heart.
Jazz Review: Absolutely. So, when you were growing up, you went to regular school; you weren’t tutored or anything like that.
Gladys Knight: No, I wasn’t tutored; but - how can I put this? There were days that I missed out of school, but my mom always made sure I guess we were doing home teaching before home teaching became the thing. We were made to keep up with our studies. I made A’s and B’s in school. I was a good student I never made a C until I got to high school. If I had to go on a concert and miss a day or two of school once we started traveling, my mom made sure that we got our homework and our lessons from the teacher to make sure we kept up. They had conferences with the teacher; and the teachers were as much involved with our professional lives as with our educational lives.
Jazz Review: That’s wonderful.
Gladys Knight: They did things to help my mom and dad promote us. "We know a person who can help little Gladys in her training," and "My sister is the head of the art department at Morristown College and she wants to meet with you about little Gladys." You know what I’m saying? That’s the way it should be. This is a community and everybody knows everybody, and everybody pitches in and helps with everything. And it wasn’t just about me; that goes for every other kid in the neighborhood. And we prospered because of it.
Jazz Review: What was it like to shuttle between the adult world of performing and the child’s world of play?
Gladys Knight: You know what? This is the honest truth. I got the greatest compliment from a group of my teachers that I ever got in my life. You have to understand that I went to high school early; I skipped a grade in elementary school. I was in high school when I was twelve. So, here I was at twelve, thirteen, fourteen and I’m singing with this jazz band who does all the social events. And if my teachers were out on the weekend and they were part of these sororities and all of that, I see them. They’re out of the school element and they have their husbands or their dates or they’re drinking or whatever they do. And when I get to school it’s my same respectful element I always have. It’s almost like Vegas what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas? Well, what happens when I’m up there with the band stays up there with the band, because these are all adults. I would never ever disrespect or try to get familiar with my teachers because we are in the same environment. And they came to me one day and said that they had so much love and respect for me because I never came out of my place, even though I may have seen them on the weekends, once I got to school. That was the best compliment I could have had. And I never thought about it like that. It’s just how it was raised.
Jazz Review: It just means you are a credit to your parents.
Gladys Knight: Well, I hope so!
Jazz Review: You’ve talked about one particular teacher in high school. Who were your other musical mentors? How did they influence you musically, and in other ways?
Gladys Knight: I don’t see these kind of mentors anymore, either. I feel so sorry for the young people today sometimes. After Lloyd Terry, there was a gentleman named Hampton Zeek Barker. He used to be the choir director for the Morehouse College Boys Choir. They were an award-winning choir. He became the music director at our school and we became an award-winning choir. Because of my musical background, he chose me to be a soloist and I learned the greatest lessons at his hands. My family didn’t have a lot and we didn’t have transportation sometimes. I would be late sometimes for the concert, and maybe my solo came early in the program. And he took my solos from me. He told me, "You’re going to do well in the music industry; but you’ve got to learn how to be on time at all costs." I still have a problem with that to a degree; but I learned a great lesson about how much it can cost. I loved singing with the band, and he had the nerve and the gumption to do that for me I don’t say against me, it was for me. And that really stuck out in my mind. He helped to mold me in that way. Then, there was a fellow by the name of Maurice King. He was the director of the famous Flame Show Bar in Detroit, where all of these women, these great artists came through: Ella, Diana, Miles, everybody came through there. Well, he was a good friend of my mom’s. He became my musical coach and director and mentor. Mr. King taught us about staging, vocals, our harmonies. He was like a father figure to us. He was the first one that introduced me to Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis and Felipe Escala and all those people. He did a "Panorama of Progress" every year; and when I was eight years old, he brought me down to be in the Panorama of Progress. It was amazing. He kept me in the band pit with him. My mouth was hanging out. He said "That’s Miles Davis," and I said, "Really?" "And you see that guy with the puppy jaws? That is Dizzy Gillespie." Then there was Charlie Atkins who teamed up with Mr. King to give us our stage decorum, to choreograph the Pips, to teach me how to talk to people, to do all those things. He was with an award-winning dance team that appeared on Broadway with Marilyn Monroe they were fabulous. He passed away last year. They molded us and made us who we are today.
Jazz Review: What is the most important thing you have learned about life as result of being a performer?
Gladys Knight: That it’s about using a gift, whatever it may be, and using it with pride and integrity and love, and most of all, not getting filled up with it. It’s a gift that you were given from our Heavenly Father. I don’t know what other people believe, but this is my faith, this is my belief. You know what? In the beginning I never wanted to sing.
Jazz Review: Really?
Gladys Knight: I never though about singing; I just did, I guess. I used to wonder about it all the time in the beginning you have to understand I was just four. A lot of people would carry on so, like "Can you get little Gladys to sing something?" It wasn’t something I hated doing, but I just wanted to do it, "Ok, I’ll sing." But when they started doing it all the time, I was like "What’s up with that?" And I’m still like that, believe it or not, today. I just want to be a homemaker. I just want to take care of my husband and my children. I like doing this and I like entertaining people; but the "fame" thing, you can have that, because it just calls for too much. It takes too much of you away.
Jazz Review: I think it’s called having a balanced life. It sounds like you have one.
Gladys Knight: Well, I try. And I love people, don’t get me wrong. And He put me in a profession where I needed people, not just loving them. I wouldn’t be here, sitting here talking to you, if it were not for people. I need them to make me the rest of who I am.
Jazz Review: Ok, I’m a performer. I get it. You walk on the stage and your whole being blooms when you get that feedback from the audience.
Gladys Knight: Absolutely. If they don’t embrace me to say I’m doing well, or we like this from you, there I go I’m not here; because it does depend on a certain amount of notoriety from them.
Jazz Review: Do you think of yourself as a role model? How did your parents influence and mold your code of public behavior?
Gladys Knight: You know, I’m opposite of most people in this industry because being a role model calls for a certain amount of being responsible, and I am most honored trying to be one. To affect someone’s life in a positive way what more could you ask for? That’s what it’s all about, this life that we have down here. So when I do what I do, I’m going to ever be conscious of how it’s going to affect someone else. I’m not a perfect being - don’t get me wrong but yes, I’m going to be conscious of what I sing and how I sing it, and what I say in it. I didn’t want to do the song "Cloud Nine." That can mean that you’re very happy. But on the other hand, in those days, drugs were becoming more and more prevalent, and that could very well mean you’re floating on a high. And I don’t want to promote that. It’s too dangerous a thought and too dangerous a theme, and some youngster, they pick up on it and say "Well Gladys thinks it’s alright because she’s singing about it." Gladys doesn’t think it’s alright. So yes, I treasure the idea of being a role model.
Jazz Review: If a child performer asked you for advice today, what would you tell them?
Gladys Knight: I’d say, what is it in your spirit that makes you want to do that? Is it this thing that "I want to be famous"? Or do you say "I have this song in my heart, and I really enjoy singing, I just love doing what I do." Then, we can talk. If you’re thinking that one day you can own a big old house or a big car, if that’s why you’re doing it, then I don’t have a lot to say. One day I hope you’ll have that. But as far as directing them toward this, I don’t know if I would try to do that, because that’s not the reason that you should be doing that. Those are byproducts of your doing something well.
Jazz Review: Absolutely. Perks are nice, but they’re not your life and they’re not your soul.
Gladys Knight: And you shouldn’t be willing to sell your soul to get it.
Jazz Review: Because of movies and television, the music world is such a visual medium as well as an audio experience. How do you think this affects a performer’s attitude and behavior?
Gladys Knight: I think we’ve gone too far. If you’re doing something or saying something where you’ve got to cover someone’s ears or eyes in the process, you’ve gone too far. As musicians and artists, we do so many things for shock value because maybe you haven’t analyzed your talent well enough. If you can’t get by just on that without taking your clothes off or using profanity or disrespecting someone, then you need to go back and take a look. It has infiltrated our society so bad that the F-word became acceptable. People just use it like what’s up with that? It’s too easily done; there’s not even shock value in it anymore.
Jazz Review: It’s permutated the entire language.
Gladys Knight: It has! All of the people that you would have considered elite it’s offensive to my spirit. You know, anything that you’re exposed to consistently makes you numb to that thing. That’s why profanity is so subject - people don’t feel anything about it anymore. That’s why the eye is so used to nudity and that kind of thing now, because they don’t feel anything anymore. If she doesn’t have any clothes or his pants or dropping down so you can see his behind, that’s supposed to affect you in some kind of way. Put your clothes on, please, ‘cause they ain’t nothing sexy about that. Sexy is when they can’t see. Sexy is when you leave a little mystery to it, that’s sex appeal.
Jazz Review: Well, we’ve talked about how your new CD, Before Me, came about. Of all the songs on your new CD, which one do you identify most with, and how does this song affect you?
Gladys Knight: You know what? This is the first time I’ve had to answer this question like this. It’s a truism. When I got to do this album, and Lloyd told me about the music we used to do, I had the pleasure of doing every song that’s close to my heart. The only one that I didn’t know was "Come Sunday." I embraced that because of what it said and it felt good, just the right thing to add to this project. They allowed me to make up a wish list that I wanted to do. I don’t listen a lot of radio and look at a lot of television when I’m not performing. I came up with things that, over the years, what have you hummed? I went to "Someone to Watch Over Me" I lived that. This business takes so much out of your personal life. I’ve been married more times than I care to count, not because I’m just that flippant with it. I was born to be married and have one husband; but my choices weren’t good until now. I have the most wonderful man in my life; but before I didn’t do so well. There was still that wish of saying, "There’s somebody I’m longing to see someone to watch over me," so I’m not carrying the road all the time. I’ve lived these songs. Fun songs like "Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me." I’m gone all the time. How do you carry on a relationship? If they see me out with my brother, they may say Gladys is out with a new love. That’s the fun in that song. Don’t believe anything till you hear from me. I may see someone who looks nice, but me and you, that’s where it is. I tell you that I love you and I mean that. All of these things have a personal situation for me. "God Bless the Child," the Billie Holiday song. My spiritual thing says that the Lord gives his stamp of approval for that particular title. He said faith without works is dead, so God bless the child that’s got his own. Go out and do what you’re supposed to do, and stand tall in it. I love all the songs in the album and each one of them has a personal story for me.
Jazz Review: Well, that explains why you seem to own the songs you sing on the CD. Is there a particular artist whose music you perform on Before Me, that you identify with?
Gladys Knight: I would have to say, out of all of those great ladies, it would have to be Ella. Miss Fitzgerald is the epitome of not only a musician, but of her craft. I had the honor and the pleasure of meeting her; and she was the most unassuming woman for the super giant talent that she had. She just had a sweetness about her that I aspired to embrace in my life. She had to know how great she was, she had to know that she was a legend; but she would look at you if you were doing something with her and say "Hi Baby," rather than "You go and bow to Miss Fitzgerald." She was so cool and unassuming and so humble in it, even if she was performing with another artist, she just did her part. That was my lady; that was my girl.
Jazz Review: Other than the Pips, who do you like to sing with?
Gladys Knight: I love my musical family and they’re not famous. I love what they do; they’re awesome. My musical director, Ben Wright, he’s still with me. If you’re talking about on the famous side, I really enjoy my work with Chris Botti. He is the most amazing. Another guy that I have to count in the best I’ve ever seen is Babyface. That man could write a song, he is so sensitive in his music, he had the most beautiful melodies. When I saw him perform live, the class in his act! I was so entertained. His was the best show I have ever seen. I got a chance to sing with Frank Sinatra that was the top. I got a chance to sing with Marvin Gaye, even thought we had the same hit record. Singing-wise, he just touched me. Luther (Vandross) was another one. He was my baby.
Jazz Review: Who would you love to sing with that you have not gotten to?
Gladys Knight: I always wanted to do something with Rod Stewart. I met him at a celebrity athletic thing one time. I like his style and his originality and the uniqueness of his voice. I think we would make a good team.
Jazz Review: What keeps you grounded in your daily life?
Gladys Knight: My spirit, my true desire to please my Heavenly Father, and I know that pride and all of these earthly things that we can so easily get caught up into are not where our final reward will be. That’s not where He intends for us to be. Yes, He intends for us to use our gifts, but more in service for others.
Jazz Review: What new projects are you working on now?
Gladys Knight: I just finished doing my Christmas album with my choir. I have a hundred-voice choir in my church called the Saints Unified Voices; and we just did a Christmas album. It’s called A Christmas Celebration. We won a Grammy this year (for Best Gospel Choir Album.) I just finished mixing the last two songs and sent them off to get it mastered.
Jazz Review: Will it be widely released?
Gladys Knight: As far as I know. It’s published by Deserret Music and it’s gong to be out there, at Target and Wallmart. We enjoyed it.
Jazz Review: What do you do for fun?
Gladys Knight: I’m a down home girl. My husband and I like really simple things like picnics and walks in the park. We bought a farm about a year ago. He gets on his tractor and mows the lawn I love watching that. We have twenty acres. I plant flowers and I love to cook. I love decorating and I’m in the process now of redecorating the farmhouse. I’m working from the basement up. And we enjoy worshiping together.
Jazz Review: If you could change one thing about your life or career, what would it be?
Gladys Knight: I embrace everything. That’s not a copout. The bad things that happen in my life are, to me, the way I learn. Even when I was gambling, I learned so much from that. The weaknesses in us are what we have to look at to help ourselves to grow. The things that weren’t good in our live give us the challenges to get better or to remove those things from our lives. One thing I’m working on right now is that when I get passionate about something, my delivery comes off as sharp sometimes. Working with my choir helped me to see that. My mom used to tell me, "Let me tell you something, little girl. You need to watch it because your tongue cuts." My husband and I just had a conversation about that. You talk to different people in different ways to get your point across. You have to be different with somebody who’s sensitive than if you have somebody who has a tougher skin and can take it as you mean it. That’s what I’m working on right now, for Gladys.
Jazz Review: At this point in your life and career, what new adventures do you want to explore?
Gladys Knight: My husband and I bought a bus several years ago and we traveled by bus. I’m getting an opportunity now to travel and we’re getting a motor home. You know, all the places that I’ve been, I couldn’t tell you what they look like? My schedule consists of: from the plane picked up in a car and taken to the hotel. From the hotel to the stage, back to my room, from my room back to the plane and going to the next place or coming home. I could have been where the pyramids are and I would never have seen them. I have experienced people, now I want to experience the world. I want to go to Niagra Falls and see it. I want to go to Yellowstone, I want to go to Mount Rushmore, I want to go to the redwood forest in California, I want to go to the sacred grove in which Joseph Smith had his miracle happen. I want to do those things.
Jazz Review: When all is said and done, what do you want to be remembered for?
Gladys Knight: The love and compassion and the service that I gave my loved ones and my fellow man.
Jazz Review: What makes you laugh?
Gladys Knight: Mostly people. You can find something funny every day. My husband and I laugh a lot, and that’s a good thing! I like a person who can laugh, whether it is at himself or someone else. So when you find that laugh, that smile or that joy in life, it puts a different chemical in your spirit.
Jazz Review: Anything else you want our readers to know?
Gladys Knight: I want them to know that I sincerely love them and I thank them for their support, their love, their participation, and their money. Today, artists don’t realize that in order to be making all that money, somebody had to come up with it. So, I thank you for your dollars in support.
Jazz Review: You going to be in DC anytime soon?
Gladys Knight: Oh yeah. Next year, we’re going to be on tour for this album, and DC is on there. Maybe I’ll get a chance to meet you.
Jazz Review: I’d love that! I’ll look out for you coming to DC. Thanks so much.