Gladys Knight (b. 28 May 1944, Atlanta, Georgia, USA), her brother Merald ‘Bubba’ (b. 4 September 1942, Atlanta, Georgia, USA), sister Brenda and cousins Elenor Guest and William Guest (b. 2 July 1941, Atlanta, Georgia, USA, d. 24 December 2015, Detroit, Michigan, USA) formed their first vocal group in their native Atlanta in 1952. Calling themselves the Pips, after their cousin James ‘Pips’ Woods, the youngsters sang supper-club material in the week and gospel music on Sundays. They first recorded for Brunswick Records in 1958, releasing the unsuccessful single ‘Whistle My Love’. Another cousin of the Knights, Edward Patten (b. 2 August 1939, Atlanta, Georgia, USA, d. 25 February 2005, Livonia, Michigan, USA), and Langston George were brought into the group line-up the following year when Brenda and Elenor left to get married. Three years elapsed before the Pips’ next sessions, which produced a version of Johnny Otis’ ‘Every Beat Of My Heart’ for the small Huntom label. This song, which highlighted Knight’s bluesy, compelling vocal style, was leased to Vee Jay Records when it began attracting national attention, and went on to top the US R&B charts and reach the pop Top 10. By this time, the group, now credited as Gladys Knight And The Pips, had signed a long-term recording contract with Fury Records, where they issued a re-recording of ‘Every Beat Of My Heart’ which competed for sales with the original release. Subsequent singles such as ‘Letter Full Of Tears’ and ‘Operator’ sealed the group’s R&B credentials. A switch to the Maxx label in 1964 - where they worked with producer Van McCoy - generated minor hits with ‘Giving Up’ and ‘Lovers Always Forgive’. Langston George retired from the group in 1962, leaving the four strong line-up that survived into the 80s.
In 1966, Gladys Knight And The Pips signed to Motown Records’ Soul subsidiary, where they were teamed up with producer/songwriter Norman Whitfield. Knight’s tough vocals left them slightly out of the Motown mainstream, and throughout their stay with the label the group was regarded as a second-string act. Between 1967 and 1968, they had major R&B and minor pop hits in America with ‘Everybody Needs Love’, ‘The End Of The Road’, ‘It Should Have Been Me’ and ‘I Wish It Would Rain’, but enjoyed most success with the original release of ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine’, an uncompromisingly tough performance of a song that became a Motown standard in the hands of its author Marvin Gaye in 1969. Gladys Knight And The Pips’ version topped the R&B chart for six weeks at the end of 1967 and also reached number 2 on the US pop charts.
The group enjoyed further R&B and pop hits at the end of the decade with ‘Didn’t You Know (You’d Have To Cry Sometime)’, ‘The Nitty Gritty’, ‘Friendship Train’ and ‘You Need Love Like I Do (Don’t You)’, while the poignant ‘If I Were Your Woman’ was one of the label’s biggest-selling releases of 1970 and provided the group with their third R&B chart-topper. In the early 70s, Gladys Knight And The Pips slowly moved away from their original blues-influenced sound towards a more middle-of-the-road harmony blend. Their new approach brought them success in 1973 with the smash hit ‘Neither One Of Us (Wants To Be The First To Say Goodbye)’ (number 1 R&B/number 2 pop), while further hits during this period included ‘I Don’t Want To Do Wrong’, ‘Make Me The Woman That You Go Home To’, ‘Help Me Make It Through The Night’ and ‘Daddy Could Swear, I Declare’.
In late 1973, Gladys Knight And The Pips elected to leave Motown for Buddah Records, unhappy at the former label’s shift of operations from Detroit to Hollywood. At Buddah, the group found immediate success with ‘Where Peaceful Waters Flow’ and ‘Midnight Train To Georgia’, an arresting soul ballad which topped both the R&B and pop charts. Major hits such as ‘I’ve Got To Use My Imagination’ and ‘Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me’ (R&B chart-toppers and pop Top 5 hits) mined a similar vein. In 1974, the group performed Curtis Mayfield’s soundtrack songs for the movie Claudine, spawning the major hit ‘On And On’, and the following year the title track of I Feel A Song gave them another R&B number 1. Their smoother approach was epitomized by the medley of ‘The Way We Were/Try To Remember’, released the same year (1975) that saw Knight and the group host their own US television series.
Gladys Knight made her acting debut in Pipe Dreams in 1976, for which the group recorded a soundtrack album. Legal problems then dogged their career until the end of the decade, forcing Knight and the Pips to record separately until they could sign a new recording contract with CBS Records. Knight enjoyed minor R&B hits at the end of the decade with the solo singles ‘I’m Coming Home Again’ and ‘Am I Too Late’. About Love in 1980 teamed the reunited group with the Ashford And Simpson writing/production partnership, and produced a strident piece of R&B social comment in ‘Landlord’ and ‘Bourgie’ Bourgie’’. Subsequent releases alternated between the group’s R&B and MOR modes, generating hits such as the R&B chart-topper ‘Save The Overtime (For Me)’ and ‘You’re Number One In My Book’ (both 1983). In 1985 Knight appeared on the chart-topping pop hit ‘That’s What Friends Are For’, alongside Elton John, Dionne Warwick and Stevie Wonder. After a move to MCA Records in 1986, ‘Love Overboard’ demonstrated that Gladys Knight And The Pips could work equally well in both R&B and pop genres, taking the group back to the top of the R&B charts and into the pop Top 20 at the end of 1987. The latter song earned them a Grammy Award for the Best R&B performance in early 1989, while the group enjoyed two final R&B hits at the end of the decade with ‘Lovin’ On Next To Nothin’’ and ‘It’s Gonna Take All Our Love’.
In 1989, Gladys Knight and the Pips parted company. Merald remained with his sister when she achieved a UK Top 10 hit that year with the James Bond movie song ‘Licence To Kill’ (her highest UK chart position since Gladys Knight And The Pips’ 1977 Top 5 hit ‘Baby Don’t Change Your Mind’), and released her second solo album, Good Woman, in 1991. Her subsequent work has alternated between gospel and mainstream pop, although apart from the R&B Top 5 hit ‘Men’ she has enjoyed relatively minor chart success. She collaborated with Chaka Khan, Brandy and Tamia on the minor hit ‘Missing You’ in 1996, taken from the Queen Latifah movie Set It Off. The same year she was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame with the Pips. A noteworthy album of standards was released in 2006.