‘Empress of Soul’ Buzzes Back into Our Ears in 2019

Posted May 30, 2019 by J Matthew Cobb in Features

So far this year, it looks like Gladys Knight is saving the overtime for us.

They don’t call Gladys Knight the “Empress of Soul” for nothing. Well, she would’ve been the queen of soul, but that title is already taken. That lifetime honor goes to Detroit’s Aretha Franklin. But Gladys Knight, a product of Atlanta life along with her brother (Bubba) and her singing cousins who eventually migrated north to Detroit after being signed to Motown per Berry Gordy, is not that far behind her.

Last year, the ten-time Grammy winner (two with the Pips, eight on her own) sung at the memorial services of Aretha Franklin, opting to sing her own interpretation of “Bridge over Troubled Water,” one tied to a Sunday morning-ready “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” Her seven-minute performance, dressed in heartfelt ministry, was one of the highlights of the five-hour long musical and raised prospects of new music. It most certainly raised her profile some. Since then, Knight’s itinerary blossomed. Her enthralling appearances on the surprise hit TV game show, FOX’s The Masked Singer, proved to be another highlight in 2019. Dressed as a cool Disney-styled super-sized bee, Knight soared through covers of contemporary hits like Miley Cyrus’s “Wrecking Ball” and Sia’s “Chandelier” and was later revealed her identity in the finale. And in the new era of social media, Knight started trending on Twitter as followers of the show quickly clocked her exceptional gift and younger audiences were suddenly being introduced to her greatness.

There also was her high-stakes performance of the Star-Spangled Banner at the Super Bowl LIII. It didn’t come without some controversy. In a single tweet, Gladys Knight made the news official to the world. “Atlanta, I’m coming home,” she tweeted alongside a stunning ad featuring the silver-and-blue Super Bowl logo. Originally R&B fans and much of the black community expressed disappointment at her decision to perform the nation’s anthem at the sporting event because of their previous decision to boycott the event due to the league’s frazzled handling of Colin Kaepernick and their weakness on addressing social justice in the black community.

Knight wasn’t alone in the controversy; halftime show performers Maroon 5 and hometown hero Big Boi was also criticized for their commitment to the championship game. But Knight felt the brunt of the pain, with many questioning her choice as if she was putting money and fame before the needs of her community. She put out a press release stating why she decided to do it. She acknowledged the racial injustice and police brutality was a stark reality for so many black people, but she hoped through her performance, for which she promised to “give the anthem back its voice,” that she hoped healing and reconciliation would take place. “It is unfortunate that our national anthem has been dragged into this debate, when the distinctive senses of the national anthem and fighting for justice should each stand alone,” she added. “I pray that this national anthem will bring us all together in a way never before witnessed and we can move forward and untangle these truths which mean so much to all of us.”

Still, the backlash was evident and strong. “@Kaepernick7 lost his @NFL career fighting for black social justice, where is the solidarity?,” one person blasted on Twitter. “So if this is true @MsGladysKnight has just been added to the long list of other #muted artists.”


But Gladys was far from muted. Immediately after her performance, there she was, trending on social media. The secret was out. Virtually all the headlines and reviews were glowing, and deservingly so: Country Living wrote “Gladys won the Super Bowl;” the Charlotte Observer wrote Gladys “won America’s heart;” Rolling Stone called it “a powerful rendition.” Even sports analysts called it. “The most-popular prop bet at the Super Bowl each year is the over/under for the Star Spangled Banner,” wrote managing editor Andrew Holleran at The Spun. “Knight…crushed the over.”

All in all, Gladys looked poised and radiant in a crystal-stoned white gown while delivering a soulful performance and quite possibly one of the most memorable versions of the anthem in recent memory. She sounded victorious.

This year so far has proven to be one of the best on record for Knight, who recently celebrated her 75th birthday on Tuesday. Even without a new album to promote or a new single to flaunt (her last offering, “Just a Little” turned very few heads), Knight has paved the road ahead with much anticipation for more.

In a time when most of the living soul legends have either settled in near-retirement or have nearly expired in their finesse, hearing Knight sounding just as remarkable and fierce has renewed all hope of more from her. That’s why Culture Club + Boy George’s latest single, a 2019 Record Store Day feature, is a must grab. Originally released without Knight’s vocals, the newly-updated “Runaway Train” is done with a Dap Kings-meets-Stax swag; George’s vocals are full of grit, swelling in a sweet vibrato. And it perfectly blends with the gospel-tinged effectiveness of Knight. The pair sound magical when they take turns at the verses and then colliding with golden harmonies on the simple chorus (“It’s a runaway train/The truth is a runaway train”). It’s the kind of single that works perfectly on Knight’s belting.

And oddly enough, Knight knows a thing or two about songs involving trains. “Friendship Train,” a Norman Whitfield gem, proved to be a Motown knockout at the height of the brief, but effective psychedelic soul era. Then came “Midnight Train to Georgia,” originally done as a country ballad but transformed into a smoldering soul-gospel tour de force, pounced with Knight’s “I got to go, I got to go/Whoo” ad-lib. It ended up giving Knight one of her first Grammys.

Over the years, Knight has tried her hardest to survive the times by adapting to the swift changes in styles and genres. She’s gone from Motown assembly-line R&B (“I Heard It Through the Grapevine”) to crossover soul at Buddah (“You’re the Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me”). Then after Buddah, she touched the tips of disco with Ashford & Simpson productions (“I Will Fight,” Taste of Bitter Love,” “Landlord”), even played with synth-heavy urban pop (“Save the Overtime for Me,” “You’re Number One (In My Book),” “Love Overboard”). Oftentimes, critics have dismissed her work in the ‘80’s, but much of it has stood the test of time. Upheld by Knight’s raw delivery, the Pips’ masterful harmonies and clean production, albums like 1980’s About Love, 1981’s Touch and 1983’s Visions are grand examples of essential ‘80’s R&B listening. Inside those collections are a masterclass on Knight’s superiority. There’s the near-perfect “Still Such a Thing,” where Knight delivers some of her finest belting ever put on wax. And like gravy on a biscuit, the Pips bring the performance home singing “of love, people dream of such a thing” as Knight offers up a lifetime of ad-libs. Her theatric live take on Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive,” done in the same spirit of “The Way We Were/Try to Remember,” starts off slow, bubbling with an opening sentimental rap and a serenading gloss of orchestral pop. It then picks up with a rapturous speedy tempo and hits a crescendo when Knight blasts “I’m free again.” It’s such a riveting performance that it’s proven to be a lip-synch mainstay with drag queens (another being 1994’s “End of the Road Medley”). Songs like the Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis-penned “When You’re Far Away,” “A Friend of Mine,” “If That’ll Make You Happy” and the bubbly disco of “Reach High” all deserve an appraisal.

And then there are nuggets we just overlooked completely. The Bunny Sigler-penned “Till I See You Again” (from 1985’s Life) may be one of the hardest goodbye songs to listen to without shedding a tear. And there’s “Send It to Me,” their contribution to the Miami Vice II soundtrack. Penned by Allee Willis (Earth Wind & Fire, Pointer Sisters), this pop-R&B jam is done in the spirit of uptempo swag that fell on the records of Jody Watley and the Whispers. The 12” extended version, handled meticulously by remixer Louil Silas, Jr., is post-disco heaven.

Her golden era of hits are mostly scattered across much of the mid-‘70’s and early ‘80’s, all associated with her tenure with the Pips. But there she made great strides with others, much of it being power ballad duets. In 1985, Knight teamed up with her good friend Dionne Warwick for the charity-led “That’s What Friends Are For,” a Number One pop smash that won two Grammys (including Song of the Year). In 1991, she along with Warwick and Patti LaBelle punched a fireball of soul into Karyn White’s “Superwoman,” a take that flew into the Top Ten on the R&B charts. Five years later, she sung with Tamia and Chaka Khan on the Top Ten R&B hit “Missing You” for the Set It Off motion picture soundtrack, which nabbed a Grammy nomination for Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals.

After “Missing You,” despite releasing a bundle of Christian and gospel albums highly associated with her religious affiliations as a Mormon and a traditional jazz album (2006’s Before Me), Knight’s singles have missed the mark in gaining any chart or radio traction. But with all the shiny press surrounding Knight lately and the arrival of “Runaway Train,” Gladys Knight, the unmasked bee, is certainly buzzing again. Fingers crossed that there’ll be more to come.


Gladys Knight will be co-headlining the 27th annual Capital City Jazz Festival at the Merriweather Post Pavilion during the weekend of June 7-9. Other performers include Kem, Gregory Porter, Babyface, Christette Michelle, Brian McKnight, Stephanie Mills, Raheem DeVaughn and a special tribute to Aretha Franklin. For more information, go to www.capitaljazz.com/fest/2019.

About the Author

J Matthew Cobb

Managing editor of HiFi Magazine


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