The word “legend” is sprinkled around the celebrity world with far too much liberality. However, in the case of the Empress of Soul, Gladys Knight, the sobriquet is entirely appropriate. She turned 77 a couple of months ago, but her energy on stage and the quality of her voice would put a performer 20 years younger to shame.
In a career spanning almost 70 years, she has performed all over the world at some of the most iconic venues on the live music circuit. Whenever those shows took place in Atlantic City or Vegas casinos, the Gladys Knight and the Pips lead singer would always find a way to play a game of blackjack or even more often, baccarat, and her propensity for a wager has become almost as big a part of her legend as the music.
Like so many African American female vocalists who achieved fame in the 1950s and 60s, Gladys Knight’s first exposure to singing in front of an audience was in a church choir. She was born and raised in Atlanta Georgia, and her parents quickly realized that hers was no ordinary talent. Aged just eight, she found herself singing in front of TV cameras on a talent show called The Original Amateur Hour. She won, beating several older and more experienced competitors.
Just a few months later, she, her siblings and her cousins performed an impromptu concert to celebrate her brother’s 10th birthday. Glady’s mother was so blown away by their sound that she encouraged them to make it official and form a group. So it was that The Pips came into being, and by the summer of 1955, with Gladys still aged just 11, they were a regular feature on Atlanta’s live music and talent show circuit. They signed their first recording contract two years later, and although the group was full of musical talent, there was one voice that everyone wanted to hear. In 1961, they moved to Fury Records, who chose to re-release their earlier work – and who persuaded them to change the band’s name to Gladys Knight and the Pips.
Gladys Knight and the Pips enjoyed moderate success throughout the 1960s, but they never quite found that one song that would catapult them to the top echelons of stardom. Despite that, they were snapped up by Motown in 1967, and settled into a routine of recording and touring, the latter most often as a support act for Motown’s biggest act, Diana Ross and the Supremes. However, the relationship ended after six years, and according to Knight, it was at the insistence of Ross, who had already kicked her off a tour. Knight claimed Ross felt overshadowed by the rapturous audience reactions to what was supposed to be her warm up act.
The move proved to be exactly what Gladys Knight needed, and after signing with Buddah Records, the long-awaited hits came, one after another. The late 70s were a period in which Gladys Knight was at the top of her game. But she was also battling some personal demons.
From center stage to the card table
In the 1960s and 70s, there were all sorts of temptations landing at the feet of musicians. The proportion of performers whose lives were damaged by drug and alcohol addiction is little short of terrifying. Against that backdrop, a fondness for card game sounds relatively tame, but the impact came close to being just as catastrophic.
Knight first started playing blackjack and baccarat just for fun, as any one of us might if we found ourselves in Las Vegas of an evening. However, those one dollar bets soon escalated, and before even she fully knew what was happening, Knight found herself gambling and losing as much as $45,000 every night.
Strangely, it was a big win that prompted her to act. She says in her autobiography: “I had $2,000. And within 25, 30 minutes, I had won 60 grand.And I sat right at that table and gave every dime of it back. And I just got sick at the table.” Knight called Gamblers Anonymous at that very moment and has never placed a bet since.
The legend goes on
Knight parted company with the Pips as well as the card table in the 1980s, but recent decades have seen her enjoy a successful solo career. She still tours the casino cities, but says the sights and sounds of the gambling floor no longer have any allure.
She might be closer to 80 than 70 now, but she is still one of the biggest acts in American music – as we saw two years ago, when she sang the National Anthem at Super Bowl LII. She looked and sounded as amazing as ever, and we can’t wait to see her on the live circuit again soon.