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'Summer Of Soul': Gladys Knight

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross. During our "Summer Of Soul" series, we've been featuring interviews from our archives with performers who were part of the legendary 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, a series of free concerts showcasing all kinds of black music. That festival is the subject of the recent documentary "Summer Of Soul," directed by Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson. It's now streaming on Hulu. To conclude our series, an interview with Gladys Knight.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE END OF OUR ROAD")

GLADYS KNIGHT AND THE PIPS: (Singing) Ooh, got to get away from you fast as I can. Too much for me, baby - more than my heart can stand. Like a kid behind the wheel, you've been reckless with my heart. If I stay around, you'll surely tear it all apart. Say the road's got to end somewhere. Oh, every road has got to end somewhere. Now is the time for the showdown, so let me give you the lowdown. We've come to end of our road - road.

BIANCULLI: Gladys Knight and the Pips began their eight-year stay at Motown in 1966, turning out hits, which included "I Heard It Through The Grapevine," "If I Were Your Woman" and "Neither One Of Us." Before joining Motown, they recorded their first hit, "Every Beat Of My Heart," when Gladys was still in high school. In the 1970s, after leaving Motown, she sang deeply affecting adult ballads such as "Midnight Train To Georgia" and "You're The Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me." Gladys Knight is perhaps the only performer in Motown history who had hits before joining the label and after leaving it.

In 1996, Gladys Knight and the Pips were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Terry interviewed Gladys Knight that year in San Francisco. It was part of the 15th anniversary celebration of City Arts & Lectures, which presents onstage conversations with leading figures in literature, criticism and the performing arts.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GLADYS KNIGHT: Whew, what a house. Hey.

TERRY GROSS: Gladys Knight, congratulations...

KNIGHT: Thank you so very, very much.

GROSS: ...On the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Now, since you started your career as a child, I want to start our interview...

KNIGHT: OK.

GROSS: ...In your childhood.

KNIGHT: OK.

GROSS: Now, you started singing in church, I guess, when you were 4 years old?

KNIGHT: Yes.

GROSS: What was the church like, and what did you sing?

KNIGHT: Well, actually, my mom and dad had created with the church family a recital for me. And at the time, we weren't being so typecast in music as sometimes we are today. So I sang a variety of things. I did songs like "Ave Maria" and "Bless This House." And in the pop category, I did "Because Of You" and "Be My Love" and "Too Young." In the spiritual category, I did things like "Go Down, Moses" and "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." So I got to do all kinds of songs, and I loved it.

GROSS: Now, all your biographies say that when you were 7, you won first place on Ted Mack's "Original Amateur Hour"...

KNIGHT: Yes, I did.

GROSS: ...Which I think of as the "Star Search" of the past, right? (Laughter).

(APPLAUSE)

KNIGHT: Now, that was quite an experience.

GROSS: Well, whose idea was it for you to do the show?

KNIGHT: Well, that was also my mom. My mom did not believe, as other members in our families, about, you know, idle minds. They just wanted to keep us busy. It was not so much about creating an avenue or getting us prepped for show business. It was just about keeping us busy doing ballet or doing gymnastics or whatever it was that we could do.

GROSS: So were you good? Did you think - I'm great; I'm going to win; I've nailed this? Did you think you were good?

KNIGHT: Nah.

GROSS: Stage fright?

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Did you have stage fright? Were you afraid to perform, or was it easy for you?

KNIGHT: No, I wasn't. It really was heavenly. My mom wrote to them and asked them if I could be on the show and if I would get an audition with them. And they wrote her back and said, yes, we would love to have her come. So we went to New York, and we auditioned for them, and we got to be right on the show. And it was quite an experience because I'd never been to New York before, and I'd definitely never been on television before.

GROSS: Really?

KNIGHT: And the whole idea was really exciting. But it wasn't so much that I was getting wiped out by it. You know what I loved most.

GROSS: What?

KNIGHT: Getting made up.

(LAUGHTER)

KNIGHT: I mean, the lipstick was the bomb, I'm telling you. It was really great. I mean, I spent most of my time in the makeup room. So whenever they wanted - Little Gladys is what they used to call me - they would send somebody up to makeup, you know. And Mr. Mack used to come up and tease us and do all of those things. They knew exactly where to find me.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: What'd you do with the $2,000 you won?

KNIGHT: My mom actually put it in a savings account for us. And after I got older and needed to do certain things - like, I was singing very early. And if I wanted a new dress, which I did quite often...

(LAUGHTER)

KNIGHT: ...Well, she would pinch a little bit off of it, you know? And I had this little secondhand store that I had found. And I would go downtown - after I got old enough to ride the bus downtown - and I would go down to this little secondhand store. And they really had nice clothes. And my mom just taught us how to be innovative with our dress, you know, and that kind of thing. So...

GROSS: Now, I believe that Gladys Knight and the Pips got started at your brother Bubba's ninth birthday party. Is that right?

KNIGHT: Yes, yes.

GROSS: So what happened - you just spontaneously started singing together? What happened?

KNIGHT: Well, yeah. Well, what actually happened was we gave Bubba a surprise birthday - my friends and I, OK? They were up on the playground playing basketball. And my friends and I got together, said, oh, it's Bubba's birthday today, so let's do something. Now, in those days, the house party was the thing. OK. You get you 'bout 50 cent worth of bologna...

(LAUGHTER)

KNIGHT: ...And 'bout six loaves of bread (laughter) and some mayonnaise, make some sandwiches and cut them up real little so people think they're getting a lot (laughter). And we would make sandwiches, and our national drink was Kool-Aid. OK?

(APPLAUSE)

KNIGHT: You could make a whole lot of Kool-Aid for a nickel (laughter). So we decided we were going to have this party. But while they were up there and getting everything together, we realized that we didn't have a record player. So we set out to find some music for the party. And a friend of ours that lived around the corner from us named Garfield (ph) - we asked him, could we use his record player? And he said yes. And we started the party. We were having a wonderful time. And Garfield was an only child if that may speak to anything, OK? So Garfield not only wanted to control the record player, he wanted to tell everybody what to play.

(LAUGHTER)

KNIGHT: And we weren't in that mood that Garfield was in.

(LAUGHTER)

KNIGHT: So we kept telling Garfield, we don't want to hear that. We want to hear this. So he got mad. He said - you know what? - I'll take my record player home. So we said, OK. And in those days, children were still into, in my opinion, using their imagination. I did a song about that, I think.

(LAUGHTER)

KNIGHT: They were into using their imagination. And we said, OK, music's gone. What you want to do? So we said, let's have a talent show. So that's exactly what we did. Everybody at the party kind of got off in groups and said, oh, I want to sing, say, oh, I'm going to dance, or I'm going to tell a joke. I'm going to do - so that's how we did. And we were all part of the same choir, my family and I. So we got up, and we said, OK, we're going to sing. We're going to sing together.

GROSS: Now, when you started singing clubs and then even traveling around a little bit...

KNIGHT: Yes.

GROSS: ...What did your mother try to do? What did your mother try to do to make sure that you stayed on the straight and narrow 'cause you were going to be exposed to bad influences at clubs?

KNIGHT: Oh, yeah. Our parents - I have to say our parents because all of us - see, in those days, parents still networked, you know what I'm saying?

(APPLAUSE)

KNIGHT: They still talked to each other. They were - the other parents also knew what we were doing, and we wouldn't - we knew what everybody else was doing, and everybody was allowed to chastise everybody.

GROSS: Right.

KNIGHT: OK?

(LAUGHTER)

KNIGHT: So it was that kind of thing. And so once we started out on the road, it was like we took all of these things with us because there were certain things that were just not allowed. It was just not accepted.

GROSS: Like what?

KNIGHT: Like, we knew drugs would make you die. And in those days, people were afraid of dying.

(LAUGHTER)

KNIGHT: Well?

(APPLAUSE)

KNIGHT: You know? Yeah, and, you know, as far as our spiritual thing is concerned, there were just certain things - you just carried yourself a certain way. And you respected your elders. And you didn't - you know, it wasn't about alcohol. That was a bad thing and...

GROSS: OK, what about boys, though?

KNIGHT: You know what?

(LAUGHTER)

KNIGHT: I - it's really weird, my life, when it comes to the personal side. By no means have I had a perfect life, but in a way, I guess because I was so tied up with the music, my personal life kind of got unbalanced. And I wasn't taken to the prom, I worked the prom.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Right.

KNIGHT: You know?

GROSS: Right, right, right.

KNIGHT: That's right. And it was almost like with the guys, they weren't used to a working woman...

(LAUGHTER)

KNIGHT: ...You know, I guess, because nobody would approach me. And as I got - actually, to be very honest with you, I ended up getting married very early, and it was my childhood sweetheart. I was married by 17. And we were starting our family. And in my opinion, 17 then was a different 17 than it is now.

GROSS: Well, you must have been a very mature 17. You'd already seen so much and done so much.

KNIGHT: Well, yeah, I always had this thing that, you know, I was going to marry the guy, that whole scenario that we had. I was the only one in my group that was, you know...

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: What?

KNIGHT: A virgin.

GROSS: Oh.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: I bet your mother was proud.

(LAUGHTER)

KNIGHT: But it was - you know, that's the way it was. And so it - I never really got a chance to get into the men per se. Then, you know, as life would have it, my husband and I didn't end up making it all of the - all the way. And so I became a single parent early. But my dad was a workaholic. So I had all of these things, even as a woman, to put in place. And having been with these guys all my life - I'd been around guys all my life. You know, I kind of began to think, like, well, you know, you do what you got to do kind of thing.

And The Pips made sure that I did. They were very protective of me. But they also - they were young, too, so they considered me one of the boys, right? So when we were doing things or traveling up and down the road and we had to get off the plane or get out of the car, they said - I said, well, you left one. It was mine. They said, well, you one of the boys, ain't you? Get it.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Did The Pips protect you?

KNIGHT: Oh, they were ferocious.

(LAUGHTER)

KNIGHT: They were ferocious, I'm telling you. I got to tell you this story, and it's one of the juicy ones that would be in the book, OK?

(LAUGHTER)

KNIGHT: And it's a true story. We had gone to see this gentleman about doing a management situation with him. And he - I won't call on you (ph). He was a very, very heavyweight, popular young man. At one point, they sent me out of the room. And I said, well, why do I got to go? So they said, well, we get - we need to talk some real heavy business. And they always kind of protected me from that. So I heard all this ruckus and stuff going on, like, you know, tables falling over and that kind of stuff.

(LAUGHTER)

KNIGHT: And I was sitting out in the little waiting room, you know? And I got up and said, what is going on? And they came out, come on, let's go. You know, that kind of thing. So I got up, and I left, you know? And they were just steaming, you know? And I said, what is the matter? What's the matter? We didn't get the deal? They said, no. You know, they were just so - finally, they told me, said, they didn't want us. They didn't want this group, they wanted you. The guy wanted you. And whatever we wanted...

GROSS: Wanted you in the carnal way, is it?

KNIGHT: Yes.

GROSS: Right.

KNIGHT: He wanted - (laughter) in the carnal way. That's so nice.

(LAUGHTER)

KNIGHT: Yeah. Yes, you know? So, you know, that was really quite something. But then as I grew up - and I was still very young then. There, I was in my teens. And after my husband and I broke up, I was a young woman by then. But no guys ever approached me wrong, so to speak, or in that way. But those guys - and come to find out later, they were daring guys not to come near me.

BIANCULLI: Gladys Knight interviewed by Terry Gross onstage in 1996, the year Gladys Knight was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame - more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEEP BLUE ORGAN TRIO'S "TELL ME SOMETHING GOOD")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's interview with Gladys Knight, one of the performers you can see in the documentary "Summer Of Soul" about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival. Terry interviewed Gladys Knight onstage in San Francisco in 1996.

GROSS: Now, you were - what? - 17, I think, when you recorded your first hit, "Every Beat Of My Heart."

KNIGHT: Sixteen.

GROSS: Wow.

KNIGHT: Yes. That was quite something, too.

GROSS: Now, you had two versions that you recorded.

KNIGHT: We had three.

GROSS: Three versions? OK. Now the first, I believe, was recorded without you realizing that somebody was recording.

KNIGHT: That's right.

GROSS: What happened?

KNIGHT: Well, we were performing at this club called the Builders Club in Atlanta. And we did weekends there while we were in school. And the gentleman that owned the club came to us one night, and we were friends. And his kids went to school with us and everything. So he came to us one night, and he said, hey, you guys. He said, I got some new recording equipment in today. And we're just going to, like, set up a little makeshift studio in the club tonight and just see what kind of sounds we got. He said, would you guys mind staying over after the show? So green as we were, we said, OK.

And when we got to record that night, we did, like, a lot of the hit stuff, the pop stuff that was out at the time. And then he asked us if we had any original material. And we said, oh, yeah. We were excited about. We were looking forward to the day when we got a chance to record and have our first record out. And oh, boy, were we ready, right? So we said, yeah, we got one thing we've really been working on. Now, we weren't thinking at that time. This is not the way to do it. This is not the time that you should be protective, OK? So we did this song. The song was "Every Beat Of My Heart," OK? So we recorded this song. And when we knew anything, our friends at school started to telling us that we love your record.

GROSS: And you didn't even know...

KNIGHT: I say, you do?

GROSS: ...There was a record.

KNIGHT: Yes. And they said, you got a record out. I say, is that so?

(LAUGHTER)

KNIGHT: Yeah.

GROSS: I have to say that this 1961 recording is an extraordinary recording. You sound so great on it...

KNIGHT: Thank you.

GROSS: ...And particularly when you think that - 17 years old or 16 years old.

KNIGHT: Yep.

GROSS: So, in fact, I think we should listen...

KNIGHT: (Laughter).

GROSS: ...To some of this recording.

(APPLAUSE)

GROSS: 1961, Fury Records, Gladys Knight and the Pips - let's hear it.

KNIGHT: Oh, my goodness.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVERY BEAT OF MY HEART")

GLADYS KNIGHT AND THE PIPS: (Singing) In every beat of my heart, there's a beat for you. In every toast of wine, there's a toast for you. In all my conversation, you're my inspiration. And everything I do, I do for you.

(APPLAUSE)

GROSS: Does it make you uncomfortable to hear that record?

KNIGHT: You are really, really something. You know, I never really listened to myself then because you know how you know - you feel it that your voice has changing and you're going to crack any minute - that kind of thing? So I didn't do a lot of listening to myself during those days. I listen to myself more now. Maybe it's because I'm more into the creative end, and I have to. But, yeah, that sounds weird.

BIANCULLI: Gladys Knight interviewed by Terry Gross onstage in 1996, the year Gladys Knight was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame - more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF HUGH MASEKELA'S "GRAZING IN THE GRASS")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's interview with Gladys Knight, one of the performers you can see in the documentary "Summer Of Soul" about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival. Terry interviewed Gladys Knight onstage in San Francisco in 1996.

GROSS: The Motown process was that there were meetings, I think, every Friday.

KNIGHT: Yeah.

GROSS: And the producers would come with their new songs and their little demos, and then everybody would vote on which was the record that week that was actually...

KNIGHT: That's right.

GROSS: ...Going to get made.

KNIGHT: They had a lot of control in your life.

GROSS: Now, I want you to tell the story of "I Heard It Through The Grapevine," one of your great hits.

KNIGHT: Yes.

(APPLAUSE)

GROSS: Now, the songwriter and producer of this took it to one of the meetings, and he initially wanted Marvin Gaye to do it.

KNIGHT: Yes.

GROSS: Right? And I think Marvin Gaye was going to sing it more like a ballad.

KNIGHT: Really?

GROSS: That's what Berry Gordy says. That's what Berry Gordy says. I don't know. But anyways, Berry Gordy voted it down. He wanted Marvin Gaye to do a different song.

KNIGHT: OK.

GROSS: And - right? Do I have the story, right?

KNIGHT: Yes.

GROSS: OK.

KNIGHT: I would imagine. I didn't know the Marvin Gaye story, but I know that the song had been sitting on the shelf and demoed a couple of times just trying to see what could be done with it. Matter of fact, Barrett, who was one of the writers on the song, Barrett Strong, did it himself. And it was just kind of sitting around. So when the producer came to us with this particular song, it was like, hey; I really believe in this song, Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong. And just take it and play with it. And we took the song with us on the road, and we were in the hotels. We'd sit out in the hall and work on our little song and stuff like that and...

GROSS: Can you tell us a little bit how you worked on that song, what the song sounded like before you started working on it, what you put into it that wasn't written in?

KNIGHT: Well, we created the whole background for "I Heard It Through The Grapevine." We created the whole background.

GROSS: All the oh, yes, I do things, too.

KNIGHT: Yeah. Yeah (laughter). You go, Terry.

(LAUGHTER)

KNIGHT: Yep. Yep, we did the, you know, (singing) oh, yes, I am. Oh, yes, I am. Don't you know that I heard it?

We did all of those - all the little background things that you heard, we did those. And what happened was we took - and we kind of broke it up. It wasn't quite put together verse, chorus, verse, chorus, like we ended up with it. And so we just tore it apart, put it back together. We would get up in the morning, fix our breakfast while we're planning. We would tape what we had in mind.

And eventually, we felt we had it right. We ran down to the studio, and we played it for Norman, and he was so excited. He just flipped. I mean, he just - oh. Oh, boy. Hey. Hey. And Smokey happened to be in the - Smokey Robinson happened to be in the studio that afternoon in Studio A. And we needed a studio because he wanted us to record it right then. And we went upstairs, and he asked Smokey if we could borrow the studio. And Smokey said, yeah, you know? So we went on in the studio, and we recorded it right then. And it became the biggest-selling record Motown had that year, and it became our first No. 1 record.

(APPLAUSE)

KNIGHT: And then along came Marvin that next year. This was in 1967 for us. 1968, Marvin came out with "I Heard It Through The Grapevine."

GROSS: Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, who wrote "Grapevine," also wrote a lot of The Temptations' songs.

KNIGHT: Exactly.

GROSS: Did you ever have to compete with The Temptations for songs?

KNIGHT: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

KNIGHT: Matter of fact, another thing that bothered me was that when we first came to the company...

(LAUGHTER)

KNIGHT: When we first came to the company, all the things that they kind of brought us were things that the other artists had done already.

GROSS: And they wanted you to cover.

KNIGHT: And it was like hand-me-down stuff, you know? I said, don't we warrant our own music - you know, that kind of thing? And I remember our very first release from Motown was "Everybody Needs Love." Well, The Temptations had worn that out already.

(LAUGHTER)

KNIGHT: You know, I mean, it was a big hit for them. So we had our job cut out for us just to even get any recognition on it because songs start to belong to people after a while.

GROSS: So do you feel that your sound or the group's choreography or your image changed much during the Motown years?

KNIGHT: Not really. If anything, we got better. And I say this, and I don't mean to offend any of The Temptation fans or lovers out there tonight. But in actuality, The Pips started the fast step, the steps that The Temptations became so known for. The Pips were the first to do that.

(APPLAUSE)

KNIGHT: But The Temptations got the first national recording recognition, so they became known for those fast steps. So in a - on a larger scale - so it started being attributed to them. But in actuality, they used to stand in the wings and watch every move The Pips made, you know?

(APPLAUSE)

KNIGHT: I'm serious.

GROSS: I believe you.

KNIGHT: (Laughter) So...

GROSS: I bet that there isn't a person in the house tonight who hasn't had the fantasy of singing with The Pips behind you.

KNIGHT: Yeah (laughter). You get the best. It's quite an experience. I'll tell you. It's quite an experience.

BIANCULLI: Gladys Knight speaking to Terry Gross in 1996. Gladys Knight is one of the performers in the recent documentary "Summer Of Soul" about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival directed by Ahmir Questlove Thompson. Terry's interview with Gladys Knight was a part of the San Francisco City Arts and Lectures series and was produced by the founder of City Arts and Lectures, the late Sydney Goldstein.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I HEARD IT THROUGH THE GRAPEVINE")

GLADYS KNIGHT AND THE PIPS: (Singing) Oh, I bet you're wondering how I knew, baby, baby, baby, about your plans to make me blue with some other girl you knew before. Between the two of us girls, you know I love you more. It took me by surprise, I must say, when I found out yesterday. Don't you know that I heard it through the grapevine? Oh, I heard it through the grapevine. Not much longer would you be mine. Not much longer would you be mine. Don't you know that I heard it through the grapevine?

BIANCULLI: On tomorrow's show, U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo. She's the first American Indian appointed to the position. She has a new memoir that's in part about her family's history. Her great-grandfather survived what became known as the Trail of Tears, the forced relocation of Indians from their native land. I hope you can join us.

FRESH AIR'S executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director is Audrey Bentham. Our engineer today was Al Banks. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I HEARD IT THROUGH THE GRAPEVINE")

GLADYS KNIGHT AND THE PIPS: (Singing) You could have told me yourself that you love somebody else. Instead, I heard it through the grapevine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.