Songstress Gladys Knight Reflects on Her Illustrious Career: ‘I Don’t Take Anything For Granted’
As long as she can remember, Gladys Knight has been singing. After a childhood spent honing her craft in church and talent shows, she formed a group with her brother and cousins that would go on to make history — but it wasn’t that easy! It took almost a decade of recording, touring and hard work before their signature song, “Midnight Train to Georgia,” finally made Gladys Knight and the Pips a household name in 1973. “When it finally came around, we were prepared and ready,” Gladys, 78, tells Closer.
These days, the seven-time Grammy Award winner is still singing and touring. She also stars in I’m Glad It’s Christmas, playing a guiding light to an aspiring performer in the new film airing this month on the Great American Family Channel. Finally, in early December, Gladys will be one of the honorees at this year’s Kennedy Center Honors in Washington, D.C., an annual event that recognizes performing artists for their “exemplary bodies of work.”
Tell us about your new movie, I’m Glad It’s Christmas.
It’s about a young lady who is trying to get a part on Broadway, instead of being in this small, average, but really wonderful musical. I play someone who becomes her mentor. How is she going to come through it? I am not quite sure. You just have to see. I think it’s just great.
Who mentored and inspired you when you were young?
Oh, I had a lot of those. There were other people in the industry who had awesome, awesome voices, like Nat King Cole. Another one was [Motown manager and performance coach] Maurice King. He was the one who helped us find our voices.
Did you welcome advice and direction when you were a young performer?
Yes. You’ve got to respect the people who have that kind of musical education — not necessarily school, but just [what is in] their spirit and their hearts. There is a feeling in music that is not just notes. You’ve got to find something in your spirit and your presentation that is real, moving and musical. It’s not like you can just jump up and say, “Let’s make this kind of music.” You have to feel it.
Of course, this isn’t your first movie. You were nominated for a Golden Globe for 1976’s Pipe Dreams. How did it feel to be so well received as an actor?
I didn’t know that was going to happen. But you know what? I can’t do anything without my prayers.
Do you pray when you are considering new projects?
Yes, absolutely. Without a doubt, you aren’t going anywhere until you reach up. Especially with my family, the Pips, we always put our hands together and lift up. That’s what it’s all about.
Did you have any role models when you began acting?
Mr. Sidney Poitier. He was such a mildmannered man, a go-getter, but a really sweet personality. He’s the kind of person who I got really good things from.
You began singing when you were just a child. Did you come from a musical family?
Yes, absolutely. Everyone in my family sang — my mother, father, aunties, sister, brothers, all that. We had our own little choir. I loved it, I really did. It wasn’t something that we had to go searching for. It touched our lives and our spirits.
Of course, “Midnight Train to Georgia” became a huge hit in 1973.
Yes. That particular song touched people’s spirits. That’s what it comes down to. It was also about how you project it — can you make them feel it? If you can’t feel it, they can’t either.
Listeners certainly felt it — and we still do!
Thank you so much. That’s what I do. If I can’t get a vision in my mind from the lyrics and the music, then it’s not going to work for me. When “Midnight Train” came about, it brought me to another place. Like I said: If I can’t feel a song, if I can’t live the song, I won’t do the song.
Do you have any favorite memories of starting out with the Pips?
[In the beginning] they were bad. They were all over the place. But we were blessed to have enough people around us that knew how to lay it out.
Was it hard to raise two sons while working so much?
You know, I love my babies. They both were beautiful, but without my mother, I don’t think I would have been able to do it. I had an amazing mother, who said, “You go do this, and I’m gonna do this.” You don’t have a whole lot of parents in that situation who would be willing to take over and help you like that, so that you could [make a better life] for your children. But that’s the way she worked.
You’ve been married to your husband William [McDowell] for 21 years. What’s your secret?
You have to always know that the Lord is going to make a way. We put him first. If you’ve got a problem and don’t know how to do something, you have to look up. That’s how we get through.
You’re also a grandmother. What do you love about it?
When I’m home, I have a houseful of kids. And they’re all over William, my husband. He is all about the kids, and they just love him to death. They love him the best! And he’ll do anything to keep them on the right track.
In December, you are going to be honored by the Kennedy Center. How does that feel?
It is amazing. I couldn’t believe it, I got all tongue-tied. I don’t take anything for granted.
Is there anything else you hope to achieve?
I really don’t think so. I was just thinking about all the wonderful things that have come into my life that I never thought I’d have. Here we are. You know, you try to stay on your good foot, as we say. I am just so thankful for all the people I consider my family.