Most music fans know (or should know) the story of Gladys Knight and the Pips. For those few who don’t: in 1952, at age 7, she appeared on (and won) Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour

…aka the American Idol of its day. Not long thereafter, she joined her brother Merald (aka “Bubba”), sister Brenda and cousins William and Eleanor Guest in a music group dubbed the Pips after a cousin whose nickname was “Pip.” As the years pushed toward 1960, Brenda and Eleanor were replaced by Edward Patten and Langston George; and the group toured with, and opened for, such acts as Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson. They also released their first single in 1958, “Whistle My Love,” which went nowhere fast; and, as Gladys Knight and the Pips, released the Johnny Otis-penned “Every Beat of My Heart,” which reached No. 1 on the R&B charts and No. 6 on the pop charts. 

There were actually two versions of “Every Beat” – the one for Atlanta Huntom/Vee Jay that hit the top 10 and a re-recorded version for the Fury label that reached No. 45; Fury also released the group’s first full-length platter, Letter Full of Tears, in 1962. A string of near-hits followed and, in 1966, Gladys, Merald, William and Edward signed with Motown, where they’d remain until 1972. 

There’s far more to unpack, including a tumultuous personal life, but for the purposes of this piece I’ll skip everything save this: Gladys and the Pips were not seen as a top-tier act by Motown, which was home to such established hitmakers as the Supremes, Temptations, Miracles and Marvin Gaye. Add to that this: She was allegedly viewed as a threat by Diana Ross, who supposedly had Gladys and the guys dumped from their opening slot on a 1968 Supremes tour because they were too good (i.e. better than Diana and gals).

There were a slew of songs in that spell that could and should have been hits, but weren’t; and others that they would have done wonders with if given a chance. Yet, their version of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” which was recorded after the Miracles and Marvin Gaye renditions but released first, reached No. 2 on the pop charts in 1967; they also scored top 10 pop singles with “If I Were Your Woman” (No. 9 in 1970) and “Neither One of Us (Wants to Be the First to Say Goodbye)” (No. 2 in 1972); in the same timeframe, however, they scored 11 R&B top 10 hits, including three No. 1s. I.e., with a better marketing push, a song like the funky “Friendship Train” could have topped the pop charts.

As a result, with their contract up, Gladys and the Pips went shopping for a new home – and found one in Buddah Records, a small label that was home to an odd mix of bubblegum acts and soul music. As Ron Weisner, who was with Buddah at the time (and later served as Gladys’ manager) recounts in his memoir Listen Out Loud, they didn’t have as much to offer as other labels except for one thing: enthusiasm. So, for a lower advance than she might have gotten elsewhere, Gladys and the Pips signed the dotted line…

… and Imagination, one of the greatest albums of the early ‘70s, resulted. Because Buddah didn’t have in-house writers or producers, there was a freedom about the endeavor – and it’s heard in the album’s grooves. It merges soul, gospel and country, as evidenced by “Midnight Train to Georgia” (which began life as “Midnight Plane to Houston”) and “Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me” – songs that circulate and percolate through the soul like few others.

There’s more to the album than those two tracks, however. “Storms of Troubled Times” – which, like “Midnight Train” and “Best Thing” was written by country singer-songwriter Jim Weatherly – is another highlight. Gladys’ vocals are cushioned by the Pips’ perfect harmonies.

When the world, when the world
Falls down around your shoulders
And you need a hand that’s strong and kind
Reach out for mine, reach out for mine
And I will lead you through the storms of troubled times

“Where Peaceful Waters Flow” is thematically similar to “Storms” and is no less stirring. Although she didn’t write the lyrics, it doesn’t much matter. When she sings, the words flow from her soul into ours.  

One surprising track is “I Can See Clearly Now,” an evocative cover of the Johnny Nash tune that features the Pips upfront. In fact, the only weak cut on the nine-song album is the last one, “Window Raisin’ Granny”; to my ears, it’s a so-so rewrite (by Gladys and the three Pips) of Bill Withers’ “Granny’s Hands.” Yet, even it has something to offer – a sterling vocal.

In the charts, Imagination did well – No. 9 on Billboard’s pop charts and No. 1 on the R&B charts – but could (and should) have done even better. 

My favorite song from the set may well be “Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me” – and though I love the studio version, this rendition from a 1974 TV appearance (which I’ve spotlighted before) remains my favorite despite the lousy video quality…

… for a few reasons, but primarily because it reminds me of when Diane and I saw Gladys at the Valley Forge Music Fair in Devon, Pa., in the early 1990s. Though much of the specifics of the concert have long been lost to time, the passion she invested in each song lingers still. She was a dynamic stage presence.

Incidentally, at that point, I only knew Gladys (with and without the Pips) from various greatest-hits collections and anthologies. It wasn’t until the mid-2000s that I began to explore her specific albums, including this one, which quickly became my favorite. That said, there are other LPs that folks who only know the hits should check out, including If I Were Your Woman (which, aside from the classic title track, includes a great version of the Beatles’ “Let It Be,” and Standing Ovation. I’ll be spotlighting a few of them in the weeks and months ahead.

Image  —  Posted: June 2, 2020 in Marvin Gaye
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Years long ago, when newspapers were a thing, I routinely read the “Family Circus” comic strip, though it was, at least during the week, more of a one-panel oval. Created by Bill Keane in 1960, it focused on a family with four children – and a ghost called “Not Me.” Whenever a kid caused a catastrophe of some kind, the stern mom or dad would ask who was responsible. The kid, in turn, would shrug his or her shoulders while “Not Me” zoomed out of the room. 

I can’t help but think of it when listening to Courtney Marie Andrews’ “It Must Be Someone Else’s Fault,” the latest teaser track from her forthcoming Old Flowers album. The song artfully puts into words a common response to life’s heartaches, heartbreaks and hardships – blaming everyone but ourselves for what’s come to pass:

Oh, but it must be someone else’s fault
Must be someone else’s heart who tainted mine
No, I cannot be to blame for the story of this pain
Oh, it must be someone else’s fault…

On Instagram, she explained that the song is “rooted in taking ownership of our own story and pain. I wrote this in Washington state one spring afternoon, and the message was something I’d tried to put to song for a long time.”

She also notes that “[t]he video embodies the power of sisterhood, and our ancestral trauma through the power of movement. Through these movements, I hope to embody the strength of our lineage, and overcome this old pain.” It may sound silly to dance the generational blues away, but the study of epigenetics demonstrates that trauma, while not ingrained into our DNA per se, is indeed passed down via familial lines. (See this BBC Future article for more.) There’s long been a debate about whether nature or nurture is the predominate influence on who we, as individuals, are; in truth, it’s a bit of both and, either/or, it matters less than self-awareness feeding self-actualization. To paraphrase one of my favorite soliloquies from Joan of Arcadia, we’re responsible for everything we touch and for everything that touches us.

All that science-minded philosophizing aside, “It Must Be Someone Else’s Fault” is a captivating country-inflected tune that features Courtney’s vocal prowess in full flower. Play it once and you’ll play it twice, then five more times. It’s a great song that, as Courtney’s songs often do, echoes the ages.

It’s an album many Neil fans dislike, if not despise, due to the clinical rhythms and distorted vocals that accent much of the music. For me and my tastes, however, it’s a great, if eccentric set that’s well worth a few listens. As I wrote in the CSN/Y discography on the original Old Grey Cat (1997-2006) website, “if you listen past the surface, you’ll hear a strong heartbeat – and many treasures. [It] also features the mini-epic ‘Like an Inca,’ which includes this couplet from its last verse that aptly sums up Neil’s ’80s career path: ‘There’s a bridge across the river/that I have to cross alone.’” It’s not my most-played Neil album, but it’s one I’ve returned to, time and again, throughout the years.

After a lifetime with Warner Bros.’ Reprise Records, in 1982 Neil Young signed with Geffen Records in a deal that reportedly guaranteed him $1 million per album. However, when he turned in his first effort, Islands in the Sun, Geffen rejected it. In 1995, Neil explained to Mojo that Islands “was a tropical thing all about sailing, ancient civilizations, islands and water”; a prototypical Neil LP, in other words. But, as he recalled in Jimmy McDonough’s Shaky: Neil Young’s Biography (page 556), “[David Geffen] didn’t think it was good enough. ‘Neil, you can do more with these songs – keep going.’ It was healthy what he was telling me. But instead of going forward, I went back – to all the stuff that had been buried. I really did all the Trans stuff at the end of Warner Bros., not at the beginning of Geffen.”

Those old sessions, also detailed in Shaky (pages 551-552), were essentially an extension of the re*ac*tor jams in 1981: 

Young continued to record with the Horse. Poncho recalls Young – all jacked up after seeing the Rolling Stones play San Francisco – coming in with a song sporting Stones-like riffs entitled ‘Computer Age.’

Around this time, Young also purchased a vocoder, an odd device that enabled him to mask his voice as a variety of characters, none of which sounded too human – imagine robotic voices from fifties science fiction movies. Young then took the mutated vocals and played them through the Synclavier keyboard, which essentially turned it into music.

‘When we got the vocoder, we started listening to Kraftwerk,” said [David] Briggs. All this would eventually become Trans. Even a version of ‘Mr. Soul’ – complete with backward guitar – got the machine treatment. And the further Neil got into the new music, the less company he took with him.

‘Trans started like we do always – two guitars, bass, drums,” said Poncho. “Next thing we knew, Neil stripped all our music off, overdubbed all this stuff – the vocoder, weird sequencing, and put the synth shit on it. Briggs felt no one around Young tried to understand. “Billy and Ralph and Poncho, all the other participants, they dismissed it. They played on the stuff, but didn’t think it was music.”

Thus, the resulting album mixed six tracks from the old sessions with three from the new; and Geffen Records, believing it had a dud on its hands, simply shrugged and dumped the LP in the arid sales stretch that lies between Christmas and New Year’s Eve. Radio, at least as I remember it, pretty much ignored it.

The critical consensus was (and remains) decidedly mixed. In the February 3rd, 1983, Rolling Stone, Parke Puterbaugh gave it four (out of five) stars and wrote, “In truth, once you get past its radical sonic veneer, Trans turns out to be a pretty whimsical treatise on the theme of man-meets-machine, with Young wisecracking his way through the high-tech numbers – note the wild coyotes who yowl on the computer cowboy’s range, and the mate-hunting automaton who sings. “I need a unit to sample and hold/But not the angry one, a new design, new design” – and tossing off the treacle of the straight love songs with casual disinterest.”

In the Rolling Stone offshoot magazine Record, however, Stuart Cohn was much less kind. He says “the listener is left like Dorothy in Oz, discovering there’s no wizard behind the curtain”; and sums up with: “Trans…is just a closed circuit: no future, no options. Just a man and his toys, without the songs or ideas that can make the toys so much fun to play with.” 

Neil, for his part, describes it well on the Neil Young Archives: “Trans is one of my best records, from a standpoint of being misunderstood. Trans was made with the idea of supporting it with a series of videos that went with the story. Bots of all kinds, with their digital voices sang the words and melodies of a tale of communication for the disabled, those of us who cannot speak. Here, these folks, especially my son Ben Young, were cared for by robots trying to help them learn how to communicate.” 

Looking back, I can understand why many longtime fans were (and remain) dismayed by the shift to electronica beats – but I didn’t have the same longterm connection. Re*ac*tor was my first Neil LP, which I purchased at age 16 in late 1981; Hawks & Doves was my second, which I picked up a few months later; and, in the final week of 1982 – when I was flush with Christmas cash – I picked up not one, not two, but five Neil Young albums on cassette to play in the Sanyo Mini AM/FM Stereo Cassette Recorder my parents had gifted me with.

A week later, I picked up the tape for Trans (along with Lou Reed’s The Blue Mask). I didn’t know the backstory. I just knew the beats were cool, the distorted vocals even cooler, and that “Like an Inca,” one of those prototypical Neil Young songs, soared.

In many respects, as I noted last week, McCartney II – Paul McCartney’s own eccentric electronica collection from 1980 – helped prepared me for Trans. Such off-kilter excursions, to me, were just something artists did from time to time. Maybe that’s why, from the moment I heard it, Trans just felt right to me; yeah, it’s odd, but it speaks to my heart and soul – perhaps because, as a child, I had a speech impediment that sometimes made it difficult to communicate with others.

Anyway, I enjoyed the set so much that, within a few months, I also bought it on LP – something I did on occasion. In this instance, it was to better appreciate the fascinating (to me, at least) cover art, which shows an old-school Neil and digital-age Neil hitching rides into the future and past. Oh, and though it’s listed on the album jacket and in the lyric sheet, “If You Got Love” was yanked at the last minute; the version of “Sample and Hold” on LP is three minutes shorter that the CD; and the version of “Like an Inca” on LP is a minute-and-change shorter than on CD. (Let’s hope that Islands in the Sun – which, as I write, isn’t listed in the NYA timeline – is one day released as part of Neil’s archival series; my hunch is it will be a sublime set.)

So…give Trans a go, sometime, be it on the LP (or, if you can find it, cassette) or CD. It’s not Neil’s best, by any stretch, but holds within it a lot of intriguing sounds. You may be disappointed, but you may be surprised.