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.