The Essentials: Standing Ovation by Gladys Knight & the Pips

I watched the Apple+ documentary series 1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything a few weeks back. It’s a figurative archeological dig that excavates the era’s zeitgeist, which was far more than bell bottoms and The Brady Bunch, and is well worth watching. An array of acts and artists are spotlighted during the course of the eight episodes, from Marvin Gaye to Carole King to Gil-Scott Heron to Aretha Franklin, and while one can quibble about the time allotted to the Rolling Stones’ druggy stay in the south of France, that’s for another day. It provides the sociological and cultural context for the featured music. It’s not an encyclopedic survey, however, as many important and/or popular artists, albums and songs are sidestepped.

One act not mentioned is Gladys Knight & the Pips. It’s understandable why they weren’t, I hasten to add: 1971 wasn’t exactly a watershed year for them, though they released two albums, If I Were Your Woman and Standing Ovation, and scored a Top 10 hit, “If I Were Your Woman.” Both albums are overlooked treasures – not perfect by any means, but worthwhile. I’m spotlighting the latter today, as I’m in an Ovation mood, and plan to tackle the former in the months ahead.

I broached much of the Gladys & the Pips backstory in my piece on Imagination, their classic 1973 LP, and again in Silk N’ Soul, a hidden gem from 1968, so won’t repeat myself. But, if you haven’t read those posts, you should know this: Due to backstage machinations at Motown, the group’s career trajectory essentially stalled after they scored a No. 2 hit with “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” in 1967. They made the most of what they were offered, however, as evidenced by the minor success of the 1969 Nitty Gritty album and “Friendship Train” single, which sported a taut R&B sound. 

With If I Were Your Woman, which was produced by Clay McMurray, Joe Hinton and Johnny Bristol, they shifted to a smoother soul sound. Produced by McMurray and Bristol, Standing Ovation expanded upon it. It’s flawed, of course, and some songs haven’t aged all that well – especially the lead-off track, “Make Me the Woman You Go Home To,” which was written by McMurray. It finds Gladys vowing to fix her man his evening meals, iron his clothes and not ask him where he’s been when or if he arrives home late. Likewise, “Master of My Mind,” cowritten by McMurray, Gloria Jones and Pam Sawyer (the same team responsible for “If I Were Your Woman”), is cringeworthy: “You’re the master of my mind, my heart, my soul/Oh, yeah you’re the master of my mind, my heart, my soul/You’re the leader/And I only do what you say.”

Don’t write it off because of those tracks, however. “Can You Give Me Love With a Guarantee,” written by Johnny Bristol, Wade Brown and David Jones Jr., in which Gladys questions a prospective suitor’s commitment proclamations out of a fear of getting hurt again, is solid; and “It Takes a Whole Lotta Man for a Woman Like Me,” written by Smokey Robinson and Johnny Bristol, is just plain great.

The hallmark of the album isn’t the originals, however, but the covers of four relatively recent songs: “Fire and Rain”; a medley of “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water”; and “Help Me Make It Through the Night.” All three feature tremendous vocals by Gladys and note-perfect support from the Pips.

As a whole, Standing Ovation is noteworthy – and required listening – due to the further expansion of the sound and style Gladys and the Pips would perfect on 1973’s Neither One of Us and Imagination. Listen to it once and you may not listen to it in full twice, but you’ll definitely play certain songs from it quite a bit – and not just the covers. As I noted above, the Smokey-Bristol song is a winner – but so is the closing track, “No One Could Love You More,” which was co-written by Jones and Sawyer.

The track list:

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