Archive for the ‘Gladys Knight & the Pips’ Category

Throughout the 1960s, many Motown albums followed a predictable pattern: a few hits (or would-be hits), songs made popular by other artists and, depending on the singer or group, a show tune or two. The formula wasn’t unique to Hitsville, U.S.A. – most of the era’s popular acts, including the Beatles on their early albums, adhered to it. Everyone, or almost everyone, sang other people’s songs – until they didn’t. Within the world of rock music, then just over a decade old, the shift began with the Beatles’ Rubber Soul LP, which arrived just in time for Christmas 1965. Suddenly, the idea that an album could be an artistic statement took hold and cover songs became the exception, not the rule.

That said, and forgive this indulgence, the Fabs and their contemporaries weren’t the first to see the possibilities inherent in the LP, which was introduced in 1948 by Columbia Records. Self-proclaimed saloon singer Frank Sinatra released the 10-inch Songs for Young Lovers LP in 1954; the eight songs, all recorded for the project, sported a unified theme. He followed it later that year with Swing Easy!, another 10-inch set, and then released the classic In the Wee Small Hours, a 12-inch LP often credited as the first concept album, in 1955. Ol’ Blue Eyes wasn’t alone, either – jazz artists and other performers released sets that were more than just their latest single(s) and filler.

Not that any of that matters when it comes to Silk N’ Soul. It’s simply evidence that, by 1968, pop-oriented Motown had yet to follow the route laid down by the Beatles and other mainstream acts, preferring the old-school, supper-club approach instead. It also serves to show how Gladys Knight & the Pips were treated within Hitsville at the time. Although they were fresh off of a No. 2 hit with “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” and a Top 20 hit with “The End of Our Road,” there are no original songs. Instead, the 12 tracks were known quantities at the time of the album’s release – and “I Wish It Would Rain,” the LP’s lone single, was a recent hit by the Temptations.

In a sense, it’s almost as if they were being punished for their success. It’s been well-documented, after all, that Diana Ross’ petty jealousies caused Gladys and the Pips to be ditched from a tour with the Supremes, as she feared they were too good. (As she told Gladys years later, “We all had to grow up.”) Was Berry Gordy trying to sabotage their careers?

Well, if he was, it doesn’t much matter. Gladys and the Pips, simply put, are at the top of their game throughout the album’s 12 tracks, with Glady becoming one with the songs when she sings. She’s similar to Elvis and Aretha, among others, in that every song she sings becomes hers in the moment.

Available on the usual streaming suspects, including YouTube, Silk N’ Soul is a thoroughly enjoyable album. No, it’ll never make anyone’s Top 10 list (nor should it), but that doesn’t mean it’s not a worthwhile listen. It’s a glimpse of the way life used to be. Pull it up, press play and let the music cleanse the soul. You won’t regret it. 

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.

Fifty years ago today, the fabled Summer of Love was but a hazy memory as the optimism associated with those halcyon days had given way to anger and dismay over the Vietnam War, where casualties were mounting. The bulk of the American people still supported the effort, mind you, but anti-war sentiment was spreading.

The month’s headlines included the announcement from the U.S. Public Health Service that it was studying possible harmful effects associated with the era’s color TVs. It may sound like a whack-a-do health myth but, earlier in the year, some of GE’s first color TVs had misaligned shields on their vacuum tubes. That meant that anyone sitting directly right in front of the TV, such as kids watching cartoons, was bathed in x-rays.

New movies released this month included Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, In Cold Blood, Valley of the Dolls, Doctor Dolittle and The Graduate.

The month’s biggest headline from the music world was the untimely death of Otis Redding, who died in a plane crash on the 10th. New albums included Jimi Hendrix Experience’s Axis: Bold as Love; Traffic’s Mr. Fantasy; the Rolling Stones’ Their Satanic Majesties Request; the Who’s The Who Sell Out; the Beach Boys’ Wild Honey; and Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding.

Here’s a sampling of the month’s magazine covers:

 

If you’re interested in seeing the era through the eyes of Life magazine, Google has the year’s final issue (a double) available to browse. The ads are always fun.

And, with that, here’s today’s top 5: December 29, 1967, via Weekly Top 40. (The charts are actually for the week ending on the 30th.)

1) The Beatles – “Hello, Goodbye.” The Fab Four top the charts with this fun 45…

2) Gladys Knight & the Pips – “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” Nowadays, this song brings to mind Marvin Gaye, who released his version a year later (though he actually recorded it before Gladys & Co.). This week, Gladys and the Pips hit No. 2 with it; and here she is, a few years later, singing it and “The Masquerade Is Over.”

3) The Monkees – “Daydream Believer.” Princess Eugenie’s favorite song is the week’s No. 3.

4) Smokey Robinson and the Miracles – “I Second That Emotion.” The week’s No. 4 is this classic…

5) The Union Gap Featuring Gary Puckett – “Woman, Woman.” The week’s No. 5 would hit No. 4 in two weeks, and would stay there for four weeks before spiraling down the charts.

And two bonuses…

6) The Letterman – “Goin’ Out of My Head/Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You.” One of the week’s “powerplays” is this swingin’ medley, which jumps from No. 59 to 48.

7) Dusty Springfield – “What’s It Gonna Be.” And here’s another “powerplay,” which holds steady at No. 49. (It’s a great, great song.)

It was a chilly December day in 1969 when my father, then 38, arrived home from Vietnam, where he’d worked the previous 15 months as an electronics field engineer attached to the 5th U.S. Marine Base at Da Nang. He maintained the Marine Corps’ communication system called TRC-97 at fire bases and outposts between Da Nang and the DMZ, and sometimes took sniper fire while riding a motorcycle from one site to the next. He wasn’t a G.I., having left the Army after serving in the Korean War the decade before, but an RCA employee.

According to the thorough family history written by my grandfather the following year, my dad left for Vietnam on Sept. 16th, 1968, and returned stateside on Dec. 15th, though I imagine he first touched ground in Hawaii or San Diego and, even if he flew straight through, made it home a day later. What I recall: my mom crouching beside me, who was all of 4 1/2, and pointing to a tall man dressed in fatigues walking toward us. “Daddy,” she whispered in my ear. I ran to him, arms outstretched, and bellowed the same.

Young children welcoming a parent home from war: It’s a scene played out many thousands of times every decade, it seems. And, as with me, I’m sure it’s the first memory many have of that parent.

I was reminded of the day by Herc’s thoughtful write-up of The Vietnam War, the Ken Burns-Lynn Novick documentary series that recently aired on PBS. I haven’t watched it yet, though at some point I likely will, but it got me to thinking of December 1969 and the winter that followed – it’s the last time, I think, that I enjoyed snow. By the next Christmas we were in Saudi, and snow and frigid weather were non-factors for the next five years.

Anyway, Christmas of 1969, as I remember it, was great; the family was together and, in addition to my dad, I received one of the greatest gifts ever: Billy Blastoff. (It was an action toy, not a doll!)

To pull the magnifying glass away from me, major events of this month included, on the 1st, the initial draft lottery; on the 2nd, the 747 making its official debut; and, on the 6th, “Woodstock West,” aka the Altamont Free Concert, erupting into violence. Unemployment for the month was just 3.90 percent, but was about to begin a gradual climb to 6 percent by the end of 1970; and inflation was relatively high, at 5.5 percent.

(For more on 1969, see here and here, though each now features a clip that’s gone AWOL from YouTube.)

Movies released this month included A Boy Named Charlie Brown, Hello, Dolly!, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Topaz and The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes. Top television shows included Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, Gunsmoke, Bonanza, Mayberry R.F.D. and Family Affair. Brady Bunch aficionados will know that the kitsch classic’s lone Christmas episode, when Carol came down with a bad case of laryngitis, aired on the 17th; another historic Christmas-tinged TV moment came 10 days earlier with the first airing of Frosty the Snowman.

And, with that, here’s today’s Top 5: December 27th, 1969 (via Weekly Top 40):

1) Diana Ross & the Supremes – “Someday We’ll Be Together.” This, Diana’s final single with the Supremes, closed out the 1960s in spectacular fashion. (Producer Johnny Bristol can be heard harmonizing along, and giving Diana encouragement.)

2) Peter, Paul & Mary – “Leaving on a Jet Plane.” I never knew this was written by John Denver until the mid-2000s, when I watched an excellent PPM biography on PBS. There’s this, too: PPM recorded it in 1967 for Album 1700, but didn’t release it as a single until October 1969. It promptly ascended the charts and, on Dec. 20th, became their only single to hit No. 1. This week, it dropped a notch to No. 2.

3) B.J. Thomas – “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head.” Written for the Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid film, this classic Burt Bacharach-Hal David song, which won an Oscar, has been covered more times than than ASCAP/BMI can count. (Just a joke.)

4) Creedence Clearwater Revival – “Down on the Corner”/“Fortunate Son.” The double A-sided hit  – one of the best – dropped to No. 4 from No. 3 (its peak) this week.

5) Steam – “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye.” Who knew, as 1969 came to a close, that the chorus to this ditty – which topped the charts for two weeks in early December – would become one of the de facto sing-alongs at sporting events within a decade’s time?

And two bonuses:

6) Neil Diamond – “Holly Holy.” The No. 6 this week is this gospel-tinged classic, which may well be Neil Diamond’s greatest song. (And even if it isn’t, it certainly feels that way when he’s singing it.) Here he is performing on the BBC in 1971:

7) Gladys Knight & the Pips – “Friendship Train.” Topping out at No, 17 is this under-appreciated Norman Whitfield-penned call for peace, love and understanding. Here’s Gladys & the Pips performing it in 1972: