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For Gladys Knight, Kennedy Center honoree, singing came naturally

Gladys Knight, at the Biltmore House in Asheville, N.C., on Oct. 26, is a 2022 Kennedy Center honoree. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)
Gladys Knight, at the Biltmore House in Asheville, N.C., on Oct. 26, is a 2022 Kennedy Center honoree. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

‘It’s something that came to me that wasn’t forced,’ says the ‘Midnight Train to Georgia’ singer, who won her first vocal competition as a child

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It is much too easy to take Gladys Knight for granted.

Her sound is so pure, her steps so graceful, her smile so disarming that the vocal powerhouse’s sheer presence seems at once natural and divine. Wrapped in a magenta turtleneck, she tells the handsome waiter pouring her iced tea that he “should be in the movies” before launching into a humble story about how she discovered Michael Jackson. As the Atlanta native peppers her sentences with y’all and fussin’, she makes it easy to forget that she is the prototype.

And did you catch her Verzuz song catalogue “battle” in 2020 with fellow diva Patti LaBelle? The pair sat next to one another kiki-ing like the real besties they are and delivered full-throttle hits like it was nothing. The moment, both surreal and live-streamed in your living room, was so very Gladys. Real. Unfussy.

Gladys Knight was revealed on the ‘Masked Singer’ finale. It was a strange and beautiful moment.

“It was always love,” LaBelle says of Knight. “She’s one of the best entertainers out there and with one of the best hearts. She’s laid-back. I love the way she rolls. She’s just everything.”

Because of that effortless energy and the fact that Knight has been expertly weaving together harmonies since she was 4, the impact of her talent — a gift she says comes from “Him” while pointing to the ceiling of this fancy hotel restaurant not far from her home in North Carolina — can still catch her off guard.

“Me? Who you talking about? Me?” Knight, 78, asks with genuine awe while contemplating her Kennedy Center Honors recognition for a career that spans seven decades and seven times as many hits. From the 1960s onward, her voice poured the foundation of the era’s sound — “Every Beat of My Heart,” “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” “Midnight Train to Georgia,” “Neither One of Us” and more.

“We all know the difference between singing and being able to sang,” Oprah Winfrey said while lauding Knight at an awards ceremony in 1992. “Gladys can sang.” At Knight’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996, Mariah Carey, another voice of a generation, described her as a “singer’s singer.”

“If you have the desire to sing and you love R&B, she’s like a textbook you learn from,” Carey said. “You hear her delivery and you wish that you could communicate with as much honest and genuine emotion as she does.”

While none of this is news to Knight, it still shocks her.

“When they call your name like that, it really lifts you up,” says the singer, who knows a little something about her name being called.

For more than 40 years, Knight performed with her big brother, Merald “Bubba” Knight Jr., and cousins William Guest and Edward Patten as Gladys Knight & the Pips — a rare female lead crooning in front of all-male backups. She had the voice, the guys had the moves, and they all looked good while doing it. And while the group, born at Bubba’s 10th birthday party in 1952, was a family affair from the start, the name being called first always belonged to Gladys.

“She has a soothing, smooth, crazy wonderful voice. Nobody sounds like Gladys,” says LaBelle, who has been close friends with Knight for so long she can’t remember exactly when and where they met. “Her voice was like a grown woman’s.”

A grown woman’s voice. That’s what Knight has been in possession of since nursery school. That’s what her mother, Sarah Elizabeth Knight (who went by Elizabeth), noticed and nurtured from the start. It’s what got “Little Gladys” her first big break. But before all that, she was busy making mud pies.

“ ‘Gladys Maria, come here for a minute,’ ” Knight recalls her mother beckoning from the front porch, seven words that would make a mark on musical history, a prelude to the “Empress of Soul.” Inside the house, Elizabeth had a copy of Nat King Cole’s 1951 hit “Too Young,” a song about the urgency of young love that ends, “And then someday they may recall/ We were not too young at all.”

“I want you to learn this song,” Elizabeth said as she hummed Knight the lyrics, mimicking Cole’s liquid delivery. “He had such a smooth voice. His stuff was mellow,” Knight says of Cole, one of her earliest artistic influences outside of the Sunbeam children’s choir at Mount Moriah Baptist Church.

“They tried to tell us we’re too young,” Knight sings effortlessly into the empty dining room that’s been cleared out for her, transporting those sitting at her table with one breath before declaring with the next, “So that’s how I got into singing.”

The Knights were a musical bunch from the start. Everybody sang. Her mother and her father, Merald Sr., were in the choir. Her uncle had a gospel quartet and a local radio show.

“It’s something that came to me that wasn’t forced. It was just all around me. It came natural, so I didn’t feel like I was out of place,” Knight says.

Her big break came in 1952, when as a young girl she appeared on “The Original Amateur Hour,” the “American Idol” of its time, hosted by Ted Mack. Wearing a white dress with white bobby socks and black Mary Janes, Knight performed Cole’s “Too Young,” carrying the last note past the point anyone so young should be able to. Knight’s application for the show noted that she possessed an “unusual voice for” a 7-year-old — so unusual that she would go on to win the top prize and the $2,000 that came with it.

But when it came time for her celebratory picture with a trophy half her size, none of the other contestants — White children whom she’d played hide-and-seek with behind the scenes — would stand next to her. “Me and the kids had a ball, we had a great time, but the parents wouldn’t allow it,” Knight says. “You could see the parents pulling their kids away from me.” Mack got wind of the hypocrisy.

“He came down and said, ‘Congratulations, little Gladys, you deserve it,’ ” she recalls him saying before posing for a photo with her holding the trophy. “And they didn’t say no more about that.”

What shocked her most about that early lesson in bigotry and hate was that those same kids who weren’t allowed to take the photo with her had been buzzing around her mother backstage. They saw how Elizabeth was working with young Gladys behind the scenes, quietly taking notes on what a nurturing momager really looked like.

“She was so calm about it. She wasn’t trying to get no credit,” Knight says of her mother, who later that year persuaded her daughter Brenda, son Bubba and their cousins William and Eleanor Guest to form a quintet with Knight. Another cousin, James Woods, whom everybody called Pip, managed the group and dubbed them the Pips.

For the next decade, when they weren’t singing in church, the family troupe performed throughout Atlanta. Elizabeth was always there, making sure the children stayed on the straight and narrow. They performed at fundraising concerts for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. When Woods wanted the Pips to sing Hank Ballard’s “There’s a Thrill on the Hill,” about a rocking house party until the wee hours, Elizabeth wouldn’t have it. The family elders “allowed us to be children and not try to be grown,” Knight says.

For Knight and the Pips, who would eventually slim down to just Bubba, William Guest and Patten (Brenda and Eleanor decided to go off and get married), growing up happened out on the road, but they survived by keeping Elizabeth in their back pocket. The family “had built us up and raised us to a point; you don’t get away from that,” Knight says. Well, not too far away.

Knight was a teenager when she and the Pips hopped on a bus to perform gigs dotted across the South in what was then known as the “Chitlin’ Circuit,” opening for big names such as Jackie Wilson and B.B. King at all-Black venues.

Being a young girl on the bus with a bunch of adults “was crazy,” she says. “It was just a whole ’nother life.” The Pips were her backup onstage and off, and little Gladys was never allowed to participate in the type of partying one would expect from touring musicians — nor did she want to.

“Stop burning that trash up there,” Knight says she would shout to the folks smoking “marijuana cigarettes” in the front of the bus. Plus, Bubba was always there. “He was my mentor, my savior,” she says. “Because Bubba knew better. If I even thought about doing something, he’d say, ‘Imma tell Mama.’ ” That was enough. But Elizabeth, back in Atlanta, couldn’t save them from everything.

It was the ’60s. It was the South. And Knight was on a bus filled with young Black talent. On one such tour — which one she doesn’t quite remember, as the songs, the times, the back roads all blend together — they stopped to get gas. Knight had to go to the bathroom. She’d hoped the door was unlocked so she could avoid a confrontation with the White attendant, but of course it wasn’t.

“I knew it wasn’t going to work out right,” Knight says, but she needed that key. “Sir, do you mind if I use your bathroom?” she asked. “Not here,” he replied. In other tellings, she says he used the n-word. “He just got louder and louder,” Knight recalls. The Pips were outside, and she knew what would happen if the situation escalated a centimeter higher. “I told him, ‘I’ll find a way,’ ” she says. “Even in the country you’d find a little hump of mud somewhere.”

“I learned a lot about people on the road,” she adds.

By the time the Pips got to Motown Records, the Black musical Shangri-La founded by fellow Kennedy Center honoree Berry Gordy, it was 1966 and Knight, then 22, had been married for six years and had two young children to raise. The group had a string of Top 40 hits and several singles with other record companies. She knew her own mind. That “unusual” grown woman’s voice now belonged to an actual grown woman. Motown was not on Knight’s vision board.

“I did not want to go,” Knight says. “Oh no. It’s too much mess over there.” But the Pips outvoted her. This was Motown after all: the home of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the Temptations, Diana Ross and the Supremes. It was that last headliner that Knight was worried about.

“I knew what was going to happen when I went” to Motown, she says. Gordy already had a female star. “Don’t think I don’t know. Don’t play me like a sucker, so to speak.” She knew Gordy wanted Ross’s name in lights. “I’m not jealous. I been here years before you got here,” she thought. What she wanted was a lane of her own.

Knight “never tried to outdo anyone,” LaBelle says. But the competition at Motown was baked in, an approach that didn’t at all fit with Knight’s Southern hospitality.

“Once we had a barefootin’ party at our house down in the basement,” she recalls.

“A barefooting? A barefootin,” sings Knight, as if the music will explain it all. And in a way it does. It sounds like a vibe. “That means you can kick off your shoes. You come and dance and you eat. That kind of thing.” Knight is a renowned Southern cook. Barefootin’ parties at her house in Detroit were legendary. She invited Ross, who didn’t make it, but the boss wasn’t happy about her extending an olive branch.

“‘Don’t be trying to undermine my singers. Don’t be trying to out-sing my girl. If you try that, then you’re not going to get this thing over here.’ That was [Gordy’s] number one. So I just let that go,” says Knight, who eventually let Motown go entirely. The group’s time at the company produced the monster hit “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” (which Marvin Gaye later recorded) and the Grammy-winning “Neither One of Us.” But despite the demonstrable success, she still never felt appreciated or particularly heard.

This Motown star knew that ‘Midnight Plane to Houston’ just wouldn’t do

At Buddah Records, the group would record its magnum opus, 1973’s “Midnight Train to Georgia,” which had been originally recorded and rewritten by Cissy Houston (the first title was “Midnight Plane to Houston”). The record won the group another Grammy in 1974 and catapulted them — after 20 years together — into the stratosphere. Over the course of their career, they would eventually score 10 Grammy nominations in total and take home three statues; Knight also won four of her own. But all wasn’t gold.

The singer went solo in 1988 after the release of the group’s final album, which featured the hit “Love Overboard.” After performing with three guys behind her for four decades, the decision to strike out on her own was surprisingly not fraught for Knight, who by then had been divorced twice, was raising three children and battling a gambling addiction. Being out front and by herself was, in fact, familiar road.

“No, I was on my own a long time,” she says. Behind-the-scenes infighting was wearing her down. “I just got fed up with it. I ain’t have no problem getting rid of them at all.” Not Bubba, though. They were still “two peas in a pod.” She thought the two of them could have made a great duet. “He can dance his behind off and he could really sing,” she says. But that didn’t happen. Still, when he stands offstage watching his little sister sing, Bubba is transported by that voice.

“It will grab your heartstrings. She is blessed with a voice that reaches people’s hearts. Across the board, everyone can feel her heart when she sings,” he says.

Knight has sung hundreds of songs throughout her career, but there is one she keeps circling back to. You never forget your first.

“It was me up and down,” Knight says of Cole’s “Too Young,” her far and away favorite. “When my mom choose that song for me, it was perfect. I was right there on the edge.”

Seventy years later, Knight, the little girl who flew to unimaginable heights, still looks back on the edge and smiles.

The Kennedy Center Honors will be broadcast at 8 p.m. Dec. 28 on CBS.

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