Celebrating 75 Years of Gladys Knight’s Voice

Celebrating 75 Years of Gladys Knight’s Voice

The truth is unmistakable in Gladys Knight’s voice.

In a ‘70s soul/R&B landscape filled with cultural icons like Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye — all of whom towered above the genre — she occupied every bit as much space in our hearts with her voice, a rare contralto that was still instantly familiar, saying to the listener, time and again, “you know me.”

Ms. Knight routinely took demos, inhabited their narrative and made those songs distinctly her own. Which explains why, of the many notable cover versions of that era’s R&B hits, the cornerstones of her catalog seem walled off to interpretation: “Midnight Train to Georgia,” “Best Thing that Ever Happened” and the incomparable “Neither One of Us (Wants to Be the First to Say Goodbye).”

On the technical side, it begins with her impeccable phrasing and distinctive cadence, leaning hard into some words, stretching others for two, sometimes three extra beats, while using her gospel roots to inject emotion into the “oooh’s” and “mmm’s” she often used to bridge verses.

She could project vulnerability (but never frailty) and defiance within a single word, and that made every one of her signature songs sound like it was written expressly for you, the listener.

An Atlanta native, Ms. Knight and her backing vocalists, the Pips, hit the road in the mid-‘60s and, as of few weeks ago, when she performed at New Orleans Jazz Fest, she is still out there telling stories.  Her catalog has earned her 11 No. 1 R&B singles and six No. 1 R&B albums, but those numbers do not do justice to her lasting impact.

In that sense, it’s her most famous number that tells you everything you need to know about Gladys Knight and why we are so blessed that she is still with us, as she turns 75 years old.

Indeed, the last three minutes of “Midnight Train” are some of the finest ever put to tape. After the song’s first minute, while the groove begins to coalesce, the song’s narrator knows that she’s heading into a situation that won’t end well with someone who ultimately won’t have been worth it. You can hear her frustration while telling the story of his failure: unable to realize his dreams of being a superstar, which is culminating in him running away, back to the world “he left behind, not so long ago,” with a “one-way ticket” to Georgia. The pronoun “he” isn’t “we” and that’s the crux of the song’s tension.

Remarkably, almost all of the narrator’s disappointment is sub-textual, conveyed by how the artist completely alters her inflection and delivery on just about every verse.

While the song winds down, she finally convinces herself to follow him, ultimately realizing, “I’d rather live with him in his world, then live without him in mine.” It’s not meant to be a triumphant moment, but a reminder that disillusionment is better than loneliness.

As Ms. Knight’s voice becomes more raspy and insistent, punctuated by the punch of the horn section and a call-and-response with the Pips — where they alternately reassure her and deliver hard truths — she wards off doubt by insisting “I’ve got to go…I’ve got to go” more and more urgently, while the song slowly begins to fade out. It’s unclear who she is singing to, but more than likely it’s to herself.

Give “Midnight” to another artist and it may have still been a hit song — Jim Weatherly’s composition is that rock-solid. But in Gladys Knight’s hands, it is something entirely different: it’s a testament to indefatigable spirit and resilience, nestled in the pocket of a platinum groove, while the warmth of Gladys Knight’s voice finds a space in our memory and parks it.

(Photo credit: Erika Goldring – Getty Images)

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