The first hit for Gladys Knight and the family aggregation known as the Pips (a brother and two cousins) was in 1961 – “Every Beat of My Heart.” The group became better known for such Motown tracks as the first hit version of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” and the sophisticated “Neither One of Us (Wants to Be the First to Say Goodbye),” leading to a string of 1970s hits, from the soulful “Midnight Train to Georgia” to “You’re the Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me.”
Knight, 72, continued to record and perform after the leaving the Pips in the late ’80s. More recently, she recorded a Lenny Kravitz song for Lee Daniels’s 2014 film “The Butler” and last year appeared in Daniels’s new Fox show, “Star,” as herself.
On Monday, Knight will be at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts to perform in a salute to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. We spoke recently to the singer from her home near Asheville, North Carolina, where she and her husband, William McDowell, have created the Reynolds High School Community Restoration Foundation in Canton, North Carolina.
Q: What is the “Let Freedom Ring! Celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.” going to be like?
A: It’s very, very, very, very special to me. It really is. He was like family to me. My grandfather said he was, but I never tell people that because I don’t have the papers.
Q: So you mean you’re literally related to him?
A: That’s what my grandmother says. They grew up together. … I started singing when I was 4 at our church and around town, and, as you know, he was a minister and always in that spiritual world. But even with that aside, he was always very supportive of young people doing things to get them educated, and that kind of thing, even back then.
Q: How did that support help you win Ted Mack’s “Original Amateur Hour” – “The Voice” of its day – at age 7 in 1952?
A: Back then, they didn’t have this internet stuff. You had to buy a postcard, put a stamp on it and say, “We vote for Gladys.” With my dad and my brothers and my sisters, and people like Dr. King and the Morris Brown College choir that I sung with, I won. But (King) was and is still in my heart. An amazing man.
Q: Did you perform at some of his rallies?
A: When I was in the recital age, I did. But when the Pips were formed, during all that time we performed, and we would go and sing for him. It was amazing. And we marched with him.
I am just elated that he is being honored in this way. That’s hard work. And I was just thinking, people never know how difficult those things are and how it affects your life. He had a wife and kids, you know? And cousins. People see the work that you do, but not the way you exactly go about doing it.
Q: You are still touring quite a bit at 72.
A: I’ve been so blessed. I can’t tell you. I’ve been doing this for 68 years and to still be going, even I’m in awe. People keep asking me, “When are you going to retire? When are you going to quit? Don’t you get tired of traveling?” No, not really. I love what I do, I love people, and it’s just been a glorious thing.
Q: Let’s talk about your hits. “Midnight Train to Georgia” seemed very personal.
A: It really was. When we got it, it was called “Midnight Plane to Houston.” We didn’t fly much during that time and we didn’t know much about Houston; we’re from Atlanta, Georgia. And during my early days of touring, we always rode the train because my grandfather was a Pullman porter.
So we called Jim Weatherly, the writer of the song and asked him, “Can we make it Georgia? And we take the train?” And he said, “Yeah! Go ahead! Give it a shot!” So we did, and that’s how it became “Midnight Train to Georgia.”
Q: Listeners have really felt that connection in the song, don’t you think?
A: I do. I think people identify with the story line as well as they did the music. And it’s true for a lot of us who feel a strong love for someone: “I’d rather live in his world than live without him in mine.”
Q: Regarding “I Heard it Through the Grapevine,” not too many songs get to be a hit twice in a couple of years.
A: I know. Twice! We had been struggling at Motown for a long time, you know. They did have a caste system over there. Of course the people they endeared the most they gave the better songs, before they came down the line, if they didn’t want to do it.
Then Norman Whitfield came to the company, and he was one of the people who stayed back and took over the company after Mr. Gordy (label founder Berry) moved to L.A. Norman took all these young artists and gave them better music, like us, and Martha and the Vandellas, and the Temptations. He said, “I got a song for y’all. It’s just for y’all, and stick with it for a while,” and it was “Heard It Through the Grapevine.” … It was the biggest-selling record they had out that year.
Q: What did you think when Marvin Gaye made it even a bigger hit the following year, in 1968?
A: I said, “Why’d you have to pick that one?” He was our brother, though. We loved him to death. We worked with him a lot.
Q: “That’s What Friends Are For,” with Dionne Warwick, Elton John and Stevie Wonder, was a big song for everyone involved, not only for the way you did it, but for the reason you did it.
A: Absolutely. Back in those days, we were always looking for someone to support and that kind of thing, and then the AIDS thing blew up. Dionne Warwick, she was like my big sister, she was doing “Solid Gold” at the time. She called and said, “Girl, come down here. Elton is down here and Miss Liz” – that’s what we called her, Elizabeth Taylor, she was a sweetheart – “they wanted to start this foundation for AIDS,” so we were the first ones to do it.
I like making a difference. That’s part of the reason I like being able to salute Dr. King when I go to the Kennedy Center. We like making a difference.