The great ones endure, and Gladys Knight has long been one of the greatest. Very few singers over the last fifty years have matched her unassailable artistry, and with the release of her new MCA album At Last, any other contenders may as well stop trying. Her first mainstream pop/R&B album in six years, At Last is Gladys' "welcome home" party, marking the return of a living legend. In its 13 tracks, the new album proves once again that no one has their way with a song like Gladys Knight.
"It's been awhile," says Gladys of her long hiatus. "At Last answers the question for all of those people asking me, ‘When are you going to do a new album?' Well, here I am at last!" Always one to stay current with the musical times, Gladys worked with several brilliant contemporary producers this time out, including Randy Jackson, Gary Brown and James D.C. Wilson III, Jon John, Jamey Jaz, Keith Thomas, Tom Dowd, and Tiger Roberts, and comedian Jamie Foxx joins Gladys for a duet. "I love having young people around me to keep me young," she says. "I love what young artists are doing today; I want to tap into it and draw from the best of what they have to offer." As always, Gladys herself co-produced several of the album’s tracks, leaving an even deeper imprint on the music.
At Last is a true labor of love for Gladys, a stirringly diverse collection of songs that span the spectrum of contemporary music, from R&B to jazz to country. If there's a common thread, Gladys puts it all into perspective: "I always look at my songs as little vignettes, little stories," she notes, "and I always try to identify with what they're saying." The gently funk-flavored "If I Were Your Woman II" isn't a remake of the Gladys Knight & the Pips classic from the 60's, but is a different take on relationships, which asks, says Gladys, laughing, "Would you really be spending your money taking me to dinner, would you really be treating me this nice all the time if I were your woman, or are you just trying to woo me to get me there?" Another striking track on the new album is "I Said You Lied," a heartfelt tale of hurt and betrayal, and Gladys’ stirring duet with comedian Jamie Foxx, “I Wanna Be Loved,” showcases both artists’ silk-spun vocal prowess.
The ballad "Better Love Next Time" boasts a powerful lead vocal from Gladys, while the sweetly sensual "Do You Really Want To Know" describes a deeper sense of love than the physical trappings we usually hear about in contemporary love songs. Says Gladys of the track, "I think this song is going to touch another spirit in people. It asks: if you want to make it with me, do you really want to know what makes me laugh, what makes me smile? It's more than what love and romance is usually projected as today - we're talking about touching the spirit in this one." In the big-shouldered anthem "Something Blue," Gladys sings about losing someone special, while the gorgeous gospel-flavored "Love Hurts" whispers truths about love.
In the prayerful "Please Help Me I'm Falling (In Love With You)," the singer seeks the strength to walk away from the storm and stress of an illicit love affair, while "Greatest Love Of All" is nothing but sleek, smooth R&B performed as only Gladys Knight can do it. "Just Take Me" is a passionate tribute to unbridled eternal love, while "Rose Bouquet" just might be the album's biggest surprise: a country song, sung in a husky lower register, which takes a long wistful look back. "That's Why They Call It Love" boasts a swirling melody over a powerful arrangement and Gladys' incomparable vocals. One of the highlights surely is Gladys' performance of the Bill Withers' classic "Grandma's Hands." Says Gladys, "It's always been one of my favorites. When we were coming up with the songs for the album, I started singing 'Grandma's Hands' to a different groove. I needed to have someone to co-produce it with me, and Jamey Jaz, a wonderful young producer, said he'd love to do it. I'm really excited about it because the song is so personal to me."
Keeping it personal perhaps goes a long way in explaining Gladys Knight's popularity. She has enjoyed many #1 hits in the pop, R&B, and adult contemporary formats, as well as triumphs in film, TV, live performing, and even in the restaurant industry. She has traveled many different roads, but for Gladys Knight, all have led to enduring success.
At the age of four, she began singing as a guest soloist in church. At age seven she won the Grand Prize on Ted Mack's Amateur Hour, and the following year, she, along with her brother Bubba, her sister Brenda, and her cousins William and Elinor Guest, formed The Pips. In 1959, Brenda and Elinor left the group, replaced by cousin Edward Patten and friend Langston George. The group was renamed Gladys Knight and the Pips, and following Langston's departure in 1962, the classic line-up was in place.
With Gladys singing lead and the Pips providing lush harmonies and graceful choreography, the group went on to achieve icon status, having recorded some of the most memorable songs of the 60's, 70's, and 80's. Top 20 hits like "Every Beat of My Heart," "Letter Full of Tears," "I Heard It Through The Grapevine," and "If I Were Your Woman," set the stage for an amazing run in the mid-70's, when Top 10 gold-certified singles like "Neither One of Us (Wants To Be The First To Say Goodbye)," "I've Got To Use My Imagination," "Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me," and the #1 smash "Midnight Train to Georgia" established Gladys Knight & The Pips as the premier pop/R&B vocal ensemble in the world. The party kept rolling with hits like the #5 "On And On," written by Curtis Mayfield for Claudine, the 1974 screen comedy about love in the inner-city. Gladys enjoyed another #1 hit in 1985 when she teamed with Stevie Wonder, Elton John, and Dionne Warwick on "That's What Friends Are For." All told, Gladys Knight has recorded over 36 albums over the years, including three solo albums during the past decade, Good Woman (1991), Just For You (1994), and her inspirational Many Different Roads (1999).
Her involvement in other creative undertakings, business ventures and humanitarian activities has been extensive, and has brought her honors from industry and community alike. In 1986 she produced and starred in the Ace Award winning "Sisters In The Name Of Love," an HBO special co-starring Dionne Warwick and Patti LaBelle. That same year, she proved her acting ability when she co-starred with Flip Wilson in the CBS comedy "Charlie & Co." Other acting roles followed on such TV shows as "Benson," "The Jeffersons," and "New York Undercover," and such films as Pipe Dreams, An Enemy Among Us, and Desperado. This year, she completed a starring run on Broadway in the smash hit musical “Smokey Joe's Café.”
In 1994, Gladys and her daughter Kenya opened Kenya's Gourmet Bakery, which recently expanded into a 6000 sq. ft. production facility in Las Vegas. In 1995, she earned a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and the next year she and the Pips were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Gladys published her autobiography, Between Each Line of Pain and Glory, in 1997, and the following year, she and the Pips were presented with the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame.
As a humanitarian and philanthropist, Gladys has devoted enormous energies into various worthy causes, including the American Cancer Society, the Minority AIDS Project, AMFAR, and Crisis Intervention. She has been honored by numerous organizations as well, including the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, CORE, and B'Nai Brith.
Today, Gladys helps oversee her busy career from the Las Vegas headquarters of Shakeji, Inc., her personal entertainment corporation. She is a mother, a performer, and a businesswoman with a spiritual outlook on her life. Her faith in God has been the driving force behind all of Gladys' endeavors, and was the inspiration for Many Different Roads, her 1999 collection of faith-based songs.
Says the singer of her career today, "I love this industry because it's ever-changing. Music speaks to people’s spirits; wherever the social consciousness is, that's where music is going to be. Doing as much as I do satisfies my creative spirit, because I do enjoy wearing a lot of hats: I've been at the board for a long time, producing - many people don't know that, but I've always had a direct hand in the production of all of my projects."
As for her impeccable standing in the entertainment world, Gladys does not associate her style with any one form of music. "I don't like being pegged as an R&B artist," she notes, "because I want to sing everything. When you pigeonhole me, you say that I can't sing country western music, or that the moment I put my voice on it, it becomes R&B. To me, it's all music, across the board music!"
Now it's time to let the music do the talking. It's time to let Gladys sing once more, and reveal to her countless millions of fans the very essence of her soul. It's time for Gladys Knight... at last.