Rewinding the Charts: In 1973, Gladys Knight & The Pips Took the 'Midnight Train' to No. 1
The group rolled to the top of the Hot 100 only after its exit from the Motown machine.
"MOTOWN WANTED EVERYTHING from you, and I didn't like that," Gladys Knight, 72, tells Billboard about the relationship between the group she fronted, Gladys Knight & The Pips, and the imprint that was the band's home from 1965 to 1973. "They wanted to manage you, they wanted to record you ... I didn't feel like we would get our due."
After dealings with 12 different record companies, the Pips – Knight's brother Merald "Bubba" and cousins William Guest and Edward Patten – signed to Motown's Soul imprint, persuading a reluctant Knight to agree. "I didn't want to go. The Pips wanted to go because we'd been in the industry for so long."
Despite scoring two Billboard Hot 100 No. 2 hits with the label – "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," the Marvin Gaye-penned classic that the soul singer later recorded and sent to No. 1 in 1968, and the Grammy Award-winning "Neither One of Us (Wants to Be the First to Say Goodbye)" – Knight recalls that, "What we needed for our career at that time was a megahit, a super-big hit, because we were more noted for our performances and not our recording successes."
The hunt for an everlasting hit, which originally brought the group to Motown, soon fueled their departure in 1973. "They did have a caste system over there, as most people know, and we were not on the top of the list," Knight explains. In fact, the label's founder, Berry Gordy, who had relocated along with the main arm of Motown from Detroit to Los Angeles, was initially unaware that the act had left. "I had a talk with Mr. Gordy (the pair remain friends, according to Knight, and speak often), he was telling us, 'My son was so upset with me that you guys had gotten away and gone to another company.'"
That company was Buddah Records, and at the small New York-based label, Knight and the Pips would finally claim that elusive triumph smash single in the Jim Weatherly-penned "Midnight Train to Georgia."
"Train," which the act recorded in a small studio in a Detroit parking garage, had "something special" to it, Knight says. "After I got through laying the last lead vocal on it, I couldn't hear what they were saying because I was in the booth, but I saw everyone in the room stand up and give us a standing ovation."
That reception foreshadowed a nationwide smash, as "Train" gave Knight, then 29, and The Pips their first and only Hot 100 No. 1 when it reached the top on Oct. 27, 1973. "We were so proud because it was something we had wanted for such a long time. [Being No. 1 was] telling the world we were valuable." The tune subsequently earned the act a Grammy for best R&B vocal performance by a duo or group.
The group followed "Train" with additional hits in the '70s before internal strife and Knight's renewed ambition for a solo career fueled a disbanding in 1989, ending a 37-year run. The soul legends were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996. Knight has been married to William McDowell for 16 years and continues to tour and record new material. She released her 11th solo album, Where My Heart Belongs, in 2014.