Motown was designed to achieve crossover success. In order to reach this goal, the label often favored demure, peppy voices, at least from the ladies — think of Mary Wells, Diana Ross, or the Marvelettes. On this roster, Gladys Knight and her raw vocals always stood out. Knight performed earlier this year as part of the Legends: OWN At the Apollo series — the show will air this Saturday, October 24, at 10 PM on the Oprah Winfrey Network — and her raspy, flinty voice remains intact.
While most of the famous Motown singers were molded in the Detroit studios, Knight first encountered success elsewhere. In 1961, the Pips had a hit (initially on Vee-Jay records) with “Every Beat Of My Heart,” a simple, doo-wop influenced ballad that accomplishes wonders in two minutes with minimal ingredients. Knight and the Pips joined Motown in 1966, after the organization’s initial explosion of popularity and success. During her time in Motor City, Knight frequently worked with the songwriter and producer Norman Whitfield, who pushed expansive, orchestral proto-funk — see “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” and later, the Temptations’ “Papa Was A Rolling Stone.”
Knight wasn’t always a natural fit for Motown, which tended to swathe her voice in strings and file away her edges. But she released a few strong singles before moving to Buddah Records in the early ‘70s. The hits stopped landing a few years after 1973’s “Midnight Train To Georgia,” though Knight reappeared on the charts occasionally with singles like “Love Overboard” (1987) (heavily influenced by Jam & Lewis). She made a career as a durable, persistent singer, always able to elevate a good song, and sometimes able to turn in a great one.
At the Apollo, she proved to be a vivid, theatrical performer. Her husky voice had the patina of experience from the beginning, so age does not limit her — she had fewer troubles with projection than Smokey Robinson, who graced the same stage the night before. When Knight plays live, those Motown strings are mostly absent (occasionally they were recreated on a synthesizer). There is nothing around to hem her in.
She took full advantage of this freedom, kicking old tunes to life with inventive arrangements. The band injected slippery funk into “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” — a smart bit of historical revisionism, since funk didn’t become a mainstream sound until after Knight released the track. “I Don’t Want To Do Wrong,” a ballad from the Motown days, leaned more towards the tough, dragging arrangements of southern soul. Unusually for songs of this sort, there’s a change of heart in the middle — halfway through the track, Knight realizes that she is about to do wrong because her partner didn’t do right. On stage, she drove home this transition with a dramatic flourish, as if she just realized his complicity at that exact moment.
The tour de force was “Neither One Of Us,” which earned Knight a Grammy in 1974. The version that became a hit is treacly; live, it sounded as if Knight was suddenly working with a strapping, volatile band like Minneapolis’s Mint Condition. An ankle-breaking beat emerged, followed closely by hard-charging slap bass. Knight constantly shifted volume, exploring the full extent of her range — a rare treat in an age when many artists choose to ignore dynamics in favor of just singing loudly.
This combination of sugary and volcanic characterized a number of Knight’s selections during the show. She brought out Stevie Wonder and Dionne Warwick for a version of “That’s What Friends Are For,” a stunningly saccharine Burt Bacharach tune that all three singers originally appeared on — with Elton John — in 1985. “Hero,” a minor hit for Knight on the adult contemporary chart in the ‘80s, is similarly maudlin. But at the Apollo, her quavering runs and pregnant pauses earned exhortations from the crowd, and even a few tears. Knight was back where she started, scraping the sweetness away.