Currently crisscrossing the country on a series of concert dates, Gladys Knight personifies grace, energy and fun both on- and off the stage.
“I’m so grateful that God made me a people person,” Knight told the audience before closing her most recent show at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles (Sept. 8). Moving on to Memphis (Sept. 12) and Cincinnati (Sept. 13), Knight will visit Kansas City, Missouri, San Antonio and Atlanta before winding up her run in Brooklyn (Nov. 23) and Morristown, New Jersey (Nov. 24).
Fans in those cities can expect the legendary singer not to waste any time getting herself and them into the spirit. Escorted to the stage as her band launched into Barry White’s “It’s Ecstasy When You Lay Down Next to Me,” Knight and her trio of strong-voiced backing singers segued smoothly into her and the Pips’ No. 1 classic “I’ve Got to Use My Imagination.” And from there, Knight and crew were off and running (and dancing), paying tribute to Curtis Mayfield and his still vibrant Claudinesoundtrack (“On and On,” “Make Yours a Happy Home,” “The Makings of You”), various other tried-and-true hits (“I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” “Love Overboard,” “The Nitty Gritty”) and salutes to dear friends Aretha Franklin (“A Natural Woman”) and James Ingram (“One Hundred Ways”).
Two of the evening’s most poignant moments occurred back-to-back before Knight’s show-ending signature song, “Midnight Train to Georgia.” The seven-time Grammy winner still knows how to rev up the emotion quotient at the young age of 75. And never more so than on her perennial concert pleaser, “The Way We Were,” as archival photos of her and the Pips flashed across giant video screens as well as images of Dr. Martin Luther King, Muhammad Ali, Robert Kennedy and Barack and Michelle Obama—the latter of whom were met with resounding audience cheers. Knight then raised the emotion level a few more notches on “Neither One of Us,” eliciting a standing ovation. “You all done made me hurt myself,” she exclaimed.
Opening act for the Empress of Soul was, fittingly, The Kingdom Choir. Following its viral moment performing “Stand By Me” at Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s royal wedding, the 16-member group has embarked on its own North American fall tour. In addition to “Stand …,” the choir offered up jubilant harmonies and flavorful interpretations of Jill Scott’s “Golden” an Aretha medley (“Think,” “Respect,” “I Say a Little Prayer”) and Coldplay’s “Fix You.”
Before moving on to Memphis, Knight talked about her multi-generational rapport, advice for fellow Dancing With the Stars colleague Mary Wilson of the Supremes (Knight’s 2012 stint ended in the sixth week) and her favorite Motown memory as the label marks 60 years:
Her multi-generational rapport. To have people come in such numbers to my shows now … I don’t put it to my glory. I feel like there’s a spiritual movement that’s being put in place for me to be in front of them. I give them the music that fans made popular, but I try to formulate it so they get a loving message out of the music. It’s more than just performing a song. It’s a way for us to communicate, to lift people up, to come together, get down and have fun. That’s what I try to do when I step onstage. I feel very connected to the audience and they tell me what to do. Without people feeling like I have something to offer, I wouldn’t be here right now. And that’s the bottom line.
Best advice for DWTS contender Wilson. Just stay with it and listen to your partner. People don’t realize the time, effort and everything else you have to put in, especially for those of us who aren’t professional dancers and can hoof only a little bit. You’re going to be there six days a week for seven to 10 weeks and from first thing in the morning to seven at night. But I had a ball. And I will be there watching and cheering Mary on.
New music plans. I’ve been so thoroughly blessed because performing is taking up most of my time. So I’m past due for a new song. So yes, I’m looking for a song. Tell them people out there to send me a song, please [laughs]. But I want to do more music. I’m thinking about another Christmas album. The last one I did was with my church choir, which I arranged and produced [2006’s A Christmas Celebration with the Saints Unified Voices].
Favorite Motown memory. The sense of family as we became friends in the early days. We had so much fun. We used to give “Barefootin’” dance parties when that song came out [by Robert Parker in 1966). Most of us lived in the same neighborhood, so on a Saturday we’d be barefootin’ in our basement. Then we’d go to Martha’s house [the Vandellas’ Reeves] down the street and start dancing again. Tammi Terrell; Eddie Kendricks, David Ruffin and all of the Temptations lived right in back of us [laughs] We’d sing together and act crazy. It was family.