Gladys Knight & the Pips were one of the most successful groups in soul, performing on hits for nearly 40 years together. But while Knight is a household name who continues to excite, The Pips have faded into musical history.
The Pips were one of the tightest backing vocal groups in the business, and their extravagant and highly choreographed stage routines gave Gladys Knight & The Pips a uniqueness unrivalled by other soul acts. But, in part because of the immense talent of Knight (let’s face it, she’s one of the greatest singers of all time – the Empress of Soul – and she still sounds as good as she did in 1974), the Pips have faded into her shadow. While Gladys Knight & The Pips became household names, it was only Knight that anyone really ever knew.
In this ‘Rare Cut’ we take a look at the history of one of soul’s finest groups, and delve into The Pips’ 1978 solo album Callin’.
Gladys Knight & The Pips: the early days
The group began their career in 1952 as ‘The Pips’: Gladys Knight joined with her brother Merald “Bubba” Knight, sister Brenda Knight and their cousins William and Eleanor Guest. By 1957 Brenda and Eleanor had left, replaced by another cousin Edward Patten and another singer called Langston George. The changed line-up scored their first hit with a song called ‘Every Beat of My Heart‘, before George left and Gladys herself temporarily left to start a family, but rejoined the group in 1964 and the group became Gladys Knight & The Pips, with Bubba Knight, William Guest and Edward Patten forming the classic line-up of The Pips.
The group wound up at Motown Records in 1966, and had their first real taste of commercial success with the fabled ‘Motown Sound’. Berry Gordy Jr, the iconic founder of Motown, had scouted the group as early as 1965, impressed by their stage presence and soulful sound. Yet, once at Motown, the group found themselves in Motown’s second-tier of artists, working on what Knight would later call “leftovers” from Motown’s top-tier acts, such as The Temptations, Marvin Gaye and, of course, Diana Ross & The Supremes.
The group however got their chance in 1967 when Norman Whitfield took them into the studio to record ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine‘, a song Whitfield had tried to get released on Marvin Gaye but Gordy had repeatedly vetoed the song’s release. Whitfield was determined that this song was a hit, and was given Gladys Knight & The Pips to record it with. Despite little promotion by Motown, the song hit Number 1 on the Billboard R&B Charts, and the group was on their way to stardom. Or, at least, so they thought. Motown decided to then release the Gaye version, and it became the definitive version of the song, and would outsell The Pips’s version.
Knight and The Pips continued to play second-fiddle at Motown, but did, despite a lack of support release some great records, including ‘The Nitty Gritty‘, ‘Friendship Train‘, and ‘If I Were Your Woman‘. The group remained a hot live act, so hot that when they upstaged Diana Ross & The Supremes on one show, Miss Ross had the group removed from the tour. By 1973, they had decided to quit Motown: they gave the record label one final hit with ‘Neither One of Us (Wants to Be The First to Say Goodbye)‘ before they joined Buddah Records.
At Buddah Records they were given the creative input and promotional backing needed to make them stars. The hits came quick and, for a period, didn’t stop: in 1974 they released ‘Midnight Train to Georgia‘, their seminal hit, along with ‘Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me‘ and ‘I’ve Got To Use My Imagination‘.
The Pips even made an appearance on the short-lived Richard Pryor Show on NBC. They starred in an amusing skit where they performed alone without Knight (“Ladies & Gentlemen, the Richard Pryor Show presents… & The Pips!”), but they just performed their backing parts and choreography next to a microphone stand where Knight would usually stand.
All-in-all, it seemed that, finally, Gladys Knight & The Pips had finally made it.
The Midnight Train to Court: the group splits
But, three years, later the group ran into contract disputes with both Buddah Records and Motown, and it took three years for the issues to be settled. The group had just recorded ‘Baby, Don’t Change Your Mind‘, a UK number 4 hit, but were unable to follow up on their success as a result of their disputes; in effect, the group was forced into a recording hiatus.
This hiatus didn’t mean, however, that members couldn’t record their own material. Therefore, it presented the two sides of the group with opportunties for recording solo albums. Hence, Gladys Knight released the first of her solo albums, and The Pips recorded two albums as well, including their 1978 album Callin’.
The Pips meets Philly Soul
Whereas Knight chose mostly ballads to sing on her solo records, The Pips enlisted Bunny Sigler to produce Callin’ who was an integral part of the Philly Sound, and who worked with the likes of The O’Jays and Instant Funk (and would produce some of Patti LaBelle’s best loved songs). As a result, the Pips’s material was straight out of the Philadelphia International Records playbook.
The album is actually very pleasant. Mixed at Sigler’s own Sigma Sound Studios, it was very much Philly disco, and although the songs weren’t as memorable as earlier hits by the group, it was nonetheless a decent effort. It was generally fast-paced, inspired, full of excellent horn arrangements and vocal harmonies. Interestingly, although the album was credited to “The Pips” it was only William Guest and Edward Patten who recorded the album, Bubba Knight, perhaps out of loyalty to his sister or perhaps just apathy towards a Pips solo album, played no part in it’s recording. But, from listening to the album, you’d never tell: although The Pips were in effect just Gladys Knight’s backing singers and dancers, they still possessed their own unique vocal blend and it was on full display on Callin‘.
Sadly, although the album was surprisinly strong, Casablanca Records (who owned the rights to the album) made no effort to promote it. The label at at the time was the prime manuafacturer of disco records, including Donna Summer’s, so it’s likely the album got lost somewhere in the internal politics of the label. But, it’s also likely that the public, used to seeing Gladys Knight sing with three other blokes, were unreceptive to an album by The Pips without Gladys Knight and her voice. As a result, The Pips’s solo career was somewhat short lived.
Reunion in soul
By 1980 the contractual disputes that had split the group were resolved, and the four reunited to record and release the excellent album About Love. The group worked with the legendary husband-and-wife duo Ashford & Simpson, and it resulted in one of the best albums Gladys Knight & The Pips recorded. It contained smashes such as ‘Landlord‘, ‘Taste of Bitter Love‘ and ‘Bourgie, Bourgie‘. They followed it up a year later with the album Touch, which contained the disco-banger ‘I Will Fight’ and a fairly decent cover of ‘I Will Survive’.
By 1987 Knight had decided that it was time to go solo for good, but the group did record one more album, the rather eighties sounding All Our Love. It featured the infectious single ‘Love Overboard‘, which won the group a Grammy – a fitting finale to Gladys Knight & The Pips.
While Knight would go on and record solo albums and duets with other big name stars (check out ‘Superwoman‘ by her, Dionne Warwick and Patti LaBelle, and her James Bond theme ‘Licence To Kill’), The Pips went into retirement, although Bubba Knight would continue to perform on-and-off with his sister.
The importance of The Pips
The Pips were sophisticated, stylish and soulful. As well as providing the energetic dance moves on stage, The Pips were integral to the sound of Gladys Knight. Take their signature classic, the poignant ‘Midnight Train To Georgia’: the backing vocals provided by The Pips are perhaps the best backing vocals ever recorded. They switch effortlessly between providing straight backing (what we might call “the ooos and ahhhs”), to providing call-and-response, as well as offering their own interjections and replies as Knight builds to the song’s climax. It’s a stunning example of how important backing vocalists can be to a song, provided they’re used right.
The Pips truly were the finest.