I saw Gladys’ solo act last night in the City Hall auditorium in a former industrial town called Lynn about 23 miles away from where I live. Born in 1944, Gladys is now 72 – three years older than me. She looked (from the excellent seats we snuck into once the lights went down) like someone in her 40s or early 50s – cool haircut, bling-decorated blue gauzy pants outfit, and high heels that she surely wanted to kick off at her first opportunity. It was those heels that bothered me the whole 96 minutes (no intermission) that she was onstage. I kept thinking that wearing them at this point in her life for every show was just about too great a price for any woman. What, after all, is the point of becoming an elder (she has sixteen grandchildren and six great-grandchildren) if you can’t rock elasticized pants, upholstered shoes, and braless / spanx-less outfits? Or am I projecting?
Gladys Knight has had four husbands, but the most wrenching separation for me as a fan was when she left the Pips to go solo in 1987. In the early 1970s I was lucky enough to see them live several times. I realize now that for me, the Pips (made up of her brother Merald "Bubba" Knight and her cousins Edward Patten and William Guest) were the key to my love of the act. I saw them about the time they were wrapping up with Motown ("If I Were Your Woman" and "Neither One of Us - Wants to Be the First to Say Goodbye”) and moving over to Buddha Records ("Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me" and “Midnight Train to Georgia"). I didn’t just love the Pips: I wanted to be a Pip. I wanted to wear those matching suits and do those smooth moves. (See clip below.)
This City Hall auditorium is Lynn’s main venue and it resembles a 1950s high school auditorium, complete with perfectly functional bathrooms that seem scaled down to say 2/3 the size of today’s stalls and bathroom fixtures. Worked for me. The audience seats were simple but more comfortable than most movie houses. The staff and volunteers were proud, chatty, and excited to be hosting big stars. The sound system was cranked up to an unfortunately murky level and the speakers seemed unable to handle the high level of reverb. I love supporting regional performance and theatre venues, but it’s hard to admire a singer whose sound is being muddied.
Her performance was more Broadway-diva than Rock-&-Roll Hall of Fame. It was all about her astonishing pipes and the fact that, without the slightest doubt, she still has it. She did Streisand and her four young backup singers did a set of Prince. She did a lot of diva covers, numbers from musicals and whatnot, and only a few of her hits from the days of the Pips. For those following her career all along, that was fine I’m sure. For someone like me who stopped buying her LPs when she and the Pips parted, it was not exactly what I was hoping for.
Her patter between songs was long and canned, full of homilies that were vaguely spiritual and perhaps reflecting her 1997 conversion from Baptist to Mormon. There was little spontaneity, although there were two raw moments. She made a quick, quiet side comment about missing the Pips. (Me too!) And she made an uncharacteristically snide remark about Marvin Gaye stealing “Heard it Through the Grapevine” from her. Her 1967 version was Motown’s best-selling single in Motown history up to that point, but when they released Gaye’s recording the following year, it became a much bigger hit. (Apparently, though, he had recorded it before her but Motown released hers first.) Gladys Knight did go on to talk about Marvin’s genius and all.
The crowd was my age, her age, and mixed Black and white. I expected that people would be dancing in the aisles, but in fact that only happened on her last song, when she told us to stand up and party.
Watching her all made up and perfect and thin and gorgeous and singing all around the stage at 72, my overwhelming feeling was gratitude that I was no longer ambitious and that being beautiful was never for a moment a goal I set for myself. The flawed sound system did not stop her fans from being amazed at her vocal longevity. And she herself reminded us, from start to finish, perhaps a dozen times, that she is an elder, that she is old, and that aging is her dominant present reality. I could relate.