Gladys Maria Knight was born on May 28, 1944, in Atlanta, Georgia. This "little engine that could" would eventually sing lead as Gladys Knight and the Pips—belting out hits like “Midnight Train to Georgia.” From her initial success at Motown—and drama with other artists at the label—to her career successes, multiple marriages and family tragedies, Knight continues to inspire with her candidness and positive energy. Here are 40 facts about a woman who’s been labelled the Empress of Soul.
Knight’s parents arranged her first public singing performance, a church recital when she was only four years old. Mom and Pops knew their baby girl loved to sing, but Knight thought singing was just playing at that age. To her, getting in front of a crowd and belting out a tune was no different than going to the playground and having fun on the swings.
Knight’s mom named her first singing group "The Little Knight Group." The other members were Knight’s brother Bubba, her sister Brenda, and her cousins, Eleanor and William. Another cousin—a dapper man-about-town, nicknamed Pip—got The Little Knight Group their first paying gig: An afternoon social at the local YWCA. The group made a whopping 10 bucks.
When Knight was just seven years old, her mom, and her Aunt Ann approached a nationally televised talent show called Ted Mack & the Original Amateur Hour. Knight got on the show, and her singing absolutely slayed the competition. Knight won a huge trophy and $2,000 in prize money. That’s like a couple hundred church socials in the 1950s, people.
Unfortunately, Knight experienced race-based discrimination following her television win. You see, she was the only African American contestant, and the trophy she received was bigger than her! But when producers asked Knight's fellow contestants to help the tiny girl with the big voice to hoist her trophy for photos, their white parents point-blank refused.
Even though the other contestants didn't help Knight, she'd soon find a powerful ally. Host Ted Mack learned about the cruelty that young Knight endured on the Ted Mack & the Original Amateur Hour. Knight said that Mack had the decency, and moral integrity, to make it right. Every picture of Knight with her talent show trophy features Ted Mack, helping her to hoist it high.
Yes, she won $2,000 when she was only 7 years old. But greater wealth and fame didn’t come easily, and as far as Knight leading a hit singing group—give bologna some cred for making that happen. In the year following her TV win, Knight and some family members went to the corner store, literally pooling their nickels to throw an impromptu birthday party for Knight’s brother, Merald (Bubba).
All they could afford was bologna, bread, mayo, and Kool Aid to wash it down. After the bologna sandwich feast, Knight and her crew entertained the family gathering with some a cappella. Knight’s mom was so inspired, she formed a singing group to surround Knight.
In 1952, the Little Knights renamed themselves the (catchier) Pips. They did sign a record deal, but they never had a hit. Then, according to Knight, both her sister, and her female cousin got restless, and quit the group. Two new boys replaced the girls, and this incarnation of The Pips had their first hit single, “Every Beat of My Heart.”
Knight’s first attempt at love, marriage, and a baby carriage happened in reverse. Impregnated at just 16 years old by Jimmy Newman (a former member of the Pips), Knight jumped into marriage with her old bandmate. Sadly, the couple was doomed to a terrible end. Gladys Knight miscarried the couple's unborn child. Then things got even worse.
Knight and Newman lost one baby, but a few years later, they welcomes a daughter and a son. However, even with this picture-perfect nuclear family at home, Newman abandoned Gladys and his children just four years later. Sadder still, Newman fell into hard drugs in the years after his divorce from Knight. Eventually, his addiction led to his demise.
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The Motown label has seen plenty of drama between its artists, and the ‘supreme’ Motown diva title should probably go to Diana Ross (“Baby Love” singer, and leader of the Supremes). An example of Ross’s diva-drama? Gladys Knight & the Pips opened for the Supremes on tour, and when Ross heard Knight sing, Ross booted them off her tour because they were too good!
Knight has revealed that she didn’t want to sign with the Soul Label at Motown Records. The Pips (her brother Bubba, and cousins, Edward and William) outnumbered her, voting to sign with Motown in 1966.
It was during their time at Motown that Gladys Knight & the Pips released their version of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” on September 28, 1967. However, the record label barely publicized the song. Marvin Gaye had recorded his version of the song before they did, and apparently there was too much drama surrounding the track already. With Motown refusing to get involved, the Pips took matters into their own hands.
The Pips used their own connections with radio DJs to get their version of “Grapevine” played. They succeeded in getting their version to the top spot, (only their second number one on Billboard’s R&B chart) the week of November 25, 1967. It stayed on top for six weeks.
By 1972, Knight and the Pips were jonesing to leave Motown. They left the label after winning their first Grammy, for a song called “Neither One of Us”, written by Jim Weatherly. Knight and the Pips then joined the very enlightened-sounding, Buddah Records, where they would score their biggest hit of all: "Midnight Train to Georgia."
Singer-songwriter Jim Weatherly recorded his own country song called “Midnight Plane to Houston." The song got forwarded to producers who were working with singer Cissy Houston (Whitney’s mom). They changed the title to “Midnight Train to Georgia,” before Cissy cut the track. Fun fact: the characters in Weatherly’s song are based on Farrah Fawcett (70s poster girl) and Lee Majors (70s bionic man).
Following Cissy Houston’s recording of “Midnight Train to Georgia,” Gladys Knight and the Pips recorded their version of the tune. Knight famously nailed most of her lead vocals in a single take. On October 27, 1973, the song reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100. In her autobiography, Between Each Line of Pain and Glory, Knight described her hope that the song will help anyone who’s ever reached for Hollywood success—only to fail.
Knight’s second marriage to Barry Hankerson ended in a similarly unhappy way as her first shot at finding love. The couple divorced in 1978 after four years of marriage—and their split got nasty. Lasting proof does remain of their union, at a happier time…a movie they made movie together, called Pipe Dreams. It was Knight’s first acting job, and she earned a Golden Globe nom for her work.
Knight and her second husband were only married for several years, but their divorce dragged on. It got so nasty, their son Shanga became affected psychologically. He developed an eating disorder for a period of time.
For a decade, between the late 70s and 80s, Knight sunk into a gambling addiction. If she wasn’t betting on football games, she was at the Baccarat table—Knight’s table game drug of choice. Although she did experience some spectacular wins (nothing worse than a gambling high to keep you hooked), Knight regularly blew up to $45,000 in a single night of losing. She finally beat her addiction, seeking help from Gamblers Anonymous.
Knight’s musical counterparts back in the day included singing groups like the Midnighters, and the Cadillacs, who performed athletic tumbles and splits for added excitement. The Pips attempted the same routines, but Knight said the boys ended up with “sprained thumbs, sprained ankles, sprained everything” so they wisely decided to mellow out, choreographing their moves to reflect Knight’s soulful lyrics.
Knight said she never danced with the Pips—the guys wouldn’t let her!
In 1989, Knight broke up with the Pips due to bad blood within the group, including Knight’s belief that her brother was exploiting their music to further his business interests.
After the bitter breakup with her Pips, Knight kicked it as a solo artist. Her third solo LP went to number one on the Billboard R&B chart, and Knight also scored some other cool (and quirky) accomplishments…like performing America the Beautiful at Wrestlemania 4, and singing the lead track for the James Bond film, License to Kill.
Sad notion, huh? That’s Knight’s direct quote about husband number three, a motivational speaker named Les Brown. He filed divorce papers against Knight in 1997, just two years into a union that she once called “a dream come true.” Knight said Brown had the gift to “motivate and inspire,” but he didn’t know “how to give.” On a positive note, Brown did urge Knight to pen her successful autobiography, and helped her score a $500,000 book advance.
Knight refuses to be called a diva—even when the label is born of respect. In her words, a diva should mean an “operatic soloist,” but Knight feels it’s usually meant to describe “a certain uppity attitude”. So, what does Knight think of herself? She seems to think she’s nothing more than “cornbread!” I think cornbread ought to be mighty flattered.
Knight and her first son, James (Jimmy) Newman III shared a special bond. Although not a performer like her, Newman formed an entertainment company called Newman Management Inc., and he represented Knight for a while. Newman unfortunately passed in his sleep, suffering cardiac arrest at just 37 years old. Rumors persist that his death was drug-related, but it’s unproven. Either way, Knight was devastated by his loss.
Knight has revealed that Sammy Davis, Jr. personally showed her how to sing a ballad correctly. His magnetic style could hold the attention of everyone in an arena, according to Knight.
Even after three failed marriages, Knight never gave up. In the early 90s, she met William McDowell at the La Costa spa, near San Diego. He wasn’t in the ‘biz’ (he was VP of a corporate consulting firm, called the Harris Group). They struck up a casual friendship, keeping in touch over the years. Fast forward a decade, and they ran into each other again at the same spa! This time, Mr. McDowell asked Ms. Knight on a proper date. They married on April 12, 2001.
Whitney Houston’s funeral in 2012 wasn’t just sad, it got heated when a decades-long feud resurfaced between Aretha Franklin (Queen of Soul), and Dionne Warwick (singer, and Psychic Network famer). Knight defended Warwick, saying Franklin caused “a whole lot of riffraff,” and blew things out of proportion.
Knight proudly admits that her squash casserole is da bomb. Everyone devours it—but she refuses to divulge the recipe!
In 1999, Knight’s son from her second marriage, Shanga Hankerson, founded a small restaurant chain in Atlanta, calling it Gladys Knight’s Chicken & Waffles. Before you conjure up an image of the iconic singer in a chef’s hat spicing up grits…she only lent her name to the restaurant for publicity. It worked like magic, and the chain became wildly successful for some time. However, soon Hankerson's shady dealings would taint Gladys Knight's name.
Talk about letting a good taste go bad. In 2016, Knight’s son Shanga Hankerson was busted for tax evasion of close to $1M. Allegedly, Hankerson blew it on weed and "the ladies." In 2017, Knight legally disassociated herself from Hankerson’s restaurants, disallowing any further use of her name, likeness or any memorabilia.
Knight lovingly called her idol, "Mr. Nat King Cole." She first met the famous singer when she was young, following his Atlanta concert with Sarah Vaughan. Cole showered the young singer with fatherly praise and affection, saying, “I’ve got a little girl too (Natalie Cole), and maybe one day she’ll be singing.”
Knight did pay the ultimate respect to the ‘Queen of Soul’, Aretha Franklin, when Franklin passed in 2018. Knight called Franklin her “sister” and her “family." Knight also sang at Franklin’s funeral.
Knight gave an interview following Aretha Franklin’s death from pancreatic cancer, allegedly making a comment that freaked out news outlets, and her legions of fans. The interview article stated that Knight and Franklin had spoken at length, after Franklin received her cancer diagnosis, and Knight said she “shared the fact” with Franklin that they both “had the same disease.” The media fallout forced Knight’s publicist, Javier Delgado, to emphatically deny that Knight had cancer.
When a published interview quoted Knight as saying she shared the same disease with Aretha Franklin…the article wasn’t exactly wrong. As Knight further clarified through another publicist, she has battled stage one breast cancer, beating the disease through early detection. Knight did blast the reporter who interviewed her for twisting the facts, missing the message, and marring the celebration of “Aretha’s life and massive contribution to our world.”
In addition to paying tribute in song to Aretha Franklin, at Franklin’s funeral, Knight also sang twice at the funeral service for Michael Jackson.
74-year old Knight performed the national anthem before the 2019 Superbowl, in her hometown of Atlanta. She wanted to give the anthem its voice back, following a nasty blowout between the NFL, and former 49ers QB, Colin Kaepernick, after Kaepernick protested racial injustice and police brutality by ‘taking a knee’ during a 2016 NFL pregame anthem. Knight felt her performance could bring positivity back into the equation, and she succeeded in spectacular fashion.
Fresh off her TV talent show win, a young Gladys received an invitation to an Atlanta concert featuring two legends, Sarah Vaughan and Nat King Cole. She was delighted to see such icons in the flesh, but after the show, Knight said that Vaughan just ignored her. She felt hurt in the moment, but thankfully she and Vaughan did become better acquainted later in life.
Can’t get the “Umbrella” jam out of my head! But for Knight, the real Ella will always be Ella Fitzgerald. Knight still calls her ‘Ms. Fitzgerald’, speaking of the huge impression Fitzgerald made on her, especially how humble and down-to-earth Fitzgerald remained, after becoming a huge star.
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