Gladys Knight Leads the Way With Laughter, Tears and A Whole Lotta Love

Gladys Knight
Gladys Knight Photo by Violeta Alvarez

Gladys Knight
Smart Financial Centre
April 13, 2019

Smart Financial Centre has cornered the local market on legendary R&B and soul acts for the next several weeks. Al Green, Ms. Lauryn Hill, Anita Baker, The O’Jays, Stephanie Mills, India.Arie and Lionel Richie are all slated to visit the Sugar Land music hub by Memorial Day or so. This remarkable run began last night with one of music’s all-time greats, Gladys Knight. While the artists yet headed for Smart are all brilliant with nothing really left to prove, they’ve now also officially been challenged by the high bar Knight set Saturday evening.

It’s unlikely the Empress of Soul had a peek at the venue’s scheduled concerts, but as she has recently proven, she is no shrinking violet. Whether it’s been defending her personal decisions against certain political interests or taking on reality TV, Knight’s been undaunted. So, maybe she did sneak a glance at who is following her and decided to up the ante with a decade-spanning set that showcased her beautifully-preserved contralto.

An enthusiastic crowd came to hear the songs and she delivered them forcefully. She’s 74 now, but singing in such a low register all these years seems to have kept the sheen on her voice, which sounded particularly strong on songs like "If I Were Your Woman," the deep cut "Oh! What a Love Have I Found" and fan favorite (and the first crowd sing-along of the night) “Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me.” The gathered also came to hear the stories and Knight indulged them between nearly every song, bringing the music down low to speak over it and the zealous crowd. Overly generous with its calls of “Love you!,” she told her faithful audience early on, “I ain’t gonna preach...Just like the minister says, I won’t be long. We got about two more hours.”

That drew a laugh from the knowing audience, but instead of shifting uncomfortably in their seats like a hungry congregation, they let Knight nourish them with her past hits and covers of some of her favorite artists.

click to enlarge Knight chatted with her devoted fans between nearly every song - PHOTO BY VIOLETA ALVAREZ
Knight chatted with her devoted fans between nearly every song
Photo by Violeta Alvarez

The stage was packed with nine performers when Knight came roaring on at 7:37 to “I’ve Got To Use My Imagination.” She looked sharp in a tasteful two-piece maroon outfit and not a bee costume. Her trademark smile was in place from beginning to end, save a few emotional moments which caused her and several audience members, this one included (more on that later), to shed actual tears. Knight’s show reflected way back, all the way to 1961’s “Every Beat of My Heart,” her first Motown hit with her sidekicks and fellow Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees, The Pips. Such a span in time comes with some loss, but also a great deal of love. Knight considered the former across her 20-song set but chose to emphasize the latter during her time with us.

If it was said once it was said a few dozen times, the word “love,” and it’s the sentiment that Knight has leaned on over her career. She’s been as high profile lately as any veteran musician, particularly since she stood by her choice (one, she reminded naysayers, she had rightfully earned over a lifetime of advocating for civil rights) to sing the national anthem in her home state during this year’s Super Bowl. Her decision was criticized by many who had called for performers to boycott the game in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick.

In a manner, Knight addressed the issue, though the actual topic never came up at last night’s show. During one of many chats between artist and audience between songs, she talked at length about “the things that we can do together.” She said times were simpler before, how in the old days the industry “wasn’t about how much money you made, it was about coming together and making some music.” The discourse rambled a bit but was about finding a shared love and common ground on which to unify, which led into the Curtis Mayfield-penned track “The Makings of You.” The late Mayfield wrote songs that turned into hits for Knight and those songs were spotlighted in a series which included “Make Yours a Happy Home” and “On and On.”

click to enlarge Knight allowed her backup singers, including Porsche, pictured here, to shine - PHOTO BY VIOLETA ALVAREZ
Knight allowed her backup singers, including Porsche, pictured here, to shine
Photo by Violeta Alvarez

If anything, Knight’s been a master song stylist over the years, so she shared her versions of some favorite songs with us, like Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me” and Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me.” She apologized because she said she wanted to sing “Why I Love You,” by MAJOR. but confessed she didn’t know all the words. She got an assist from one of three background singers. They were all young, astonishingly talented vocalists who got front-and-center turns on tributes to James Ingram and Aretha Franklin. In effect, Knight was bridging R&B’s past with artists who could be its future. It’s a big task to take on, but the gallant Knight continues to prove she’s an unshakable force.

Personal Bias: Knight’s face streamed with tears when remembering friends Franklin and Ingram. Sometime around the middle of the week it occurred to me that I might actually cry at this show, too, something that has never happened to me in almost 40 years of attending concerts. Listening to “Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me” on Spotify during the week stirred all sorts of emotions about my own dearly departed, my parents. They bought and nearly wore out the 1976 Buddah compilation, The Best of Gladys Knight & The Pips. That song was their song, though, and hearing it all week still didn’t prepare me from the sting of tears I felt hearing it live last night. It could have been my imagination, but Knight sounded so assured singing it that it seemed like the best song of the night. For me it was, anyway. My folks have been gone more than 10 years now and I felt closer to them last night than I have since I last saw them.

The Crowd: Folks dressed to the nines and calling out to Gladys like they wanted her to personally see their  snazzy fashion selections.

Random Notebook Dump: It was weird hearing pre-show auditorium song Tone Loc’s “Wild Thing” mere moments before Knight took the stage. Not that there’s not a certain elegance to the 1989 rap hit about sex, but it sort of seemed out of place versus Knight’s timeless gracefulness.

click to enlarge The Empress of Soul - PHOTO BY VIOLETA ALVAREZ
The Empress of Soul
Photo by Violeta Alvarez

Gladys Knight Set List

I’ve Got to Use My Imagination

Save the Overtime (For Me)/Never Too Much (Luther Vandross cover)

Make Yours a Happy Home

On and On

The Makings of You (Curtis Mayfield cover)

Every Beat of My Heart

Great Balls of Fire (Jerry Lee Lewis cover)

Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me

Stay With Me (Sam Smith cover)

Oh! What a Love Have I Found

I Heard It Through the Grapevine

I Can’t Make You Love Me (Bonnie Raitt cover)

Help Me Make It Through the Night (Kris Kristofferson cover)

Why I Love You (MAJOR. cover)

One Hundred Ways (James Ingram/Quincy Jones cover)

If I Were Your Woman

(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman (Aretha Franklin cover)

The Way We Were (Barbra Streisand cover)

Neither One of Us (Wants to Be the First to Say Goodbye)

Midnight Train to Georgia
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Jesse’s been writing for the Houston Press since 2013. His work has appeared elsewhere, notably on the desk of the English teacher of his high school girlfriend, Tish. The teacher recognized Jesse’s writing and gave Tish a failing grade for the essay. Tish and Jesse celebrated their 33rd anniversary as a couple in October.