The R&B legend pours her entire being into a career-spanning performance on her 2022 UK tour
Flipping through the tour program before the show starts, I see pictures of Gladys Knight through the years: a little girl in her Sunday-best smiling with Nat King Cole, a grinning teenager who had just formed the Pips, and a present-day, elegant business woman / entertainer.
One of the pictures that stands out to me is one from the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival; Gladys dressed in a stylish pinafore with a ruffled neckline, backed by the Pips who were all in matching suits. This is a scene that I recognize from the documentary Summer of Soul (Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised). They performed “I Heard it Through the Grapevine,” and Gladys was such a natural on stage.
VIDEO: Gladys Knight and the Pips perform “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” in Summer of Soul
Gladys Knight looks as beautiful as ever as she’s escorted to the stage of the Liverpool M & S Bank Arena. She’s wearing a vibrant red two-piece suit with ruffled sleeves, and flashes the brightest smile at the entire audience before jumping into “Love Overboard.” At 78, Gladys looks and sounds incredible; she traverses the stage with ease, and her voice is virtually untouched by age.
Starting “Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me,” Gladys tells the audience that she’s dedicating the song to everyone, because she wouldn’t be performing if it wasn’t for the fans. Revisiting songs from her Gladys Knight and the Pips days, she performs “Baby Don’t Change Your Mind” and “Come Back and Finish What You Started,” “I’ve Got to Use My Imagination,” and “I Heard it Through the Grapevine.” She loves interacting with the crowd; pointing at specific people, waving, and she even seems to pick phone cameras to really perform for.
Watching her sing “I Heard it Through the Grapevine,” I think back to that Summer of Soul performance. The only thing missing is the Pips, instead of three synchronized men dancing behind her, there are three female singers, seated, but their vocal talents make up for their lack of coordinated dance moves.
Gladys Knight’s most recent charting hit in the UK (to date) was “License To Kill,” her 1989 theme for the sixteenth James Bond film. Her performance of it is still as dramatic as ever, complete with operatic moments and more of a rock feeling than the rest of her songs. A highlight of the show is getting to hear her unleash a full-bodied vibrato, showing so much control over her voice. It is shocking to see how much power comes from such a small package. After the song, Gladys quips, “I don’t know how I got that song. I can’t hurt nobody!” This is one of the many moments where Gladys joked with the crowd, her sense of humor really shines through her audience interaction.
AUDIO: Gladys Knight “License To Kill”
When singing very elaborate phrases, Gladys moves the microphone back and forth to control the volume of her sound, which takes a lot of technical proficiency to get right (it’s also an entertaining flourish). She did this a lot on “Neither One of Us (Wants to Be the First to Say Goodbye),” which was Gladys Knight & the Pips final single as a Motown group. At the end of the song, everyone is left sitting in anticipation as she famously sings the title, but drops the “goodbye.”
A bedazzled chair comes out for Gladys to sit on as she introduces a special guest, Bryard Huggins, who takes his place at a grand piano. She sings a cover of Barbra Streisand’s ballad “The Way We Were,” and it becomes very clear why Knight was doting on the pianist’s talents; he brings an added layer of sentimentality and sophistication to the song. A surprise number in the set was Queen’s “We Are the Champions.” Huggins put his own spin on Freddie Mercury’s classic piano intro, and Gladys Knight took care of the rest. It’s not a song that I would associate with Knight’s R&B style, but the British audience relished in the ode to Queen. Even though Knight remained seated for the rest of her performance, a medley of her mid-‘80s hit “Save the Overtime (For Me),” Luther Vandross’ classic hit “Never Too Much,” brought the whole crowd to their feet.
Gladys then shifted into preacher mode as she talked about how important God is in her life. Gladys Knight’s entire career began in the Mount Mariah Baptist Church choir when she was just four years old. So, it was only fitting for her to include a gospel section in her setlist. She preached, she proselytized, and she performed some of her strongest vocal moments in this gospel medley. When singing “The Question Is” by The Winans (a gospel quartet from Detroit), Knight also created a space for her background singers to solo, much like in an actual church service. Gladys also performed Gershwin’s “Someone to Watch Over Me,” which is a romantic song, but in the context of Knight’s performance, she transformed it into a religious tune. While this gospel section might not have been to everyone’s taste, the moments of harmonization between all four vocalists were nothing short of euphoric.
AUDIO: Gladys Knight and the Pips “Midnight Train to Georgia”
Saving her most popular song for last, Gladys Knight performed “Midnight Train to Georgia” to close out the show. The song, in its original conception by Jim Weatherly, was “Midnight Plane to Houston.” It was based on a phone conversation with Farrah Fawcett who was dating Lee Majors, so Weatherly used them as the two characters in the song. When it was recorded by Cissy Houston in 1973, the song then became “Midnight Train to Georgia.” It didn’t become a major success until Gladys Knight & the Pips recorded it in 1974, when it also became their first ever number one hit. Whether it was because the group themselves were from Georgia, or the fact that they were also trying their hand at the entertainment industry, there is a unique quality that they give the song. There is one moment of the background vocals that I have always found hilariously sassy: “A superstar, but he didn’t get far.” In watching Gladys Knight perform this song live, and to see her chuckle after that specific line was sung, I left the gig with a new understanding of Gladys: The Empress of Soul has a great sense of humor.
Back in 2009, Gladys Knight announced her “farewell” tour. Thirteen years later, however, she’s still going strong. In organizing her setlist in a way that covers her entire career, we’re able to appreciate all of the music that she has given us over the years.