Ron Onesti: Gladys Knight begins Motown's 60th anniversary
As I write this, I am on a musical "high" as just a few hours ago, the "Empress of Soul," Gladys Knight, graced our historic stage at The Arcada Theatre.
It was another bucket-list show for me, as she looked amazing and sounded incredible. Her warm and commanding personality shone through, and we got all the hits, some wonderful B-sides and even a little Michael Jackson.
The seven-time Grammy Award-winning, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee gave insights to songs and brought us down Motown Memory Lane.
Although "Midnight Train To Georgia" was recorded at Buddah Records, some of the group's biggest hits, including their first smash, "I Heard It Through The Grapevine," was recorded between 1967 and 1973 at the legendary Motown Records, originally known as Tamla Records.
Gladys Knight and the Pips consisted of Gladys, her brother Bubba, and her two cousins. Originally from Atlanta, the group was scouted by Motown President Berry Gordy Jr. After a couple of positive-charting singles, Motown songwriter Norman Whitfield wrote a version of "Grapevine" for Gladys and the Pips in 1967. It was their true breakout single, hitting No. 2 on the Billboard charts and No. 1 on the R&B charts, and it was the biggest selling record for Motown to that date, at 2.5 million copies.
Actually, the Miracles recorded the song in 1966, but Gordy "vetoed" it. Then Marvin Gaye recorded it; THAT got vetoed. Whitfield wrote a more upbeat version, and Gordy let it be released. A few months after Gladys and the Pips' recording, Motown released the Marvin Gay version, which wound up selling 4 million. Talk about milking a song!
Gladys talks about being treated as somewhat of a "second-rate act" behind Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the Temptations, the Supremes and Marvin Gaye. She felt those groups got all the "good songs," and "good gigs." Even after being put on the road as the opener for Diana Ross and the Supremes, Ms. Ross had them booted off the tour because of the great audience response Gladys and the boys received.
So they continued to do their thing. After performing at a political fundraiser in Gary, Indiana, Gladys told Berry Gordy about this group of young brothers that also performed. She recognized the immeasurable talent of the Jackson 5, and she wound up giving Motown a great gift.
We have had several Motown greats by us here at The Arcada. But last night was a bit different. It was a surreal feeling of being in the presence of true greatness.
This is not to say that having other Motown legends, including the Four Tops, Martha Reeves, Mary Wilson of the Supremes, the Temptations and even the first "white" group out of Hitsville U.S.A., Rare Earth, were not as equally amazing, but there was a certain regal feeling created by Gladys' presence.
"The Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me," "If I Were Your Woman," "Love Overboard" and "The Way We Were" just brought tears to the crowds eyes. Her finale, "Midnight Train To Georgia," was originally a country song with "Houston" instead of "Georgia" before Gladys got it in 1973. It brought the crowd to their feet.
She spoke about working with other American legends such as Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin. I just began thinking of this journey Gladys has been on since the early 1950s. The people she has met, the places she has been -- dealing with the hardships of racial discrimination, the greed of the record industry back then, and the $50-a-night gigs on crowded busses with no heat.
But through it all, she has remained grounded and humble. With the recent passing of Aretha, Gladys remains as one of the last truly legendary icons from the era.
I've had my share of life's ups and downs
But fate's been kind, the downs have been few
I guess you could say that I've been lucky
Well, I guess you could say that it's all because of you
Those are the opening lyrics to "The Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me." Gladys dedicated that song and those words to the audience, truly making each and every person feel as if she were dedicating it to them personally.
It was at that moment I realized what makes an icon great. It is not merely about his or her accolades and accomplishments, it is really about how they have made their fans feel. How their work has helped folks through hard times. How they were able to take people in bad situations away for 2½ minutes with a song on the radio, or for 2½ hours at their shows.
We all have our list of who we would like to "come back as" after our life here on earth is over. As I one day take that "Midnight Train" to heaven (hopefully), I wouldn't mind coming back as a "Pip." To be behind Gladys Knight throughout her career would be inspirational, at the very least. She has seen musical trends come and go, but her powerful and soulful sound has remained strong throughout her life journey.
I am ever so thankful for Gladys and so many other legends who have appeared on The Arcada stage. When she walked onto the stage, there was a glow of greatness that really gave us a feeling that The Arcada has arrived. Legends and icons, timeless music and great memories. What more can anyone wish for?
How lucky am I? I am lucky that music fans support us, and I pledge to keep OUR music alive, for as long as I am!
• Ron Onesti is president and CEO of The Onesti Entertainment Corp. and The Historic Arcada Theatre in St. Charles. Celebrity questions and comments? Email email@example.com.