ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
(Soundbite of song, "Midnight Train to Georgia")
Long before Gladys Knight was singing about that midnight train or how she heard it through the grapevine, she was a little girl with a great big voice and an even bigger trophy. In 1952 when she was just 7 years old, Gladys Knight got her first big break when she outperformed all the other contestants on the nationally televised Ted Mack Original Amateur Hour.
Ms. GLADYS KNIGHT (Singer): Yeah. It is the original talent show that everybody is doing now.
NORRIS: The original American Idol.
Knight comes from a musical family. Remember The Pips?
(Soundbite of The Pips)
NORRIS: One was her brother. The other two were cousins. She started touring before her teens, and on the road, she encountered many of the great ladies of songs backstage or in rooming houses, the only accommodations for black performers. Gladys Knight always wanted to honor those women, and now she has.
(Soundbite of song, "But Not for Me")
Ms. KNIGHT: (Singing) They're writings songs of love, but not for me. Our lucky star, that was, but not for me.
NORRIS: Her latest CD is called Before Me, a collection of standards once performed by Ella, Nina, Lina and Dinah. Knight studied these women. She listened to hours of their original recordings.
(Soundbite of song)
Ms. DINAH WASHINGTON (Singer): (Singing) Do nothing, till you hear from me. Pay no attention to what said.
NORRIS: That's Dinah Washington. Gladys Knight was still a kid when she first met her before a gig. She was odd and intimidated.
Ms. KNIGHT: She scared me to death. She was scary. Oh, she was scary, she was scary, you know, she had this big booming voice.
NORRIS: They did call her the Queen.
Ms. KNIGHT: Yes. But I mean, you know, I think she had been a part of the entertainment industry for a while, and to me, we as women who are part of the industry, you lose a little bit of your feminine edge. Just like, you know, you can't be using the words that guys use, if you know what I mean.
NORRIS: Okay. I think I get it.
Ms. KNIGHT: Okay. Okay. So when I walked in the room, she was hanging out with the guys. And telling them off about something and she was loud doing it. And I said oh, my goodness.
NORRIS: What did you learn from her?
Ms. KNIGHT: Oh. You know what Dinah was? Power. Oh my goodness, she was power. Where Ella may be finesse and technique and all of that kind of stuff. And then Lina was sexy and feminine, and Nina, you know, was just bold. Everyone had their own persona, and Dinah was definitely power. And I love that about her.
NORRIS: What is the difference for you between singing soul, where you actually want people to, to hear the red clay in your background, and singing jazz, where I imagine the phrasing is entirely different? And while we talk about this, I wonder if we can actually listen to one of the tracks. You choose. You tell us which one and you can talk about the differences.
Ms. KNIGHT: Oh. I love them all. So just put the needle down and go for it.
NORRIS: Well, lets put it on random play. Let's see what comes up.
(Soundbite of song)
Ms. KNIGHT: (Singing) Do nothing till you hear from me. Pay no attention to what's said. Why people tear the strings of anyone's dream. It's over my head.
Okay. That's Dinah.
You hear the sass in it? That one in particular is not as soft and sweet as some of the others. But still if you listen to the composition of it and where the orchestra is and the flavor that they're playing with, you know. Have you heard the word cool associated with jazz?
NORRIS: And this is a Duke Ellington song.
Ms. KNIGHT: Yeah.
NORRIS: That's steeped in cool.
Ms. KNIGHT: Yes. You know, so it's so laid back. There are notes that you call your power notes. I didn't feel like I had to go for the power notes all the time. You know, I could lay back.
(Soundbite of song)
Ms. KNIGHT: (Singing) Some kids make cloud my memory (unintelligible). But please do nothing till you hear it from me. And you never, never will.
NORRIS: Not the one person to whom you pay tribute on this CD that you never met was Billie Holiday. And you've said that your rendering of God Bless the Child is a special tribute on the CD. Is that why, because you actually never met her?
Ms. KNIGHT: Yeah. She was one of those artists that when she was singing, you feel her pain. You know her story. But if she was not the artist that she is, was and became, you wouldn't feel that. That's what music is supposed to do. It's supposed to make you feel the story, the artist and wherever you want to go.
(Soundbite of song, "God Bless the Child")
Ms. KNIGHT: (Singing) Rich relations did. A crust of bread and such. You can help yourself, but don't take too much. Don't take it. Your momma may have. Oh, your daddy may have. But God bless the child that's got is own, that's got his own, yeah.
NORRIS: You know, but what I hear you sing God Bless the Child, that child doesn't seem so, quite so lonely.
Ms. KNIGHT: Yeah, I know. I know, but the point is still there, because it's the way that the world still is, you know. Them that's got shall get. You're mama may have. You got to get it for yourself, you know. They may have a house that you've lived in as you were growing up, but eventually you have to move out and get your own. And it takes something in order to be able to do that. You have to stand on your own knowledge, will and two feet. So get prepared to do that.
NORRIS: Before you actually went into a recording studio, you listened to the complete sets of all of these women whose songs you sing on this CD.
Ms. KNIGHT: I did.
NORRIS: Is there a moment for you when you recorded these songs are now on when you're on tour and you perform them where you hear Dinah or Sarah or Nina or Ella and it just sends you?
Ms. KNIGHT: I do, because I got a chance to hear all of them, and I can see them in my mind. When I perform, I actually go to places in my mind. If I'm saying the lovliness of Paris, you know, I have to be there in order to make you come there with me. They're not just songs, they're actually slices of life. And so I have to go there before I can take you on the trip with me.
(Soundbite of song, "But Not For Me")
NORRIS: Gladys Knight, it's been a pleasure to talk to you. Thanks so much for coming in.
Ms. KNIGHT: Thank you so much.
NORRIS: You can hear But Not For Me and other selections from Gladys Knight's new CD, Before Me, at our Web site, NPR.org
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