Gladys Knight puts smooth moves on music from the past

ON POPULAR MUSIC

September 28, 2006|By RASHOD D. OLLISON

The whirling shades of purple mesmerized me for hours.

As a child, one of my favorite pastimes was playing my stacks of 45s till Mama screamed, "Boy! Turn that music off." I had a cool record player -- one that looked like a jukebox with a plastic dome-like top and flashing lights in the center of its red rectangular base. Daddy gave his old records to me, so I was on a steady diet of Parliament, Marvin, Stevie, Aretha. The music was wonderful, of course. But I really loved to see the discs spin, especially the ones with the deep purple and lavender Soul label, a subsidiary of Motown. Those records -- "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," "If I Were Your Woman," "Neither One of Us" -- were by Gladys Knight and the Pips. I share the memory with Knight, and she lets loose a hearty laugh.

"Those labels were pretty, weren't they?" says the pop-soul legend, who's calling from her Las Vegas home. "When we signed to Motown and they put us on Soul, I told the Pips, `Look, the labels are so cute.'"

These days, Knight, 62, sounds as remarkable as she did more than 35 years ago when she and the Pips first released those million-selling classics. If anything, the Georgia native has gotten better. Those unmistakable grits-and-butter vocals are still intact but more seasoned. The rough edge with which she tore through early sides such as "Letter Full of Tears" (1964) and "The Nitty Gritty" (1969) has long been smoothed out.

On Before Me, her new album and debut for Verve Records in stores Tuesday, she couches that hallelujah voice in lush string arrangements. She belts over big-band horns.

Like several of her pop veteran peers, Knight is interpreting the Great American Songbook on her latest project. Pre-rock tunes such as "I'll Be Seeing You," "Someone to Watch Over Me" and "The Man I Love" receive her down-home treatment.

"The standards, it's not just something I'm doing because everybody else is doing it," she says. "Everybody is doing it because the music is pure."

Stuck-up jazz purists may balk at the idea of a soul shouter such as Knight tackling the Gershwins and Duke Ellington. But they really need to get over themselves. Sure, she's no Sarah Vaughan. (And guess what? There will never be another one.) Knight doesn't improvise the melody and she only scats a little on "But Not For Me." Digging into the story of the lyrics, infusing the melodic tales with the bone-deep blues-and-gospel feeling that has always resonated in her work, is what she does best. The singer never resorts to histrionics. Even if the arrangements (overseen by celebrated producers Tommy LiPuma and Phil Ramone) are occasionally pedestrian and predictable, Knight interprets all 12 selections with refinement, intelligence and enough soul to wrap up and store for later.

"I've been living with this music all my life," she says. "I always chose my songs for the lyrical content anyway. These songs will never die. ... There was no need to over-execute. Like with `The Man I Love,' I could just close my eyes and, [crooning the first line] `Some day he'll come along/The man I love/And he'll be big and strong/The man I love. ... I got to believe the song. If I don't, I can't make you believe in it."

Please! I have always believed anything Knight has sung. She and Aretha are the only two vocalists who have actually brought me -- crabby, salty, no-nonsense Rashod -- to tears, weeping like a big ol' baby.

"I think this album is an honest representation of me," says Knight, who was the featured vocalist in her Atlanta high school jazz band. "You know, we sometimes forget our music history. And I wanted people to know about this music that came before me. It has always been with me."

Though no immediate plans have been made, the soul diva says she wants to tour behind Before Me. She is seldom away from the stage these days; she regularly plays spot dates around the world. Last November, Knight ended a three-year, five-shows-per-week revue at Las Vegas' Flamingo Hotel.

"I guess people have a certain image of me," she says. "As far as my fans are concerned, they're worried about if what I'm doing is what they've always expected from me. But one of my pet peeves is being pigeonholed. I'm always myself in what I sing. I'm always honest. That's what matters."

rashod.ollison@baltsun.com

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