All in the Family: The Origins of Gladys Knight & the Pips

Gladys Knight & the Pips have a broken record player to thank for taking them from being a talent show act to global superstars. Originating in their hometown of Atlanta, Georgia, in the 1950s, the family band had a steady climb to success and took the world by storm with such hits as “Midnight Train to Georgia” and “I Heard it Through the Grapevine.” Below, we look at the history of Gladys Knight & the Pips.

Videos by American Songwriter

The Origin Story

The family band led by Gladys Knight was comprised of her brother Bubba Knight, sister Brenda Knight and their cousins Eleanor and William Guest. Knight first stepped into the spotlight at the age of eight when she won Ted Mack’s TV and radio talent show, Original Amateur Hour, in 1952. The same year, the Pips made their unofficial debut at Bubba’s 10th birthday party. When the record player suddenly broke, the quintet provided the entertainment for the remainder of the party. Seeing the potential in her children, niece and nephew, Gladys and Bubba’s mother, Elizabeth Knight, urged them to become a group. They landed on the name The Pips, in honor of their cousin James Wood who went by the nickname “Pip.”

From there, the family band started consistently winning talent shows throughout their hometown of Atlanta, their talent catching the attention of Brunswick Records where they were signed in 1957. By 1959, the group was dropped from the label after failing to chart any singles. That same year, Brenda and Eleanor left the group and were replaced by cousin Edward Patten and Langston George in 1959.

The Pips had their first breakthrough when they independently released a cover of Johnny Otis’ “Every Beat of My Heart” in 1961. This landed them a distribution deal with Vee-Jay Records via Atlanta label Huntom Records and got them signed to Fury Records. “Every Beat” marked the Pips’ first song to hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart and their first top 10 on the all-genre Billboard Hot 100.

After releasing several singles on Fury Records, the group hit a few bumps in the road when Gladys left in 1962 to start a family with then-husband Jimmy Newman and George also left the band. Gladys later reunited with the band and they got their big break when they signed with Motown Records in 1966. They released eight albums while under Motown, all of which hit the top 15 on the Billboard Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart. The hits they recorded while on Motown include “I Heard it Through the Grapevine,” “If I Were Your Woman,” “Everybody Needs Love,” “The End of Our Road” and “It Should Have Been Me.”

They remained with Motown until 1973 when they signed with Buddah Records and also had a string of hits with “Midnight Train to Georgia,” “I’ve Got to Use My Imagination,” “Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me,” “I Feel a Song in My Heart” and many others. Gladys Knight & the Pips disbanded in 1989 after their final tour, as Knight was set to embark on a solo career.

Though they’ve been separated for more than 30 years, the legacy of Gladys Knight & the Pips lives on today. Throughout their career, they were the recipients of three Grammy Awards and were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1996 and the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2001.

Photo by Jo Hale/Redferns

Leave a Reply

amps under 500

10 Best Guitar Amps Under $500 of 2024