MUSIC: Happy Birthdays, Patti LaBelle and Gladys Knight! GBN Celebrates Two Soul Legends On Their 80th

by Jeff Meier (FB: Jeff.Meier.90)

Here at Good Black News, we’ve decided to have some fun and make up a new holiday.

With Patti LaBelle (born May 24th) and her good friend and Gemini sister Gladys Knight (born May 28th) both turning 80 over this long weekend, we’re thinking the perfect date is May 26th.

In much the same way that George Washington and Abraham Lincoln’s birthdays were lumped together to create President’s Day in February, we’re launching… Legendary Divas Day!

Certainly, Divas need their own day.

May 26th splits the difference between Patti’s and Gladys’ birthdates and gives us a perfect reason to share a great diva playlist every Memorial Day weekend (future Legendary Diva Days can be celebrated the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend).

LaBelle and Knight are two iconic singers who hold a special place in our collective hearts – they have provided the soundtracks to the lives of multiple generations of fans, with bodies of work to prove it.

But for our world today, they are more than just singers – they are an entire community’s beloved aunties and grandmas. They keep it fun and current by going on shows like “Dancing with the Stars” and “The Masked Singer” (Gladys was robbed on that first season, I tell you), and with cookbooks and Wal-Mart pies. They take care of us just through their being.

To honor their birthdays this weekend, GBN has put together a playlist comprising not 80 songs, but 180 songs that bounce back and forth between Gladys and Patti!

We journey through their 60+ year recording careers with the hits, the duets, the deep cuts, the standards and the spirit.

To be completely transparent, we took the bones of this playlist from a prior one we shared around the time of Gladys’ and Patti’s Verzuz song battle program during the pandemic – and we’ve dramatically expanded it to its new form.

Ironically, this writer first noticed Patti LaBelle not from her voice, but from her album cover. As a teenager growing up in Patti’s beloved Philly metro area, the dramatic photo angle and white hat on the cover shot of her lesser-known 1980 album “Released” sparked the curiosity of this young record collector – and ultimately led to lifelong fandom.

I was blown away in the early ’80s by Patti’s radical, soaring transformation of “Over the Rainbow” from the movie “The Wizard of Oz.” Still early in my musical listening, I hadn’t heard such radical transformations of famous songs before. (Ironically, Patti’s now been singing “Over the Rainbow” for nearly 60 years, far longer than Judy Garland got to sing it).

I was even more blown away by her 1985 NBC Thanksgiving night special, where she and Cyndi Lauper twisted and turned through Cyndi’s “Time After Time” to create something I still can’t believe I saw on network primetime TV (YouTube link here).

But by the time Patti’s solo career finally blossomed in the late ’80s with “On My Own” and “New Attitude,” I was really exploring her career from the ’70s in the pioneering funk rock trio Labelle, where she performed alongside Sarah Dash and Nona Hendryx.

A radical reinvention of their ’60s girl group days as the Bluebelles, Labelle was truly one of a kind – strong Black women performing a funk rock fusion in space outfits (designed by Larry Legaspi, who would later design the outfits for the rock group Kiss).

They opened for The Who, performed covers of songs by The Rolling Stones, Carole King and Cat Stevens, made the cover of Rolling Stone (post “Lady Marmalade” fame), and dropped from the ceilings in a legendary performance at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. In addition to those transformative Labelle cover versions, they also performed many songs written by Hendryx herself – very unusual for female soul singers at the time.

And although Patti most often sang lead, they achieved their signature harmonies by doing something none of the other female groups did – setting their microphone levels equally so all three singers were at the same volume level. Nona, Sarah and Patti were all great – this was the rare girl group where all three members would go on to release multiple solo LPs.

[Sidenote: Dear readers, while you’re helping us establish Legendary Divas Day, can we also enlist your help in lobbying the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to admit the pioneering group Labelle?]

You can hear songs from both the Bluebelles and Labelle era in our playlist, alongside all your favorite tracks from Patti’s middle-aged mom chart heyday well into the ’90s and beyond.

I don’t remember my first experience of Gladys Knight – other than “Midnight Train To Georgia” being one of my mother’s (and every ’70s mother’s) favorite songs. But I do clearly remember a later Gladys Knight experience. She was performing on a double bill with another younger legend at the Hollywood Bowl a couple decades ago. Although Gladys was the closer, it seemed clear from the energy of the crowd that they were there largely to see the other performer, who had both more recent hits and buzz.

Unfortunately, the other performer was having a listless, off-key night, leaving the audience restless. Many were leaving the concert early, disappointed. That is, until Gladys took the stage. Even though she was already a living legend, already in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, already had a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the audience had underestimated Gladys, taken her for granted. But from the opening notes, the whole crowd breathed a collective sigh of relief. Like they had slipped into their favorite jeans.

It wasn’t just the sumptuous voice on those brain-implanted hits from Motown to “Midnight Train to Georgia,” but Gladys was also a consummate storyteller, warm and funny. She made the 17,000 seat Bowl feel intimate, as if everything she was saying was just a conversation she was having with us for the first time. She reminded me that it’s not just a great vocal range that makes a masterful entertainer. She had the additional gifts of charisma and warmth, and of course, she had done the work.

Gladys has been entertaining ever since she won the “Ted Mack Amateur Hour” in the early ’50s at the age of 7 years old (yes, she was the original Kelly Clarkson!). And she’s been doing it ever since. And she also lived and worked for decades in Las Vegas, where concert crowds are often not fans, but just a random mix of vacationers, convention attendees and high rollers.

After mastering those super tough crowds, this Hollywood Bowl audience was no problem for Gladys. By that point, I was already a Gladys Knight fan, but that show supercharged my appreciation.

This playlist features nearly every Gladys R&B Top 30 hit, from both her Gladys Knight and the Pips era (the Pips comprised of brother Bubba Knight and cousins William Guest and Edward Patten) and her later solo era. There were dozens – and the songs from that 1970-1974 Pips golden era across both Motown and Buddah labels (13 R&B Top 10s inside of 4 years) still sound fresh and amazing.

As I’ve explored Gladys Knight (and the Pips) further, I’ve continued to marvel at how she’s able to turn almost any song into something magical. Many Motown albums of that era were still just comprised of a couple singles plus filler – some of them covers of fellow Motown acts; others, covers of pop hits of the day.

But Gladys can turn anything special, from James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain” to Smokey Robinson’s “Tracks of My Tears” to The Beatles’ “Let It Be.” They could have been hits, too. It’s that same passionate delivery that made Knight’s version of Sia’s “Chandelier,” while dressed in a bee costume on “The Masked Singer” something I repeatedly call up on YouTube even today.

We’ve kicked off the list with arguably each of their most iconic hits – Gladys & The Pips’ “Midnight Train to Georgia” and Labelle’s “Lady Marmalade,” released in late 1973 and late 1974 respectively – both celebrating 50 years of hit-dom. Then the playlist volleys back and forth from Patti to Gladys trying to link songs that may have something in common – either their era or musical style.

Both Labelle and Knight had early ’60s vocal group eras and later eras where they did standards albums, gospel albums, live albums, even James Bond songs. But while Patti and Gladys have many career parallels, there are certainly many differences as well.  So sometimes we move from one song to another just because we thought it sounded good.

Please feel free to use this playlist however you want to show appreciation for Patti Labelle and Gladys Knight – copy and edit it into your own list of favorites, put it on random shuffle, or hit play.

And if you are listening to the playlist this weekend, on National Legendary Divas Day, please take a second to wish a nice ‘Happy Birthday to Ya’ to Ms. Patti Labelle and Ms. Gladys Knight, Legendary Divas Forever.

 

Happy 80, Ladies!