Getting Gladys Knight to do an interview isn’t easy. She’s done thousands in her 60 years of life, and talking about herself got old a long time ago. But now with her newfound love for Utah and religion, she is starting to talk again — mostly through music, but we managed to get a few words out of her, too.
By Editor Jeanette Bennett
Gladys’ newest musical endeavor is “Saints Unified Voices,” which is a group of LDS members backing up this former top-of-the-charts, bigger-than-life singer. At least three of her choir members are from Utah County. Excel Entertainment (recently acquired by Deseret Book) is releasing the religious album this month.
When Gladys and I hung out before her performance in Utah recently, she plopped her bare feet up on the couch. I would have, too, if I hadn’t been wearing a skirt. Here’s a portion of our lighthearted chat on the comfy green couch in the basement of the Sandy Amphitheater.
UV: Have you noticed that Utah has adopted you?
Gladys: You think so? I definitely feel at home here.
UV: What do you love about Utah?
Gladys: The basic spirit. It’s clean. I know quite a few people here now. And my favorite guy lives here.
UV: And he is …
Gladys: President Hinckley. I consider him a special friend.
UV: Do you see him often?
Gladys: My husband and I met with him this morning. He looked better today than I’ve seen him. His spirit was bright. He was smiling and laughing. He has that rye sense of humor. He’ll say, “Gladys, are you still singing?” He is funny.
UV: You joined the LDS Church seven years ago, didn’t you?
Gladys: Yes, on August 11th. And they told me I had to wait a year before I went to the temple. So I went exactly a year to the date. I couldn’t wait any longer.
UV: Do you get asked to sing in church?
Gladys: Yes, I do. But just as the rest of my brothers and sisters do. I’m glad they ask me to perform. I wouldn’t want it any other way. I’m just one of the brothers and sisters in my ward, and they love me for me — not just because of my singing.
UV: Do you hold a calling in your ward?
Gladys: My calling is as a worldwide missionary, and I try to do that to the best of my ability. I’m so blessed with this Saints Unified Voices project. We want to take our music out and fulfill our calling to spread this good music. I know that at some point my traditional career will be retired and I will just sing religious music. I cannot wait.
UV: What is it like to go to church with you?
Gladys: I often have 12 grandkids with me. I think it is important for them to witness the worship ceremony. I want them to see me enraptured and attentive. I used to give my testimony every first Sunday. And I would tell the congregation, “You are taking this for granted. All you do is rub backs all day long and you are not hearing a word the speakers are saying.” I tell people they don’t know what they’ve got. I’ve been everywhere looking for this church, and they just complacently come here. At least they come, that’s the main thing. But if He doesn’t have your attention and your heart … These are average people giving their testimonies. They are not motivational speakers. I’ve learned that being in this church doesn’t mean you are perfect. You come here to be perfected.
UV: Do ward members get nervous to sing in front of you?
Gladys: I’m afraid they do, but it is not necessary. Even my choir members get nervous to audition, and then they start making excuses. I say, “Don’t one more person come here and tell me they’ve got a cold today.”
UV: How would you describe your interaction with your choir?
Gladys: I beat my choir up pretty bad. But the truth is they have taught me as much as I’ve taught them. I’m a stickler. I’m accustomed to hard work, so I expect that of others. I’ve always been used to a professional situation. But with this choir, people get their feelings hurt. When we started I would say things like, “We are going to stop if you don’t hit the note.” But I began to understand that these are just volunteers. But for the Lord, I cannot settle for less than perfection.
UV: Has your expanded belief system given you more to sing about?
Gladys: Absolutely, but I’ve always had a lot to sing about. But now I’ve found the answer to my questions that I had for all those years. Before I joined the church, I sometimes deviated from what I knew to be true. I wasn’t happy with it, and I kept thinking that I need to get back to my quest to find out what was missing. I kept looking for answers. I knew about how Jesus was born and had a ministry and then he came up from the grave. But then what? I wanted to know more.
UV: So how did you come in contact with the LDS Church?
Gladys: I talked to my daughter, Kenya, and she sent me to the missionaries. Bingo. I knew it was true. My daughter had been in the church for awhile, and I used to marvel at the changes they made in their lives. I always supported my kids in the church, and I’d be there for Family Home Evenings.
UV: Do friends in your professional circles ask you about the church?
Gladys: They are starting to ask me. I sat up all night and talked to Toni Braxton. She came in my dressing room and began asking questions. She knew my son, Jimmy, who passed away. I told her that he left a legacy with us. He used to say, “Mom, do you know who Adam is?” I’d say, “Don’t be messing with me.” Nobody likes to feel like someone else knows more than they do. I thought I had it all, but then I learned so much more. And I love sharing it with others. Toni wanted to know where she could get signed up.
UV: Do you include gospel music in your Las Vegas show?
Gladys: I sing a gospel medley in my show. I don’t want the Lord to deny me ever. I want to always be somewhere where I can call his name and sing praises to him if I want to. Some have said I shouldn’t sing the gospel medley, but I say they came to see me, and this is who I am.
UV: Sometimes when I see people like you working so hard decade after decade, I wonder what motivates you to keep up this pace. It can’t be about the money anymore.
Gladys: I would be lying if I said it wasn’t about the security that it provides. But I see my music as using my gift as a thank you. If you don’t use your gifts, He’ll take them from you. I’m magnifying it for Him. I never said I wanted to sing. I started singing at age 2 and had my first concert at age 4. But I never said, “You know Mom and Dad, I really want to sing.” But I can remember a time when I didn’t want to sing.
UV: What makes you nervous?
Gladys: I wouldn’t say performing makes me nervous, but it does make me tense. I am especially tense if my voice isn’t up to par. I never like to do anything subpar.
UV: Do you have pre-performance rituals?
Gladys: I always pray right before I go on stage and right after I come off. I don’t do some of the things I see other performers do — like warming up. Singers go around, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah. I think, “What are they doing?” Some say drink cold water, some say drink hot water. Some say lemon and honey; others say avoid lemon because it has acid. Everyone has a theory.
UV: How do you explain that you still have a performing career when so many from your era are long gone?
Gladys: Whenever the curtain goes up and there’s a room full of people, I’m in awe. I am always grateful when I can touch somebody with my music. It’s such a challenge to take this gift and send it out to someone who is needing to be touched. I love to feel the spirit rise in the room. It is a tangible connection.
UV: What kind of grandma are you?
Gladys: I am attentive and concerned. I can be firm about things I know to be good for them. William and I are like buffers between our grandkids and their parents. What they miss, we try to catch. We don’t have mediocre kids. They are all very strong willed for some reason. One granddaughter is a lot like me. She loves entertaining, and she’s an extraordinary dancer. My mom always wanted to keep us busy, and that is why she promoted the singing. My sister was a brain, so my mom encouraged her in academics. We picked up on that philosophy for our kids. First, they have to do their homework. But they also work hard in other areas. One of my granddaughters has been in gymnastics since she was 3. The Olympic team wanted to take her to Texas for training. I said, “No, we’ve got things we need to teach her.”
UV: What CDs would I find in your car?
Gladys: Saints Unified Voices. The car is my time to study the projects I’m involved in. I do so much music in my life that I don’t enjoy listening to the radio. If it weren’t for my husband, there wouldn’t be any music in my home.
UV: When does your day begin?
Gladys: The phone starts ringing at 5:30 in the morning and it’s all day long. People think, “It must be nice to only work an hour and a half.” But it’s an all-day process working up to that hour and a half. It is life consuming.
UV: Do you watch TV?
Gladys: My husband tries to follow four shows at once, so I just don’t watch TV anymore. Does your husband do that?
UV: Yes, I’ll just get interested in a show and he’ll change the channel.
Gladys: Yeah! It must be a man thing.
UV: What do you do to relax?
Gladys: I’m able to be alone in a crowd of people. I get a box around me to give me a little bit of space. I play computer games. I have the ability to do one thing and my mind does something else.
UV: Is there something you take with you everywhere?
Gladys: My computer. They call it “my lung.” But I like to play games on it. I’ve got to have something trivial because so much of my life is analytical.
UV: What games do you play?
Gladys: Bridge, Hearts or Spades.
UV: Do you have a pet peeve?
Gladys: We spend a lot of money getting promotional pictures done. Then people want to snap a picture with a 92 cent camera so they can show their friends, and they catch me with my mouth open and looking funny. I’m comfortable with who I am, and I feel like I’m OK if I’m not done up. But I know you need for me to have on makeup and look great. My other pet peeve is critics. I think critics should be required to see a show at least twice before they write a review. No two shows are alike. We had one critic come one night to our Vegas show when we had many technical difficulties: our drummer was out, the microphones were blown and I was sick. He gave us a “C” rating, and we’d had an “A” rating the whole three years we’d been there. I’m meticulous on the quality of my show.
UV: Do you get asked for autographs a lot?
Gladys: Yes, and it’s usually the loud talkers. They yell across the room, “Are you Gladys Knight?” I say, “Yes, I am.” They yell to a friend, “Look, it’s Gladys Knight.” And they say, “I’ve got to have your autograph. My friends will never believe I saw you.” And I say, “Why? Are you consistently lying to them? Why wouldn’t they believe you?”
UV: Do you have a favorite sound?
Gladys: My favorite is peace and quiet. My business is noisy, so I like the sound of me and William sitting together at night. When I come home, he has dinner cooked.
UV: What is your favorite smell?
Gladys: Our house smells like a spa with oils and incense. Every house has a personality. I think our house is a welcoming house.
UV: What is your favorite thing to do?
Gladys: I love to just kick back with my husband. We don’t have enough time together, and we like each other’s company, which is unusual for married people.
UV: Take me through your mind as you perform.
Gladys: When the first note hits, I am thinking that I need to get far enough down on stage so I can walk up the steps. I also sense the audience. No two audiences are the same. Sometimes you know it’s going to be a chore tonight. Or sometimes you think this is going to be fun tonight. You assess the audience and figure out how to play to that. I always find somebody to look at. The first three rows are the most important because that’s what I play off of. I look for a face and if I see someone smiling, I key in on that and zap some of their energy.
UV: You seem to have plenty of energy for music and life. I better let you finish getting ready for your performance.
Gladys: It’s probably that time, isn’t it.
• Born May 28, 1944
• Two kids
• Named to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996
• Grammy award for Best Traditional R&B Vocal Album
• Performs nightly at the Flamingo in Las Vegas
• Newest CD is ‘One Voice’ with Saints Unified Voices
• Guest judge on ‘American Idol
3 Utah County singers travel to Vegas to rehearse with Gladys’ Choir
Although Gladys Knight makes a living doing her nightly show in Las Vegas, she makes her life by overseeing a choir of volunteers called “Saints Unified Voices.” This two-year-old choir is releasing a CD this month called “One Voice.”
Three of the choir members live in Utah Valley but commute to Las Vegas for regular practices and quarterly firesides, where they share their testimonies through song and word. Afterward, copies of the Book of Mormon are often given out to eager listeners.
Tema Hunkin lived in Gladys’ LDS stake in Las Vegas until one year ago, when she moved to Provo to work for the LDS Foundation at BYU-Hawaii out of Provo.
“A friend of mine told me they were looking for minorities to be in the choir, and I’m a big fan of hers so I went to the audition,” Tema says.
Tema made the choir and loves learning from this master musician.
“I’m overwhelmed at rehearsal when I realize what a huge star she is — and then to hear her testimony is such a blessing,” Tema says. “But she is a professional, and she is tough. She teaches us things we should be paying big money for.”
Utah Valley’s Aaron Campbell decided to be part of the choir after going to a performance two years ago.
“I thought that was the coolest church music I’d ever heard,” he says.
He found out when the next audition was and warmed up his voice.
“I knew I’d have to sing in front of Gladys, and she’d either like it or she wouldn’t,” he says. “She’s the ultimate perfectionist.”
Gladys tells her choir they have to “feel the music” so the audience can feel the message.
“People come out of our performances with goosebumps,” Aaron says. “And they know it’s not an all-white church.”
Kelly Eisenhour, a music professor at BYU, is also part of the choir. She sings “He Shines On Me,” a song she co-wrote, on the new CD.
For more information about Saints Unified Voices, you can visit their Web at www.saintsunifiedvoices.org