How did Motown legend and Grammy Award–winner Gladys Knight become a Latter-day Saint? And how has joining the Church affected her fame? Here's the inside scoop.
Gladys Knight’s spiritual journey began when she was 2 years old.
“We had an old banged up piano in the hall,” she recalls. “I remember even that far back having our own family home evening, if you will. My mom and dad used to play the piano and sing and tell Bible stories. As I grew, I started wanting more and more of that. Christ really became that person that I longed for. I wanted to be good for Him.”
That little girl from Georgia would have to wait decades before finding the fulness of the gospel, but that didn’t stop her from letting her light shine and sharing her talents in the meantime.
Gladys began singing at age four, and at just seven years old had her first taste of fame when she won Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour TV show contest in 1952. The next year, she, her sister Brenda, her brother Merald, and cousins Eleanor and William Guest formed a musical group called the Pips—named after her cousin, James “Pip” Woods.
The Train to Fame
Brenda and Eleanor were eventually replaced with cousin Edward Patten and friend Langston George, and the group went on their first national tour when Gladys was 11 years old. In 1966, Gladys Knight & the Pips signed with Motown Records, where despite Gladys’s powerful voice and the Pips’ smooth vocals and impressive dance moves, they were still considered a second-class act. They soon exceeded expectations, however, with the release of several hit singles, including “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” “Friendship Train,” and “I Don’t Want to Do Wrong.”
The act signed with Buddah Records in 1973 and achieved a new level of success with the R&B chart topper and Grammy-winning “Midnight Train to Georgia,” as well as “I’ve Got to Use My Imagination,” and “You’re the Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me.”
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Though Gladys achieved fame at a young age, she didn’t fall victim to the vices that often come with it. “We took the Spirit with us,” she says. “We stood out from everybody else. I didn’t do drugs, and I didn’t drink. Everyone began to expect me to be different.”
But there were times when the expectations became too much, and she didn’t want to perform anymore. “I wanted to be like the rest of the teens,” she recalls. “I didn’t want to sing. But I realized that my voice is my gift from God, and I have an obligation to use it. God chose me for this, and I needed to stop fighting it.”
So she continues to share her music to this day. The Pips retired in 1988, and Gladys has enjoyed a successful solo career ever since.
Seeking the Lord
Gladys’s faith in God has been a driving force throughout her life, and her thirst for light and knowledge, along with the example of her children, helped prepare her to accept the gospel.
“I raised my children to seek the Lord. We had been searching for the best of the Lord, the most of the Lord,” she recalls. “My son Jimmy and his wife were the first to join the Church, after his best friend shared his testimony. Then my daughter, Kenya, joined the Church. I watched their lives grow, and to see how my grandchildren were being raised and what they knew really impressed me.”
At her daughter’s invitation, Gladys began attending Relief Society. “After a while, Kenya told me, ‘Mom, it’s time for you to talk to the missionaries.’” And so she did.
“When the missionaries came to my house, we had the most beautiful prayer,” Gladys recalls. “I loved the fact that when they came in they did not try to sell me on the Church—they just told me about the gospel. My mom, who I consider to be the most spiritual woman I’ve ever met, wasn’t a member, but she said, ‘You go.’ Those were basically her last words.”
Gladys joined the Church in 1997 and was baptized by her son Jimmy. “I feel so blessed because my son held the priesthood and was able to baptize me,” she says. “It is such a precious thing to me. I was overjoyed.”
Years after divorcing, Gladys married longtime friend William McDowell in 2001, and he joined the Church the following year. “He is such an awesome man,” she says. “He has a sense of the Lord like no one else who has ever been in my life. He gets it.”
Race and Religion
Since becoming a Latter-day Saint, Gladys has boldly shared her beliefs despite being met with some surprise and skepticism from the black community.
“It didn’t affect my career,” she says of her baptism. “People pretty much expect me to walk my own road, and I’ve never regretted it once. But some people questioned why I joined this church, considering its history with blacks.”
She explains, “I lived through segregation. I love my brothers and sisters of color and respect all we have been through, but we have to stop judging what others look like. The more you get into the gospel, the more you can get rid of that.” She adds, “Now it’s time for people of color to come to His church. It’s just our time.”
However, being a black Southern convert had its challenges, especially when it came to Church culture. “We were the only African American people in our ward for years,” Gladys says. “The culture has been so European for so long, the music reflects it, the way Latter-day Saints react to things is very reserved. African Americans need fire in our bones—music that puts us on our feet or on our knees. To transform to the European way is one of the greatest obstacles to coming to this church.” But, she says, “I feel like I am in the right place and I’m loving it.”
Testimony Through Music
Gladys’s desire to add “a little something” to Church music eventually inspired her to create an all-volunteer, multicultural Latter-day Saint choir that would bring a new level of energy and cultural awareness to traditional hymns.
The choir, called the Saints Unified Voices, is comprised of more than 100 people and has a two-fold purpose. First, they aim to spread the message of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ by providing an opportunity for people who wouldn’t otherwise enter a Latter-day Saint meetinghouse to feel the Spirit. Second, they desire to help members of the Church embrace the cultural diversity of people worldwide coming into the Lord’s kingdom. “Never in a million years did I ever dream that I would be the director of a choir like this—one that showcases the energy, the fire, and the heart of the music of our culture,” she says.
The idea to create a choir first came to Gladys when she was invited to speak at the 2002 Women’s Conference at BYU. She wanted to include music in her presentation, so she organized a small ensemble of young women to sing with her. Soon Gladys was asked to organize a choir for a stake missionary fireside. She agreed, and the Saints Unified Voices was born.
“I held auditions, I prayed about it, and the answer I got was, ‘Take them all,’” she recalls.
But teaching a volunteer choir to perform wasn’t as easy as Gladys hoped it would be. “Most of these wonderful people had never sung gospel music before,” she says. To help Gladys raise the performance level of the choir, she turned to some of her show’s professional crewmembers at the Flamingo Hotel on the Las Vegas Strip, where she was performing on a regular basis. They happily agreed, even though they were not members of the Church.
After each of Gladys’s shows at the Flamingo, she worked with her trusted musicians to create gospel-type arrangements of hymns for the choir to perform. Traditional favorites such as “Come, Come, Ye Saints” and “Because I Have Been Given Much” were transformed into the kind of toe-tapping, soul-stirring numbers Gladys had been longing for.
“I choose all of the choir’s songs for their basic messages,” she says. “I fell in love with ‘I’m a Child of God’ when I sang it at my granddaughter’s baptism long before I joined the Church. I heard the message in it even then. And adding African influence to ‘Come, Come, Ye Saints’ was my way of honoring the wonderful pioneers of Africa.”
Gladys Knight & the Saints Unified Voices performed at their first fireside at the Las Vegas Green Valley stake center on Sunday, August 11, 2002—the five-year anniversary of Gladys’s baptism. Since that first fireside, the choir has been in high demand. Though they remain a volunteer choir, they travel all over the world to share the gospel message in an energetic, soulful way. Gladys Knight & the Saints Unified Voices have even released two albums. Their first, One Voice, won a 2005 Grammy Award for Best Gospel Choir or Chorus Album.
“After we won the Grammy, I had the opportunity to present it to President Hinckley. I wanted it to go straight to Church headquarters because I didn’t want my choir members getting big-headed,” Gladys laughs.
Soon after winning the Grammy, the choir released a Christmas album titled A Christmas Celebration, and Gladys hopes to record another album with the choir in the future.
“The choir members are here because of their testimonies and their desires to serve the Lord,” she says. “They’re not perfect, but they’ve got the vision and understanding of our calling as a missionary effort, and they are dedicated to the work.” She adds, “Our congregations are filled with a growing diversity of people from different races and cultures. I look forward to the day when we embrace their music without feeling uncomfortable.”
Continuing Her Mission
In addition to her continued work with the Saints Unified Voices, Gladys recently completed a solo album titled Where My Heart Belongs, which is a heartfelt mix of gospel and inspirational songs. “This is my testimony,” she says of the album. “I wanted to remind people of Christ and what He’s done for us. We need to be reminded all the time of His grace, His mercy, His love, and the way back home.”
So how long will Gladys continue to share her testimony through music? “The Lord will tell me when to sit down—I strongly believe that. I’ll feel it and sense it in my soul.”
Until then, Gladys continues to share her talents and testimony with the world. “I pray every time I go on stage—not to be famous, not to get a standing ovation, but for people to see my light and to know that I am a child of God,” she says. “They may not know what moves them in that concert, but I would like to say it’s a little bit of the Spirit. I know this gift from God is a platform from which I am to share His gospel.”
She adds, “I’m just using what the Lord gave me. I know I’m not perfect, but I’m striving to be what He wants me to be.”
The great ones endure, and Gladys Knight has long been one of the greatest. Very few singers over the last fifty years have matched her unassailable artistry. This seven-time Grammy Award-winner has earned number one hits in Pop, R&B, and Adult Contemporary, and has triumphed in film, television, and live performance.
She returns in 2014 with an album that showcases her unmatched vocal ability on an enchanting mix of gospel and inspirational songs that are dear to her heart. She has said that faith in God has been the driving force behind all of her endeavors, guiding her through her many successes. On this gorgeous masterwork, she sings the songs of her heart like no one else can.