Gladys Knight: The Uncontested Empress of Soul Thoughts+Photos: Gladys Knight at The Hollywood Bowl 8/16/23
LOS ANGELES, CA- When we talk about the true royalty of soul music, there’s no denying that Gladys Knight stands atop her own pedestal, hailed as the Empress of Soul. But what is it that makes Gladys so imperial in the chronicles of modern music history?
For starters, Gladys, with her indomitable voice, has been cutting through the heartbeats of generations since the early days of Motown. The sheer power of her voice, combined with an uncanny ability to convey a broad range of emotions, has set her apart. When Gladys sings, you don’t just hear her; you *feel* her. Whether she’s delivering the tender lines of “Midnight Train to Georgia” or the empowering chants of “I’ve Got to Use My Imagination,” she turns every tune into a soulful odyssey.
It wasn’t just the power of her vocals but also her perseverance in a male-dominated industry that forged her empress status. Fronting Gladys Knight & The Pips, she showcased that soul wasn’t confined to solo acts. They became one of Motown’s most versatile and dynamic groups, blending R&B, gospel, and pop seamlessly.
Furthermore, Knight’s significance in the modern music tapestry extends beyond her singing prowess. She symbolised the changing era of the ’60s and ’70s, breaking racial barriers and setting the stage for future R&B artists. While she was soulful, she wasn’t limited by the genre; instead, she reinvented and redefined it.
While I’ve been listening to her music for years, I had never seen her perform live. When the opportunity arose to see her at the Hollywood Bowl came up, I simply had to take the opportunity.
The Hollywood air was filled not just with notes, but with memories. Peabo Bryson, the romantic balladeer whose voice soundtracked many a stolen moment in our youth, took to the stage, transporting us back to days of mixtapes and youthful yearnings.
From the moment Bryson launched into “Reaching for the Sky”, it was evident that the night would be more than just a musical performance; it was to be a temporal journey. As the dulcet strains of “If Ever You’re in My Arms Again” wafted across the Bowl, one couldn’t help but travel back to teenage evenings, yearning for lost loves and missed chances.
It was “A Whole New World” and “Beauty and the Beast” that truly sent shivers down the spine. For many, including myself, these tracks were the quintessential mixtape gifts to school crushes, emblematic of an age where love was expressed through carefully curated song choices. The collective sigh and the soft hum-along from the audience confirmed that many had boarded Bryson’s magic carpet ride to yesteryears.
“King of Sorrow” and “Ain’t Nobody” ensured that the night wasn’t solely about ballads. They added a groove that had many dancing, blending the wistfulness with vibrant energy.
Peabo Bryson did more than sing that evening. He conjured the past, reminding everyone of the fervour of first loves and the innocent allure of handwritten tracklists. In a world of digital playlists, this night was a heartfelt nod to the tactile intimacy of a mixtape. Cheers, Peabo, for the memories.
And then is was time for the Empress of Soul. the Hollywood Bowl bore witness to a legend in her element. Gladys Knight, the irrefutable Empress of Soul, graced the stage, and what transpired was nothing short of magical.
The 75-minute journey she took us on was not merely a setlist—it was an odyssey of emotions, a tribute to her legacy, and a testament to the timeless resonance of soul music. Opening with “Taste of Bitter Love”, Gladys proved that age is but a number. Her voice, still imbued with that quintessential power and warmth, reverberated across the Bowl, holding the audience captive.
While classics like “Every Beat of My Heart” and “If I Were Your Woman” were expectedly met with overwhelming nostalgia, it was the moments in between that truly set the evening apart. The spontaneous interjections of “I Love You” from random pockets of the crowd, each met with Gladys’s heartfelt “I love you too. I hear you”, underscored the deep connection she has fostered with her fans over the decades.
Delving into “Nitty Gritty” and “Happy Home”, Gladys showcased her ability to traverse genres and moods seamlessly. But perhaps, the night’s most captivating surprise was her rendition of The Beatles’ “Hey Jude”, a poignant reminder that great music knows no boundaries.
Closing the night with “Midnight Train to Georgia”, Gladys ensured everyone boarded her train, bound for a land where soul reigns supreme. The applause was deafening, but amidst the cacophony, one thing was clear: the Empress had not just performed; she’d held court.
And as the show came to a close the lingering notes seemed to whisper a promise – the legacy of Gladys Knight is immortal, and in the annals of music history, she remains peerless. In an age that’s often obsessed with the next big thing, it’s imperative to recognise the stalwarts who laid the foundation for modern sounds. And in the vast landscape of soul, Gladys Knight reigns as the Empress not just because of her haunting voice, but for her indelible mark on music’s history, her resilience in the industry, and her ability to make every song resonate with the very soul of the listener. For those in the know, the throne will always belong to Gladys. Long may she reign.