GLADYS KNIGHT AND THE PIPS-IMAGINATION.

GLADYS KNIGHT AND THE PIPS-IMAGINATION.

In 1973, it came as no surprise that Gladys Knight and The Pips decided leave Motown. After all, Gladys Knight had been forced to live in the shadow of Diana Ross. To onlookers. Diana Ross was Motown’s chosen one, while Gladys Knight had to settle for second best. So after six years at Motown, Gladys Knight and The Pips decided it was time to step out of the shadows. Rather than play a supporting role at Motown, Gladys Knight and The Pips would play a starring role at Buddah Records. They were an ambitious label, who were building up a roster of heavyweight artists. Gladys Knight and The Pips debut album for Buddah Records was Imagination, released in October 1973. So, Imagination, was the start of the next chapter in Gladys Knight and The Pips career. Not only would Imagination prove to be a new start for Gladys Knight and The Pips, but was a career defining album. You’ll realize this, when I tell you about the back Gladys Knight and The Pips’ Buddah Records debut Imagination.

Now signed to Buddah Records, Gladys Knight had at last, stepped out of Diana Ross’ shadow. Rather unfairly, Diana Ross seemed to be favored over Gladys. Looking back, it seemed Gladys was almost under-appreciated at Motown. Although Gladys Knight and The Pips had an abundance of talent, sometimes it seemed that other Motown acts were given special treatment when it came to new material and producers. That must have proved frustrating and for Gladys Knight and The Pips. Surely, they must have felt they deserved better. At Buddah, Gladys Knight and The Pips’ talent was appreciated. For Gladys Knight and The Pips’ eleventh album, Imagination Buddah Records had assembled a talented team of personnel.

For Gladys Knight and The Pips’ Buddah Records debut Imagination, nine tracks were chosen. Five of these tracks were written by Jim Weatherly, including two songs that would become synonymous with Gladys Knight and The Pips. These were Midnight Train To Georgia and You’re the Best Thing That Happened To Me. Covers of the Gerry Goffin and Barry Goldberg penned I’ve Got To Use My Imagination, Johnny Nash’s I Can See Clearly Now and Paul Williams’ Perfect Love. Window Raisin’ Granny was written by Gladys Knight, with the three Pips, William Guest, Merald Knight and Edward Patten. Recording of Imagination took place in New York and New Jersey.

Recording of Imagination took place at New Jersey’s Venture Sound Studios and Bell Sound Studios in New York. Three producers or production teams worked on Imagination. Kenny Kerner and Richie Wise co-produced four tracks, while Tony Camillo produced four tracks. Gladys Knight and The Pips produced the track they cowrote, Window Raisin’ Granny. Once Imagination was recorded, the album was set for release in October 1973. Little did Gladys Knight and The Pips know, that Imagination was a career-changing album.

On the release of Imagination in October 1973, it reached number nine in the US Billboard 200 and number one in the US R& Charts. Not only did Imagination surpass the success of any of Gladys Knight and The Pips’ previous albums, but it gave the group their first gold disc. The lead single from Imagination was the Jim Weatherly penned When Peaceful Waters Flow, which reached number twenty-eight in the US Billboard 100 and number six in the US R&B Charts. While that might have seemed a success for other artists, it was nothing compared to what would follow for Gladys Knight and The Pips. 

Midnight Train To Georgia reached number one in the US Billboard 100 and US R&B Charts in 1973. In the UK, Midnight Train To Georgia reached number ten. Then in 1974, Midnight Train To Georgia won a Grammy Award for The Best Vocal Performance By A Duo, Group Or Chorus. Success kept on coming for Gladys Knight and The Pips, when I’ve Got To Use My Imagination then reached number four in the US Billboard 100 and number one in the US R&B Charts. The final single released from Imagination was Best Thing That That Ever Happened To Me, another Jim Weatherly composition. It reached number three in the US Billboard 100 and number one in the US R&B Charts. Like Midnight Train To Georgia, Best Thing That That Ever Happened To Me became synonymous with Gladys Knight and The Pips. So Gladys Knight and The Pips’ decision to leave Motown wasn’t just vindicated, but transformed her career. Imagination proved to be the most successful album of Gladys Knight and The Pips’ career. You’ll realize why, when I tell you about Imagination.

Opening Imagination is a Gladys Knight and The Pips’ classic, Midnight Train To Georgia. Just a roll of drums gives way to the atmospheric sound of a Hammond organ and piano. Then Gladys delivers a heartachingly, heartfelt vocal. Punchy, dramatic harmonies from The Pips reply to Gladys. By now, you realize a classic is unfolding. Listen to the lyrics, they’re filled with sadness and beauty.  They’re about a failed musicians, who heads to L.A. to become “a superstar…but didn’t get far.” So heads back to Georgia, to his old life, with his dream over. Later, his girlfriend, settled and successful in L.A. heads to Georgia, love proving more important than fame and bright lights. Gladys Knight and The Pips paint images, filled with emotion, sadness and pathos. Her voice delivers the lyrics in a way that make them sound personal. This could be the story of Gladys Knight, so real and impassioned is her delivery. For four minutes, Gladys Knight and The Pips bring Jim Weatherly’s lyrics to life, breathing meaning, emotion and beauty into them, and in the process, create a classic, career defining song.

I’ve Got To Use My Imagination was one of three singles to reach number one in the US R&B Charts. A pounding rhythm section, stabs of blazing horns and Gladys’ sultry vocal combine. Bursts of urgent harmonies from The Pips are added, before strings cascade frantically. Soon, Gladys’ vocal grows in power and passion. Swathes of swirling strings, stabs of horns, sweeping harmonies and pounding drums provide the perfect backdrop for Gladys’ sassy, powerful vocal. She makes the song her own, helped no end by The Pips and Kenny Kerner and Richie Wise’s production.

Storms of Troubled Times grabs your attention from the get-go. Layers of cascading strings and the powerful rhythm section unite. Then its all change, with just chiming guitars accompany a tender, soul-baring vocal from Gladys. Her reading of Jim Weatherly’s lyrics is emotion personified. The Pips add equally heartfelt harmonies, while layers of the lushest of strings add to the emotion. With just piano, chiming guitars and sweeping harmonies Gladys delivers a vocal that’s truly heartfelt, laden with sincerity. The result is one of the best tracks on Imagination. 

While Midnight Train To Georgia is a track that’s become synonymous with Gladys Knight and The Pips, the same can be said of Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me. Again, Gladys’ delivery is inspired, as if the lyrics mean something to her. It’s almost as if the song is semi-autobiographical. The song’s success is helped no end by the arrangement. It has a lovely understated sound as the song opens. Just piano, guitar and percussion combine, before the bass signals the arrival of Gladys’ vocal. Her vocal is laden with emotion, her phrasing perfect, highlighting words and phrases. Soon the arrangement unfolds. Drama, beauty and emotion reveal themselves. Lush strings, piano and the rhythm section are joined by soulful,  soaring harmonies. Despite the quality of the rest of arrangement, it’s Gladys’ vocal that casts its spell over you. Gladys goes on to deliver four minutes of the most spellbindingly beautiful music you’ll ever hear. It stops you in your tracks and like Midnight Train To Georgia, is worthy of being called a classic.

Once In A Lifetime Time, the fourth Jim Weatherly composition closes Side One of Imagination. It’s another slow ballad, filled with beauty, drama and emotion. Swathes of strings, flourishes of harpsichord and the rhythm section combine, before harmonies soar, setting the stage for Gladys’ tender, emotive vocal. Her vocal is tinged with sadness, regret and resignation. As she realizes her relationship is over, her voice grows in power, drama and emotion. The finishing touch is the arrangement, with it use of strings and harpsichord, which reflects the beauty in Gladys’ vocal and the sadness and heartache in Jim Weatherly’s lyrics.

When Peaceful Waters Flow opens Side Two of Imagination, and is the final Jim Weatherly song on the album. There’s an understated sound to the arrangement, with just chiming guitars reverberating while piano, cymbals and soaring harmonies combine. Then with a flourish of harpsichord, Gladys’ tender, wistful vocal enters. Just piano, percussion and the rhythm section accompany Gladys, as the arrangement grows. Harmonies cascade, while Gladys’ vocal grows in power, emotion. She showcases her ability to breath life and meaning into lyrics, her vocal veering between tenderness and powerful, but always soulful.

I Can See Clearly Now was written by Johnny Nash. Bursts of urgent, dramatic and deliberate harmonies sweep in. A bass takes charge, before The Pips take over the lead vocal. Soon, the lead switches hands. Cooing harmonies take on a gospel sound as the arrangement builds and builds. Later, the track takes on a celebratory, joyful sound, eventually reaching a dramatic crescendo. Although this showcases The Pips vocal prowess, compared to the Jim Weatherly penned tracks, it’s a lightweight track, one that seems out of place on Imagination. 

Perfect Love sees Imagination get back on track. Layers of elegant, lush strings, bursts of harpsichord and a slow, deliberate rhythm section set the scene for the lead vocal. Again, The Pips take over lead vocal duties. Quickly, the arrangement grows in power, beauty and drama. Soon, The Pips harmonies grows in power, becoming like an ethereal choir, of angelic voices. Thankfully, Perfect Love is much better than the previous track. While it’s not of the of the standard of the first six tracks, at least it gets Imagination back in track.

Closing Imagination is Window Raisin’ Granny, written by Gladys Knight and The Pips. Growling horns, a driving rhythm section and piano give the arrangement a tough, funky sound. When the lead vocal enters, it’s Bubba who delivers it. He’s accompanied by sweeping harmonies, searing, riffing bluesy guitars and grizzled horns. Soon, musical genres become one. Blues, jazz, soul and funk all play their part in this compelling fusion of musical genres, that show’s another side to Gladys Knight and The Pips.

After six years at Motown, it was definitely time for Gladys Knight and The Pips to leave the label. Maybe, they should’ve moved sooner. Thankfully, their decision to leave Motown was vindicated. Not only did Imagination feature two stonewall classics in Midnight Train To Georgia and Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me, but it was Gladys Knight and The Pips most successful album. Imagination gave Gladys Knight and The Pips their first number one album in the US R&B Charts and first gold disc. Then there were three number one singles in the US R&B Charts and one in the US Billboard 100. Add to that a Grammy Award in 1974. Despite all the commercial success that Gladys Knight and The Pips enjoyed with Imagination, it’s not a perfect album.

Right through the first six tracks, Imagination is a flawless album. You think that this is a classic in the making. Then the final three songs let Imagination down somewhat. Imagination goes off the rails with I Can See Clearly Now. It’s is a lightweight track at best. Why it was chosen seems strange, given how out of place it seems. It interrupts the flow, feel and vibe of Imagination. Both Perfect Love and Window Raisin’ Granny are better tracks, but well short of the standard of the first six tracks. Really, they just don’t quite match the quality of the first six  tracks. Granted, the delivery and arrangements are both good, but Gladys’ lead vocal is sorely missed. Given the quality of the other six tracks, maybe comparisons are unfair. Jim Weatherly penned five great tracks and the Goffin and Goldberg composition I’ve Got To Use My Imagination is of a similar quality. Maybe I’m being hard on Imagination, but for the first six tracks, it’s a flawless album. Sadly, it somewhat loses its way in the final three tracks. Despite this, Imagination showed that Gladys Knight and The Pips stepping out of the shadows and into the limelight. At last Gladys Knight and The Pips had the star billing they so richly deserved. Imagination shows just what Gladys Knight and The Pips were capable of and remains one of the finest albums of their career, and for six tracks, is Imagination is totally flawless. Standout Tracks: Midnight Train To Georgia. Storms of Troubled Times, Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me and Once In A Lifetime.

 GLADYS KNIGHT AND THE PIPS-IMAGINATION.

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