I hopped on that “Midnight Train to Georgia” on Sunday night and didn’t want to get off. As a Georgia-bred girl, as I told my bosses the next day, I was raised on Gladys Knight and I beamed with pride, excitement...any and all positive emotions when I was able to experience her live for the very first time at the Hollywood Bowl. It was a magical, surreal, unforgettable experience which has made me the envy of all my family and friends.
Getting to my seat was no small feat. Since it was my first time at the Bowl, I was unprepared for the traffic on traffic on traffic (I had to circle around because I missed my turn), the stacked parking lot and the long lines to get through security. I was taken to the venue by an uphill escalator (like something out of Disney World) but the long lines just to get in meant I made it just as the performances started.
Opening the night was The Kingdom Choir who is most recently known for their performance at Meghan Markle and Prince Harry’s royal wedding in 2018. The world was moved by their rendition of “Stand By Me” and this performance launched them into the international spotlight. I was seated in a very cool, handy “box” seat that can actually accommodate a small dining table if you and four of your closest friends wanted a picnic along with the performance. As soon as I took my seat, I was blown away by the sheer talent that stood on that stage. The choir had just finished performing the National Anthem and immediately kicked things off their high-energy set.
I am plagued by this embarrassing habit of tearing up when presented with, what I believe, to be other-worldly talents/abilities and this is exactly what happened to me as I sat there listening to Karen Gibson and her army of gospel singers belt out classics like Aretha Franklin’s “Say a Little Prayer,” “Natural Woman” and “Respect.” I could hardly contain my enthusiasm and almost jumped out of my seat clapping after each performance. You could see that Kingdom Choir members were more than just musicians with enviable talent, they truly felt each performance as tears streamed down their faces during their performance of Coldplay’s “Fix You.” Clinton Jordan, one of the many soloists that night, was masterful at engaging the audience when he invited us to join him in singing “Oh Happy Day.”
The choir’s leader, Karen Gibson, was as charismatic as she was talented (and boy, is she talented). Her introductions to the songs and message of hope, love and inspiration reached everyone in attendance. She gave us stories and anecdotes, let us know just how big gospel music is in Europe (in UK, France, Germany, Spain and many other countries) and told us how, although they were a “British” choir, their members actually represented a diverse range of cultures from Jamaica to Guyana to India. We were treated to a West-African inspired gospel song as well as other gospel staples like “Something Inside So Strong.” The Choir ended with the song that launched them into global superstardom, “Stand By Me.” Each song left me with chills and I was sad to see them go, but I quickly reminded myself that what was to follow was equally as inspiring and chill bump-inducing.
Before there was a Whitney or a Mariah or a Beyonce, there was Gladys. Gladys Knight and the Pips came out of Atlanta, Georgia and brought the world some of the most cherished R&B/soul hits that have endured for years. “Midnight Train to Georgia” may be up there with “Georgia on My Mind” by the late great Ray Charles for state song (at least for me). Knight came up dressed to the nines in a stylish pearl-white blouse and pants combo and showed everybody that she is not planning on slowing down anytime soon. She danced up and down that stage greeting the right, left and middle sections. The night started with her singing some hits written by Curtis Mayfield, a “square Chicago songwriter” she had collaborated with extensively over the years. She sang many of their hits including “The Makings of You.”
Knight entertained us with stories and musings from her decades-spanning career including the time Motown Records exec Norman Whitfield was so jazzed to get Knight and the Pips to record what would be their first hit, “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” that “he put Smokey (Robinson) out” of the recording studio. That record went on to be Motown’s biggest-selling record in 1966 and was later covered by “big brother” Marvin Gaye in 1968. Her performance incorporated a number of covers as well such as Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me,” “I Hope You Dance” and, my personal favorite, Barbra Streisand’s “The Way We Were,” which featured a montage of pictures of Knight with the Pips from throughout her career. Knight did an "encore" of sorts and also covered Aretha Franklin’s “Natural Woman” with the help of her backup singers. The evening was filled with love, laughter and some of the finest music to ever grace our world.
Legends are legends for a reason and Gladys Knight proves this time and time again. Her signature deep, full voice rang throughout the Bowl, her way of telling everyone that her pipes just won’t quit. Her live performance was like listening to her record: never wavering, always in tune and on beat; you couldn't tell the difference between the two. She finished off her set with “Neither One of Us” and her words rang so true to me as I really didn’t want to say goodbye to her yet. She had the crowd roaring and on their feet when she blasted “Midnight Train to Georgia” for the last song of the evening. As for me, I was so happy to have lived in her love-filled, wholesome, sweet world for that hour and a half and I really, truly hope to have another chance to do it again.