Gladys Knight & The Pips
1973 — Imagination (Buddah Records)
By 1972, Gladys Knight and the Pips were ready to break away from Motown's Soul label. They signed with the New York-based Buddah (not a spelling error) Records, which had been enjoying pop and soul hits for a few years. The signing would be a success for both label and artist, and right from the start.
Aside from being the first record for Buddah, G & the P's 1973 Imagination album might be remembered by the group itself as the "Jim Weatherly album". Weatherly was a hunk/dude Mississippian football player turned songwriter (he released seven albums in the 1970s; none were big), and his stamp is all over Imagination. Weatherly had already written "Neither One of Us (Wants to Be the First to Say Goodbye)" for the
group, and it had been a big hit the previous winter. He writes five of the nine cuts on Imagination, including the unforgettable "Midnight Train to Georgia".
That song had begun life as "Midnight Plane to Houston". Weatherly's own steel-
guitar / sappy recording of it reminds me of Jim Croce, and hearing a man sing it certainly gives the song a different flavor – it becomes the story of a gentle, emotional kind of man with a ponytail – or, in this case, a 70s' porn-stache – following his woman, 'cause that's what a liberated man can do. However, when a woman sings it, it changes into a more traditional "woman stands-by-her-man", Tammy Wynette-kind of thing. Anyway, Weatherly's song ended up being cut first by Cissy Houston (Whitney's mother), whose version was re-titled "Midnight Train to Georgia", presumably because her label, Ichiban, was Georgia-based. Shortly afterwards, Gladys Knight and the Pips (coincidentally from Atlanta) got it, along with a handful of other Weatherly songs, for their first Buddah Records album.
In any case, killer tune. The album doesn't list the musicians that play on it, but I gather, from the Internet, that Motown veteran Bob Babbitt is on bass, a cat called Tony Camillo (who worked on a lot of pop/soul records) plays keyboards, and is the co-producer and arranger, Andrew Smith is on skins, and a popular session guitarist named Jeff Mironov is in there, too. But let's give some credit not only to Camillo's excellent arrangement, but also to the Pips themselves, who, I would assume, in full or in part worked out the famous backing vocals, with their "guess who's gonna be right by his side", "I know you will", and "whoo-whoo" parts. Those are iconic vocals of 70s' soul, and were not written by Weatherly or added by Cissy Houston, so let's give the Pips props! And, needless to say, Gladys Knight hits the ball out of the park with her timeless, stupendous, tasteful, natural, raw, passionate voice. God, I love this woman's sound. Her voice never goes too far into idiosyncratic scatting or hollering, yet she dramatically ups the passion and intensity as the track progresses, finally singing, with exuberance, "I've GOT to go! I've GOT to go! I've GOT to go! My world, his world, my man, his girl!", somehow turning the narrative of a man's failed bid to be an L.A. superstar into a joyous celebration of fidelity and love.
The second track on Imagination is the uptempo and slightly funky "I've Got to Use my Imagination", which really cooks. This track was written by blues keyboardist Barry Goldberg with famed lyricist Gerry Goffin, and it's a fine vehicle for Gladys to let rip. The song was another huge hit, and it's a really important track here just in terms of balance, because it's the only fast-paced, high-energy tune on the whole record.
Side 1 of Imagination continues with three straight Jim Weatherly songs: "Storms of Troubled Times" (quite
good), "Best Thing that Ever Happened to Me" (great classic), and "Once in a Lifetime Thing" (fairly forgettable, unfortunately). "Storms" is akin to a lyrical rip of "Bridge Over Troubled Water", but the musical style is totally different, having a slight taste of that Weatherly country style about it, despite the soulful approach of Gladys and the Pips. The little horn and keyboard melody between the verses is really snazzy and makes the song. "Best Thing" is another great track, and was yet another hit single on radio... and not only for Gladys and the Pips. The very month Imagination was issued in the USA, "Best Thing that Ever Happened to Me" was already at #1... on the Billboard country charts, as performed by Texan, Ray Price. It's another fairly straight-laced, kind of devotional lyric of love and fidelity, which seems to have been Weatherly's thing in the early-70s...? I dunno. The orchestration on the Pips' version (by Tony Camillo? Yeah, it'd be nice to see the tracks' credits) is very well done – effective and evocative without being dominating or overly schmaltzy. "Once in a Lifetime Thing", however, is kind of schmaltzy and doesn't really float my boat. It's a mid-tempo tune with dreamy nostalgic lyrics about a failed relationship. The tune just isn't very memorable, leaving it sounding generic, despite Gladys's best effort.
Side 2 (on vinyl) of this record is where Gladys and the Pips throw off the Motown/Soul shackles and start doin' it their way! Here we get the feeling of liberation. The group indulges itself a bit, but fortunately keep things tasteful and interesting. It kicks off with the very popular, "Where Peaceful Waters Flow", yet another Jim Weatherly song, which had already been a big R&B hit prior to the album's release. It's kind of a slow-burn soul track, with Gladys singing to inspire someone to "turn [their] world around", and "show [them] how to smile", while taking them to "where peaceful waters flow". It's a lovely track that I quite like, even it does sound like the songwriter might have been going through a bit of a messiah-complex at the time of composition.
But then things get really interesting. The group sings "I Can See Clearly Now"... and Gladys isn't on lead! No sir, one of the Pips takes the vocal, and I wish I could tell you who it is, but I don't know (Bubba?). Frankly speaking, whichever Pip it is, he can't hold a candle to Gladys Knight and this vocal is a little underwhelming. But it's such a good song that it's still nice to listen to, and this track has some interesting production touches, such as the isolated vocals at the end, which are pretty cool.
Likewise, the next track, which was an earlier B-side, "Perfect Love", also has lead vocals by a Pip. This country-ish pop song works just fine with the male lead (Gladys accompanying in the background), and it's a neat little song, written by Paul Williams, the guy who wrote... the lyrics to the "Love Boat" theme. Anyway, this song is one of a few country-friendly tunes on Imagination, which I think is part of the successful flavor of the record, which we'd otherwise hurry to classify as a fairly standard early-/mid-70s pop album with some Philly-soul production touches. But the influence of the country-style songs gives it a slightly different feeling, and to quite good effect, I think.
And on the final track, "Window Raisin' Granny", the Pips combine to write their own lengthy album-closer. Nothing country about this one, which has an R&B groove and some chicken-scratching guitar breaks! Again, it's a Pip (not Gladys) singing lead. The cute lyric is about the singer's/group's grandmother, who'd look at the kids on the street through her window (so, yeah, a pretty literal title), and shout at the singer to "chastise" him. But Granny knew best, and she "taught [him] wrong from right". It's a charming, fun track, which probably earned the group members some royalties. No harm done, and it was good to have a little bit of an uptempo groove again to round off the record, which, as noted, is otherwise quite laid-back.
Imagination was a million-seller for Gladys and the Pips, spinning off four top-30 hits (three R&B #1s), and proving definitively that getting Berry Gordy Jr. off your jock can be a good thing. It also kind of set the group up for life. After "Midnight Train to Georgia" they were feted Grammy winners and R&B legends, and would never be out of work again.
Gladys was only about 28 when this album was laid down, and it was already the third or fourth phase of her professional career. And there were many more hits to come.... Whoo! Whoo! Rave on, Pips.