Gladys Knight Follows Her Dreams

The R&B legend on music, mothering and hitting balls with Serena and Venus.

Interview by Holly George-Warren
Photograph: Photo by: Randee St. Nicholas

Music is like reading: In your mind and in your spirit, it takes you places that you’ve been or places that you would like to go. Growing up, we listened to everybody. Radio wasn’t as dissected as it is now—you could hear Frank Sinatra one minute and the Midnighters or something like "Earth Angel" the next.

I’m grateful to my mom for the way she brought us up. Today there’s a moral fiber missing among the kids.

I loved performing for four years at the Flamingo in Las Vegas. If I hadn’t had other things on my plate, I would probably still be there. I saw Celine Dion right before she opened in Vegas, and she said, "I’m so nervous because I don’t know if I can do this all these nights." And I said, "You shouldn’t worry, because all you’ve got to do is use it." You know that saying, "Use it or lose it?" Well, it also works in the reverse. The more you use it, you’ll have the power and strength to sing whatever you need to. 

I don’t have any health and fitness regimen. I try to eat right, and I don’t succeed at that all the time. I absolutely love tennis, and if I could play every day, I would. I’ve played with Serena, Venus, Martina, Billie Jean . . . . I’m not that good; they have fun with me, that’s all.

I really enjoyed doing American Idol. But I think the judges get kind of wrapped up in being celebrities, more than in critiquing the kids. And sometimes they just don’t set a good example—like, I love Randy Jackson to death, he did my album At Last with me, but he’s got to learn that a dog is an animal. Saying, "Hey, dawg" because you want to be hip—you’re a grown man!

My mom gave me my image. She chose my clothes, she dressed the Pips—just like Beyonce’s mom is doing now, my mom did that way back. She knew this body better than anybody in the world.

I grew up thinking there was something wrong with me because the guys on tour never told me I was cute. They weren’t allowed to sit with me; I went from the gig to my room—that was it. Come to find out, the Pips—my brother and cousins—were threatening them so they wouldn’t say anything to me! They looked after me, and it was both good and bad. So I never thought I was all that great looking. Even today, I don’t know a whole lot about the glamour thing. But I had confidence in who I was inside.

Becoming a mother strengthened me because I had to learn how to follow a dream and to be responsible at the same time. You can’t just do whatever you want to do. My mom used to tell us, "Once you have babies, your life is not your own anymore. You want to go to the party? Too bad!"

I think I had the slogan before Nike did—"Just do it"—because that’s the way I’ve been all my life. Just do what you’ve got to do.

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