Photo By Randee St. Nicholas
By Cheryl Stewart Osborn
After a successful music career that spans five decades and continues to garner her several Grammy awards (7 to date), Gladys Knight now knows why she sings.
“At first I thought my singing was just to entertain,” says Gladys. “But now I know this gift from God is a platform from which I am to share His gospel.”
What a platform she has created!
At age four, when Gladys Knight first began to sing publicly with her Baptist church choir in Atlanta, her mother always said God had given her a musical gift to share. By age seven, her outstanding vocal performance won the top prize at an amateur singing competition.
Gladys continued to cultivate her talent and eventually gained prominence with the legendary Gladys Knight and the Pips, formed with her brother Bubba and her cousins William Guest and Edward Patten. Named after their manager and cousin Edward “Pip” Woods, the group enjoyed success throughout the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s.
Her music hit the charts with “Midnight Train to Georgia,” “You’re the Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me,” and the original debut of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” To date Knight has recorded more than 30 albums.
After going solo in 1989, Gladys Knight continues to broaden her career in show business, which includes appearing in several television series, music specials (VH1 Divas Live, guest judge on American Idol) and motion pictures (Hollywood Homicide), as well as starring in a Broadway production, writing her autobiography, creating a cookbook for diabetics, headlining at the Flamingo Hotel (named “the number one show in Las Vegas”), appearing in a national commercial, continuing her recording career, and forming and directing the LDS gospel choir Saints Unified Voices with whom she recorded her most recent album One Voice.
She has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and was inducted into the Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall of Fame along with the Pips. She is a humanitarian and a philanthropist, devoted to various worthy causes including the American Diabetes Association. She is a wife, a mother of three, and a grandmother of 11.
But of all she has experienced, Gladys says “nothing has affected my life as much as the joy I feel as a result of finally finding The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Without a doubt, this is the best thing that has ever happened to me!”
Her journey to finding the LDS Church began as a little girl raised with deep spiritual grounding by her mother, who instilled in her a firm faith and trust in God. As life took Gladys down many different roads, she found in her adult years that her soul desired something more.
“I understood the atonement of Jesus Christ. I wanted to live with Him in Heaven, but when I asked ‘Then what?’ no one could tell me what happened for the rest of eternity,” says Gladys.
As she continued searching for answers, her oldest son Jimmy and his wife Michelene joined the LDS Church through the influence of a neighbor. Initially, the rest of the family was unaware of Jimmy’s decision. But one day as Jimmy and his sister, Kenya, sat next to each other on an airplane, Kenya leaned over and asked Jimmy what he was reading. “The scriptures,” he replied. Kenya looked closer and commented that she couldn’t remember ever seeing a “1 Nephi” in her scriptures. That conversation eventually led to Kenya’s conversion and baptism.
In time the example and gentle persuasions of Jimmy and his wife, and Kenya and her husband, influenced Gladys to meet with the full-time missionaries. She embraced the gospel and was baptized in 1997.
Gladys shares her enthusiasm for her new faith at every opportunity. “I want to shout it from the mountain tops! I want to tell everybody about the Lord and his wonderful truths. I’m so excited to be a member of this church that my friends have to calm me down.”
A few years ago, Gladys married her long-time friend William McDowell. Though determined to not be influenced by his wife’s beliefs, it wasn’t long before William was studying the gospel and taking the missionary lessons. But he kept it a secret from Gladys. “Everybody in the ward knew except me,” says Gladys. “William finally told me the day before his baptism so I could be there.”
Since joining the Church, Gladys aspires to have what she views as one of the best church callings: ward choir director. Though that calling still hasn’t come to her, Gladys soon realized that God has a larger purpose for her gift as she uses it to do the Lord’s work.
“My singing is to be part of my light, shining so that people may see it and, in return, I can be the example Heavenly Father would have me be. I just want to do what He has asked all of us, to feed His sheep,” says Gladys.
For years, she humbly accepted invitations to share her testimony and sing at stake firesides throughout the United States.
“What an awesome opportunity I have to serve the Lord through music. I have always sung for the Lord, but now I get to use more hymns and scriptures to tell the world His story,” she says.
In 2002, when her stake asked her to present a gospel-sharing fireside for the Las Vegas community, Gladys was delighted. With the eagerness of a kid in a candy store, and with the help of several ward members, she organized a large group of singers from the stake and named them the Saints Unified Voices to reflect her idea of Latter-day Saints singing as one. She also put together a program that included her, William and Kenya boldly bearing their testimonies of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ as LDS African Americans.
When three professional musicians from her show at the Flamingo heard about her choir, they volunteered to help. Though of different faiths, they view this as an opportunity to praise the Lord through music.
After each show at the Flamingo, the musicians worked with Gladys and with Kelly Eisenhower, who is LDS and was then Gladys’s backup singer, to create gospel-type arrangements for hymns the choir would sing, such as “Because I Have Been Given Much” and “I Need Thee Every Hour.”
“I choose all of the choir’s songs for their basic messages,” says Gladys. “I fell in love with I’m a Child of God when I sang it at my granddaughter’s baptism long before I joined the Church. I heard the message in it even then.”
She heard As I Have Loved You for the first time in a Relief Society meeting.
“The message was so basic I just knew the choir had to sing it. It is the foremost request our Savior makes of us, to love one another.”
Within a few weeks, Gladys was ready to teach her new choir how to sing gospel music. But directing a choir of volunteers wasn’t going to be easy.
“Except for a few, these wonderful people had never sung gospel music before,” says Gladys. They were also not accustomed to singing without sheet music. Given only the words to the hymns typed in paragraph form, the choir learned to sing the songs by following Gladys.
“All they get is the lyrics because I don’t want anybody reading notes on paper. They have to feel this music,” says Gladys.
The experience taught her to be more patient and loving. “I’ve been known to be pretty hard on my choir. But they have taught me as much as I’ve taught them.”
After months of hard work, her choir was ready. During two firesides held on a hot August night in a Las Vegas stake center filled to capacity, the Saints Unified Voices directed by Gladys Knight turned a traditionally conservative mood into a toe-tapping, hand-clapping celebration praising Jesus Christ through music. The response was tremendous.
Surprised by the attention, encouraged by her stake presidency, and determined that this was the Lord’s will for her, Gladys held new auditions to bring the choir to a higher performing level and commitment. Amazed that so many people from all over the greater Las Vegas area lined up to audition for her choir, Gladys eventually choose 100 culturally diverse voices. All are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
At first the SUV Choir, as Gladys affectionately calls it, presented its fireside program only in Las Vegas. However, Gladys was thrilled when the SUV choir was invited to perform at the Tabernacle at Temple Square in 2003 during the anniversary celebration of the priesthood being available to all worthy men.
Word spreads quickly throughout this church, and requests for more firesides pour in continually from mission presidents and stake presidents all over the world. The SUV Choir has now presented stake firesides in California, Georgia and England, and will present a fireside in Hawaii this year.
As with all SUV Choir firesides held in LDS stake centers, nearly half of the 1,200 or so in attendance are visitors of other faiths. Most of them have never been inside a LDS church and likely wouldn’t come except to see the R&B legend Gladys Knight.
“People may come because they think they’re getting a free concert, but they leave with a better understanding of this gospel and wanting to know more. Our message is clear. We hear stories of their baptisms, of their lives being changed after hearing His gospel,” she says.
At each fireside Gladys encourages visitors to take home and read the Book of Mormon that is waiting for them in the lobby. Approximately 500 copies of the Book of Mormon are distributed at SUV firesides, along with church videos and pamphlets.
“Some read the Book of Mormon and agree to meet with the missionaries, some don’t. But their perceptions and attitudes are changed after feeling our love, and hearing our testimonies, and, most of all, feeling the Lord’s Spirit,” says Gladys who, along with William and Kenya, was recently called and set apart as a ward missionary with special focus on her fireside work.
“I wish the SUV Choir could go everywhere we are invited, but the lack of money to cover costs is holding us back. That is our greatest challenge to doing this work, and for the areas that really need us to come.”
The SUV Choir’s ability to present firesides outside of Las Vegas is limited as funding for each fireside event comes only through private donations to this nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization.
Gladys has sacrificed much for being the choir’s director. Not only does she financially contribute to the choir and spend a great deal of time in rehearsals and planning, but also she turns down concert opportunities and various public appearances to present fireside events, which affects her livelihood. Most recently, Gladys wasn’t present at the Grammy Awards ceremony in February to receive in person the Grammy she won for her duet with the late Ray Charles. Instead, she was informed she won the award by her bishop between sessions of an SUV fireside she was presenting in Las Vegas.
“We, the 100 members of this choir, count it our greatest privilege to share the message of the restored gospel through music and through the testimonies we bear during each fireside,” says Gladys. “Everyone involved with this choir make sacrifices. They’ve got the vision and understanding of our calling as a missionary effort, and they are dedicated to the work.”
When Gladys and the Saints Unified Voices released One Voice, the album hit Billboard’s Gospel Charts in its first week and by the end of that month reached the #2 spot. With 15 songs, from the energetic gospel classic Pass Me Not to the inspirational duet Did You Know? and from the sentimental Hawaiian song Iesu Me Kanaka Waiwai” to the familiar Come Come Ye Saints with African drums, One Voice offers uplifting musical insight into ways people of all faiths and cultures praise the Lord through music.
A highlight of each fireside and featured on One Voice is the solo He Lives, performed by Gladys with lyrics reluctantly written by William at her insistence. Through her loving persuasion and their combined efforts, the result is their musical testimony of Jesus Christ.
As she soulfully sings the final verse, Gladys is the missionary she is called to be as she proclaims “But most of all He’s our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. He lives.” And just as she enthusiastically does herself, she invites us all to “Go tell the world, tell them that our Savior lives!”