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Gladys Knight talks of performing in Clearwater, finding new audience

The R&B legend returns to Ruth Eckerd Hall on Sunday. She was one of the last artists to sing there before the pandemic shut everything down.
Gladys Knight will perform at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater on Feb. 6, her fifth appearance in Clearwater since 2014.
Gladys Knight will perform at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater on Feb. 6, her fifth appearance in Clearwater since 2014. [ COURTESY OF RUTH ECKERD HALL GLADYS KNIGHT WILL PERFORM AT RUTH ECKERD HALL IN CLEARWATER ON JAN. 25, 2019. PHOTO: RUTH ECKERD HALL | Ruth Eckerd Hall ]
Published Feb. 1

Music legend Gladys Knight returns to Clearwater’s Ruth Eckerd Hall on Sunday, picking up where she left off in March 2020. The seven-time Grammy winner’s show was one of the last live performances in the hall that month, as the world began to shut down because of the pandemic.

We conducted an email interview with the “Empress of Soul” while she was at the family ranch in Asheville, N.C. The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer is kicking off her tour with multiple Florida shows. The tour brings an artist who has charted No. 1 hits in pop, gospel, R&B and adult contemporary. She has recorded more than 38 albums, both as a solo artist and with the Pips, and dazzled audiences in film, television and live performances.

Gladys Knight sings on the opening night of the 36th anniversary of the Clearwater Jazz Holiday in Coachman Park in 2015. She returns to Clearwater Feb. 6, her first performance at Ruth Eckerd Hall since the pandemic shut down live entertainment.
Gladys Knight sings on the opening night of the 36th anniversary of the Clearwater Jazz Holiday in Coachman Park in 2015. She returns to Clearwater Feb. 6, her first performance at Ruth Eckerd Hall since the pandemic shut down live entertainment. [ Times (2015) ]

This will be the fifth time she has performed in Clearwater in the past eight years, including the opening night of the 36th anniversary of the Clearwater Jazz Holiday in Coachman Park in 2015.

But that night in March 2020 when she sang at Ruth Eckerd Hall, she said she was hoping for the best. Having just come off a tour in Australia, she said she was aware the pandemic was worsening.

“As it has turned out, we’ve all learned to live differently,” she said.

Seven months later, in September 2020, Knight and Patti LaBelle blew up the streaming world when their edition of the Verzuz web series on Instagram and Apple Music drew millions of online viewers (including Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey). It was dubbed a perfect pandemic balm of timeless classics.

In 1975, Gladys Knight and the Pips (Edward Patten, William Guest, top, and Merald Knight) headlined a summer variety show for four weeks on NBC. The group, made up of her brother and cousins, was one of the few to stay together for decades before disassembling amicably in the late 1980s as Knight turned to a solo career.
In 1975, Gladys Knight and the Pips (Edward Patten, William Guest, top, and Merald Knight) headlined a summer variety show for four weeks on NBC. The group, made up of her brother and cousins, was one of the few to stay together for decades before disassembling amicably in the late 1980s as Knight turned to a solo career. [ NBC ]

“I didn’t know what Verzuz was and they showed me the Brandy/Monica one and my son and team kept encouraging me to do it and I took their word for it and it ended up great,” Knight said.

Afterward, both she and LaBelle saw a surge in downloads of their old songs. “I’m just happy people still want want to listen to my music any way they can get it.”

Gladys Knight and the Pips, made up of her brother Merald Knight and cousins Edward Patten and William Guest, was one of the few groups to stay together for decades before disassembling amicably in the late 1980s, with the Pips retiring as Knight turned to a solo career.

Besides the Verzuz show, new audiences have rediscovered Gladys Knight and the Pips from their extensive spot in the documentary Summer of Soul. The award-winning film by The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon’s musical director Questlove took a lot of viewers by surprise because they never knew the Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969 happened. Held the same summer as Woodstock and the moon landing, it offered an array of talent, but footage of it had been largely unseen before this film, including by Knight herself.

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“I had never seen the footage until my dear friend Questlove showed it to me pre-pandemic and we were already working on the documentary at that time,” Knight said.

In the film, the 77-year-old singer watches footage of her young self with the Pips as they sing an air-tight performance of I Heard It Through the Grapevine, and she said, “I knew something very, very important was happening in Harlem that day.”

Asked about that moment from the film, Knight said: “From a civil rights perspective it was so meaningful and had to happen to create the beginning of some awareness that was instrumental.”

As a frequent visitor to Clearwater and Florida, she said she’s drawn to a warm place where she can find Southern food.

“In Clearwater, it’s beautiful and I love the sunsets and warmer weather,” Knight said. “The people are very welcoming and make me feel special.”

If you go

Gladys Knight: The seven-time Grammy Award winner’s last album, Where My Heart Belongs, won an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Gospel Album. $53.25-$118.25. 8 p.m. Sunday. Ruth Eckerd Hall, 1111 McMullen-Booth Road, Clearwater. 727-791-7400.

Music legend Gladys Knight last performed at Ruth Eckerd Hall on March 3, 2020. She was one of the last live performances in the hall before the pandemic shut live entertainment down for months.
Music legend Gladys Knight last performed at Ruth Eckerd Hall on March 3, 2020. She was one of the last live performances in the hall before the pandemic shut live entertainment down for months. [ DEREK BLANKS | Ruth Eckerd Hall ]
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