Knight was born in Atlanta, Georgia, the daughter of Merald Woodlow Knight, Sr., a postal worker and Sarah Elizabeth. She first achieved minor fame by winning Ted Mack’s The Original Amateur Hour TV show contest at the age of seven in 1952. The following year, she, her brother Merald, sister Brenda, and cousins William and Elenor Guest formed a musical group called the Pips. By the end of the decade, the act had begun to tour, and had replaced Brenda Knight and Eleanor Guest with Gladys Knight’s cousin Edward Patten and friend Langston George.
In 1961 the group recorded “Every Beat Of My Heart” on the tiny Atlanta Huntom label, which was picked up by Vee Jay. At the same time, the group signed with Bobby Robinson’s Fury label. Both labels issued different versions of the song, with the Vee Jay/Huntom version outselling the Fury remake. With the success of their follow-up, “Letter Full Of Tears”, Fury released their first album. They stayed with Fury through 1962, although the hits dried up. They signed with Larry Maxwell’s Maxx label in 1964 and released several modest hits produced by Van McCoy, including the original version of “Giving Up” and “Lovers Always Forgive”.
Gladys Knight & the Pips joined the Motown Records roster in 1966, and, although initially regarded as a second-string act, scored several major hit singles, including “I Heard It Through The Grapevine”, “Take Me In Your Arms And Love Me”, “Friendship Train”, “If I Were Your Woman”, “I Don’t Want To Do Wrong”, the Grammy Award winning “Neither One Of Us”, and “Daddy Could Swear (I Declare)” (1973). In their early Motown career, Gladys Knight and the Pips toured as the opening act for Diana Ross and The Supremes. Gladys Knight stated in her memoirs that Ross kicked her off the tour because the audience’s reception to Knight’s soulful performance overshadowed her. Berry Gordy later told Gladys that she was giving his act a hard time.
The act eventually left Motown for a better deal with Buddah Records in 1973, and achieved full-fledged success that year with hits such as the Grammy-winning “Midnight Train to Georgia”, “I’ve Got to Use My Imagination,” “The Way We Were/Try To Remember” and “You’re The Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me”. In the summer of 1974, Knight and the Pips recorded the soundtrack to the successful film Claudine with producer Curtis Mayfield. The act was particularly successful in Europe, and especially the United Kingdom. However, a number of the Buddah singles became hits in the UK long after their success in the US. For example, “Midnight Train to Georgia” hit the UK pop charts Top 5 in the summer of 1976, a full three years after its success in the U.S.
During this period of greater recognition, Knight made her motion picture acting debut in the film, Pipe Dreams, a romantic drama set in Alaska. The film failed at the box-office, but Knight did receive a Gloden Globe Best New Actress nomination.
Knight and the Pips continued to have hits until the late 1970s, when they were forced to record separately due to legal issues, resulting in Knight’s first solo LP recordings–Miss Gladys Knight on Buddah and Gladys Knight on Columbia Records. Having divorced James Newman II in 1973, Knight married Barry Hankerson, then Detroit mayor Coleman Young’s executive aide. Knight and Hankerson remained married for four years, during which time they had a son, Shanga Ali. Upon their divorce, Hankerson and Knight were embroiled in a heated custody battle over Shanga Ali.
In the early 1980s, Johnny Mathis invited Gladys to record two duets – “When A Child Is Born” and “The Lord’s Prayer”.
Signing with Columbia Records in 1980 and restored to its familiar quartet form, Gladys Knight & the Pips began releasing new material. The act enlisted former Motown producers Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson for their first two albums–About Love (1980) and Touch (1981). During this period, Knight kicked a gambling addiction to the game baccarat.
In 1983 Gladys Knight and the Pips scored again with the hit “Save The Overtime For Me”. The song, under the artistic direction of Leon Sylvers III (known for collaborating on Shalamar hits), was done in a soulful boogie style. The single was released from their LP “Visions” and reached number sixty-six on the Hot 100, but was more successful on the R&B where it hit number one for a single week in mid 1983. The single was the first time the group hit number one on the R&B chart since 1974.
In 1987 Knight decided to pursue a solo career and she and the Pips recorded their final LP together, All Our Love (1987), for MCA Records. Its infectious lead single, “Love Overboard”, was a #1 R&B hit and won another Grammy for the act as well. After a successful 1988 tour, the Pips retired and Knight began her solo career. Gladys Knight & the Pips were inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in 1989 and into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996.
While still with the Pips, Gladys joined with Dionna Warwick, Stevie Wonder, and Elton John on the 1986 AIDS benefit single, “That’s What Friends Are For”, a triple #1 mega-hit, which won a Grammy for Best Pop Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocal. In 1989 she recorded the title track “License To Kill” for the James Bond movie License To Kill, a Top 10 hit in the UK and Germany.
Gladys released her third and most successful solo LP, Good Woman, on MCA in 1991. It hit #1 on the R&B album chart and featured the #2 R&B hit “Men”. It also reached #45 on the main Billboard album chart – her all-time highest showing. The album also featured “Superwoman”, written by Babyface and featuring Dionne Warwick and Patti LaBelle. The track was also nominated for a Grammy Award. Knight and LaBelle would collaborate the same year on “I Don’t Do Duets”, a duet with Patti LaBelle from LaBelle’s album Burnin’.
Knight has been married four times and has three children. In 1960, she married her high school sweetheart, James Newman. They had one son, James “Jimmy” Newman (1962–1999). She retired from the road to raise their child while the Pips toured on their own. In 1963, after having her only daughter, Kenya, Knight returned to recording with the Pips in order to support her family. In the early 1960s, Gladys, James, and the Pips moved to Detroit, Michigan. Knight and her family lived on Sherbourne in Sherwood Forest, an upscale neighborhood on Detroit’s West Side. She also resided on LaSalle for a time. Her children attended Gesu Catholic Grade School. James and Knight divorced in 1973. In 1974, Knight married producer and Blackground Records founder Barry Hankerson in Detroit. Around 1977, they relocated to Atlanta. The couple had one son, Shanga Hankerson, and divorced in 1981. Knight married motivational speaker Les Brown in 1995, but they separated and divorced in 1997.
Previously a Baptist, in 1997 she was baptized into The Church of Jesus Christ Latter-day Saints, following her son and daughter. She had occasionally teased LDS Church President the late Gordon B. Hinckley, that his flock needs to inject some “pep” into their music. Knight married her husband, William McDowell, in 2001. They have sixteen grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.