Friday, Nov. 28, 2003 | 2:42 a.m.
WEEKEND EDITION Nov. 29 - 30, 2003
Who: Gladys Knight.
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays.
Where: Flamingo Showroom.
Tickets: $60, $70.
Long before Celine Dion or Elton John arrived on the Strip, Gladys Knight called Southern Nevada home.
For the past 25 years the legendary soul chanteuse has maintained a local residence, first in Las Vegas and then in Henderson.
A regular on the Vegas circuit even before moving here, the 59-year-old Knight spends five nights a week entertaining crowds at Flamingo Las Vegas. Her contract with the hotel runs through February 2007.
For more than 40 years the Atlanta native recorded and performed with the Pips, the three-man team of backing vocalists composed of Knight's brother, Merald "Bubba" Knight, and cousins William Guest and Edward Patten.
The group released dozens of Top-10 singles, including No. 1 hits "Midnight Train to Georgia," "Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me" and "Neither One of Us (Wants to Be the First to Say Goodbye)."
Then in 1989 Gladys Knight went out on her own for the first time in her career, touring as a solo artist and recording albums under her own name.
A member of the Rock & Roll and Rhythm & Blues halls of fame, Knight is a two-time Grammy Award-winner, most recently last year for Best Traditional R&B Vocal Album ("At Last").
Up next: a CD featuring recordings with her church choir, Saints Unified Voices. The disc is due in February.
On Wednesday, Knight took time away from hectic Thanksgiving preparations for a phone interview.
Las Vegas Sun: When did you first play Las Vegas?
Gladys Knight: We came here in 1967. They were giving out those long-term contracts then, where you'd come and play for three weeks and then you'd leave and you'd come back and play for three more weeks. It was like that.
So I felt like this was our second home even then because we played here so often. We started out playing lounges at the Hilton and the Aladdin and the Flamingo. We've kind of been all over, but those were our three main hotels during the lounge days.
And then the Flamingo felt we were ready to graduate from the lounge to the main room. That was the first main room. Isn't that ironic?
Then we headlined at the Hilton for many years and we headlined at the Aladdin for a long, long time.
Sun: So you haven't had many long breaks between performances here.
GK: No, I've always performed here. As a matter of fact, my first solo engagement away from the Pips was at Bally's. And at that time it was the largest showroom in Las Vegas.
Sun: What was that experience like?
GK: First time in my life I've been nervous.
When I did my first solo album away from the Pips I was still with the group. I was just doing a solo project at the time. And people were writing me hate mail, like, "Oh, you think you're big-time now? You can do it without the Pips." The public is fickle sometimes.
Sun: The Pips have since retired from music, right?
GK: Yeah, except my crazy brother Bubba (laughs). He comes by and takes over whenever he feels like it. He shows up pretty often; since I've been at the Flamingo it's every night.
But I have to give it to him. He's been supportive, even though I think he was the most hurt by the discontinuation of the group. Because he slept, ate, worked Gladys Knight and the Pips. His life was that.
We stopped at the top. We had a No. 1 record that year in "Love Overboard," but we had already said we didn't want to go out as an oldie-but-goodie group. We wanted to go out while we were still contemporary and making it happen, because then it was our choice and not because people wouldn't accept us anymore on that level.
Sun: What was the early reaction when you split from the Pips?
GK: We did one gig at the Aladdin, and the Pips were still with me. And this guy came up to me after the show -- I was walking through the casino -- and he was just berating me for leaving the group. I said, "What are you talking about? You just got through looking at the Pips."
The Pips and I were 40-some years together. And people needed things that they could count on during those days; we had a lot of social change going on. So you needed to have something you could depend on being stable, and I just think at that time they were fitting us into that category.
Sun: How has your Flamingo engagement worked out so far?
GK: It's been such a blessing. When the Flamingo came along, my children were located and centralized here in Las Vegas. My grandchildren were babies then. Then I found the most wonderful man in the world to share my life with, my husband William.
We get a chance to be in one place and really have a life. We actually have a home here; we're not living out of a hotel. And he actually can have a job and go to work and plan our household and our finances. And we go to church every Sunday. And my grandkids come by here at will, because they live down the street. That kind of thing.
Sun: And you still get to hit the road from time to time, right? I see you have two dates with Smokey Robinson scheduled in the Midwest in January.
GK: Yeah, because there are some people that just will not be able to come to Las Vegas. So I feel like we need to be able to take Las Vegas to them.
Sun: How much has your show changed since you opened at the Flamingo almost two years ago?
GK: Our show has been ever-evolving, and that's for two reasons. One is, we're blessed enough to have repeat business. We have people that have seen the show four or five times. And we'd like to be able to give them something fresh. So every two or three months we'll change the (song) lineup.
Second, it gives us variety. I'll put a song in one night just to keep the band on their toes, so it won't become a complacent kind of thing.
Sun: Celine's show features dancers flying through the air in elaborate costumes. Do you take pride in the fact that you're still packing a showroom with just your voice and your songs?
GK: I come from the old school. Our mentors were people like (choreographer) Cholly Atkins, who touched so many artists in the industry, and Maurice King, who was the head of vocal talent and artist development at Motown Records. They taught us so many things about how to last in the industry and how to love your craft.
For us, it was always about keeping it simple.
Sun: You've spoken about having a gambling addiction during the 1980s. How did that start?
GK: I always did love cards. I used to play solitaire in my dressing room. I didn't have a social outlet. My life belonged to my kids, so I had no time for Gladys.
When I started playing Las Vegas, I went out to a casino and I played a game and liked it. But it took years for me to get to the point where I was addicted to it. I just liked playing cards, and it became something social that I could do.
Playing this city so much everbody knew me, and when I would go to play (cards) the pit bosses and the dealers would look after me. If somebody strange sat down next to me at the table, the pit boss would stand right there and watch. So here was some entertainment, some social activity I could do and feel safe.
And once I started playing baccarat, I found my niche. And then you start getting that rush. Before I knew it I was playing with money I didn't have, and that's when you get in trouble. It was changing my personality and I didn't like that. I started not to like me.
Sun: How were you able to stop?
GK: A simple prayer. I always take my troubles to the Lord and I ask Him for strength. That's how I stopped smoking; that's how I stopped gambling.
One night I took a little bit of money and won something like $65,000 and lost it back within 10 minutes. That wasn't $65,000 I could give away. I could pay my kids' tuition with that. But you don't think like that at the time.
So I went directly to the phone and called Gamblers Anonymous, because I knew I needed help. I went to two meetings, and I just started praying. And before you knew it I'd just exorcised that will, and I didn't do it anymore. I don't even think about it anymore.
As a matter of fact, the ringing of the machines that used to sound so inviting to me sounds like noise to me now.