I’ve got a little tradition of highlighting female vocalists around here, especially the extremely young female vocalists of the late fifties and early sixties who were the catalysts for one of the most liberating and least understood chapters of the revolution…the freeing of the female voice in mainstream American life. I try to highlight it here because it’s been too little remarked elsewhere.
Since I’m always looking and listening for ways of understanding what they did, I occasionally bump into something worth sharing, in this case the remarkable (and remarkably similar) stories of Brenda Lee and Gladys Knight.
Gladys Maria Knight: Born May 28, 1944. Atlanta, GA
Brenda Mae Tarpley (aka Lee): Born December 11, 1944. Atlanta, GA
Gladys began singing, more or less professionally, when she was four.
Brenda began singing, more or less professionally, when she was five.
Gladys was first to television, on Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour, in 1952, at age 7 (without the Pips).
Brenda had to wait until 1955, when she was 10 and signed to Red Foley’s Ozark Mountain Jubilee.
Brenda recorded her first record, at age 11, in 1956.
Gladys recorded her first record, at age 14, in 1958.
Brenda had her breakout hit, “Sweet Nothin’s,” in December of 1959, just after her fifteenth birthday. It reached #4.
Gladys (with the Pips) had her breakout hit, “Every Beat of My Heart,” in early May of 1961, just before her seventeenth birthday. It reached #6.
In Joel Whitburn’s end-of-the-century edition of Top Pop Singles, the last to chart the rock and roll era proper, Lee ranked 32nd and Knight 41st among all acts who charted between 1955 and 1999.
Knight (with the Pips) was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996. Lee was inducted in 2002.
Like pretty much every female rock or soul vocalist before Janis and Aretha, they were/are vastly under-appreciated. Like nearly every one of those vocalists they had a tale to tell, only a small portion of which is included in these two interviews which I happened to stumble across on two very different journeys in the last few weeks.
Like anything either has ever said, whichever part of the tale they happen to be telling is worth attending:
And yeah, one was black and one was white.
But if we failed to become one, it wasn’t their fault…