Gladys Knight & the Pips have won Grammys and American Music Awards, but Knight said Wednesday night that receiving the Heritage Award at the second annual Soul Train Music Awards had special meaning.
“It’s our own honoring our own,” she said.
Speaking backstage at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium after receiving the award, which honors lifetime creative achievements, Knight said that black artists don’t always get their due at the other music awards shows.
“Too many times when we’re dealing with the Grammys or other awards shows, we don’t get our propers . This way, I feel like we do. And it just feels good to be with our folks.”
The sense that black acts aren’t adequately represented in the Grammy process is what led Don Cornelius, founder of the 17-year-old “Soul Train” TV dance program, to start an awards show. The show, distributed nationwide by Tribune Entertainment Co., aired locally on KTTV Channel 11. Dionne Warwick hosted for the second year.
Sitting in the auditorium during the final rehearsals on Wednesday, Cornelius said other awards shows tend to focus on the hottest crossover black superstars: Michael and Janet Jackson, Whitney Houston, Lionel Richie, Prince and Tina Turner.
“They think that by showing their adulation for six black acts that they have adequately supported black music,” he said. “But below those six artists, there are hundreds who make great music (who are overlooked).”
Cornelius, 51, said that Grammy voters tend to favor the most recognizable “brand name” artists--such as Aretha Franklin and Smokey Robinson, who won this year. He theorized that this was why Wilson Pickett, a favorite from the ‘60s, was nominated for a best male R&B; vocal performance Grammy this year, while Freddie Jackson, one of the top artists in black music, was not.
Cornelius also faulted the Grammys and the American Music Awards for not having a separate rap category.
“Rap is an art form that clearly cannot be ignored,” he said.
Other artists, including such mainstream veterans as Warwick and Smokey Robinson, agreed. Sitting in her trailer before the show, Warwick said: “Rap’s here; it’s not going to go away.” And answering questions backstage, Robinson called the rise of rap music the biggest change he’s seen in black music in his long career.
Perhaps because rap acts have been overlooked in other awards shows, they had the best attendance record at Wednesday’s show. Six of the seven rap acts nominated were on hand, including performer Kool Moe Dee, who did a rap-style reading of the rules.
The results of the Soul Train Awards--which are voted on by black artists, program directors and retailers--were largely different from the Grammys. Only two of the 11 Soul Train winners--Whitney Houston and the gospel group the Winans--also won Grammys last month. Five Soul Train winners--Michael and Janet Jackson, Natalie Cole, R&B; trio LeVert and jazz instrumentalist Najee--were Grammy bridesmaids this year. And four others weren’t even nominated at this year’s Grammys: rapper L.L. Cool J, jazz group Hiroshima (the only non-black act to win), gospel singer Vanessa Bell Armstrong, and newcomer Miki Howard.
Howard’s win as best new artist--over such better-known pop personalities as Terence Trent D’Arby and Expose--was the clearest sign that the awards are voted on by people in the black music community. The singer, whose “Come Share My Love” and “Baby, Be Mine” were Top Five R&B; hits, said of her victory: “It showed the support of black music and black people, because I didn’t have a crossover hit.”
Chaka Khan, who participated in the tribute to Gladys Knight, agreed. "(The show) focuses a light on a lot of acts that people don’t get to see because they don’t appear on the pop charts. I think it’s wonderful that black people have something (like this) to acknowledge our existence in the music business,” she said.
“What this world does not need is another awards show.”
The sharp pronouncement of a caustic critic? Not exactly. Those were the words of Steve Binder, who served as Cornelius’ co-executive producer for the second year.
The glut of awards shows notwithstanding, Binder added: “This one is fun because it’s kind of nonpolitical. The awards are not the most important thing on the show. It’s a celebration of black music, so we spend a lot of time doing production numbers with artists.”
Indeed, the most refreshing aspect of the show was its emphasis on live entertainment and its limited use of video. The two-hour program featured 10 performances, which ran the gamut from Natalie Cole’s revved-up version of Bruce Springsteen’s rocker “Pink Cadillac” to Patti LaBelle and the Edwin Hawkins Singers’ moving performance of Mahalia Jackson’s gospel standard “How I Got Over.”
But the most effective spot was the tribute to Knight & the Pips. Rather than air a long biography of the group with old film clips, Binder and Cornelius had four singers perform some of the group’s old hits. Highlights included Chaka Khan’s sexy, funky version of “Nitty Gritty” and Stephanie Mills’ faithful reading of Knight’s heart-stopping “If I Were Your Woman.”
Because the show focused on one genre of music, it had more of a sense of “family” than other awards shows that cover many genres. In accepting the award for best single by a female artist, Cole noted the “importance of being acknowledged by the community.”
Knight was asked how she felt about the group’s old song “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” being turned into a commercial for the raisin industry, and being used as the centerpiece of a hit album by the California Raisins.
“I thought it was fantastic,” she said. “Sometimes you think about it and think, ‘God, a raisin went way up the pop charts.’ But at least they were dark raisins.”