“Empress of Soul” Gladys Knight, 67, takes a break from her “multi-month” engagement at the Tropicana Las Vegas’ new Gladys Knight Theater to perform at the Hollywood Bowl on Wednesday evening, sharing a bill with fellow Grammy winner James Ingram.
Thanks for speaking to me, especially since I understand you’re on vocal rest. Is it tough having a resident show in Las Vegas and singing night after night?
Not really. I did it before at the Flamingo for five years, and it was great. When I came into the Tropicana I came in with a little vocal deficit because the climate was changing and the room we were changing over as well, and it was freezing cold when we started. The air conditioning had a detrimental effect on my voice, and before I knew it, I had acute bronchitis. And then it went into acute laryngitis.
Did you take time off?
My doctor wanted to pull me out that night, but I’m kind of anal when it comes to my audience. If they’ve come from far to see me or they’ve paid to see me, I feel an obligation to be there. If I’m vocally at a point where I’m just so terribly hoarse and, please don’t laugh at me, but God sings for me when I ask him to. During those times, I could not speak a word when I get up in the morning. And I do my routine where I’m drinking my teas and I’m doing my prayer, and by the time I get to the show at night, I have enough vocal to get through my show and not be embarrassed. But then I got to the point, because I wasn’t able to rest and get off, that it went out on me, and I woke up one morning and it just didn’t come. My doctor said, “You’ve got to do one thing, and I know it’s tough for you, because I know you and I know your personality. You’ve got to shut up.”
So now you’re working on a new album with Randy Jackson? That will be your 39th?
Yes, it’s about somewhere up in there. But I love working with Randy. We did a couple of Grammy albums together, and he was just coming into his own at Universal when me and the Pips came over years and years and years ago. He worked with me and the Pips, then after I did my last thing with him, he worked with me. We just hit it off. We feel the same things and hear the same things. This was before “American Idol.”
How is your new album shaping up?
I’m really excited about it, because it’s fresh and new. I have a thing about working with young people. I adore them. Some of the things they do and the places that they go, I’m not in favor of. The drug thing I don’t deal with that, but their music over the years has been extraordinary. And the way that they had to come about doing it, from the way we came up doing it, we had mentors and role models. They didn’t have that. They had to get in their living rooms and their attics and make this music, because nobody was there saying, ‘OK, let me help you do that.’ I respect them for that. And they’ve got things going on that has changed music, and that’s one thing I like about the business. It’s ever-changing. And see I’m a Gemini, so I like change.
So one side of you keeps your fans happy with greatest hits and the other continues to grow as an artist.
Yes, you got it. We have this song on [the new album] called “Old School.” I’m telling about my life, but it’s to the new stuff. I’ve even got a rap on there. I’m not rapping, but one of my little nephews is rapping on it. It is so now. And it’s not a dirty rap. It’s talking about how we fuse yesterday with today.
When is your album coming out?
By the end of August, they’re telling me.
To go back to “American Idol,” that’s similar to how your career started, winning the grand prize on the “Ted Mack Amateur Hour.”
It’s exactly how my career started. They just have a little different flavor to it.
How do those shows compare as launch pads, and do you identify with the contestants?
I like the fact that they get a start, where we just got a prize. And after you got that prize it was up to you to continue your career if you chose to back in my day or not. With “American Idol,” they’re giving you a pass to get launched on, and it’s up to you what you do with it. But I really love that they’re getting the opportunity to show their gift. And they work with them as well. A lot of kids come out there and they don’t know nothing from nothing. They teach them how to go onstage, what they should be doing with their hands, how to perform. That’s what I want my school to be.
I read that many years ago you kicked a gambling addiction. Does that make living in Las Vegas where you can’t go to the laundromat without hearing bells a challenge?
I don’t hear them anymore. I really don’t. I feel so blessed. And I always have to bring this element into whatever I do. I have a faith that’s unbendable as far as my Lord and Savior is concerned. I try to go in the way I’m supposed to go, and if I fall short, I ask for help. I got into gambling when I was playing a casino. I was a hermit in those days. I would go onstage, go to my room, or if we had to travel, I’d get in a car or a plane, whatever. But I didn’t do anything. One day, this friend of mine said, “Do you want to play some blackjack?” So I started playing, and I enjoyed it. I started spending my time doing that. And you’re talking about a dollar table. And I remember when I graduated up to $20. And when my kids got in college — I’m telling you the real deal — I had gone through a nasty divorce, I spent over a million dollars looking for my son after he got kidnapped. And I was broke.
When was that?
Thirty years ago because he’s 33 now.
And how long was he gone?
Five or six months.
How did you get him back?
Well, let me see. Can I tell that? Let’s just say it was a covert operation. But I spent a whole lot of money doing it. All of it, as a matter of fact. But I didn’t care. It was my baby. I was broke and yes, I had to go to work double-time, but it was OK with me.
When they got to college, it was really hard for me, so if they called me for something — like, “I need books” — I would play, and I would win. And you should never win. Winning is how they get you. Because you think you’ll win everything, and you won’t. And I just woke up one day and said this don’t make no sense. I had gotten $2,000. And within 25, 30 minutes, I had won 60 grand. And I sat right at that table and gave every dime of it back. And I just got sick at the table. And I got up, went to the phone and called Gamblers Anonymous. And the lady on the phone said, “Where are you? We’ll come get you.” That was about 15, 20 years ago. And I went to one meeting. That was all I had to go to.