Gladys Knight, aka the Empress of Soul, has 11 number one R&B singles and six number one albums throughout her storied career. Made famous thanks in part to her decades spent with The Pips, Knight is a seven-time Grammy Award winner and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee along with her former group. (In short: she’s kind of a big deal.)
The 74-year-old legend, whose career spans over 60 years, takes center stage at the Super Bowl this year singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” just before the New England Patriots take on the Los Angeles Rams in Atlanta, the singer’s home state. “I’m proud to use my voice to unite and represent our country in my hometown of Atlanta,” the singer said in a statement.
The Empress joins other legendary artists who have previously sung the Super Bowl National Anthem including Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, Diana Ross, Christina Aguilera, Lady Gaga, and Neil Diamond.
Knight, whose net worth is currently $28 million, is best known for her hits “Midnight Train to Georgia” and “That’s What Friends Are For,” which both reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1973 and 1986, respectively. Here are five fast facts you need to know about the soul singer.
1. Knight is One of Rolling Stone‘s 100 Greatest Singers of All Time
Knight’s advice about great singing: “Just sing the song and say the words.” Throughout her career, Knight meshed pure soul power with the DNA of classic pop to deliver hits like “Midnight Train to Georgia” and “Neither One of Us (Wants to Be the First to Say Goodbye).” Her seriousness in her soul is evident in the way she records; when recording the coda to “Midnight Train,” her brother, Bubba (one of the renowned Pips), sang the parts live in her headphones while she delivered them in her distinctive style.
As Mariah Carey said when inducting Knight into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, “She’s like a textbook to learn from. You hear her delivery and you wish you could communicate with as much honesty and emotion as she does.”
2. Knight Hit it Big With The Pips in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s
In 1966, Gladys Knight & the Pips were signed to Motown Records and although the label didn’t put much faith in the act, the outfit scored several major hits including “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” “Take Me in Your Arms and Love Me,” and “If I Were Your Woman.” Early in their career, they opened for acts like Berry Gordy and Diana Ross and The Supremes. In her memoirs entitled Between Each Line of Pain and Glory: My Life Story, Knight stated that Ross kicked her off the tour because her performance was overshadowing The Supremes.
Three of Knight’s Grammys were award to her during her time with The Pips: In 1974, the group won Best R&B Vocal Performance by a Duo, Group or Chorus for “Midnight Train to Georgia” and Best Pop Vocal Performance by a Duo, Group or Chorus for “Neither One of Us (Wants to Be the First to Say Goodbye)”. Toward the end of their career as a foursome, the group won Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal for “Love Overboard” in 1988. After 21 chart-topping singles and over 37 years together, the group disbanded shortly after while Knight pursued a solo career.
3. Knight Continued Her Reign as a Pop Deity and Solo Artist in the ’80s and ’90s
Knight joined Dionne Warwick, Stevie Wonder, and Elton John on the 1986 AIDS benefit single, “That’s What Friends Are For,” which was a celebrated mega-hit and won a Grammy for Best Pop Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocal. The singer kept soaring. In 1989 she had the honor of recording the title track for the James Bond movie Licence to Kill, which became a Top 10 hit overseas in the UK and Germany.
Her most successful solo outing was her third record, Good Woman, which released in 1991 via MCA. The album hit number one on the R&B album chart and showcased the wildly popular single “Men.” The album also featured “Superwoman,” a track written by Babyface that featured guest vocals from Warwick and Patti LaBelle. The song was nominated for a Grammy in 1992. Her follow-up album, Just for You, went Gold and was also nominated for a Grammy, this time for Best R&B Album.
4. The Singer Was Married Four Times and Has Three Children
Knight married her first husband, musician Jimmy Newman, when she was just Sweet 16. The couple had two children (Jimmy and Kenya) before Newman abandoned the family and died a few years later as a result of his drug addiction. Her second marriage to Barry Hankerson ended in 1979 after a five-year custody battle over her third and youngest son, Shanga.
Knight married author and motivational speaker Les Brown in 1995, but the marriage was short-lived, only lasting two years. In 2001, she married William McDowell, a corporate consultant; the couple has 17 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.
5. The Singer Recently Sold Her Las Vegas Estate and Studio
Last year, Knight and McDowell sold their Vegas estate for $720,000. According to the LA Times, the privately-gated Mediterranean-style home was built in 1971 and sat on half an acre. The grounds included a large motor court, lawn, and a swimming pool. The two-story house boasted a two-story entry and a sunken living room with beamed ceilings. Four fireplaces were scattered throughout its six bedrooms, two of which had a front-facing balcony. Unsurprisingly, the home came with a professional recording studio as well.
Knight and her husband now live in Fairview, N.C. near where her beau grew up. Last month, the couple launched a fundraising campaign for the Reynolds Community Center in Canton, N.C., located at the site of the original Reynolds High School. The now-closed institution was once the only African-American high school in Western North Carolina, according to Citizen Times. Knight and her husband purchased the site at an auction in 2015 for $80,000 to help preserve the history of the area and give it back to the community.
“I know this is where we are supposed to be,” Knight said last month. Knight fondly remembered making kites at a community center as a child, using her memories as inspiration for the project which will give back to a community that could use the help. “Little things like that give you the inspiration to go on to do other things that you never knew you could,” she said. “That’s what this school is all about.”
When finished, the property will have a music center, a kitchen, counseling services for those struggling with addiction, activities for kids, a food pantry, a computer lab, exercise rooms, and an outdoor athletic field and track. Knight has even put on benefit concerts at the site in order to try to raise funds for the center.