On July 27, the Hollywood Bowl gave a double feature of Gladys Knight and James Ingram, accompanied by the LA Jazz Philharmonic Orchestra. Of course, all the billboards and advertisements listed Gladys Knight first, and then James Ingram; and at the actual event, Ingram performed first. The Empress of Soul would warrant nothing less than to be promoted first and saved for last. And it was clear that most of the audience members had come for Gladys. Not that James Ingram didn’t hold his own that evening.
The show began at eight o’ clock pm although there was an optional picnic at 6:30 – apparently by “picnic,” they meant finding a vacant nook in one of the many gloomy outdoor landings of the Bowl and try to avoid the throng of hungry fans. It was a packed day all right – seeing the Empress for $75 general admission is a deal to pounce on, and the audience was diverse – older fans who were alive during the Motown era were trying to focus on the music while drunken college students dared to threaten their moment of nostalgia.
James Ingram was as debonair as ever and looked not a day over 59. His booming baritone and flirtatious quips created an ambiance worthy of wine and candles, going hand-in-hand with the jazz instrumentals. The enormous amphitheatre was transmuted into a nightclub as the band provided haunting accompaniments to some of his hit songs – including his 1990 single “I Don’t Have the Heart” and his stunning collaboration with Quincy Jones in 1981, “Just Once.” He also gave us a glimpse of his droll, hyperactive side with songs like “Yah-Mo Be There,” “One Hundred Ways,” and “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)” – as a tribute to the King of Pop and also a song that he actually wrote. The first half of the concert could have been called “Things We Don’t Know About James Ingram.”
As legendary as James Ingram is, he probably knew the danger of singing before Gladys Knight. Her entrance onto the stage (which wasn’t even a real entrance) will always remain etched in the memories of those who were present. After the Ingram’s performance and the intermission, the stage lit up and the background singers entered the foreground. The song began with just their voices while everyone was wondering where in the world Gladys Knight was. Suddenly, the platform (the one on which the band was sitting) spun around, revealing Knight dressed in white, beaming with a resplendent glow. The band went crazy, and so did the crowd.
As much as Gladys Knight is a singer, she is a world-class story teller. Stories were mixed with song in the classical blues tradition, meant to evoke both laughter and heartbreak. During the concert, she gave advice to women, preached a mini sermon, talked about redemption from sin, and discussed her favorite film (Forrest Gump). She performed songs that would be forever attached to her name, like “If I Were Your Woman” and “Midnight Train to Georgia,” but she also sang the more general Motown classics like “Love Train” and “I Heard it Through the Grapevine,” perhaps just for the sake of hearkening back to a different era, to a time when music was more coy and velvet fringed. (“I miss the romance in music,” she said at one point during the concert, and all the old people nodded.).
Like Ingram, there were many jazz elements (including numerous improvised solos) layered over her usual idiosyncratic take on soul. I also realized during this concert just how much her style tends more towards gospel than towards the smooth R&B we’d expect. She had two surprise guest performers – Bebe Winans and Bubba Knight (Gladys’s brother and fellow Pip). Winans and Knight gave a heartrendingly romantic interpretation of Winans’s “Close to You,” while Bubba Knight was brazenly there to give comedic support. Though he too is an amazingly talented vocalist, his moment to shine consisted of James Brown-inspired dancing and complaints about his more famous sister. The brother and sister acted as if the former’s surprise performance was entirely unplanned. To put it kindly, Gladys and Bubba are much better musicians than they are actors, but nonetheless the rapport between the two was most charming.
Though without an encore, Gladys Knight gave a more than crowd-pleasing performance, proving that she is worth the legendary status that she has had for our generation.