Take piano or some other musical instrument lesson, because that would have helped me with whatever I decided to do in the music business from performing, writing, producing, arranging…whatever.
As a part of our series about music stars who are making an important social impact, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Merald Woodrow “Bubba” Knight, Jr.
He is a legendary veteran Pop and Soul singer as well as a talented businessman, best known as one of the founding members of Gladys Knight & The Pips. The older brother of lead singer Gladys Knight, Bubba Knight served as the leader of the family group. He’s a multiple Grammy Award winner and was inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
My entire family sang in church. My parents brought us up in the church and we all sang in the choir while growing up.
However, a defining moment (that probably started us on our career path) was on September 4, 1952, at my 10th birthday party which was being held In the backyard of our family home. Our neighbor, who was at the birthday party, had brought his record player over but didn’t like the records we were playing, got angry and left the party and took his record player home. So, we didn’t have any more music. To keep the party going, my sisters Brenda and Gladys, my cousins Eleanor and William Guest and I decided to sing as a group to entertain the folks that were still at the party.
My mother, Elizabeth Knight (Mama Knight), liked what she heard from us and after the party asked us if we wanted to be a group. We all voted yes, and the rest is history.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career? What was the lesson or take-away that you took out of that story?
As a preteen, my mother (Elizabeth/Mama Knight) told me that an addictive “gene” was in our family’s DNA and to stay away from alcohol and drugs. My first time in NYC, and my first time performing at the Apollo Theater, we were turning off of 125th street onto Lexington Avenue, and I saw a drug addict helplessly nodding off on the street corner. My takeaway was that I decided then and there that I didn’t want to live or die like that. So, thanks to my mother, I have always been alcohol and drug free.
What would you advise a young person who wants to emulate your success?
A. Be true to yourself:
B. Get the best education and/or training you can:
C. Be passionate about your talents;
D. PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE…. “That’s the way to get to Carnegie Hall” (according to our Choreographer, Cholly Atkins). Practice is how to succeed in the top venues as a performing artist;
E. Be aware of your finances and take care of your money.
Can you please give us your favorite life lesson quote…can you explain how that was relevant in your life?
I want to share three of my favorite quotes, from my mother, with you that have guided me along the way…A. “Nothing beats a failure, but a try”; B. “Together we stand and divided we fall”; C. “A family that prays together stays together”.
None of us our able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
There are a number of people that were instrumental in the success of Gladys Knight and the Pips. Of course, for me, my mother (Elizabeth/Mama Knight) was the most important in helping us achieve our success…she was our inspiration, in good times and bad. She told me to always have the “faith of a mustard seed”. She then gave me a small transparent marble with a mustard seed inside, to hang around my neck, reminding me to always keep the faith, keeping GOD first and THAT faith provided me with the wherewithal to help us creatively develop our first #1 hit record at Motown, “I Heard it Through the Grapevine”. Other influencers were:
Our first manager, our cousin PIP, who the group is named after, helped us to break into the entertainment business in Atlanta, Georgia entering us into talent shows (that we won) which exposed us to the nightclub scene and jobs with Mr. Henry Wynn’s “Supersonic Attraction” Tours that exposed us to other big-name artists, i.e., BB King, Sam Cook and Jackie Wilson.
Maurice King, a famous conductor and arranger for an all-female band called the ‘Sweethearts of Rhythm’ out of Detroit, was our vocal and harmony coach. He also produced our first record called ‘Whistle my Love’ on Brunswick Records in the late ’50s.
Marguerite Mays, the ex-wife of Baseball Hall of Famer Willie Mays, became our manager after we left Atlanta, and helped us to create our sense of fashion style as well as helped to take our career to the next level.
Cholly Atkins (Pop Atkins), dancer/performer (Coles and Atkins dancing team), actor and choreographer…gave the PIPS their dancing identity.
Our management, accounting and legal team, Sidney A. Seidenberg, Floyd Lieberman and Irwin Spiegel Osher helped us to keep our “business” running smoothly and successfully.
Now let’s shift to the main focus of our interview… How are you using your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share with us the meaningful or exciting “social impact causes” that you are working on right now…i.e., “Thank you for the Love”
As a member of Gladys Knight and the PIPS, we always tried to present a positive image and attitude to the public. That impacts your fans and others watching you. We always liked to sing music with positive and uplifting lyrics, i.e. “Friendship Train”. We wanted to be the best we could be which would hopefully influence others in the entertainment business to be the best they could be. We tried to lead by example. We also fought against Apartied in South Africa refusing to perform there at one time because of their laws. We campaigned for numerous African American mayors throughout the years.
Recently, I have provided financial support for numerous political and humanitarian causes and charities as well as did PSA’s for various get out the vote campaigns and for voting rights, etc. All of this was happening during the same time frame that I was working on the “Thank you for the Love” project. The purpose of the song was to bring more love to the world, and in particular, the medical communities. I wrote this song thanking the doctors, nurses and frontline workers for their heroism during this pandemic.
Can you tell us the backstory about what originally inspired you to feel passionate about this cause and to do something about it?
I was emotionally inspired to write this song because the medical staff at a NYC hospital assisted a very dear relative of mine (Madeline Hall/Auntie MAC) who was dying of COVID-19. She was alone, quarantined and isolated in the hospital and could not have any family, etc. to visit and support her. The nursing staff provided her with an iPhone so that her children could speak to her before she passed.
Many of us have ideas, dreams and passions, but never manifest it, but you did. Was there and “aha” moment that you were actually going to step up and take action for this cause? What was that final trigger?
What happened with “MAC” was the initial catalyst, but in addition to what happened with her was watching all of the daily news reports about the impact of COVID-19 on the public and the valiant efforts and struggles that all of the doctors, nurses and frontline workers were experiencing every day as they tried to save lives during this pandemic. That was the final trigger.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
The children and extended family of Madeline Hall were very happy knowing that their mother inspired a song to be written in her honor.
Are there 3 things that individuals, society or the government can do to support you in this effort?
My hope is that individuals will share with others our song, “Thank you for the Love”. In addition, I hope that our song encourages others to reach out and show love and respect to those folks doing so much to make our world a better place. And, finally, my hope is that our government and governments around the world would use our song, Thank you for the Love, as a message of gratitude for all medical communities and others needing a “thank you” in our societies.
Here is the main question of our interview….What are your 5 things I wish someone told me when I first started and why?
- Take piano or some other musical instrument lesson, because that would have helped me with whatever I decided to do in the music business from performing, writing, producing, arranging…whatever.
- Take acting and dance classes, because I would have been more confident in all of my skills, early on, and would have extended my outreach in the performing arts. As a young person, I wasn’t as confident and my confidence and self-esteem had to grow over time.
- I wish someone had told me to more attention to my finances because in show business it is important to know the details of your finances, to save and invest wisely and prepare for the days when you are no longer performing….”One day chicken, the next day feathers” (Cholly Atkins/Pop).
- I wish someone had told me to pay more attention to and to beware of the people out there who would use my talents and who would “rip me off”, because there were many times I did not receive deserved credit and or compensation for my work, i.e. never received compensation/royalties for records, “Whistle my Love” or “Every Beat of My Heart”.
- I wish someone had told me that one ‘hit’ record would not keep me from starving…as an African American…especially in NYC, or anyplace for that matter while trying to pursue a show business career. Most of the time, while in NYC, I only had 25 cents in my pocket for a “dirty dog” from various street vendors on which I survived.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that could bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea will trigger.
If I could start and maintain a “pay it forward” campaign of a Love, kindness and togetherness movement…that would be my choice.
We are blessed that some of the biggest names in business, VC funding, politics, sports and entertainment read this column. Is there a “person” in the world or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with and why? He or she might just see this, if we tag this.
Actually, there are a few that I would love to sit down and have a private conversation with:
- Ms. Oprah Winfrey, because I used to use her name while performing with my sister, Gladys, and my ‘punchline was’….” because I know Oprah’. Actually, I have never met her and I would like to make that statement TRUE!
- I would love to meet with President Barack Obama. While at the White House on one occasion, I did not have the opportunity to meet with him and would love that opportunity in the future.
- And, I would love to have time with Mr. Tyler Perry, because I have had the opportunity to meet him, but I have not had a chance to sit down and have a private breakfast, lunch or dinner with him. I would love to be able to enhance my acting skills under his tutelage and work in some of his movies.
Thank you so much for these amazing insights. This was so inspiring, and we wish you continued success!