William Guest, a founding member of the legendary soul music groups, Gladys Knight & the Pips, has died in Detroit at age 74. Guest was one of the most recognizable figures in the soul music world during the group’s tremendous heyday, all the way through its break up in 1989.
Gladys Knight and the Pips formed in 1953 and performed together around their home state of Georgia for several years before they began recording in the early 60s. They scored a couple R&B hits on small labels, including “Every Beat of My Heart” and “Letter Full of Tears.” But it was their 1965 signing by Motown that gave them their first major national exposure. Considered the beautiful Southern darling by other artists at Motown, Knight was not always given the attention of Motown brass, and her career at the label was clearly one of a “secondary” artist, though she did record a number of memorable songs. Working with producer Norman Whitfield, Knight was generally given rawer, gutsier material than most of her Motown labelmates, and her group scored big R&B hits with the original, funky version of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” (later remade into a smash by Marvin Gaye), as well as the dance cuts “Friendship Train” and “Nitty Gritty.” However, when given the chance, Knight also proved herself a great balladeer, such as on “If I Were Your Woman” and her last Motown hit, “Neither One of Us.”
In 1973, Gladys Knight and the Pips moved to Buddah Records, where, working with writer Jim Weatherly, they took on a more sophisticated sound that blended the Pips smooth harmonies with Knight’s gritty lead vocals. The results were memorable, and the group became perhaps the top Soul group of the mid-70s, boasting a string of number one hits including “I’ve Got To Use My Imagination,” “I Feel A Song,” “Best Thing That Every Happened” and their biggest song, “Midnight Train To Georgia.” It was on this song that The Pips always-fantastic choreography became iconic, backing Knight with memorable group dancing that was mimicked for years.
The hits slowed down for the group as the 70s came to a close, and they moved to Columbia, where, recording with hotter young producers such as Leon Sylvers, they rose again to the top of the Soul charts with “Landlord,” “You’re Number One (In My Book”)” and the smash dance hit “Save The Overtime.” They later signed with MCA, where they scored in 1987 with their last major crossover hit, “Love Overboard.”
In 1989, after over three decades together, Gladys and the Pips decided to go their separate ways. The Pips recorded one album without Gladys before retiring. Knight, on the other hand, moved smoothly into a solo career, which continues to this day. The group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006.
For the last two decades of his life, Guest continued in the music industry, mostly as the President of Crew Entertainment Company, an organization he formed. He also recorded solo now and again (check out this video of a relatively recent song) While he was in the public spotlight less, he remained busy and revered in music circles.
William Guest played an indelible role in soul music for three decades and participated in some of the greatest songs of soul music’s Golden Era. He will be greatly missed.
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