What seemed a ludicrously arrogant ambition in 1972 has become, if not a fact, a possibility. After two Number One hit singles, "Midnight Train to Georgia" and "(I've Got to Use My) Imagination," plus a string of lesser hits, and with sell-out engagements of up to a month at such palaces of pop music's derrière garde as the Waldorf Astoria's Empire Room, Gladys Knight is the kind of star she always wanted to be.
Musically she remains capable of swooping from the grittiest soul to the most maudlin love ballad without losing a grip on the vitality of her Motown records. During her decade at that label, Knight ran the gamut of soul, from dance hits such as "Friendship Train" and "I Heard It through the Grapevine" (one of Motown's basic half-dozen masterpieces) through a series of definitive soul love songs, including the mesmerizing "If I Were Your Woman" and "I Don't Want to Do Wrong." And despite her leaving their production stable, the company has been making hits out of her leftovers, including last year's "Neither One of Us (Wants to Be the First to Say Goodbye)."
The wild frenzy of "Grapevine" and "Friendship Train" was informed by an ominous underside of power, rare in women pop singers. So it was difficult to imagine that Gladys Knight would have had the ability to make a song such as Marvin Hamlisch's "The Way We Were" an object of delight rather than contempt, as she does on I Feel a Song.
That she does it with a voice that has been aptly described as "exquisitely ordinary" makes it more amazing. If Knight does not have the technical brilliance of Dionne Warwicke, she has a breadth of talent which exceeds that of the only other black pop singer to achieve a comparable level of success. On I Feel a Song she is equally comfortable with Burt Bacharach and Neil Simon's show tune, "Seconda," and Jim Weatherly's soul ballad, "The Going Ups and the Coming Downs." If, unlike Aretha Franklin, she can't make incredible music from weak material, she is at least able to drain every ounce of emotion from weaker songs.
While I Feel a Song is closest in spirit to Warwicke's great records of the middle Sixties, Knight goes Warwicke one better: She can sing both black and white pop. Her throaty rasp allows her to approach even the most conventional ballad soulfully, much as Aretha Franklin's innate gospel feel forces her to do the same. And the Pips are a great aid, perhaps showing the way for Warwicke's own return to the charts, backed by another old Motown group, the Spinners, on "Then Came You."
Knight has an impeccable rhythmic sense that has fed most of her hits and was the basis for the success of "The Nitty Gritty" and "Friendship Train" but is given little space to work out on I Feel a Song. There is also nothing so daring here as her collaboration with Curtis Mayfield on the soundtrack for Claudine, especially "On and On." Most of the songs are ballads, the most adventurous being a pair by Bill Withers, "Better You Go Your Way" and "Tenderness Is His Way," neither of which fares particularly well. Withers (who produced the cuts) tries to give Knight the same relatively sparse, singer/songwriter production that works for him. But like Franklin, Knight's earthy voice is shown to best advantage when it must fight through some medium-syrupy confection. Thus, Jim Weatherly's sentimental "The Need to Be" fares much better with the aid of Tony Camillo's lush production.
In some ways, I Feel a Song seems like an ungainly montage of unconnected material, but Knight develops an identity within it. On the one hand, she is a mature woman, singing from the struggle and strife she has seen. That's what makes her "The Way We Were" so much more interesting than Streisand's. But she is also a furious hellion, an archetypal scorned woman. "I Feel a Song," perhaps the album's strongest number, is about vengeance, pure and simple, even going so far as to include the ultimate twisting of the knife: "He makes me feel like a woman/Something you never could." And in Weatherly's "The Need to Be," she makes the kind of tough-hearted statement of purpose that belies the complaisance of their earlier "Midnight Train to Georgia": "There's a need to be something more than just a reflection of a man/I can't survive in someone else's shadow."
The album suffers from the lack of a single blockbuster along the lines of "Georgia" or "Imagination." But it's more even than Imagination. Especially on the first side, every song is worth hearing. (The second side contains three songs over four minutes long, making it a bit unwieldy.) The album as a whole is satisfying in the way that neither Imagination nor Claudine is. And this is true despite the number of different producers: Burt Bacharach has a cut, Kenny Kerner and Richie Wise, Buddah's house team, have two, as do Bill Withers and Tony Camillo, and Gladys and the Pips, who are credited with coproduction on most cuts, did one on th