Gladys Knight & the O’Jays Keep Soul Alive In Chicagoland (a review)

On a recent night in and around Chicago there were several simultaneous concert choices, each with their own intrigue and each beckoning a different generation (and genre) of music fans.  

At Wrigley Field, just a few CTA train stops from home – for the Gen-Xers – there was ‘90s grunge-rock super group Pearl Jam, featuring hometown hero Eddie Vedder.  

At the United Center just a 25-minute walk from my place in the opposite direction, the millennials had Drake, the biggest-selling rapper of the current decade.

And a full hour’s drive from home in Aurora, IL at RiverEdge Park were two legendary soul icons from the 1970s – give or take a decade: Gladys Knight (sans the Pips) and the O’Jays.

I went the distance and chose soul.

Gladys Knight is co-billed with the O’Jays on a joint 2018 National Tour.

My choice was a no-brainer.  I like Pearl Jam and Drake.  But those acts didn’t represent what I was feeling this past week, especially with the loss of one of soul music’s greatest icons in Aretha Franklin just days earlier.  My soul palette needed satisfying – and Gladys and the O’Jays were the perfect servers. 

Given both Gladys’ and the O’Jays’ legendary status, my concert choice was likely easier than the dilemma facing the show’s promoters, who had to decide which of these two should be the opening act for the other.

Should it be Gladys – the 74-year-old diva who’s been recording professionally for sixty years and is the owner of 55 Billboard R&B chart hits, including ten Number Ones?

Or the O’Jays, featuring legendary original vocalists Eddie LeVert and Walter Williams who, like Gladys, have ten Number One R&B hits among 59 R&B chart entries?

Oh, and they each have had similar crossover success, including a signature No. 1 pop single (“Midnight Train To Georgia” for Gladys; “Love Train” for the O’Jays) – both in the year 1973 (likely the only year in which two songs with “Train” in their titles reached No. 1).

So it could have easily come down to a coin flip that Gladys – and not the O’Jays – would play the role of stage warmer on this breezy summer evening at the outdoor venue at RiverEdge Park.

Recording artist Gladys Knight performs onstage at the Clive Davis and Recording Academy Pre-GRAMMY Gala and GRAMMY Salute to Industry Icons Honoring Jay-Z on January 27, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Lester Cohen/Getty Images for NARAS)

Gladys, who is still looking very good I might add, got things rolling with an interesting set of medleys of her hits paired with those by others.  First was the 1987 No. 1 R&B smash, “Love Overboard,” which she paired with the 2018 hit “Finesse,” by Bruno Mars/Cardi B.  On the latter tune, Ms. Knight smartly stuck with Bruno’s singing parts, eschewing Cardi’s rap.

She kept the medley theme going with the next set of tunes – an energetic combo of her own Motown-era hit “Nitty Gritty” and the Jacksons 1979 disco smash, “Shake Your Body (Down To The Ground).”  It was as perplexing as the first duo of songs as no one could have seen this mashup coming. 

Knight would later dip into the Bruno Mars well once again by cleverly combining his 2013 hit “When I Was Your Man” (vocals provided by a male backup singer) with her “If I Were Your Woman.”  As the Bruno tune played, we all should have seen that song connection coming, particularly anyone who knows her vast hits catalog.  The segue between the two was as natural as it seamless as it was natural. 

Gladys kept things light for the better part of her show, even with the weight of Soul Queen Aretha Franklin’s passing just two days earlier still looming.  There was no mention of Aretha, but there were plenty of jokes and story-telling.  For instance, during her first hit – 1961’s “Every Beat Of My Heart,” itself a slow-dragging ballad – she joked how the song evoked teenage memories of that alone time spent in the basement with that special someone while the parents were upstairs. After holding one particularly long note, she playfully interrupted, “by that time your mama comes down the stairs, flips the light switch and catches the two of you in the act (of making out of course).  Never mind that the two lovebirds had unscrewed every lightbulb in the basement.”

The picture she painted was vivid and real, and it (along with that long-held note) sparked laughter and applause from the audience.

Gladys Knight during her Motown Records days.

Gladys later spoke fondly of her years at Motown and its family-like atmosphere.  When one doubter in the audience challenged her Motown lineage, Gladys responded “yes, I was (with Motown)” in a way that a school-aged kid might when trying to convince her parents she’d done her chores for the day.  (As quiet as it’s kept, Gladys & the Pips scored as many hits for Motown – on its Soul subsidiary – as they did for Buddah Records.)

Gladys then proceeded to give historical insights that only a Motown insider could give before performing her and the Pips’ original recording of their Hitsville U.S.A. classic “I Heard It Through The Grapevine,” the song she jokingly reminded folks that Marvin Gaye stole from them a year after their version topped the charts.

There were other pop culture nuggets as well, like the story of how Gladys discovered that her song “I’ve Got To Use My Imagination” was used for the 1994 motion picture “Forrest Gump,” or her current disdain for text messaging and social media in the 21st century.

My favorite musical moment was her performance of the Claudine soundtrack hit “Make Yours A Happy Home,” during which she hit every piercing high note from the original Curtis Mayfield-produced tune.  It was too bad she didn’t include fellow Claudine hit  “On and On” in the set list.

Gladys finished the 12-song set with that lone No. 1 pop hit “Midnight Train To Georgia,” for which she enlisted the crowd to perform the Pips’ backing parts.  Everyone knows that the song is as famous for its background vocals as it is for Gladys’ lead – maybe even more so.  As proof, the crowd sang every backing part to perfection, all the way down to the “woo-woos” during each chorus.

And with its completion, Gladys exited the stage as gracefully as she entered.

The current O’Jays (from left): Eddie LeVert, Eric Grant and Walter Williams.

The O’Jays took the stage some 30 minutes later by kicking off with “Ship Ahoy,” the spine-chilling title track from their 1973 album.  It was a dubious choice – and a particularly ominous one – given its slavery-themed subject matter (including images of the Middle Passage shown on the venue’s large screens as the song played).  That is until singer Eddie LeVert later explained why the group chose to open with that socially conscious track.

“If you’re wondering why we opened with ‘Ship Ahoy,’ it’s because we want you to know that we are NOT going back to those days,” LeVert said in a clear reference to the current administration’s MAGA movement and its perceived goals by many people across the country.

Things got lighter as the O’Jays continued with hits like “Time To Get Down” and the jubilant “Livin’ For The Weekend,” followed by more romantic fare with a medley of “Forever Mine” and “Darlin’ Darlin’ Baby” (still my personal fave by them). 

The O’Jays’ main draw – aside from the skilled penmanship of their famed Philly International writers and producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff – has always been the juxtaposition of their two lead vocalists, with the smooth-as-fine-wine tenor of Walter Williams alternating with the gruff, church-like vocals of Eddie LeVert.  There was no shortage of that on this night, as the two traded vocals on ‘70s classics like “Back Stabbers,” “I Love Music,” and “Love Train” – the latter of which included video footage of the group’s 1983 performance of the tune on Soul Train. 

There were also ballads aplenty, including the soul-stirring “Let Me Make Love To You,” “Stairway To Heaven” (no, not the Zeppelin song) and “Cry Together,” which featured a long spoken-word intro by LeVert.  

Not to be left out of the night’s medley theme started by Gladys, the O’Jays biggest highlight was a ten-song medley of their hits including Number Ones like “Message In Our Music” and “Lovin’ You,” plus their original version of Third World’s classic, “Now That We’ve Found Love” from the Ship Ahoy album.  Eddie was quick to remind folks that his group had done the song first.

Ship Ahoy, from 1973, was the O’Jays’ first platinum-certified album.

The O’Jays even included in the mix the song “Brandy,” the 1978 ballad that was written for a deceased pet dog, although they’re likely not inclined to admit that piece of trivia today.  

The trio – which now includes Eric Grant alongside LeVert and Williams – saved their best crowd pleasers for last.  After “Back Stabbers,” the group did their still-beautiful No. 1 ballad “Use Ta Be My Girl,” followed by the show’s closer “For The Love Of Money,” the song that arguably competes with “Love Train” as the O’Jays’ signature tune.

Like Gladys, the O’Jays didn’t dwell on the news that had rocked many music fans just days earlier.  There was no mention of Aretha Franklin’s passing.  Just some good old-school soul music to remind us of the days when all three acts were topping the charts with regularity.

Ultimately what started off as a sad weekend for soul music fans ended on a high note, at least in Chicagoland.  It’s a rare thing to catch two legendary Rock and Roll Hall of Fame acts with 20 Number One soul hits, more than 110 chart entries and over 100 years of collective experience between them on the same billing.

Gladys Knight and the O’Jays gave us a good taste of the vast catalog of classics they both spent decades creating.

And that taste was oh so sweet – both to the ears… and to the soul!

DJRob

Gladys’ RiverEdge Park Set List, August 18, 2018:

  1. “Love Overboard”/“Finesse” (Bruno Mars cover; medley)
  2. “Nitty Gritty”/“Shake Your Body (Down To The Ground)” (Jacksons cover; medley)
  3. “Make Yours a Happy Home”
  4. “Every Beat Of My Heart”
  5. “Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me”
  6. “Stay With Me” (Sam Smith cover)
  7. “I Heard It Through The Grapevine”
  8. “I Don’t Wanna Do Wrong”
  9. “When I Was Your Man” (Bruno Mars cover by backup singer)/ “If I Were Your Woman”
  10. “I’ve Got To Use My Imagination”
  11. “Neither One Of Us (Wants To Be The First To Say Goodbye)”
  12. “Midnight Train To Georgia”

O’Jays’ RiverEdge Park Set List, August 18, 2018: 

  1. “Ship Ahoy”
  2. “Time To Get Down”
  3. “Livin’ For The Weekend” 
  4. “Forever Mine”/“Darlin’ Darlin’ Baby (Sweet Tender Love)” (medley)
  5. “I Love Music”
  6. “Let Me Make Love To You”
  7. “Cry Together”
  8. “Stairway To Heaven”
  9. “Love Train”
  10. “Message In Our Music”/ “Sunshine”/ “Lovin’ You”/ “Work On Me”/ “Survival”/ “992 Arguments”/ “You Got Your Hooks In Me”/ “Brandy”/ “Now That We Found Love”/ “My Favorite Person”
  11. “Back Stabbers”
  12. “Use Ta Be My Girl”
  13. “For The Love Of Money
The O’Jays
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