Hey! Don’t forget The Pips!

The backup vocalists of singers are often overlooked. The excellent 2013 documentary 20 Feet From Stardom that I reviewed here some years ago focused on some of the people who provided the rich texture to many of the greatest pop songs but were largely anonymous.

I recently watched this documentary about the anonymous vocalists who sing backup for the featured musical stars, providing harmonies and visual excitement by dancing and swaying along with the music. In the 1950s and earlier, most of the backup singers were white women who sang more sedately and tended to follow the written music score.

But black women grew up singing in the gospel churches where improvising, harmonizing while dancing, and the ‘call and response’ form of preaching and singing provided a natural training for a more vibrant form of backup vocals. The people who utilized this most in the early days were the British rockers like the Rolling Stones and Joe Cocker who had discovered American blues music and found that these singers added an authenticity and energy to the music that they themselves did not have. They encouraged these women to let loose and give it all they got and they did, changing music forever. We then had backup singers being partially featured with groups like Diana Ross and the Supremes, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Tony Orlando and Dawn, Martha Reeves and the Vandelas, Gladys Knight and the Pips, and so on.

Last Sunday saw the annual Kennedy Center event that honors artists and performers and Gladys Knight was honored while The Pips (that comprised her brother and two cousins) were left out.

Back in 1977, in a comedy special, Richard Pryor decided to have just The Pips, with a microphone standing in for the absent Knight. It was hilarious. The first part of the clip below purports to show how Pryor got the idea, before then having The Pips perform. Pryor’s facial expressions of surprise, embarrassment, bafflement, and awkwardness are superb and were the source of much of his humor in stand up and in films.

For those not familiar with the full group, here are The Pips with Gladys Knight singing Midnight Train to Georgia, nicely timed to coincide with today’s runoff election for the Georgia senate seat.


  1. flex says

    You know, that just hit the spot. Today was a terrible day at work, and listening to Gladys helped. I think I’m going to either put on some Robert Johnson, or Joe Hawkins, or some of the other blues artists and just veg for the rest of the evening.


  2. Silentbob says

    @ ^

    Try some T Bone Walker man. That cat’s such a potent antidepressant, he should come with a prescription. X-D

    T-Bone Walker w/ Jazz At The Philharmonic -- Live in UK 1966 -- YouTube

  3. flex says

    Thank you SilentBob. I didn’t get to it until this morning, but that was a nice set.

    I ended up pulling out my old Muddy Waters albums. Not as uplifting, but it matched my mood.

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