Gladys Knight began singing professionally at age four and recorded her first album with her vocal back up, the Pips, when she was 13. That was in 1957, a time when giants walked the earth -- Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, and Duke Ellington, to name just three of the artists Ms. Knight pays tribute to on Before Me. Those singers and other African-American entertainers from their era inspired Knight because they made enduring art, but also because, in a time of segregation and racism, they represented accomplishment and dignity.
Knight interprets songs earlier great singers popularized, but she doesnt copy their versions. She trusts the melodies and lyrics and finds her own things to say. She may have decided to sing "Since I Fell for You" because of her admiration for Dinah Washington, but takes the song as her own. When she expresses an emotion, she has found it in the song. Phil Ramone and Tommy LiPuma produced five tracks each on Before Me and these two pros give Knight the luxurious sound she deserves for her very classy performance.
The Clayton/Hamilton Orchestra backs Knight on four tracks and swings hard. Other tunes, such as "The Man I Love" and "Ill Be Seeing You," feature beautifully subtle string arrangements that Knight responds to with heartfelt, understated singing. Several guests, including David "Fathead" Newman, contribute noteworthy solos on a couple of tracks, but the album belongs to the singer. The only false moment is a pedestrian guitar solo on an otherwise solid version of "God Bless the Child." Gladys Knight has said she will be making more records like Before Me. Lets hope its soon.
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