A Knight's Work, With Help
PAIN AND GLORY, DIAMONDS AND GLASS
It was an “odd feeling,” Gladys Knight once admitted, to have a major hit “with a song that I didn’t like all that much.”
That’s Gladys for you, no punches pulled. She was recalling “If I Were Your Woman,” of which more in a few moments.
But first, her other conflicts and contradictions. It’s common knowledge that it was only the Pips’ majority which took the quartet to Motown; Gladys voted against. Admitting in her autobiography that their career needed a major hit, she found it difficult, even then, to acknowledge Hitsville’s role in the success which followed. She became a self-confessed “malcontent” while there. Moreover, she implied that it was only how the group shaped “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” before it was produced in the studio by Norman Whitfield that made the record a smash.
Between Each Line of Pain and Glory, published in 1997, remains a compelling, candid and only occasionally disingenuous book. Gladys acknowledged her debt to others, including choreographer Cholly Atkins and manager Marghuerite Mays – although she apparently forgot that Mays had to sue the group for unpaid commissions after they joined Motown.
As for “If I Were Your Woman,” Knight was unsparing: “I couldn’t get into the character that I found in the song that Berry Gordy wanted me to record near the end of 1970.” She had nothing in common with the lyric, but conceded that as “I’ve gotten older, and a little more self-assertive [sic] I’ve grown to like it more.” Enough, it seems, to offer “If I Were Your Woman II” on her 2000 album, At Last.
As for the original song, it was fuelled by a barbeque meal with champagne shared by writers Gloria Jones and Pam Sawyer. “We figured that we would just relax and have lunch and discuss this song about how women feel when they fall in love,” Jones remembered for The Billboard Book of Number One Rhythm & Blues Hits. “They can’t hold back. The woman, she gives all, she tells all, can’t keep anything from her man. She’s willing to die for him.”
THE SONG 'CAME FROM HEAVEN'
Jones and Sawyer composed “If I Were Your Woman” in Los Angeles. “We figured we really wanted to come up with something quite exciting, real magic,” Gloria reminisced. “There was the women’s liberation movement at [that] time, but we were more romantic. After lunch, we started putting the song together.” Jones developed the melody first, “which I actually wrote in thirds. Pamela and I were discussing how love is. It can be deceiving, but we turn it around and make it positive.”
Sawyer confirmed the chronology. “The song was actually written around Gloria’s left-hand bass riff on the piano,” she explained to me last month, “and I loved it, and so she continued and then mumbled something – a dummy, non-word phrase that made sense to me. And I translated the feeling of the mumble into the words ‘If I were your woman,’ and the rest just fell into place. It all started with that intro riff.”
It took thirty minutes, according to Jones. “It came from God, it came from heaven.” She should know: she was a member of the Church of God in Christ (COGIC) Singers in Los Angeles, with Andraé and Sandra Crouch, and Frankie Karl. “We became a big success, and Andrae expanded the group, adding Billy Preston, Edna Wright and Blinky Williams. Teenage wonders, we were called, like the Jackson 5 of our day. If you put us on a show, we were going to run [everyone else] off.”
The vocal demo of “If I Were Your Woman” was cut by Jones in March 1970. “We knew Gladys was up for a [recording] date, and that it would suit her voice,” remembered Sawyer. “Pamela presented this song to Clay McMurray,” said Jones, “and, at that time, he had just taken over from Norman Whitfield to produce Gladys. Norman heard the song and told Clay, ‘If you record the song on Gladys, you’ll have a No. 1 record.’
“Gladys felt at that time it was not a hit for her, so then we had Mr. Gordy persuade Gladys that this was a hit. Paul Riser was the arranger. He was quite excited: here was a fully arranged melody that he did not have to alter or anything. He said I always sent him a complete theme.” Jones and Riser shared a background in classical music, she in Los Angeles at her parents’ insistence, he in Detroit at Cass Tech. “Classical is one of the reasons we were able to work together,” said Jones.
McMurray recorded Gladys and the Pips’ vocals for “If I Were Your Woman” in Detroit 48 years ago this month. For lyrics she didn’t like, her performance carries utter conviction, especially on this gem of a couplet: “You’re like a diamond/But she treats you like glass/Yet you beg her to love you/But me you don’t ask.”
JAMES JAMERSON OR BOB BABBITT?
In Gloria Jones’ memory, the track's melodramatic guitar intro was played by Robert White. She also thought the undulating bass line belonged to James Jamerson, although the man who knows more than most about the Motown studio players is sure that it was Bob Babbitt. “You can tell it’s Babbitt because of the touch and feel,” noted Allan Slutsky, whose evangelism for Jamerson led to Standing In The Shadows of Motown: first, his book of that name, then the movie.
“Babbitt’s sound is slightly more staccato and detached, and his time is very on-the-beat metronomically,” Slutsky added. “Jamerson’s sound was fatter, wider, more legato and sustained, and his time was more elastic. He danced around the centre line of time, pushing and pulling back and forth, creating subconscious drama in the mind of the listener: ‘Is he going to get to the next downbeat in time at the end of this complicated line?’”
“Subconscious drama” may also be a fair description for Gladys. “As a record company whose artists were almost entirely black performers,” she wrote in Between Each Line of Pain and Glory, “Motown fostered a unity that went beyond shared labels on our albums and singles. In many ways, it was a very comfortable place to work, but there was also a sense that perhaps management took advantage of that. We didn’t want to be taken for granted, or cheated, by anybody.”
Knight was among the few Motown artists with substantial prior experience in the music industry, and who came to the firm with opinions and attitudes based on that experience. As a strong woman in a male-dominated business, she clearly felt able to express these. Indeed, those who have seen Gladys in concert in recent years say she’s not short of a word or two, in between the songs.
Yet it’s that recorded work which has underpinned her and the Pips’ legacy, requiring the collaboration of songwriters such as Jones and Sawyer, musicians such as White and Babbitt, studio alchemists such as Riser and McMurray, and "management" such as Gordy.
The audience wants its stars, to be sure, but the stars need backroom believers, to alleviate the pain and maximise the glory.
Music notes: Pick up your phone, tablet or PC and you’ll find “If I Were Your Woman” in a heartbeat, whether it’s by Gladys and the Pips, or later interpretations by Stephanie Mills, the Supremes, Nancy Wilson, Shirley Brown and Alicia Keys, among others. Gloria Jones’ demo was a bonus track on Reel Music’s 2009 CD reissue of her Motown LP, Share My Love, but this album doesn’t seem to be available everywhere on digital streaming services (it is on YouTube, however). Pam Sawyer’s many songs, written with Gloria as well as with others, are widely available, as recorded by Diana Ross, the Four Tops, Jr. Walker, High Inergy, Eddie Kendricks, David Ruffin, the Undisputed Truth and more.