During a long and successful career as a songstress and entertainer, the height of which occurred during the 1970s, Gladys Knight had plenty of downtimes with which to occupy herself before and after shows. And when those shows happened to take place in a casino, either in Las Vegas or Atlantic City, the lead singer of Gladys Knight and the Pips invariably found herself playing blackjack or baccarat.
Born on May 28th, 1944 in Atlanta, Georgia, Gladys Maria Knight seemed to have star quality from the very beginning. At the age of just seven years, old Knight won first prize on Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour – a televised talent show considered by many to be the precursor to hits like Star Search and American Idol. One year later Knight joined with siblings and cousins to form The Pips, a musical group named after cousin James “Pip” Woods.
Eventually, the group called Gladys Knight and the Pips gained traction within the world of music, signing to the highly successful Detroit-based record label Motown Records in 1966. Over the next few years the group scored several chart-topping hits, including “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” (1967), “Friendship Train” (1969), “If I Were Your Woman” (1970), “I Don’t Want To Do Wrong” (1971), the Grammy Award-winning “Neither One of Us (Wants to Be the First to Say Goodbye)” (1972), and “Daddy Could Swear (I Declare)” (1973).
The group continued to tour and record successfully until the late 1970s, due to legal wrangling between them and their label. Knight went on to launch a solo career in 1978 with the release of her album Miss Gladys Knight, but she reunited with The Pips under management by Columbia Records in 1980. One year later, Knight was forced to deal with personal demons associated with her growing gambling habit.
Living in Las Vegas at the time, Knight soon succumbed to the temptation of table games like blackjack and baccarat. As she later told the Los Angeles Times during an interview in July of 2011, falling into addiction happened so gradually that she didn’t notice until things were far out of hand:
I got into gambling when I was playing a casino. I was a hermit in those days. I would go onstage, go to my room, or if we had to travel, I’d get in a car or a plane, whatever. But I didn’t do anything. One day, this friend of mine said, ‘Do you want to play some blackjack?’
So I started playing, and I enjoyed it. I started spending my time doing that. And you’re talking about a dollar table. (But) I remember when I graduated up to $20. And when my kids got in college – I’m telling you the real deal – I had gone through a nasty divorce, I spent over a million dollars looking for my son after he got kidnapped. And I was broke.
Knight first opened up about her gambling habit in her autobiography Between Each Line of Pain and Glory, which was published in 1997. In the book Knight discussed the feelings of camaraderie and belonging that casinos wind up providing to people who are unable to control their desire to gamble:
The pit bosses and dealers became my family. I felt protected. I played behind red velvet ropes that protected me from autograph seekers, thieves, and scam artists. They brought food and drinks right to me, at no charge.
Like many gamblers before her, Knight experienced an epiphany of sorts following a disastrous losing session, one which cost her $45,000 in less than 24 hours. As Knight wrote in her autobiography, she had already suspected that gambling had become a negative influence in her life, even going so far as to call casinos around Las Vegas and request that they refuse any future requests for credit she might make. But when the temptation proved to be too much to overcome on her own, and her losses continued to mount, Knight sought counseling to help purge herself of the urge to play:
I would play, and I would win. And you should never win. Winning is how they get you. Because you think you’ll win everything, and you won’t. And I just woke up one day and said this don’t make no sense. I had gotten $2,000. And within 25, 30 minutes, I had won 60 grand.
And I sat right at that table and gave every dime of it back. And I just got sick at the table. And I got up, went to the phone and called Gamblers Anonymous. And the lady on the phone said, ‘Where are you? We’ll come get you.’ And I went to one meeting. That was all I had to go to.
Today Knight continues to tour as a successful musical act, as the “Empress of Soul” endures in the hearts of fans all across the planet. While Knight’s act is solo nowadays, she still finds herself in casinos from time to time. Her current tour concludes with a March 12th, 2016 concert at the Horseshoe Southern Indiana Hotel and Casino. But to her Knight tell it, the allure of a long night spent chasing cards while being serenaded by the unmistakable siren’s song of the casino floor’s bells and whistles no longer hold any sway over her behavior:
I don’t hear them anymore. I really don’t. I feel so blessed. And I always have to bring this element into whatever I do. I have a faith that’s unbendable as far as my Lord and Savior is concerned. I try to go in the way I’m supposed to go, and if I fall short, I ask for help.