A fondly remembered middle-of-the-road soul triumph.
Daryl Easlea 2010
Imagination was Gladys Knight & The Pips’ first album for Buddah Records after an eight-year spell at Motown’s Soul subsidiary. At Motown, the familial vocal act had been frequently overlooked in favour of other, more stellar acts on the Detroit label’s roster.
Away from Berry Gordy’s artistic straightjacket, the first credit that the rear of the sleeve bore was "All Selections Co-Produced by Gladys Knight, Bubba Knight, William Guest and Edward Patten". With everything to prove, the group made an album of irresistible southern soul. This is the sound of an outfit clearly enjoying their freedom.
Working with producers Tony Camillo, Kenny Kerner and Richie Wise, they selected some fabulous repertoire and made an extremely consistent record. Taking the lead from the success they had enjoyed with 1972’s Standing Ovation, which contained their show-stopping cover of Help Me Make It Through the Night, Imagination was a near-perfect example of mid-70s soul balladry.
It contained their first ever US number one, Midnight Train to Georgia, a straight lift of Cissy Houston’s then-recent cover version of Jim Weatherly’s country song, Midnight Plane to Houston. Knight’s vocal is appropriately emotive over the swelling southern soul horns. Had this track been sang by, say, Al Green, it would be seen as one of the all-time classics. Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me continues this languid mood, making a case for Knight being the leading female soul balladeer of the mid-70s.
US top 10 hit I’ve Got to Use My Imagination is smoky, driving soul, while an emotional, gospel-influenced close-harmonized version of Johnny Nash’s I Can See Clearly Now, sung by Bubba Knight, is a perfect example of the breadth of Knight & The Pips’ repertoire. Album closer, the group-penned Window Raisin’ Granny, exploited the 70s wave of nostalgia and celebrated the group’s childhood.
Gladys Knight & The Pips are often dismissed as easy listening makeweights; yet there is real grit amid the mid-tempo ballads on Imagination. Although the album was not a chart success in the UK, its two principal hits made the top 10 in 1975 and 1976 after the group’s success with their version of The Way We Were. No wonder it is such a fondly-remembered release.