A Weekly Song: Episode 7 - Gladys Knight and the Pips
A Weekly Song: Episode 7
Gladys Knight and the Pips – Just Walk In My Shoes
I was working on another blog post that’s turned into an epic, and I have more to say there, so I’ll save that. Meantime…
Here’s a song that became an instant and absolute favourite of mine the first time I ever heard it, which was on a cassette given to me by my friend Steve Whitaker. Steve was an art wizard, a teacher of comics and comic art and sometimes a comics colourist (on V for Vendetta, among many others). He gave me my first ever set of Dr. Martin’s and taught me a lot about colour theory. He was affectionately known by his friends as Whitko, because it rhymed with Ditko.
Weirdly, he became my assistant when I was asked to colour Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell’s The New Adventures of Hitler for Crisis, which we decided to do using every technique we knew, including collage, because the bluelines we’d been given were so glossy and wouldn’t take paint very well. (The resulting colour pages were quite intricate, long lost, and that’s probably one good reason why it’s never been reprinted.) Colouring new episodes of that highly satirical strip were good times. We’d cut up magazines while we were figuring out how we’d approach the new pages, and listen to a lot of music.
Before digital music took over the world, people used to exchange mixtapes or “comps” (short for compilations), as they were known around my way. Steve was a master of these. He was as much a collector of great music as he was of comics, and every tape or CD he ever compiled for me was a little masterpiece, often delivered with a work of art on the cover. (I still have every one he ever gave me. Sadly, Steve died in 2008. I still miss him.)
He delighted in handing you a collection that he knew would blow your mind, which is what he fully intended to do when he handed me a tape on which this song featured as an opener.
It knocked me off my feet. Despite the efforts of one of my friends at school to interest me early in Gladys Knight and the Pips, I hadn’t yet been hooked. But the greats are the greats for a reason and you have to find your way to them by way of your own curiosity, which Whitko was expert at engendering. (That’s why he was such a good teacher.)
Her vocal performance is staggering. It’s really a standard broken heart love letter delivered in the form of powerful soul performance, and in that sense, it’s pure distilled Motown. The way Gladys sings it, with equal parts jubilation and anguish, it’s somehow a party, albeit with a fixed grin. Listen to the catch in her voice.
“Just walk in my shoes,” and you’ll understand what it’s like to be me. The power of imagination employed in the act of empathy. It reminds me of a sentiment expressed in To Kill a Mockingbird by Atticus Finch: “You got to get inside someone else’s skin and walk around in it.”
Beyond that, I’ll not over-analyse and I can’t really add anything to Gladys’ legacy, except to remind you of my remit here and say that she’s a Queen and she did one of the best non-John Barry Bond theme songs too.
The story of the song’s writers is as interesting as Gladys’ own. Helen and Kay Lewis, two sisters from Michigan, started out as Jazz singers (sometimes dubbing themselves The Singing High School Teachers for reasons best known to themselves, as neither were). They approached Motown’s LA offices and were taken on first as backing singers and later, as artists in their own right. While their own careers as performers failed to ignite, they supplied several songs for more established Motown acts, including Marvin Gaye, the Miracles and Edwin Starr as well as Gladys and the Pips.
Here’s their own Honey Don’t Leave Me, recorded very much in the house style of the label.
Here’s the single version of Just Walk In My Shoes, with a slightly different tempo and ending (what a great outro).
And here’s a really good extended version of Just Walk In My Shoes. There are several more if you dig about on YouTube.
One of Steve’s mix tapes: