Photo: Walter McBride/Getty Images
Gladys Knight & Patti LaBelle in 2014
Gladys Knight & Patti LaBelle's Verzuz Faceoff Was A Moment Of Pure Soul Sisterhood
"There's nothing I don't love that you might sing tonight. So, let's just get it clear, I'm ready for you honey," LaBelle said to her longtime friend and fellow R&B/soul icon
Last night (Sept. 13), GRAMMY-winning music icons Patti LaBelle and Gladys Knight brought a big serving of soul and sisterhood to the latest Verzuz faceoff. During the livestream's joyful three hours, the powerhouse pair sang 35 songs (including two renditions of "Midnight Train To Georgia") selected from their gem-filled catalogues dating back 60 years. In between the music, the two R&B/soul greats showered each other with praise and offered nuggets of wisdom, humor and shout-outs to the star-studded virtual audience, which included the likes of Oprah Winfrey and Michelle Obama.
"I love that tune," LaBelle praised after Knight's first rendition of "Midnight Train To Georgia" and just about halfway into the faceoff. "There's nothing I don't love that you might sing tonight. So, let's just get it clear, I'm ready for you honey."
The evening's rich setlist included selections from their early acts—LaBelle's fabulous girl group Labelle and Knight's family affair Gladys Knight & the Pips—as well as their longtime solo acts. This included LaBelle's "Lady Marmalade," If You Don't Know Me By Now" and "Love, Need and Want You" and Knight's "Neither One of Us (Wants to Be the First to Say Goodbye)," "Friendship Train" and "Love Overboard."
They both sang along to their songs—for the most part, joking about forgetting some of the lyrics to the older songs—with their warm voices and still-epic high notes offering comfort during these hectic times. They also sang along with each other, as this Verzuz was not a battle, but a moment for the musical powerhouses to show each other some love and appreciation. They also shared the love for their collaborators, children, viewers and the Verzuz and Apple Music team (who recently partnered with the Swizz Beatz- and Timbaland-created event). Swizzy got warm birthday wishes (he was born Sept. 13) and wow, what a great way to celebrate being alive.
After their seventh-round faceoff, where LaBelle sang "Love, Need and Want You" and Knight delivered "Someone to Watch Over Me," the pair began talking warmly about their children. Knight revealed she didn't know about Verzuz until her son Shanga called her up and encouraged her to try to get on in, which she did. "I hope you're proud of us, sons," she said. We also learned that LaBelle still has a flip phone. "I love my flip. I'm very low-key," she shared with a smile.
When they saw the Former First Lady pop up in the viewer list, or as LaBelle dubbed it "the virtual front row," they were both genuinely thrilled and sent love and praise her way. "I am so proud of her," Knight chimed in, adding, "She's a sweetheart and she's down to earth." "And she's married to the best man in the whole world," the both chimed in. "We miss you Michelle and Barack," LaBelle said.
In addition to the many notable virtual guests, there was a very special in-studio guest—Dionne Warwick, who helped close out the evening with an extra dose of sisterhood. The three musical heroes sang Warwick's "That's What Friends Are For" and their 1991 remake of Karyn White's female empowerment hit, "Superwoman."
If you missed the much-needed evening of wholesome, heartwarming and soul-stirring content, you can watch the last half or so in the YouTube video above.
The LaBelle and Knight Verzuz follows Brandy and Monica's also-amazing showdown on Aug. 31. In addition to the huge number of viewers who tune into the streams via IGTV and Apple TV, the much-buzzed-about episodes always lead to a boost in interest in the featured artists and their music. In the case of the '90s R&B queens, their episode was watched by over 60 million viewers and they collectively logged 21.9 million U.S. streams in just the two days following. Stay tuned to Verzuz' Instagram for the data behind the Knight and LaBelle love fest, as well as for info on upcoming T.B.A. pairings. Here's to the love being showered back onto the soul queens.
Photo: KMazur/WireImage for New York Post
8 Ways Jay-Z's 'The Black Album' Changed The Hip-Hop Game
What was almost Jay-Z's final album turned into one of his most iconic. For its 20th anniversary, take a look at how 'The Black Album' altered the course of Jay-Z's career — and rap as a whole.
"From bricks to Billboards, from grams to Grammys," Jay-Z rhymes on "Dirt Off Your Shoulder," a prime example of how his eighth LP, The Black Album, is dominated by his rags-to-riches story. Released Nov. 14, 2003, The Black Album was, ironically, intended to be the rapper's final chapter. But the album's remarkable commercial and critical success — it sold 3.5 million copies in the States to become his sixth consecutive number one on the Billboard 200 — instead furthered his magnitude and influence, only continuing his legacy of one of rap's greats.
Boasting no fewer than 12 of the era's hottest producers (The Neptunes, Just Blaze, Timbaland, to name a few), The Black Album is a consistently strong, musically diverse, and remarkably honest listen, which firmly justifies all the self-lionizing. And not only does the album feature Jay-Z's signature tune, it also spawned arguably the most revered mash-up in music — and, among many other feats, inspired a generation of MCs with its slick lyrical flow and ground-breaking beats.
Twenty years on, take a look at eight ways in which Jay-Z's faux-farewell changed the hip-hop game.
It Spawned The Most Famous Mashup Album Ever
Jay-Z practically invited the DJ crowd to put their own spins on The Black Album toward the end of 2004 when he reissued the LP without any beats. Pete Rock, DJ Bazooka Joe, and original contributor 9th Wonder all accepted the challenge. But Danger Mouse, aka one half of soon-to-be chart-toppers Gnarls Barkley, had already taken it on, fusing the rapper's original rhymes with music from another colorful record, The Beatles' White Album.
Bringing two pop cultural behemoths together for the first time, The Grey Album (see what he did there) inevitably became a sensation, with EMI's efforts to withhold its release only adding to all the hype. Both Hova and Paul McCartney, however, gave their blessing, with the former telling NPR, "I think it was a really strong album. I champion any form of creativity, and that was a genius idea to do it. And it sparked so many others like it."
It Put Several Key Names On The Map
Jay-Z was no stranger to giving future hip-hop heavyweights their big breaks; both Swizz Beats and Kanye West were virtual unknowns when they contributed to Vol. 2... Hard Knock Life and The Blueprint, respectively. And The Black Album was no different.
Production team The Buchanans, who'd later work with Lupe Fiasco, Amerie, and Dr. Dre, gained their first official credit on "What More Can I Say." John Legend was still a year away from GRAMMY-winning breakthrough Get Lifted when he co-wrote "Encore." And "Threat" helped rap professor (yes, that's a real thing) 9th Wonder to establish himself as a genuine hip-hop authority.
It Produced His Defining Track
Jay-Z had scored, and would go on to score, much bigger hits than "99 Problems." In fact, 24 of his solo singles have charted higher than its No. 30 peak on the Billboard Hot 100. And it isn't always considered to be his best, either: "Big Pimpin'," "Dead Presidents II," and "Where I'm From" all kept the Rick Rubin production out of the top three in Rolling Stone's recent all-time Hova list. Even so, "99 Problems" still has the clout of an undeniably defining tune.
It's been referenced by everyone from Iggy Azalea to Barack Obama. It gave Jay-Z the first of his four Best Rap Solo Performance GRAMMYs (Mark Romanek's controversial monochrome video also picked up four MTV VMAs). Its themes of racial profiling, police aggression, and gentrification led Jack White to hail it as the modern "story of America." And although Ice Cube said it first, it was undoubtedly Jay-Z who put "I got 99 problems, but a b— ain't one" firmly into the hip-hop lexicon.
It Birthed Rap-Rock's Greatest Crossover
Jay-Z certainly wasn't the first hip-hop act to forge an unlikely rock connection. Run-D.M.C. broke down barriers (literally) in the video for their iconic 1986 Aerosmith collaboration "Walk This Way." The '90s saw collabs from KRS-One and Crazy Town ("B-Boy 2000"), Method Man and Limp Bizkit ("N 2 Gether Now"), and Public Enemy & Anthrax ("Bring The Noise"), all of which were met with mixed results. However, the Jigga Man's EP with nu-metalers Linkin Park, 2004's Collision Course, was a different story.
Notching another Billboard 200 No. 1 for both artists, Collision Course proved that rap-rock could be both credible and commercially successful — which eventually helped pave the way for everyone from Lil Uzi Vert to Machine Gun Kelly. And The Black Album was a key part of their success.
Not only did Jay-Z think to do the team-up after seeing the various mash-ups The Black Album spawned, but three of Collision Course's six tracks stem from the LP: "Points of Authority/99 Problems/One Step Closer," "Dirt Off Your Shoulder/Lying From You," and the Best Rap/Sung Collaboration GRAMMY-winning "Numb/Encore."
It's Been Sampled Countless Times
The Black Album is built on samples, from the emphatic big beats of Billy Squier to Russell Crowe's dialog from Gladiator. But such is the recyclable nature of hip-hop, it's also been heavily sampled since its 2003 release, too.
"99 Problems" alone has been borrowed from or covered at least a recorded 79 times, perhaps most famously on Iggy Azalea's verse in "Problem," her No. 1 hit with Ariana Grande. T.I. brought "What More Can I Say" into the top 10 of the Hot 100 after lifting its vocal hook for "Bring Em Out." Hip-hop sibling duo Clipse appear to have been The Black Album's biggest fans, though, having taken lines from "Public Service Announcement" and "Threat" on "Number One Supplier" and "Where You Been," respectively.
It Pioneered The Hip-Hop Concert Movie
Long before his other half Beyoncé unleashed Homecoming, Jay-Z proved that the concert movie didn't need to be the sole preserve of white guitar acts. Five years after his collaborative Hard Knock Life tour was captured for posterity on Backstage, the rapper invited another camera crew to document what was supposed to be his live swansong. "The undisputed heavyweight champion of the world in hip-hop," welcomes ring announcer Michael Buffer at the start of Fade to Black. And Jay-Z more than justifies such a billing in a dazzling, star-studded set that leaves the 19,000-strong Madison Square Garden crowd hanging on his every word.
Just as compelling is the behind-the-scenes footage of The Black Album's inception, particularly Timbaland and Pharrell Williams' excitement at conjuring the perfect beats. From J. Cole (Forest Hills Drive: Homecoming) to Chance the Rapper (Magnificent Coloring World), a whole host of rappers have since followed suit.
It Allowed Jay-Z To Guide Other Superstars
The Black Album might not have been the studio goodbye purported at the time. But before returning with Kingdom Come in 2006, Jay-Z did spend the following three years adhering to The Black Album's retirement theme. The self-imposed hiatus allowed the rapper to explore other creative avenues, expand his brand, and – perhaps most significantly for fans of a certain Barbadian superstar – take the reins of the legendary Def Jam Recordings.
Yes, after being appointed to the position of CEO in 2004 by L.A. Reid, Jay-Z signed a then-unknown Rihanna to the label, reportedly responding to her audition with "There's only two ways out. Out the door after you sign this deal. Or through this window." Ne-Yo and Rick Ross were both also plucked from obscurity by the Jigga Man and sent on their paths to stardom during his three years in charge (Jay-Z remained with Def Jam as an artist until May 2009, when he left to concentrate on his own Roc Nation label.)
It Made Retirement A Marketing Tactic
Although Too Short and Master P had both previously reneged on their plans to call it quits, Jay-Z was the first rapper to truly harness the power of an early retirement. Frequently alluding to the news (see "I supposed to be number one on everybody's list/ We'll see what happens when I no longer exist" on "What More Can I Say"), The Black Album was also accompanied by the aforementioned concert film, a memoir (The Black Book), and ever the entrepreneur, even tie-in sneaker and mobile phones.
Hova insists that he really did believe he was bidding farewell at the time, but there's no denying that the announcement helped to both boost his coffers (The Black Album was his biggest selling 2000s release) and add to his mythology. 50 Cent, Waka Flocka Flame, and Lupe Fiasco are just a few of the major hip-hop names who've since made similar claims before quickly walking them back.
Since his return, Jay-Z has added to his legacy in a multitude of ways. He's released collaborative projects with West and Beyoncé; scored a further five solo number one LPs on the Billboard 200 (including The Black Album's unexpected follow-up, Kingdom Come); and added more than a dozen GRAMMYs to his awards haul. And we've not even mentioned the record-breaking world tours, film production credits, and various business interests (TIDAL, Roc Nation Sports) which have helped him become the world's wealthiest rapper with a staggering net worth of $2.5 billion at press time. While The Black Album would've been a remarkable finale, Jay-Z's decision to unretire remains his smartest yet.
Photo: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic
GRAMMY Rewind: Kendrick Lamar Honors Hip-Hop's Greats While Accepting Best Rap Album GRAMMY For 'To Pimp a Butterfly' In 2016
Upon winning the GRAMMY for Best Rap Album for 'To Pimp a Butterfly,' Kendrick Lamar thanked those that helped him get to the stage, and the artists that blazed the trail for him.
Updated Friday Oct. 13, 2023 to include info about Kendrick Lamar's most recent GRAMMY wins, as of the 2023 GRAMMYs.
A GRAMMY veteran these days, Kendrick Lamar has won 17 GRAMMYs and has received 47 GRAMMY nominations overall. A sizable chunk of his trophies came from the 58th annual GRAMMY Awards in 2016, when he walked away with five — including his first-ever win in the Best Rap Album category.
This installment of GRAMMY Rewind turns back the clock to 2016, revisiting Lamar's acceptance speech upon winning Best Rap Album for To Pimp A Butterfly. Though Lamar was alone on stage, he made it clear that he wouldn't be at the top of his game without the help of a broad support system.
"First off, all glory to God, that's for sure," he said, kicking off a speech that went on to thank his parents, who he described as his "those who gave me the responsibility of knowing, of accepting the good with the bad."
He also extended his love and gratitude to his fiancée, Whitney Alford, and shouted out his Top Dawg Entertainment labelmates. Lamar specifically praised Top Dawg's CEO, Anthony Tiffith, for finding and developing raw talent that might not otherwise get the chance to pursue their musical dreams.
"We'd never forget that: Taking these kids out of the projects, out of Compton, and putting them right here on this stage, to be the best that they can be," Lamar — a Compton native himself — continued, leading into an impassioned conclusion spotlighting some of the cornerstone rap albums that came before To Pimp a Butterfly.
To Pimp a Butterfly singles "Alright" and "These Walls" earned Lamar three more GRAMMYs that night, the former winning Best Rap Performance and Best Rap Song and the latter taking Best Rap/Sung Collaboration (the song features Bilal, Anna Wise and Thundercat). He also won Best Music Video for the remix of Taylor Swift's "Bad Blood."
Watch Lamar's full acceptance speech above, and check back at GRAMMY.com every Friday for more GRAMMY Rewind episodes.
Photo: ABC Photo Archives/Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty Images
How Gladys Knight & The Pips' "Midnight Train To Georgia" Cemented Their Legacy In Soul
Gladys Knight & the Pips' 1973 album 'Imagination' was a major turning point for the band. In an interview with Merald "Bubba" Knight jr, learn the story behind GRAMMY-winning hit "Midnight Train To Georgia," which was released in August 50 years ago.
Early in 1973, Gladys Knight & the Pips made a series of bold moves. The charismatic soul quartet — Gladys, her brother Merald "Bubba" Knight jr, and cousins William Guest and Edward Patten — severed ties with one of the era’s biggest hitmakers, signed with a fledgling new label short on cash but big on ambition, and handpicked collaborators who understood their potential.
All these decisions were vindicated by the group’s soul-stirring album Imagination, released in October 1973. Packed with slow-burning ballads and rousing mid-tempos, the album helped establish Gladys Knight & the Pips as a formidable entity within soul and popular music writ large. Co-produced by the group, Imagination peaked at No. 9 on the Billboard 200 and bore several Top 10 hits, including the song that would quickly become the group’s signature: the chart-topping, GRAMMY-winning, and utterly timeless "Midnight Train to Georgia."
Yet just 10 months prior to Imagination’s release, the group’s prospects were unclear. Their seven-year contract with Motown Records was due to expire, presenting them with an opportunity to jump aboard a different train.
Unlike many Motown stars who were plucked from high school and groomed for success, Gladys Knight & the Pips arrived at the label from Atlanta as seasoned performers, having already performed grueling stints on the Chitlin' Circuit and at Harlem’s Apollo Theater. They had even experienced chart success with their cover of the Royals’ "Every Beat of My Heart" (a No. 6 pop hit in 1961). "Gladys could ‘sang,’" wrote Motown founder Berry Gordy in his autobiography. "She had warm Southern charm and a hint of Country soul, mixed in with an infectious Gospel feel."
However, the group felt neglected in favor of big-hitters like the Temptations, the Four Tops, and, especially, Diana Ross and the Supremes. According to Gladys’ autobiography, Gordy once removed the group’s supporting slot on a Supremes tour. Why? Their riotous live performances were deflecting from the main act. "We felt at Motown like we were adopted," Bubba tells GRAMMY.com, also noting accounting practices at the label which the group found "distasteful."
Gladys Knight & the Pips did experience chart success at Motown: their spirited recording of "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" was a No. 2 pop hit in 1967. But in the twilight of their initial contract, the group flirted with other opportunities. "We wanted to go to a label where we would be a big fish in a small pond, as opposed to a small fish in a big pond," explains Bubba.
The group were soon courted by New York-based label Buddah Records. "They had all the qualities of a hit group," says Buddah Vice President Cecil Holmes, who admits spending a year "romancing" the group, noting also their "clean cut, no drugs" reputation. As a new, smaller label unable to compete financially with the industry’s bigger fish, Buddah sold themselves on passion.
Fellow Buddah executive Ron Weisner, who would later manage Gladys as well as Madonna and Michael Jackson, remembers Buddah’s pitch to the group: "We don't have this ridiculous amount of money to give you. We give you our word — we’re going to kill for you. Whatever you’re looking to do, we're going to make it successful."
In February 1973, it was announced that Gladys Knight & the Pips had left Motown and signed with Buddah. Their swan song was the GRAMMY-winning "Neither One of Us (Wants to be the First to Say Goodbye)," penned and first recorded by country musician Jim Weatherly – whose songbook the group were keen to revisit.
After meeting with various producers, they enlisted Richie Wise, Kenny Kerner, and Tony Camillo to work on their upcoming album. Their first Buddah single was the gorgeous Weatherly ballad "Where Peaceful Waters Flow." However, their next single would define their careers.
Gladys Knight & The Pips Reinvent A Country Ballad
But before Gladys Knight & the Pips boarded the midnight train to Georgia, Weatherly flew the midnight plane to Houston. As explained to Marc Myers for the oral history project Anatomy of a Song, Weatherly called his actor friend Lee Majors one evening in 1970. The actress Farrah Fawcett, Majors’ then-girlfriend, answered the call, telling Weatherly she was preparing to take a "midnight plane to Houston" to visit family.
Struck by the accidental poetry of Fawcett’s remark, Weatherly wrote a country ballad about a man accompanying his girlfriend back to Houston after her dreams of stardom in Los Angeles failed to materialize. "The line ‘I’d rather live in her world than live without her in mine’ locked the whole song," said Weatherly, who released "Midnight Plane to Houston" on his 1972 album Weatherly.
The song was next recorded by gospel singer Cissy Houston, whose background work as part of the Sweet Inspirations provided color and richness to the music of Aretha Franklin, Elvis Presley, and Jimi Hendrix. Her gospel-country ballad was released in early 1973 as "Midnight Train to Georgia," a lyric change she requested. "My people are originally from Georgia, and they didn’t take planes to Houston or anywhere else. They took trains," she told Myers.
Yet Cissy’s gender-flipped and lyrically-altered rendition stalled commercially, which she blamed on limited promotion by her label Janus. Weatherly recounted to Myers that his publisher then sent the song to Gladys Knight & the Pips. "I listened to Cissy’s version and loved it," mentioned Gladys in her account to Myers.
However, Gladys has claimed in her autobiography and in various interviews that she conceived the central change from "plane" to "train" and "Houston" to "Georgia." Bubba echoes this, adding emphatically that "we voted for Gladys to call Jim Weatherly and find out if we could change the title and some of the lyrical content." He elaborates: "Ray Charles had "Georgia On My Mind" and that was the theme song for Georgia. We wanted something to represent our hometown as well."
There is some scope to reconcile these accounts. In a different interview, Weatherly explained that it was in fact his original song that was sent to Gladys Knight & the Pips, rather than Cissy’s re-titled version. "We had no idea it was going to stay ‘Midnight Train to Georgia,’" he said. "We were pitching ‘Midnight Plane to Houston’ but Gladys wanted to change it."
Engineer Ed Stasium also remembers that the sheet music for his sessions with the group had the original title which was subsequently updated. It is therefore plausible that the Gladys and the Pips organically envisaged the same or similar lyric changes before becoming aware of Cissy’s version (though Bubba tells GRAMMY.com he never knew Cissy’s version existed at the time the group recorded the song).
Stasium engineered three mixes of "Midnight Train to Georgia" in total. He describes the first two mixes as "way slower" than the final product, a "similar vibe" to mellower Imagination tracks "Perfect Love" and "Once in a Lifetime Thing." "Totally a whole other record," adds engineer David Domanich. (On one mix, Camillo can be heard singing "midnight train to Atlanta" when mapping out guide backing vocals.) The group rejected these mixes for being too sedate.
"I wanted an Al Green thing going," Gladys told Myers. "Something moody, with a little ride to it." After burying himself in Al Green records, Camillo hurriedly convened the session musicians at his Venture Sound Studios in New Jersey to blast out a new arrangement which Stasium quickly engineered.
Gladys Knight & the Pips at the 1974 GRAMMYs | CBS via Getty Images
The group were thrilled with this muscular, earthier mix. Recording in Artie Fields Studios in Detroit, Gladys delivered a "scratch" vocal to help the Pips organize their background parts before recording a "serious" take. "She sang the meat of the song beautifully but, at that particular time, my sister had a problem with ad-libbing," remembers Bubba, who proceeded to the engineer’s desk to issue instructions to her. "I told Gladys: ‘When you get to this part go, "I got to go, I got to go!" Gladys followed her brother’s lead, resulting in the joyous, life-affirming ad libs we hear on the record.
Organ, horn, strings, and piano (inspired by Floyd Cramer, pianist Barry Miles notes) were later overdubbed. Stasium also "punched in" an additional ad-lib which Gladys recorded in New York. By the end, Weatherly’s docile country ballad was transformed into an undeniable R&B juggernaut, an energetic dialogue between Gladys and her Pips. It reached No.1 in October 1973 and later won a GRAMMY award for Best R&B Vocal Performance by a Duo, Group or Chorus.
Imagination Yields Further Hits
The Imagination album was also released in October, and was certified "gold" by the end of that year. Five out of nine tracks were written by Weatherly. The other four: the Barry Goldberg/Gerry Goffin tune "I’ve Got to Use My Imagination," covers of Paul Williams’ "Perfect Love" and Johnny Nash’s "I Can See Clearly Now," and the Gladys Knight & the Pips-penned "Window Raisin’ Granny" – inspired by the image of Gladys and Bubba’s mother standing by the window watching her children, nieces, and nephews’ early performance routines.
The propulsive, funky "I’ve Got to Use My Imagination" was the album’s third single. Goldberg tells GRAMMY.com that he wrote the song as a simmering blues number – influenced by Marvin Gaye’s version of "Grapevine" and BB King’s "The Thrill is Gone" – and assumes the romantic anguish of Goffin’s lyric ("Such a sad, sad season / When a good love dies…") was inspired by Goffin’s recent divorce from songwriting partner Carole King. Goldberg was astounded when he first heard Gladys Knight & the Pips’ pacier rendition, conceding that the song "wouldn’t have been a hit" if recorded as originally written (it peaked at No.4 pop). Fourth single "Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me," another Weatherly ballad first released by country singer Ray Price, peaked at No. 3.
Imagination was the triumph the group needed, not only giving them several hits but demonstrating their talents as co-producers and justifying their decision to leave Motown. "[Buddah] promoted us and our music like nobody had before," wrote Gladys in her autobiography, crediting the label for further opportunities for the group such as recording the Curtis Mayfield-scored soundtrack for the film Claudine.
"The success of the Imagination album took us to another level," opines Bubba. "Our career just took off. Our level of headlining took off. It took us to European tours." "Midnight Train to Georgia" and "Best Thing that Ever Happened to Me" also became UK Top 10 hits, laying the groundwork for Gladys’ strong touring presence across the pond to this day. These two Imagination tracks also sit in the top 5 most streamed Gladys Knight & the Pips songs on Spotify.
Subsequent Buddah releases would not reach Imagination’s levels of mainstream popularity. But, particularly from 1974-'75, other well-performing albums would follow for the group, with pop/R&B hits including "On and On," "I Feel a Song (In My Heart)," their soulful rendering of Barbra Streisand’s "The Way We Were," and "Part Time Love." They had no reason to hanker for the days of Motown.
Of course, "Midnight Train to Georgia" remains the most enduring of Imagination’s tracks and the group’s entire repertoire. Fifty years later, this song about stubborn loyalty remains stubbornly in the popular consciousness as one of (soul) music’s definitive anthems, with a wider cultural impact too. It has been covered by the likes of Joss Stone, Neil Diamond, and Aretha Franklin, parodied in TV series like "Modern Family" and "30 Rock" (which featured a Gladys cameo), and has become a staple on talent shows like "American Idol" and "The Voice."
It turns out there were actually no midnight trains departing from L.A. to Georgia in the early ‘70s, but Gladys Knight & the Pips sure make it sound like a journey worth taking.
Photos (L-R, clockwise): GAB Archive/Redferns, Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images, Kevin Winter/Getty Images, Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images
The Evolution Of The Girl Group: How TLC, BLACKPINK, The Shirelles & More Have Elevated Female Expression
From the Supremes to the Spice Girls, take a deep dive into the history of girl groups — and how their songs, performance and vocal power changed pop culture.
For more than eight decades, girl groups have harmonized their way into the collective consciousness, bringing female empowerment to the forefront — and changing culture along the way.
Of course, girl groups have come in many forms: there's the family-friendly Andrew Sisters, the funk rock-infused Labelle, and the R&B-leaning Destiny's Child. As the construct of the girl group has evolved, so has their cultural impact — while acts like the Supremes helped push popular music in a more diverse direction in America, J-Pop and K-Pop groups have helped girl groups be viewed through a global lens in recent years.
What has tied all of these groups together is their infectious and inspirational records, which have encouraged women to express themselves and feel empowered in doing so. Groups like the Spice Girls and the Shangri-Las, for instance, have helped women express all sides of themselves, reminding the world that there is joy and beauty in contrast.
As Women's History Month nears its end, GRAMMY.com celebrates all of the powerful women who have been part of the girl group evolution. (To narrow the field, we characterize a girl group as acts with a minimum of three members and a focus on vocal performance; hence why you won't see bands like the Go-Gos or the Chicks on this list.)
Below, take a look at how girl groups have changed in both construct and impact for nearly 90 years — and counting — and listen to GRAMMY.com's official Girl Groups playlist on Amazon Music, Spotify, Apple Music, and Pandora.
Though women have no doubt sung together since the beginning of time, the formal concept of the girl group came sometime in the '20s or '30s, with the rise in popularity of tightly harmonizing family acts like the Boswell Sisters and the Hamilton Sisters (the latter of whom would become Three X Sisters). The groups really started to see a rise in popularity around the beginning of WWII — perhaps because the entrance of more women into the workforce opened peoples' minds to the idea of the pop girl group, or perhaps because the soldiers overseas sought comfort and mild excitement via the groups' smooth sounds and attractive looks.
The Andrews Sisters, who officially formed in 1937 as a Boswell Sisters tribute act, would become the most popular of the sister acts, riding tracks like "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,""Don't Sit Under The Apple Tree (With Anyone Else But Me)" and "Beer Barrel Polka (Roll Out The Barrel)" straight to the top of the charts. They're considered one of the most successful girl groups of all time, selling an estimated 80 million records and counting. Other girl groups followed the Andrews' act, including the Dinning Sisters, who released "They Just Chopped Down The Old Apple Tree" as an answer to their rivals' hit.
The Andrews Sisters continued to be popular well into the '50s, inspiring similar close harmony acts like the Chordettes, who found success with tracks like "Mr. Sandman" and "Lollipop," and the Lennon Sisters, who became a mainstay on "The Lawrence Welk Show."
Around the middle of the decade, girl groups started pulling a bit more from the doo-wop movement, with songs like the Bobbettes "Mr Lee" helping pave the way for a wave of all-Black girl groups to come. The Chantels — who had come up together singing in a choir — quickly followed with "Maybe," which solidified the genre's style with a blend of rock, pop, doo-wop that would act as a sonic template for years to come.
In 1961, the Shirelles found quick success with tracks like "Tonight's The Night" and "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow," which became the first girl group cut to go to No. 1 on Billboard's Hot 100 chart. The group would have five more hit singles throughout the decade, and inspired acts like the Marvelettes, whose "Please Mr. Postman" would become the first No. 1 single for Motown Records.
Keen to seize on that success, Motown invested heavily in creating more girl groups, crafting trios and quartets out of various singers that they might have previously eyed for solo work or even passed on signing. That kind of business-minded molding is what yielded Martha and the Vandellas, the Velvelettes, and a little act called the Supremes, who would go on to become the most successful American vocal group of all time, according to CNN. The success of the Motown acts — the majority of whom were all Black — was also a sign of American culture's increasing acceptance of the integration of popular music.
Having seen the success that Motown had in consciously crafting its girl groups, other producers and small, independent labels sought to capture some of that lightning in a bottle for themselves. The Philles label cashed in on the sound of the Crystals and the Ronettes, while Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller signed the Shangri-Las and the Dixie Cups to their Red Bird label. Tracks like the Shangri-Las' "Give Him A Great Big Kiss" offered a surprisingly real perspective on teen girl crushes, while "Leader Of The Pack" helped bring female perspective to a subgenre of songs about macabre teenage tragedies previously dominated by all-male acts like Jan And Dean and Wayne Cochran And The C.C. Riders.
First formed in the '60s as Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles, Labelle pushed the genre out of the sock hop and into the nightclub, becoming one of the premiere girl groups of the '70s. Their funky, rock-infused singles were unlike anything girl group aficionados had heard before, and in 1974, the group captured America's heart with "Lady Marmalade," a slightly suggestive song that broke out of the discos and into the collective consciousness. Other acts originally formed in the '60s found similar success, like the Three Degrees, who had a number of hits, including the sunny and soothing "When Will I See You Again."
Sister Sledge also capitalized on the disco boom, crafting lasting hits like "We Are Family" and "He's The Greatest Dancer." The Pointer Sisters went through a rainbow of genres, including R&B (1973's funky "Yes We Can Can") and country (1974's "Fairytale," which won a GRAMMY for Best Country Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocal in 1975), before finding their biggest success at the beginning of the next decade with tracks like the sultry "Slow Hand" and the more frantic "I'm So Excited."
Girl groups went through a bit of a lull in the '80s, as the culture trended toward hair metal and hip-hop. Some acts still managed to break through, capturing listeners' hearts with dance-friendly cuts imbued with Latin freestyle flair. Full of synths and syncopated percussion, freestyle burst out of clubs and parties in New York and Philadelphia, finding a particular hold amongst Hispanic and Italian-American audiences.
Miami's Exposé was one of the decade's biggest freestyle acts, blending girl group harmonies with synthetic sounds for hits like "Point Of No Return" and "Seasons Change." Two New York groups, Sweet Sensation and The Cover Girls, had freestyle success that bridged the '80s and '90s. Sweet Sensation's "Never Let You Go" tore up the dance charts, and while the Cover Girls' "Show Me" and "Because Of You" weren't quite as popular, they still hold a special place in the hearts of freestyle fans.
Girl groups roared back in a big way in the '90s, thanks in part to the emergency of new jack swing and a renewed interest in R&B's smooth vocal stylings. En Vogue was one of the first groups to go big in the '90s, with debut single "Hold On" first hitting the Billboard charts in 1990. Their biggest tracks came later in the decade, with the powerful "Free Your Mind" and "Giving Him Something He Can Feel" showcasing the quartet's vocal range and character.
Two groups from Atlanta also came to prominence around the same time as En Vogue. First was the street-savvy quartet Xscape, who harnessed the sounds of 1993 with tracks like "Just Kickin' It."
TLC had a more dynamic arc, first bursting into the collective consciousness with the new jack swing-infused "Ooooooohh… On The TLC Tip," which featured three top 10 singles, including "Ain't 2 Proud 2 Beg." The group's baggy pants and hip-hop aesthetic pushed girl group boundaries, in part because its members actually acknowledged their sexual desires, as well as the need for everyone to have safe sex. Later in the decade, TLC would rise to even higher heights with tracks like "Waterfalls" and the GRAMMY-winning "No Scrubs," the latter of which was actually co-written by two members of Xscape.
Destiny's Child initially emerged from Houston in the late '90s as a quartet, though they'd later lose some members and gain new ones, ending up as a trio. While it was hard to ignore the sheer star power of Beyonce, the threesome did generally function as a group, producing a string of danceable earworms, including "No, No, No," and "Bills, Bills, Bills." By the time they disbanded in 2006, Destiny's Child sold tens of millions of records and earned three GRAMMY Awards (and a total of nine nominations).
Out west, Wilson Phillips' Chyna Phillips, Wendy Wilson and Carnie Wilson were channeling the sounds of their respective parents, who had been members of the Beach Boys and the Mamas & The Papas. Their songs featured vocal harmonies and were largely about emotional longing, pushing back against the dance and funk that ruled much of the radio dial throughout the '90s.
Girl groups were also gaining major traction in the U.K during the '90s, spurred by a boy band boom in the country around the same time. Two groups — All Saints and the Spice Girls — were actually assembled by managers, something that didn't help allay naysayers' concern that much of pop music at the time was wholly manufactured. (Another U.K. mainstay, Ireland's B*Witched, came together organically.)
Regardless, both All Saints and the Spice Girls found commercial success, with the latter becoming absolutely massive not just because of catchy pop romps like "Wannabe," but because of the quintet's singular personas and the strength of their "girl power" messaging. The Spice Girls even starred in their own movie, "Spice World," which came out at the height of Spice-mania in 1997 and drew instant comparisons to the Beatles' "A Hard Day's Night."
Girl groups continued to reign in the early part of the 2000s. A number of 2000s girl groups formed on television as part of reality programming, with U.K. sensation Girls Aloud forming on the ITV show "Popstars: The Rivals" and Danity Kane both forming and developing over three seasons of Sean Puffy Combs' "Making The Band." TV acted as a great launching pad for these pop acts, as fans were often emotionally invested in the group's success from watching the show so when a new single dropped, they were quick to get on board.
Girls Aloud and Danity Kane — as well as their peers, like Dream, 3LW, and Blacque — made pop music that was sexy, confident, and larger than life, with expensive-looking music videos to match. The songs also often crossed over from pop to urban radio.
Another of the most successful (and sexiest) girl groups of the 2000s also formed in a fairly roundabout way. The Pussycat Dolls found success with tracks like "Don't Cha" and "Buttons," but the actual origin of the Pussycat Dolls name and brand came almost 15 years earlier when an L.A. based choreographer named Robin Antin launched a burlesque troupe. After her club events and dancers became more and more popular (even posing for Playboy), she was urged by Interscope Records' Jimmy Iovine to attach the name to a pop group.
Antin recruited five singers who could hold a tune and looked the part, including Nicole Scherzinger — who initially got her start in Eden's Crush, another group formed on a TV show, the U.S. iteration of "Popstars" — and the Pussycat Dolls quickly strutted onto radio dials and Billboard charts with their catchy multi-tracked (and often risqué) hits.
Girl groups were also getting huge around the globe in the '00s, with Spain's Las Ketchup producing the insanely catchy pop ditty conveniently named "The Ketchup Song," Sweden's Play crossed over to commercial success in the American market, and the U.K.'s Atomic Kitten formed purely as a songwriting vehicle for Orchestral Maneuvers In the Dark's Andy McCluskey and Stuart Kershaw. Members of the latter would come and go throughout its career, but songs like "Whole Again" (which was also recorded by Play) have stood the test of time.
Though modern K-pop culture had begun in South Korea in the late '90s, it started to really pick up steam in the '00s, with both boy bands and girl groups benefiting from the surging Hallyu or Korean wave. One of those, Wonder Girls, found quick success in the late '00s with genre-spanning tracks like "Tell Me" and "Nobody," thanks in part to the pop act's ability to perform English versions of their songs while on tour with the Jonas Brothers.
Two of the 2010s biggest girl groups also came from televised reality competition shows. Little Mix, a quartet, was formed on the U.K.'s "The X Factor" and came to redefine the girl group era in Britain, selling more than 60 million records and topping the charts with high octane singles like "Cannonball" and "Shout Out To My Ex."
Stateside, Fifth Harmony was birthed on "The X Factor," where all five members had competed individually the season before but failed to advance. But after producers brought them back to compete as a group, Fifth Harmony was born, with viewers picking the name and ultimately helping them take third place in the competition.
The quintet emerged from the show signed to judge Simon Cowell's record label, Syco, and like so many great girl groups before it, embarked on a tour of malls and talk shows before eventually releasing a pop record tinged with both hip-hop and R&B. Fans latched on to songs like "I'm In Love With A Monster" and "Work From Home," the trap-laced monster hit that has garnered billions of hits on YouTube since its release.
The K-pop wave also continued in the 2010s, with groups like Girls Generation and Twice, both of whom broke the mold of a traditional girl group by having eight and nine members, respectively. At the same time, a J-Pop act, AKB48, rose to popularity, with a structure girl groups hadn't seen before — it has 80 members in total, with the group being divided into different "teams" that members are elected into by rabid fans. All three acts were literally and figuratively massive, selling tens of millions of highly produced bubblegum pop LPs and larger than life dance singles.
The success of K-pop girl groups shot to a new level when BLACKPINK entered the scene in 2016, forming after its members joined a girl group academy and underwent what amounts to girl group boot camp. The result is a fine-tuned musical machine that's produced pop hit after pop hit — including "Boombayah" and "DDU DU DDU DU" — as well as music videos that have been viewed billions of times online.
Spurred by the devotion of their fans (known as the BLINKs), BLACKPINK has also managed to rack up an impressive roster of accolades. They were the first Asian act to headline Coachella, the first female K-Pop artists on the cover of Billboard, and have amassed the most subscribers of any musical act on YouTube. But they're not the only female K-Pop act helping girl groups stay alive: Groups like Mamamoo and Red Velvet released hit after hit in the 2010s, and 2NE1 captured hearts everywhere with tracks like "Lonely" and "I Am The Best." In 2012, 2NE1 set out on what many consider to be the first world tour by a K-pop girl group, visiting 11 cities in seven countries.
A British girl group whose members pull from their individual cultures to create a unique, hip-hop influenced sound, Flo was also influenced by artists like Ciara and Amy Winehouse. Though they've only been together for a few years, their unique retro sound became almost instantly popular in the UK, with debut single "Cardboard Box" racking up almost a million views on YouTube within days of its release in early 2022. Other hit singles, like "Immature" and "Summertime" have followed.
Another thoroughly modern girl group, Boys World, was formed after managers found videos of five different women singing online and then contacted them to see if they wanted to team up. They said yes, launched a TikTok account, and moved into a house together in Los Angeles. Their thoroughly online approach to becoming a girl group has captivated audiences, along with their empowering anthems.
The K-Pop wave has continued to surge as well, with BLACKPINK headlining Coachella in 2023 and the quickly rising NewJeans earning the distinction of being the very first female Korean act to play Lollapalooza later this summer. Like so many girl groups before them, both acts continue to break boundaries and impact the culture at large, proving that the genre is as vital as ever.
While they may not be as abundant as in decades past, the girl group movement certainly hasn't shuttered. And with a diverse array of women still captivating audiences around the globe, girl groups will likely continue to spice up your life for years to come.