Manchester Evening News, 28th March 1997


by Mick Middles

Soul music has been with us now for 35 years. The very best soul music from any part of this vast period has transcended all manner of trend or fad. It is ageless, timeless...eternally sexy. Next week Manchester plays host to two acts, deriving from either end of soul's rich history. The great Gladys Knight will elegantly grace the Labatt's Apollo on Sunday, while, with equal grace, one suspects, the south London trio, Eternal, will perform at the Nynex Arena on Tuesday.

The link couldn't be more obvious, for current chart act Eternal are, in the best possible way, a curiously old-fashioned band, who, rather than relying on overtly sexual posturing, prefer to allow their sensuality to simmer with their music.

The same could always be said of Gladys Knight. Never blessed with the smouldering looks of many of her peers, she still probably made the funkiest, sexiest music on the Motown label.

There are other links. Both Eternal and Gladys Knight have their roots firmly planted in gospel music. The two sisters from the Eternal trio, Esther (sic) and Vernie, grew up listening to a musical diet that was exclusively gospel, as modern "pop" music was never allowed in their house. Indeed, their singing career can be traced back to their performances in their church, a church their preacher mother still gives sermons in. (It was only as Eternal began to form, at the start of the nineties, that the third member, Kéllé, introduced them to 30 years of pop history.)

But their faith remains intact. Although Christian messages are, mercifully, never allowed to flavour their music, they remain resolutely "non rock-n-roll" in their attitude and lifestyle. references to God, needless to say, can be found lurking on their album sleeves.

Gladys Knight was, similarly, born into the sound of gospel. Her parents were singers in the Wings Over Jordan Gospel Choir and, beofre she was knee high, Gladys was a regular member of the Morris Brown Choir.

Her first pre-Pips band, although nameless, formed in 1957, with the intention of performing at gatherings and church functions at Mount Moriah Baptist Church in Atlanta. Gladys teamed up with her brother and sister, Merald and Brenda, to form the first, brief version of The Pips.

Two years later, following the departure of Brenda, two male vocalists, William Guest and Edward Patten, would complete the Pips line-up.

In an intriguing parallel to Eternal, William and Edward would educate Gladys by introducing her to the surge of black r'n'b that had seeped on to the playlists of a nationwide spread of new radio stations.

But, for the next 40 years, gospel would always echo in the background of the Gladys Knight and The Pips material, providing the band with their distinctive "echoey vocal". As such, Gladys Knight and The Pips, unlike the Supremes or the Vandellas, never quite succumbed to "formula Motown". They were always on the outside.

Eternal's rise, three and a half decades later, was slightly different. keeping their musicianly tendencies in check, they added Louise Nurding - discovered, dancing, in a West End club by their manager - to their line-up and broke into the charts in 1993/4, in the guise of the female equivalent of Take That.

As a "girl group" they spent the next 12 months smiling at children's TV presenters, and it was only with the departure of Louise that Eternal's true depth, as an elegant, mature soul band, wholly in control of their own destiny, began to truly surface. Like The Pips, Eternal would continue to enjoy chart success without resorting to crass, sexual posturing.

But are these phenomena aware of these parallels? And if they are, do they appreciate each other's music?

Kéllé, the most pop literate member of Eternal, explains: "I wasn't completely aware that Gladys Knight and the Pips, like Eternal, had a gospel past, but, I suppose, when you listen to the music, it's obvious, isn't it? More obvious than us, I suppose, but that is a side to our music that will probably come through during the next few years.

"We are taking more and more control over what we do. But I'm thrilled that you are comparing us to Gladys Knight, definitely one of our major influences. In fact it was Vernie, I think, who heard Gladys Knight and went and sought out her records.

"It's great that people are now beginning to think of us in this way. When we started we were treated as lightweight...but, and I mean this in the nicest way, The Spice Girls tend to take all that attention now, leaving us to mature. Eternal and Gladys Knight....Wow! What a compliment."

Tracing Gladys Knight wasn't quite so easy. Unlike Eternal, she doesn't have to play the pop hyperbole, endlessly chatting to journalists or having to achieve "hits". Gladys Knight is Gladys Knight. A legend. But does she keep tabs on today's music scene, and, more poignantly, is she aware of Eternal? We managed, finally, to get the question through and, I have to admit, I found the response rather surprising.

"I'm most aware of Eternal. I don't listen to new music all that much, although my manager passes things on to me... and musicians, studio people, people like that, keep me informed. Actually, I suppose I still listen to a lot of new American black music, and I think the standard is very high. Eternal are British, aren't they? I heard Power of a Woman and thought it was a fantastic song...a fantastic sentiment. They are good because they don't sound over-produced and, yes, I can hear gospel in their sound".

Many thanks to Janet Valentine for typing in this article!