Gladys Knight & the Pips should not be an unfamiliar name to anyone who has read this blog before. While the Georgia Soul blog has a fairly standard practice of featuring artists who are under-appreciated, off the radar of flat out unknown, the Pips do have a couple of fascinating story lines which are not common knowledge. With that in mind, today we’re going to feature the Pips debut 45 from 1961, not on Vee Jay or Fury, but the Atlanta-operated HunTom label.
Most know that the Pips were formed out of a group of friends and relatives attending Booker T. Washington High School in Atlanta. It is also well documented that the Pips first 45 was “Every Beat of My Heart” b/w “Room In Your Heart” in 1961, which became a substantial hit for the group and launched an illustrious career for Gladys, Merald Knight, William Guest and Edward Patten. The “fourth Pip”, Langston George, enjoyed the early successes of the group, but his tenure was relatively short-lived. Langston George and Edward Patten were brought into the group when Eleanor Guest and Brenda Knight left. The group was beginning to spend a fair amount of time on the road, which was a greater commitment than Eleanor and Brenda had anticipated.
Generally, the accepted story about today’s featured record is that the 45 came out on Vee Jay first, and then the Fury label, following disagreements over how the Vee Jay deal came about. However, Vee Jay was actually the 2nd release and Fury the 3rd. If you weren’t living in Atlanta in 1961, and hanging around night clubs in the Sweet Auburn district of town, it’s entirely likely that you would have never seen the local release of this hit single on HunTom.
Clifford Hunter was a well known and successful night club owner in Atlanta, running the Builder’s Club, and possibly another, based on some similar bookings I’ve seen noted in advertisements in the Atlanta Daily World back issues. Clifford wanted to start a record label and received an investment of $500 from Atlanta recording artist Tommy Brown. Together, they put their money and their names together and named their label HunTom. One 45 from a blues artist named Lil’ Satler was released, and then came HunTom’s last release by the Pips, who were no longer local talent show standouts, but on the fast track to stardom. “Every Beat of My Heart” immediately caught the attention of local radio stations such as WERD, WIGO and the more influential WAOK, and it became clear that this record was going to require national distribution as a legitimate R&B hit.
Clifford Hunter made the decision to license the song to Vee Jay, but Tommy Brown was out of state on tour. As the story has been explained to the Georgia Soul blog, Brown was not consulted about the Vee Jay agreement and subsequently cut out of the deal altogether. Other details of the Vee Jay deal are murky at best. Whatever money Vee Jay paid was paid solely to Hunter. Fortunately, the Pips were not under any contract with Hunter, and were able to enlist a great supporter in WAOK DJ Alley Pat (James Patrick), who brokered a deal with Bill Robinson with Fury Records in New York. Hunter himself went on to release a handful of 45s on the renamed Hunter (no longer HunTom since there was no further investment from Tommy Brown) and faded into obscurity, a mere footnote in the career of Gladys Knight & the Pips. It should be noted that Hunter did manage to release a number of other quality 45s during his short run which should not be marginalized. He orchestrated another minor hit in 1961 with Grover Mitchell‘s “That’s A Good Idea”.
Hot on the heels of a successful debut single, Bill Robinson had the group record two more singles in 1961. “Guess Who” b/w “Stop Running Around” (Fury 1054) didn’t gain any traction, but “Letter Full of Tears” b/w “You Broke Your Promise” became another hit and kept the group out on the road into 1962. Once the Pips returned to Atlanta, Gladys wanted to take a break and start a family. The break gave Langston George time to rethink the direction of his own life, when he left the Pips to marry and start a family of his own. While he was no longer in the Pips, George remained interested in music for the rest of his life and was even fortunate enough to sing the national anthem at an Atlanta Braves baseball game in the mid-1980s. However, he only flirted one more time with the music industry, when he recorded a single with his friend Charles French for Jesse Jones’ Tragar label in the late 1960s.
Where Gladys Knight and the Pips went from here has been extremely well documented elsewhere, and done more professionally than you would find here.