Early in my career I had the good fortune to tour with and open for many of the top singing stars of the day, including Tom Jones, Paul Anka, Aretha Franklin, and Gladys Knight and the Pips. Although each one was terrific to work with and treated me with kindness and respect, I found that Gladys and her Pips were the friendliest and the ones I got to hang out with the most.
We were performing for a week at Harrah’s Hotel in Lake Tahoe, one of the premier casinos in the country. Harrah’s gave me a wonderful hotel suite, but the headline stars always got to stay in the hotel’s palatial estate right on Lake Tahoe, with it’s magnificent views and first class decor, including pool and tennis court.
One night after the show, Gladys invited me to play tennis with her and two of the Pips the next day at the house. I was humbled and surprised by such a wonderful invite, and I quickly accepted and looked forward to a great time.
The next day I went over there and met them at the court. We were about to play a set of doubles tennis, and they determined it would be Gladys and me versus the 2 Pips. As funny as this may sound, it was perfectly logical. Let’s face it, you can’t split up a couple of Pips on the tennis court. They did everything together and were always in perfect sync.
But something was about to occur that I hadn’t anticipated, something so nerve racking and startling that it was about to affect my psyche for years to come. As is the case in doubles tennis, everyone rotates serving, and it came to my turn. I took my usual practice bounces and looked up, only to see Gladys Knight with her back to me in front of the net, ready to react to a Pip return of service. Suddenly my hands started to perspire – which never happens. You see, I am a good athlete but my tennis game – especially my serve – can be very erratic, due to lack of practice. And all I could think of was, “Please don’t hit Gladys Knight, THE Gladys Knight of Gladys Knight and the Pips, in the back!!” I could see my career flashing before my eyes.
I hit my serve, and naturally the ball bee-lined right toward the back of Gladys. And then, zap! The ball hit her flush in the back of the head; she yelled and fell to her knee, clearly dazed. Mortified, I ran toward her, while the 2 Pips ran and jumped over the net – in sync of course.
We helped her up, and though she was not very happy, she graciously told me she was fine and not to worry about it. They decided to end the tennis match out of precaution, and we went inside the house for some lunch, while Gladys got an ice pack put on the back of her head.
The rest of the week of that engagement was a blur, and while always friendly to me, I noticed that they didn’t offer any more invitations to the house on the lake. Gladys survived my errant serve, and I made a promise to myself not to play any more doubles tennis.
To this day I still feel guilty about that misguided ball that almost maimed one of our biggest music icons. But it could have been worse. If they had been really angry with me, I easily could have ended up on a midnight train to Georgia.