Gladys Knight might just be the greatest living soul singer on Planet Earth, but even the greatest living soul singer has no right to sound this good. Not one note was missed, not one key was changed, not one octave was shifted.

Last night, a flawless Knight reminded a sold-out Auckland crowd that in a post-Aretha world, there really aren't any contenders left. The fact she's 75 and with that almighty contralto still perfectly intact makes it all the more head-scratching.

You could close your eyes and Gladys Knight and her (mostly) youthful nine-piece band at the Civic in 2020 would've sounded exactly the same as Gladys Knight & The Pips at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem 50 years ago, with only fractionally less crowd-whooping.

Though closing your eyes would've been largely pointless given that physically as much as vocally, Knight is clearly drinking from some magical cup of eternal youth.


75 going on 35, the exuberant, conversational Knight had her fans – who'd given her a standing ovation before she'd even sung a note – tricked for a moment when she was assisted to the stage by one of her backing vocalists. Perhaps this would be another gig by a heritage act where nostalgia papers over the limitations age brings to us all.

But no, it turns out Knight didn't need any help at all and that this is a great-grandmother (10 great-grandkids and 17 grandkids in total, she told us) seemingly without limitation.

In a near two-hour set, she gave as masterful a vocal performance as this music geek has seen in almost 30-years of concert-going.

With a setlist that stretched all the way back to her very first hit in 1961, the doo-wop classic Every Beat Of My Heart, and even further back if you include her covering the Five Satins' In The Still Of The Night (1956), the woman who for decades has been hailed "the empress of soul" also proved she's not afraid of contemporary music.

Sam Smith (Stay With Me), Ed Sheeran (Perfect) and Major (Why I Love You) got the Gladys Knight treatment and you only hope those millennial stars comprehend just how big an honour that is. We're talking over 40 different songs to make the US or UK top 40, 11 US R&B number one singles, seven Grammy Awards, a member of the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame and a placing inside Rolling Stone magazine's '100 Greatest Singers Of All Time'

"Ya'll are some impatient people!" she laughed when a mid-show audience request bumped up traditional show closer – and her undoubted signature song – Midnight Train To Georgia to earlier in the night. Explaining how she'd instructed the song's writer Jim Weatherly to alter his original lyrics about a "midnight plane to Houston" because she was from Georgia and she didn't like to fly, it was an insight into what traditional soul music is about.

"I have to feel it, for you to feel it", was a line she used more than once in her delightful, southern church-infused pre-song monologues. Gladys Knight might not be a songwriter, but you believe her when she sings of the man she loves "leaving on the midnight train to Georgia".

The devastation of that song's concluding statement – as set to that somehow joyous but melancholy melody – of "I'd rather live with him in his world, than live without him in mine", still cuts deep.


Speaking of which, damp eyes in the crowd weren't uncommon with knockout performances of other smash US top 10 ballads from Knight's peak years from the early-mid 70s like The Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me, The Way We Were and Neither One Of Us.

It wasn't all about the tearjerkers though, with everything from the late 60s funk of The Nitty Gritty to the disco-soul of 1977's UK top 5 Baby, Don't Change Your Mind giving the crowd no option but to get up and dance (or at least shuffle and clap).

Two members of that wondrously ethnically diverse crowd summed up so much of last night. There was a woman aged about 60 who was clearly on her own.

Before Knight hit the stage, this mega-fan rose to her feet and shouted in an act of spontaneous abandon, "I've waited 50 years to see Gladys! We are so lucky to see her! How lucky are we!?"

She had the biggest, most unguarded smile and instead of laughing at her, we all cheered. I wanted to hug her.

Then there was the gent in front of me who would've been at least 80. He was accompanied by I assume his daughter, and dressed in an immaculate black suit, with a sparkling black shirt, white tie and white bowler hat, this was possibly his one night out of the year. Maybe the decade.

But that's how much the Empress Of Soul means to him. And the other lady was right: we were very, very lucky.

* Tim Roxborogh hosts Newstalk ZB's Weekend Collective and blogs at