For several years people have wondered how Grammy Award winning solo artist, Gladys Knight, came to join the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Her fame as lead singer of Gladys Knight and the Pips has brought her millions of fans, many who are curious how the gospel singing diva was introduced to the religion, and how she was converted.
The story begins with Knight’s oldest son- Jimmy Newman, and includes her daughter, husband, and almost inexplicably, R&B sensation R. Kelly.
Jimmy Newman was searching for the truth. Jimmy and his wife Michelene had both been raised Catholic and had been married in a Catholic church. But with 2 small children they searched for a new religion for their growing family. Since graduating from the University of San Diego in 1984 with a degree in business at the age of 22, Jimmy had managed his mother’s group – Gladys Knight and the Pips. After attending different church services, Jimmy and his wife decided to continue searching for the true church. They prayed that God would lead them to a religion where they would find true doctrine and where they could raise their growing family in an increasingly wicked world. As the business manager for his famous mother, Gladys Knight, Jimmy often spent weekends traveling with his mother to concerts around the world. His sister, Kenya Newman Jackson, also joined Gladys and Jimmy on these regular road trips as a business assistant to their entertainer/singer mother.
One day Jimmy and Michelene noticed a new family had moved into the vacant home located across the street from where they lived in Las Vegas, Nevada. The Newmans went over to welcome their new neighbors, David and Maria Sigler, who were about their same age and had a 6 year old and 3 year old, similar to the Newmans two young children. They quickly became close friends, and eventually the Siglers explained that they belonged to the Mormon Church.
One Friday morning, on the way to drop Jimmy off at the Las Vegas airport for a weekend Gladys concert, David gave Jimmy a copy of the Book of Mormon to read. Jimmy and Michelene shortly thereafter took the missionary lessons and loved what they heard. They welcomed the concept of family home evenings. Everything they heard about this new church felt right and the spirit confirmed to their hearts that this restored church was the answer to their many questions and prayers. Jimmy and his wife Michelene were both baptized into the Mormon church on February 25, 1989.
Next, Jimmy began to subtly share the new gospel message with his beloved sister Kenya. Kenya is a vivacious and talented business woman in her own right. On a business trip shortly after his baptism, Jimmy opened his scriptures on the airplane as he sat next to Kenya. When he told her he was reading his scriptures, she was puzzled because she could tell that what he was reading from was not the Bible. The Bible is a part of the Mormon religion, certainly, but on this particular day, Jimmy was reading the Book of Mormon. He began to share his new faith with his sister Kenya, who, with her husband Jim, joined the Church one year after Jimmy in March of 1990.
Lovingly and patiently the two siblings started to share the gospel with their famous mother, a devout Christian. Both of Gladys’ parents were singers in the Wings Over Jordan gospel choir. Raised in a family which valued education and the sounds of gospel music, Gladys began singing gospel music at the Mount Moriah Baptist Church and had her first recital there in 1948 when she was four years old. Jimmy and Kenya soon began inviting their mother to attend various LDS church meetings, and sometimes Gladys was invited to speak to youth groups when attending with her children and grandchildren.
For example, shortly after the 1996 Summer Olympics held in Atlanta, Georgia, Gladys spoke to the youth in the Las Vegas Cimarron Ward (Jimmy’s ward). She explained her feelings about her recent experience of coming onto the Olympic stage during the Opening Ceremonies in Atlanta to sing before a world-wide television audience of several billion viewers.
During this period of time, Jimmy was also looking for other new singers to manage. On a business trip to Chicago he was impressed by a young singer he watched perform in a trio. After the performance was over, Jimmy explained to the lead singer, Robert Sylvester Kelly, that he would be better as a solo act, without the two dancers next to him. The young singer agreed, and thus Jimmy became the manager for a new and relatively unknown singer/songwriter, who later became known as R. Kelly.
As they worked together, it soon became apparent to Jimmy (one of the rising stars in the music business) that his new LDS beliefs and religion ran counter to the sexually charged lyrics that R. Kelly was writing into his new songs. Jimmy tried repeatedly to persuade the talented young singer/songwriter to change various words and suggestive phrases and lyrics in his music, but to no avail. Every time Jimmy tried to explain to Robert how inappropriate the lyrics were for young music fans, R. Kelly would counter that it helped to sell his music. He was right, it did sell well, but Jimmy would not back down.
Finally, after repeated attempts to tone down the sexually drenched lyrics of his talented new composer, Jimmy realized that he could not continue to market music that was so diametrically opposed to what he believed and contrary to what he tried to teach his children and the teenagers in his church assignments. Their business relationship soon soured and Jimmy eventually terminated his contractual relationship with R. Kelly, regardless of his monetary losses (a typical manager’s percentage of sales is 15% to 20%). Jimmy was more worried about his spiritual damages. R. Kelly’s management responsibilities were then turned to Jimmy’s father-in-law, Barry Hankerson (having divorced James Newman II in 1973, Gladys married Barry Hankerson in 1974).
R. Kelly’s music sales, due in part to their sexually graphic lyrics, soon skyrocketed to incredible record-breading levels. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) has recognized R. Kelly as one of the best-selling music artists in the United States with over 38.5 million albums now sold. R. Kelly is often referred to as the King of R&B, and he is considered to be the most successful R&B artist of the last 25 years.
Jimmy was shortly thereafter called to be the priest advisor in his ward and shared with the youth that in spite of the huge profits (tens of millions) he walked away from as R. Kelly’s former business manager, he still felt he had done the right thing for his testimony and his family, not to mention his conscience. Jimmy had been voted Mr. Football at Gorman High School in Las Vegas, and his music talents, athletic abilities, and magnetic personality made him a popular leader of the young men in his ward.
Jimmy’s good example, and that of his sister Kenya, had a significant impact on their talented and award-winning mother. Despite being inducted into the Hall of Fame and enjoying many of the perks of success, Gladys understood that something was missing in her life. She wanted to be a better person than she was, and to be more spiritual than she was. She had been raised in a religious home and she was searching on her own for faith, exploring a variety of religions. She wanted to live forever with God, but wondered what happened after death. No one could tell her, and she was spiritually frustrated.
She had no idea that the foundation for her future spiritual life was quietly being laid for her by her own children. Jimmy and Kenya, and their spouses, all set wonderful examples for Gladys, who was still deep in her own personal search for religion. She eventually agreed to meet with LDS member Ron Strobelt, who had the answers to the many questions she asked.
Gladys joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1997. Later, she married William McDowell in 2001, and despite his initial determination not to be converted, he joined the church as well. He kept his studies of her faith a secret from her until the very day before his baptism. However, it was a surprise only to her; everyone else was aware of his quiet investigation and his decision to be baptized.
Just two years later, Gladys was invited to sing at President Hinckley’s 90th birthday celebration in June 2000. She had occasionally teased President Hinckley that his flock needed to inject some “pep” into their music. At the conclusion of the birthday program, Sister Knight walked with President Hinckley to the podium in the Conference Center (filled to its 21,000 capacity), and said, “President Hinckley, if it is okay with you, I would like to clarify something. I love the music of this Church as I love this Church. It is just that I knew when I came I may have a little withdrawal, because of the foot-stomping and hand clapping that I am used to!”
Eager to share the gospel message, and mindful of her mother’s admonition that her music was a gift from God to be freely shared, Gladys watched for opportunities to simultaneously share her music talents and her testimony. She recalled that shortly after her baptism, her manager/son Jimmy had given her some sage advice. He told his mother that “You’ve been there and done that. You need to do the music you love. You need to do what’s in your heart.” So it was that in 2002, she formed the Saints Unified Voices, or, as she likes to call it, the SUV Choir in Las Vegas. This new LDS choral group performs gospel music in free concerts held in Mormon churches, and on television, and records music as well. Their first album won a Grammy.
“Except for a few, these wonderful people had never sung gospel music before,” says Gladys of her new choir members. They were also not accustomed to singing without sheet music. Given only the words to the hymns typed in paragraph form, the choir learned to sing the songs by following Gladys. “All they get is the lyrics because I don’t want anybody reading notes on paper.” Jimmy Newman brought many of the songs to his mother’s attention, including “Jesus’ Love is Like a River,” a song co-written by Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch.
The SUV choir has grown in popularity and now attracts huge crowds around the world wherever they perform. The Church also helps to manage the choir’s travel schedule and calendar. It is one of the most powerful and successful sources of missionary referrals in the missionary departments vast arsenal of resources. During each performance, Gladys and William share their testimonies of the restored gospel. The choir’s 100 culturally diverse voices are all are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It is not uncommon for the local mission to where they perform to receive several hundred referrals after an evening’s performance.
On February 8, 2006, it was announced that the album One Voice won the 2005 Grammy Award for Best Gospel Choir or Chorus Album as part of the 48th Annual GRAMMY Awards. Shortly after learning that her choir had been nominated for a Grammy Award, Gladys Knight said: “A Grammy nomination is always an honor, but this means even more to me because I share it with my choir. We worked hard making this album for the Lord. It’s wonderful that it also pleases the music industry.” During each performance, Gladys and William share their testimonies of the restored gospel.
People have been noticing a change in Gladys Knight, known as the Empress of Soul, since she became a member of the Church. “Since I joined the Church, I desire to be more and more obedient to God. As I do so, many people say to me, I see a light in you more than ever before. What is it?’ … During one performance at Disney World … [a member of the audience asked,] Could you please tell us … how you got that light?’ The question was direct. So I gave a direct answer: I have become a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.’ To the surprise of some of my friends watching the show, the audience suddenly burst into applause” (Why I Believe, Bookcraft, 2002, quoted on LDS.org Newsroom).
Gladys is currently ranked number eighteen in the 2005 Guinness Book of World Records’ list of the most successful female musical artists of all time.
Sadly, Jimmy Newman, the son who helped bring Gladys the restored gospel of Jesus Christ, died in 1999, two years after her baptism. He was just 37 years old (1962-1999). Gladys told the Ottawa Citizen, “He [Jimmy] brought me to my church and I just grew immensely from his example. I am happy in my spirit for where I know for sure he is. That (death) is something we all have to go through, it’s not our time and place to dictate when, where or what, it’s not our business. It belongs to the Lord and that’s how I’ve dealt with it. I know I’ll see him again.” (Ottawa Citizen). Her testimony of the purpose of life and the plan of salvation were spiritual gifts that helped Gladys recover from the loss of her beloved son. General Relief Society Presidency Member Sheri Dew attended Jimmy Newman’s funeral in the Las Vegas Red Rock Stake to convey the condolences of the Brethren and their love for Gladys and her family.
Michelene later married James Barton, who had lost his wife Holly in a car accident in Las Vegas while driving to a Sunday church meeting. Together James and Michelene have been successfully raising their 8 children (Michelene’s 5 and Jim’s 3) in the same ward in the Green Valley Henderson Stake as Gladys, where James Barton now serves in the Bishopric.
Three of Jimmy Newman’s children have or are serving full-time missions for the church, and one of Kenya’s son’s is now serving.
Editor’s Note: Mark Albright served as both the bishop and as the stake president for Jimmy and Michelene Newman, and is Jim Barton’s former brother-in-law. He performed the marriage for Jim Barton and Michelene Newman. Michelene Newman Barton contributed to this article.