Kelly Rowland on Playing Gladys Knight: ‘I Just Wanted to Soak Her Up’

Kelly Rowland has been hearing it for almost as long as she’s been singing. “Always, when I meet somebody, they’re like, ‘Oh man, you look like a young Gladys Knight,’” she recounted. “Well, she’s lovely to me — a beautiful woman. So I definitely love the comparison.”

And so apparently does Knight.

“It’s no secret that I love my @kellyrowland,” Knight posted on Instagram in October 2016. “So many people have said that Kelly would be the perfect person to star in my biopic.”

So when Rowland was asked to portray Knight in “American Soul” — a new BET drama about the evolution of Don Cornelius’s “Soul Train” — “I wondered if somebody was creeping through Gladys’s comments,” Rowland said. “I was beyond flattered because she had such an illustrious career, and I just wanted to soak her up.”

Starting last fall, Rowland pored over vintage YouTube clips to help capture Knight’s essence for “American Soul,” debuting Feb. 5, which follows Cornelius as he hitches his wagon to her star in preparation for the show’s syndication on Oct. 2, 1971.

The result is a groove down the “Soul Train” line as Rowland channels Knight, swaying in a glittering black evening gown alongside the fast-stepping Pips, in “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”; wrapped in gold knee-high gladiator sandals for “Friendship Train,” which the group performed on that inaugural episode; and seated alone at a piano in a poignant rendition of Knight’s signature song, “Midnight Train to Georgia.”

Rowland’s own career skyrocketed in her teens alongside Beyoncé in Destiny’s Child, which in 1998 displayed its own coordinated outfits and synchronized moves on “Soul Train.” And she hasn’t left music behind: In November she released the self-love single “Kelly” as a teaser to a promised album, her first since “Talk a Good Game” in 2013.

In a phone interview from Los Angeles, where she lives with her husband, Tim Weatherspoon, a talent manager, and Titan, their 4-year-old son, Rowland, 37, spoke about channeling a legend and the politics of the Super Bowl.

Here are edited experts from the conversation.

Did you grow up watching “Soul Train”?

Oh, I absolutely did. “Soul Train” was one of my first memories of watching all these different beautiful black people dancing and having a good time, and that was just a moment for me. I remember wanting to dress like the women who had expressions of self and freedom. I remember watching so many different girl groups — was it En Vogue or SWV? — and them just making it look so fun. And I would emulate the dancers, whether it was pop locking or jumping from that one platform and landing in the splits.

How intimidating was it playing the Empress of Soul?

It wasn’t intimidating until I remember watching one performance of her doing “Midnight Train to Georgia.” And it was of course with the Pips, and they’re on a dark stage and she has a beautiful dress on, and it’s just so effortless. From all of her movements to the different inflections in her face, I sat there and just studied it for days and days and days. She’s an effortless voice, an effortless talent, and I think that’s what people have always loved about Gladys.

Did you try to mimic her voice?

There is only one Gladys Knight, and I completely love and respect her, and there is no voice in the world that sounds like hers. What I did do — because I wanted to have a little bit more rasp to my voice — I would take shots of whiskey and I would scream really loud to try to get it as scratchy as possible or be around people who were smoking in a cloud of smoke and inhale. And all of that still didn’t work. [Laughs] When I finally got a cold and my voice got raspy, I was like, “Oh my God, it’s so exciting!”

What’s it like interpreting the classic “Midnight Train to Georgia”?

Like, I can’t even say [starts to sing] “L.A.” [Pause] Oh my gosh, the very first verse literally gets me choked up. I think it’s one of the deepest love songs ever written, and it’s extremely personal to me now. It was personal before, because I am an Atlanta girl and Gladys is an Atlanta girl. But now I can’t wait to have a conversation with her to ask exactly what this song is about. I want to know where she was singing from.

Are you nervous about her reaction to your performance?

Yes, yes, I’m so nervous to have her watch me, for sure!

Knight has been getting blowback for her decision to sing the national anthem at the Super Bowl. You appeared as part of Beyoncé’s halftime show in 2013. Is performing at the Super Bowl a political act?

I think the interesting times that we’re in right now, in politics and opinions, make it very touchy. And I’ll keep my answer right there. Because it’s really unfortunate that we’re in this place where even having your opportunity … she probably wanted to do the national anthem her whole career, and here we are at a moment where you make one decision, and some people are excited and some people are really, really upset about it. [Sighs] It really is a tough one.

Michelle Williams, your former Destiny’s Child collaborator, is playing Diana Ross in “American Soul.” Was there any competition about who could better recreate a diva?

When she told me she got the role, I was excited and couldn’t wait to see her performance. We just didn’t have that competition moment and we probably should have!

Any plans for another Destiny’s Child reunion?

Everybody is like, “Oh my God, when’s it going to …” Our kids have play dates, and we hang out for girls’ nights, but it hasn’t been anything that we’ve talked about. And … yeah!

Do you feel any extra pressure raising a boy in such turbulent times?

I feel like it’s a great responsibility to raise a good man, respectful, with integrity, honest, a great sense of self-assurance. That’s the pressure that I feel ever since he was in my womb. My gosh, I think Mike Brown had just been killed, and it was a series of killings of black boys back-to-back. And I remember holding my belly, weeping, because I was thinking, I have a black boy and he’s going to come into this world and how do I protect him from ignorance? How do I protect him from any and everything — when they fall, when they’re learning to meet friends, when they’re going to have a job interview. Of course, God’s bigger than me, and he was just like, “You’ve got this.” I feel like God was like, “I created woman on purpose. I’ve created you this way for a reason, and you have everything it is that you need to raise this child.”

RCA dropped R. Kelly after a documentary resurrected sexual-misconduct allegations. Last month, Mathew Knowles, Beyoncé’s father, spoke about keeping him away from Destiny’s Child. You went on to record songs with him. Any thoughts in hindsight?

No, I’d honestly rather not say. I will keep my comments to myself at this moment because I’m still downloading all of this like everybody else is.

You’ve vowed to finally release an album this year. What should we expect from your music-making?

I’m at the point where I feel like as long as I’m having fun making music, I can do whatever I want to do. Not follow anybody else’s standards, only my own. And music that I’m excited about, that I want to share with people, that I want them to be inspired by. On this next album, I want people to actually meet me.

“Kelly,” your latest, very danceable single, feels like a proclamation of where you are in life. So what do you mean when you sing, “Kelly ain’t humble no mo’”?

What I mean is, usually I let so many different things slide and it’s, “Oh, it’s so sweet, Kelly, it’s sweet.” I’m so sick of that word. “She’s sweet.” [Laughs] Because I am a kind person, but what I’m saying is: Don’t take my kindness for weakness.

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