Just as it had done for many years by then, the sound of Motown was reverberating around America and the world in the last weeks of the 1960s. Billboard’s Best Selling Soul Singles chart of November 8, 1969 once again showed the company with a stranglehold on the R&B market, with the entire top three and several hot new singles, including a great arrival by Gladys Knight and the Pips.
The Originals climbed to the top of that countdown with “Baby I’m For Real,” ending the five-week reign of the Temptations’ “I Can’t Get Next To You” and beginning a similar run of their own. Marvin Gaye, meanwhile, stood in third place with “That’s The Way Love Is.”
Other Motown gems in that roll of honour included Stevie Wonder, whose “Yester-Me Yester-You Yesterday” was climbing fast at No.22, and Jr. Walker and the All Stars, new at No.33 with “These Eyes.” Gladys and her Pips, for their part, were coming off a No.2 R&B hit with “Nitty Gritty” as they debuted at a bold No.24 with the stirring, psychedelic funk-soul-gospel winner “Friendship Train.”
The song, from the assured power base of producer Norman Whitfield and his frequent collaborator (and former Motown artist) Barrett Strong, matched a typically socially aware lyric to a busy, funky, brass-fuelled beat and an arrangement by Jerry Long. With the group on top form, Knight exuded her customary vocal luminosity. A Motown advertisement on the front page of Billboard said: “This driving new single spells top sales and chart action for this group.”
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It was an accurate prediction. “Friendship Train” became another No.2 for Knight and the Pips on that R&B survey, and went to No.17 pop, while becoming a key part of the group’s live show. As the Pips’ William Guest remembered in The Complete Motown Singles Vol. 9: “It was a good song to put into our act, because it brought a lot of action.”
“Friendship Train” is on Gladys Knight and the Pips’ Nitty Gritty album, which can be bought here.