Gladys Knight, all sugary smiles and motherly love, is discussing why she's not giving up on the UK with an ungracious adios.
Rather, her decision to embark on a final tour with Tito Jackson and Dionne Warwick is her way of saying goodbye to a country who may not have been recently pining over the soul legend's lengthy absence, but will wistfully bid her farewell with the same gushy feeling one gets when humming the chorus to her 1973 hit "Midnight Train to Georgia". "Since I have an opportunity to come back, it's been such a wonderful way to tell you how much I love you."
As is the case with many soul stars of the 1960s, 70s and 80s, there comes a time when closing the chapter on their last leg of celebrity becomes inevitable. Knight has always been known to approach her career with a subtle class that still allows her the respect gained by being the former lead member of The Pips who enjoyed a brief stint at Motown, discovered The Jackson 5 and landed the Bond theme tune "Licence to Kill" which has been her only solo Top 10 hit in the UK.
"The fact that I've been able to perform for 61 years and be on stage is amazing to me," she says brightly. "It's mind-boggling. If someone asked me, 'How did you do it?' I couldn't tell them."
By the age of seven, Knight – born in Atlanta, Georgia – won the TV talent show, Ted Mack's The Original Amateur Hour, and formed the Pips with her brother Bubba, sister Brenda and cousins William and Eleanor Guest a year later in 1953. Knight has no qualms about starting out in the business as a kid and dismisses any comparisons with other performers who started young, such as the late Michael Jackson, of whom she sang at his funeral. "Unfortunately in Michael's situation, he kind of understood that he was being kind of used for someone else's gratification. A lot of people live their dreams through their children. "
Knight would cross paths with the Jackson family as the Pips grew in popularity, following their 1961 hit, "Every Beat of My Heart" and a slight reshuffle of the group, which saw them re-branded as Gladys Knight and the Pips, led to a deal with Motown Records in 1966. In 1968, the group were watching The Jackson 5 rehearsing for a talent show and impressed with what they saw, the singer tried to call someone from the label to come down and see the boys for themselves. "But we didn't have much weight then," she remembers. "So they kind of ignored it."
The Pips would never hit the heights of their Motown label-mates, and even though her 1967 version of "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" hit No 2 in the US charts, Marvin Gaye's single, released the following year, was seen as definitive. But Knight went on to huge success in the 1970s on the Buddah label and has not been short of work since – a fact she attributes to her faith in God.
"It wasn't always about the fame or the fortune," she insists. "It was about using what God gave you." She has since repaid the debt by forming the choir One Voice, which picked up a Grammy for Best Gospel Choir Album in 2006.
You get the impression this really is her goodbye tour. She is too dignified for endless comebacks and has established parallel careers as an actress, restaurateur (she co-owns a chain of chicken and waffles restaurants in Georgia), and recently announced plans for a jewellery line.
So how imminent is retirement? "I think I'll always be doing something in the industry," she muses. "My philosophy is to enjoy life it its fullest but make sure you give back."
Gladys Knight: The Midnight Train To Love UK Farewell Tour, tonight at Wembley Arena. Tickets: www.ticketmaster.co.uk or 08455 191 465.Reuse content