Born in Wolverhampton in the West Midlands in 1973, Beverley Knight is a musician and actor. She discovered her talent for singing in her Pentecostal church choir when she was a child. Signing her first record contract at the age of 21, she joined a wave of innovative R&B stars in the UK in the 1990s, and found commercial success in the 00s, with tracks such as Shoulda Woulda Coulda. As well as collaborating with Chaka Khan, and being championed by Prince and David Bowie, she has held a parallel career in musical theatre, starring in Sylvia, Cats and Memphis. Her older sister Cynthia has worked for the NHS since the age of 19. Beverley’s new album, The Fifth Chapter, is released on 29 September.
Cynth and I had this picture taken at Banerjee Studio – a place in the middle of Wolverhampton where every Jamaican family in the area got their photos done. I loved that princess dress I’m wearing, which is why I’m fiddling with it. My sister was a good girl – focused and disciplined. I tested the boundaries with Mum and Dad. You can see that in the picture. She’s looking down the lens, and I’m messing around.
People would tease our family and call us the Cosbys because we all just got on. My sister and I are so close, and my brother too. We bonded in music. Cynth and I would record ourselves singing along to any pop songs that came on our parents’ radio cassette player. She was very musically talented, but never wanted to be front and centre. I was the opposite – the attention-seeking middle child. I always wanted to perform.
Cynth was my hero – so cool and pretty. She was statuesque, and is to this day, but she doesn’t see it. Everyone else does. When I started performing professionally, I introduced her to my band. They took one look at her and went: “Oh … heeey!” I started laughing. I knew she was fire, even if she didn’t.
We were never at school at the same time, but I was very protective of her. One day I noticed that some cheeky git had carved “Cynthia is a bitch” into one of the wooden desks. I didn’t even know what a bitch was, but I knew it wasn’t nice and I had to find out who had written it. When I did, I properly fought him. He didn’t even report me because he didn’t want anyone to know he’d got beaten up by a girl! It was the only scrap I’ve ever had, but no one talks about my sister like that. I’m still like that to this day. Never slander my sister if I’m in the room cos I’ll go for you.
It’s not easy meeting people as a public figure, but she’s always told me if she’s got concerns
The one thing I wish I had more of is time. Because time with the family, time with Cynth, is so precious. Maybe it’s because she’s in the NHS and I know how tough her line of work is and how easy I have it, relatively speaking, but I feel like I always have to keep her in my mind and heart. I go home to Wolverhampton a lot so I can be around her. It’s like we’re little girls again as soon as we’re together – and, as I don’t have children, her daughters are so special to me.
There are times I’ve had to travel a lot, and I’ve dragged Cynth along for the ride. We were Go West crazy growing up, and recently I took her to see them at Let’s Rock festival in Belfast. I’ve got this great video of me and Cynth singing our hearts out. After the set finished, I said: “Come on – let’s meet them.” She looked terrified and said: “I can’t! Oh my God!” But she did, and she got her picture with Peter Cox. It made her day. Week. Year.
Cynth never let me go off and get lost in showbiz, and is always real with me. She’s been there for every single relationship I’ve had. It’s not easy meeting people as a public figure, but she’s always told me if she’s had concerns. She’s a Christian and she’ll often say: “I’m praying God will put good people in your path so you’ll be all right.” She prays for me every day, and I’m surrounded by good people. Is that because of Cynth’s prayers? Probably.
When I was younger I was in a bad relationship, an abusive one with a guy who was much older than me. This was early doors in my career, before any type of fame. Cynth was really worried. She didn’t try to interfere, but she said: “Be careful.” Little did I know, she was tearing out her hair worrying. I ended up going to university, finished the relationship and immediately signed my recording contract. Cynth has since said that time was when she was really on her knees praying: “You’ve got to find a way, God. Bev’s destined for big things and this guy ain’t right for her.” She is not one to sit there lecturing me, but in the background she is always letting me know that she loves me, she’s there, she cares.
I don’t remember life before Bev, just like I don’t remember anything about this photo being taken, apart from the dress. I probably liked wearing it the first time, but possibly not the second. Or third.
Mum tells a story about me rocking Bev’s pram too hard and accidentally knocking her out of it. Oops – out she went! Aside from that, we never had any issues. Bev was more spirited than me and she’d often get into mischief and chat back at our parents. I wouldn’t dare.
Music was a massive thing Bev and I had in common. We grew up in church, with choirs and gospel songs. From a young age, Bev had a clear talent, and I’d play piano, so we’d perform a lot together in a youth group. We became proper friends in our mid-teens. Before that, we were sisters and had less in common. Then we became a lot closer, and we remained close. I’m her big sister, but when it comes to Bev I have that mother mentality, too.
I was thrilled when her first song, Flavour of the Old School, came out. She was head and shoulders above anyone else who was out there at the time. I did worry about the music industry changing her though. She’s had some dodgy people around her in the past. I’d meet them and think: “I’m not feeling this person. Move on, and move out, please!” Thankfully, they always did.
I like to dip my toes in and out of her showbiz life, as that kind of world isn’t for me. It’s nice to see who she’s mixed with though. When Bev supported Prince [in 2007] at the O2, she said: “You’ve got to come!” That night was amazing. I’ve never felt so proud – my sister and Prince jamming on stage! I got to have a glimpse of him, but I didn’t dare say hello.
I did, however, meet David Bowie. He told me that he knew Bev would be massive if she went to America. He could see that her talent would translate in the States, and I know exactly what he meant. People often say she’s the “queen of soul”, and she absolutely is. But that recognition with hits hasn’t followed. The UK music industry has stereotypes about what an artist should look like, how she should sing or act. Bev, being a woman of colour, doesn’t follow that. She has her own style and groove. Because of that, the UK music industry has maybe limited Bev. In my eyes, she should be massive. She beats Beyoncé any day!