Before restaurant debacle, a troubled childhood for Gladys Knight’s son

Credit: Willoughby Mariano

Credit: Willoughby Mariano

Years before Shanga Hankerson was a troubled restaurateur, he was the troubled youngest son of soul music icon Gladys Knight.

I alluded to his childhood problems in my Sunday story about the struggles of Hankerson’s Gladys Knight’s Chicken and Waffles, a chain of three restaurants with a popular location just south of Midtown Atlanta on Peachtree Street. By the time he was 11, Hankerson topped 320 pounds, which he only lost after his family rallied to help him, according to his mother’s 1997 autobiography, “Between Each Line of Pain and Glory.”

The weight gain was only part of Hankerson's childhood difficulties. According to Knight, an Atlanta native, it was a sign of how Hankerson paid the price for troubles in his parents' personal lives.

Credit: Willoughby Mariano

Credit: Willoughby Mariano

These details are worth mentioning. Knight’s book doesn’t tell us how Hankerson came to lead a company that former employees said shorted its front-line staff and left what state agents said is $1 million in unpaid taxes, penalties and fees. It also doesn’t say how Hankerson was accused of using the funds for what witnesses told investigators were sex parties and marijuana. But it does leave clues as to how financial and emotional struggles in his early life may have set the stage for future turmoil.

Hankerson was born into a family that had no love for the tax man. Knight blamed her own unpaid $1 million Internal Revenue Service bill for driving her to gamble to repay her debts:  "While the government is supposed to be an extension of the people, I feel it has no moral conscience," she wrote in her autobiography.

By the time Shanga was in elementary school, Knight's gambling had developed into an addiction, she wrote:

"[I]t got to the point where I'd stay out all night through the next morning. I would miss taking Shanga to school so my mother would have to take him. At one or two in the afternoon, I would still be at the table, calling her on a cellular phone, asking her to pick up Shanga for me."

These were tense times. Knight's divorce from her record producer husband Barry Hankerson resulted in an ugly custody dispute that seemed to rob their son of his sense of security.

"He began seeking that lost comfort and security elsewhere, as any human being could be expected to do. With Shanga, it became food. He ate and ate and ate to satisfy a hunger that was beyond his reach."

Knight spent on doctors, psychiatrists, diet experts and weight-loss camps that never seemed to work.  At one point, she wrote, she was so frustrated she called Shanga a "fat slob."

"I couldn't believe I'd said it. Shanga didn't react on the outside; the hurt was all within. If I could only cram those words back into my mouth. How could I hurt him that way?"

Hankerson's school seemed to help, as did some assistance from weight loss celebrity Richard Simmons and Weight Watchers Camp. But in the end, he only lost the weight after his mother purchased a house in Los Angeles so Hankerson could see his father more often.

By high school, Hankerson was living with his father full time, who was manager to pop star Aaliyah (also a relative) and gospel legends The Winans.

By the age of 21, Hankerson, with financial backing from his father and help from other partners, opened the restaurant that would be known as Gladys Knight's Chicken and Waffles.

Knight's autobiography was released that same year.

“Go Shanga!” Knight wrote. “I am proud of you and of all my children.”