Warm Southern Breeze

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The Midnight Train To Georgia Has Left The Station

Posted by Warm Southern Breeze on Saturday, February 6, 2021

The Number 1 smash hit popularized by Atlanta, Georgia-based family band of Gladys Knight and the Pips in October 1973 was the work of a native Mississippian from Pontotoc named Jim Weatherly.

His family reported that Jim died recently at his residence in Brentwood, Tennessee, a tony suburb of Nashville, of natural causes, aged 77.

Weatherly wrote two additional tunes that became hits for Gladys Knight and the Pips: “Neither One of Us (Wants to Be the First to Say Goodbye)” and “Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me” – which was originally recorded by country singer Ray Price.

A star quarterback for the University of Mississippi, aka “Ole Miss,” in the 1960s, after graduation, Weatherly, who had already formed a band with some classmates, moved to Nashville where he hoped to find his fortune. Nashville, however, long known as a very cliquish town musically, rejected him. So he and his band moved to the Los Angeles area where he became a songwriter in that area’s then-hot music scene. It was a “training ground” for many musicians who later became immensely popular, super-star caliber artists, including Glen Campbell, Jackson Browne, Tom Petty, Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, Brian Wilson, Beck, and many others who populated the Laurel Canyon area – a mountainous canyon region in LA’s Hollywood Hills West district, in the Santa Monica Mountains.

Although Laurel Canyon is a rocky, arid, and largely agriculturally inhospitable area, it was fertile ground for artists like Joni Mitchell, David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, and Neil Young, Linda Ronstadt, The Byrds, Frank Zappa, Jim Morrison, Buffalo Springfield, Love, Michelle and John Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas, Roger McGuinn, Gene Clark, Chris Hillman, J. D. Souther, Judee Sill, Carole King, the Eagles, Richie Furay (of Buffalo Springfield and Poco) and many, many more, almost too numerous to mention.

But, lesser known is the backstory of Jim Weatherly’s first hit song for Gladys Knight and the Pips.

After his college football days ended, Weatherly worked in Los Angeles as a songwriter.

During his off-time in LA he often played flag football with other creative types who had athletic backgrounds – among them, Lee Majors, who himself was a former college football player and was then starring in The Big Valley as Heath Barkley, alongside the lead and central character Victoria Barkley, played by renown actress Barbara Stanwyck. The Big Valley was a unique western television serial whose central character was a woman (Stanwyck), who had taken Heath as her own, though he was the illegitimate son of her character’s late husband Thomas Barkley, following his death.

Jim Weatherly was inducted to the Songwriters Hall of Fame at their 45th Annual Induction and Awards ceremony at the Marriott Marquis Theater on June 12, 2014 in New York City.

The Big Valley was a loose adaptation of a true story of the Barkleys, one of the wealthiest families in the Stockton, California area from 1855 until around 1931. While many western-themed shows of the day featured men as the central character – such as Gunsmoke, Rawhide, Bonanza, and The Lone Ranger –The Big Valley was one that went against the grain and proved that women could be the lead character for that genre. The series had a steady fan base, and enjoyed a very strong run on ABC from 1965 until 1969.

Majors later went on to enjoy renown in “The Six Million Dollar Man,” as a “bionic” man – an astronaut/pilot for an American spy agency whose legs and arm were missing or mangled following a disastrous explosion, and were “rebuilt” using a then-new technology, which gave him superhuman strength, and enabled him to run at speeds up to 60mph.

At the time, Majors had a love interest named Farrah Fawcett, who later become his wife, and one of the original “super models,” who for a period of time, enjoyed additional renown as an actress on Charlie’s Angels, a television serial which ran from 1976-1981 starring Kate Jackson, Farrah Fawcett, Jaclyn Smith, and David Doyle, which story circulated around a trio of female private investigators who worked for a wealthy, mostly-anonymous agency owner named “Charlie.”

One day, Jim had called Lee’s house, and Farrah answered the phone. Jim asked about Lee’s whereabouts, and in the ensuing conversation, Farrah told Jim that she was going to take a so-called “red eye flight,” which she called a “midnight plane to Houston,” to visit some of her family there.

Jim then wrote the song, and first recorded it entitled as “Midnight Plane to Houston,” for rockabilly-singer-turned-record-producer Jimmy Bowen and his company Amos Records, and a version of the song later appeared on Weatherly’s self-titled 1972 debut for RCA Victor.

Jim Weatherly and Dorothy Moore of Jackson, Mississippi perform in 1979 at a benefit for North Mississippi Medical Center in Tupelo. Weatherly, a former Ole Miss quarterback on two SEC championship teams, is a member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

In the mean time, Whitney Houston‘s mother, Cissy Houston, first recorded the song and at the request of Sonny Limbo, her Atlanta-based producer, made a few minor changes to the lyrics, most notably as changing plane to train, and Houston to Georgia, and recorded the song as “Midnight Train to Georgia.”

In 2013, Cissy Houston told the Wall Street Journal that, “When Sonny played me Jim’s song, I loved it right away. It was a country ballad that told a good story–about two people in love. But I wanted to change the title. My people are originally from Georgia and they didn’t take planes to Houston or anywhere else. They took trains. We recorded the single in Memphis in 1972 with a country-gospel thing going, and I arranged the background singers. But Janus, my label, didn’t do much to promote it and we moved on.”

About a year later, Gladys Knight and the Pips chose to perform another one of Weatherly’s tunes – “Neither One of Us (Wants to Be the First to Say Goodbye)” – which became a soul chart-topper for them in 1972.

Gladys also spoke with the Wall Street Journal and shared some detail on how she and her Pips came to sing “Midnight Train to Georgia,” saying that, “I listened to Cissy’s version and loved it – but I knew I wanted to do something different. I wanted an Al Green thing, you know, something moody with a little ride to it. I’ve always liked my tracks full – horns, keyboards and other instruments – to create texture and spark something in me. I also wanted to change a few of Jim’s original lyrics – add a word or two and take out a few. So I’d call him every day. I’d say, ‘Hey Jim, what do you think of ‘So he’s leaving a life he’s come to know?’ instead of ‘we’ve come to know?’ Jim was cool with everything. He allowed us that freedom.”

The song’s lyrics about living in two worlds were especially poignant for Gladys on a personal level, and she also shared that story of why, and how, her experiences through that song, helped catapult her and the group to fame.

“While recording that single, I was thinking about my own situation. My husband at the time was a beautiful saxophonist and so gifted. But he was unhappy that we didn’t have a more traditional marriage because I was often on the road or recording. Ultimately it all proved too much for him, like the song said, and we divorced later, in ’73. I was going through the exact same thing that I was singing about when recording – which is probably why it sounds so personal.”

It was the second single she and the group cut after leaving Motown Records for Buddah Records, and it topped Billboard’s Hot 100 chart, won a Grammy award for Best R&B Vocal Performance By A Duo, Group, Or Chorus in 1974, and earned her a spot in the Grammy Hall of Fame.

Hundreds of artists have covered Jim’s songs, among the most notable are:

Dionne Warwick, Vince Gill, Tanya Tucker, Mac Davis, Marie Osmond, B.J. Thomas, Andy Williams, Eddy Arnold, Lynn Anderson, Joan Osborne, Neil Diamond, The Temptations, Trisha Yearwood, The Oak Ridge Boys, Hall & Oates, The Spinners, Reba McEntire, Dean Martin, Ray Charles, Johnny Lee, Peter Cetera, Lee Greenwood, Brenda Lee, Aretha Franklin, Steve Wariner, Kenny Chesney, Julie Andrews, Dottie West, Bobby Goldsboro, Garth Brooks, The Indigo Girls, Johnny Mathis, Dan Seals, the Rev. James Cleveland, Peggy Lee and Widespread Panic.

Some of Jim’s songs which were covered by other artists include “Where Shadows Never Fall” by Glen Campbell, “Where Do I Put Her Memory” by Charley Pride, “Until Forever’s Gone” by Kenny Rogers, “If I Didn’t Have You In My World” by Vince Gill, and many more.

Jim’s biggest solo hit was “I’ll Still Love You” in 1974, the same year he was named ASCAP’s Songwriter of the Year.

Over his career, he recorded at least a dozen albums, and eventually moved to Nashville in the 1980’s, where he was later inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2006, and the national Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2014.

In 2003, Rolling Stone magazine named “Midnight Train to Georgia” as one of the top 500 songs of all time.

And it was that solitary tune which solidified Gladys Knight’s place in popular music history, which was later covered by artists such as Aretha Franklin, the Indigo Girls, Neil Diamond, Garth Brooks, and many more.

Jim Weatherly’s list of songs which became Number 1 hits is impressive, and it all started with a Midnight Train from Georgia.

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